Hercules (2014)

Hercules-2014-Brett-Ratner

Hercules has always been my least favourite of the Greek heroes. He’s just too…plain. He has inhuman strength, is practically indestructible, and his stories all involve him killing various creatures with his inhuman strength…while being practically indestructible. There’s no real nuance to the character. To use a stock phrase – he’s all brawn and no brain.

The latest film about Hercules (titled, what else, Hercules), directed by Brett Ratner (infamous for directing X-Men: The Last Stand and tarnishing a franchise) takes the legend of Hercules in a different direction: he’s a sham.

It’s a nice twist and a fresh take on a well-worn legend, but Ratner and company do absolutely nothing with it. Instead, we see the same movie we’ve seen a hundred times before: a motley crew of mercenaries gathers together to pull “one last job” but are then “double crossed” and have to battle for “redemption.” Yawn.

Not only does the film take an interesting concept and transform it into a typical action movie, but also the film doesn’t even stay true to the basic conceit that Hercules is a sham. As played by Dwayne Johnson (formerly known as The Rock), this “sham” Hercules is a man of almost infinite strength and bulging neck veins (they really pop in 3D). He’s also practically indestructible – despite being mauled by vicious dogs, shot by arrows, and slashed by soldiers. Once Hercules pushes over Thrace’s answer to the Statue of Liberty – with his bare hands – the film’s credibility crumbles. The stories about his inhuman strength and indestructibility aren’t true…even though he actually is inhumanly strong and indestructible.

Hercules is a movie, much like its lead character, without much direction. Hercules and his equally superhuman companions drift from place to place, exterminating pirates and practically single-handedly taking down entire armies. The “quieter” scenes between the battles sequences (however brief they are) are punctuated by glimpses into Hercules’ tortured past…of his murdered wife and kids, with blood appropriately everywhere. It’s a bit heavy for a film where the main character wears a lion on his head and wisecracks while walloping skulls. Let’s just say the film veers from action to drama to limp comedy before circling back to a CGI-heavy climax with the questionable message that if you believe you are a hero, then you are a hero (ignoring the fact that the evil dictator may believe that he is the hero). 

It’s too bloody and gory for kids, but too simplistic and childish for adults – making Hercules a guaranteed film to satisfy no one. Don’t see it.

Grade: F

Boyhood

Boyhood-Poster-Linklater

This is the best film of 2014.

I don’t think it will win any awards (it will probably be nominated for a few Oscars – best director comes to mind, but will probably win none of them) and not all audiences will love it because “nothing happens” (even though this isn’t true – an entire life happens). It is the ultimate coming-of-age film and the genre should be retired because this is as good as it will ever get. It’s an ambitious project with innumerable technical headaches (a making-of documentary would be a masterpiece of film history in itself) and it manages to be the deepest and most unforgettable experience you’ll have at the theatre this year.

This is the best film of 2014.

Boyhood is directed by Richard Linklater, the slacker-poet auteur from Austin, Texas. He’s probably the best director working today who doesn’t get nearly enough appreciation for the fantastic cinema (the Before trilogy, Dazed and Confused, Waking Life) he produces.

Linklater shot Boyhood over a 12-year period using the same central cast to chart the physical and emotional growth of a boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from age 6 to age 18. This isn’t just a marketing gimmick but the entire artistic purpose of the film. If it wasn’t filmed over 12 years, or if the project failed halfway through, it probably wouldn’t have seen the light of day. There would be no point. The whole project is about the changes we go through as human beings as we age, unlike other coming-of-age films where a singular event changes the character’s lives forever. Real life doesn’t work that way. Linklater recognized that, and set out to make a coming-of-age movie drawing from his own recollections of his past. It was a series of events and moments that made him who he came to be, and he decided that it should be the same way for the characters.

What’s incredible about this film is how seamless it is. You would think that a film shot for a few days each summer over twelve years would be tonally all over the place, but it’s uniquely constant. The only thing that really changes is the actors get older – and even that happens sometimes without us realizing it.

Some may see Boyhood as a film where “nothing” really happens. This is far from the truth. The problem is that audiences have been trained to expect sensational events from movies. We expect characters to die, for explosive fights, and terrifying villains. The conversation between the events is generally just filler to segue the plot from one set piece to the next. There’s a moment in Boyhood where these ingrained audience expectations become obvious. In one scene, Mason is in an abandoned home with three other friends. They’re all drinking beers and throwing a saw blade into a piece of drywall. One of the characters stands up with the saw blade sticking out behind him and the entire audience in the theatre went silent. At that moment, we were all thinking the exact same thing: he’s going to fall on the saw blade! Despite all evidence to the contrary (this isn’t a cheap teen thriller), we’ve been programmed to expect these events from our entertainment.

There was an interview with Linklater talking about the Before films (which is a trilogy about the romance between two characters played by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke) and why he is so interested in conversational films where “nothing” really happens. He explained that a lot happens in his own life, even though his own life isn’t filled with car chases, gunfights, toppling government conspiracies, or other typical movie plots. His own life is filled with the mundane things that all our lives are composed of – working, dating, getting groceries, parenting, etc. – that we too often don’t appreciate the significance of. Linklater explained (to the best of my recollection) that Before Sunrise is a film about two strangers talking to one another and crossing the distance between themselves to find a real human connection. That’s an incredible adventure – filled with self-doubt, fear, pain, excitement – and it all happens in a conversation between two people. It may not be what we expect from our entertainment, but it’s a lot closer to reality.

Boyhood is the same way: it’s an adventure crossing the distance between being a child to becoming an adult and the journey isn’t punctuated by murders, car chases, or running with arms outstretched in the rain. It’s a lot subtler than that and often, this is an adventure we only realize we’ve taken after it has already happened.

Grade: A

Sidenote: Boyhood has an incredible soundtrack and the songs are used to identify the time period the characters are living in, based on our own recollections of the songs from our lives.

 

 

Life Itself

Life-Itself-Movie-Poster

I always looked forward to Friday mornings when I was growing up. I had a very specific routine: pour a bowl of cereal, grab a glass of milk and pick up the “Arts and Entertainment” section of the newspaper – which had the movie reviews of the weekend’s latest releases. Practically all the reviews were by Roger Ebert, and it was through his words that I understood movies could be more than mere entertainment.

Life Itself is a documentary about the man behind the movie criticism. Director Steve James began filming the documentary five months before Ebert’s death in April 2013, and because of this, most of the present-day footage is shot during multiple hospital and rehabilitation visits for Ebert. It’s tough watching the present-day scenes. Ebert had lost the ability to speak, eat, and drink after surgery removed cancer from his jaw. You can see in his eyes the same passion, wit and intelligence, but he’s trapped in a body that isn’t able to keep up.

The rest of the documentary is a blend of archival footage, interviews with close friends and family, and narrated excerpts from Ebert’s memoir of the same name (the narration is done by a voice-over actor, but he sounds eerily close to Ebert). There’s some great outtakes of Siskel & Ebert & the Movies where the two critics take turns sniping at each other or blaming the other one for ruining takes. I always imagined that they had a great relationship from the start, but the film proves otherwise; it was only through years of working together that they came to have a grudging respect for one another.

There’s an interesting parallel between Ebert and Siskel that the film recognizes: Siskel decided to keep his inoperable brain tumor a secret (only his wife and a few select family members knew) whereas Ebert decided, in response to Siskel’s choice, that he would be open and honest with his health struggles. Admirably, the film doesn’t imply that one choice is better than the other, but emphasizes the differences between the two men in criticism and in their approaches to death.

It’s strange to admit, but Life Itself is less about Roger Ebert and more about his loving relationship with his wife, Chaz. They married when Ebert was 50 years old and she changed his life. During the present-day scenes, she’s always in the hospital, encouraging Ebert to push himself and offering her support. The emotional core of the film is watching Chaz cope as the man she loves slowly slips away from her. There’s a decision that Ebert makes late in the film without Chaz’s knowledge, and it is a heartbreaking revelation.

Life Itself is an elegant documentary that is more than just a simple telling of Roger Ebert’s life and “greatest hits.” Instead it is a difficult, but ultimately life-affirming, film about what we leave behind when we’re gone, and how one man chose to live his life while he was here.

Grade: A

 

Edge of Tomorrow

Edge-of-Tomorrow

It’s refreshing to see a summer blockbuster centred around a hapless protagonist. It’s also nice to have Tom Cruise in a movie where he’s clumsy, cowardly, and ineffective – or in other words – not Tom Cruise. Of course, the film’s plot provides a scenario where Cruise’s character evolves to become an indestructible and courageous fighting machine but we know that’s only because he’s able to access reality with cheat codes activated.

William Cage (Tom Cruise) is the military’s media relations officer. His days are spent far away from the front-lines, where millions of soldiers battle the Mimics – an alien foe that bears an uncanny resemblance to the similarly-tentacled machines of the Matrix trilogy. Cage enjoys his work and is glad to be encouraging and inspiring millions of individuals to risk their lives to defeat the enemy, mainly because then it means he doesn’t have to. But the military bureaucracy has other plans for Cage: he’s forced to fight in the largest operation ever attempted in the war. And Cage knows what that order means for a individual like himself (a person who has had no training or combat experience): suicide. But it doesn’t turn out that way.

The battle on the beach turns out to be a disaster; the Mimics know that the soldiers are coming, and millions are unceremoniously slaughtered. Cage dies too; but only after he’s miraculously killed a couple of Mimics himself. As he’s dying, the blood of the dead Mimics mixes with his blood and Cage wakes up…yesterday. Welcome to Groundhog Day: Military Edition.

Edge of Tomorrow is a perfect summer film. It has great action, good characters, and it’s just a fun movie to watch. The whole “time-resetting” concept doesn’t make much sense (the obligatory scientist character explains the rules of the film by referencing the anthropology of the Mimics and how a MacGuffin – whoops, I mean:”Omega” – controls the space-time continuum), so it’s a good idea to leave understanding at the door and just accept that when Tom Cruise dies the day resets. Unfortunately, the film focuses a bit too much on the mission to destroy the Omega to defeat the Mimics and loses a bit of the appeal of the concept. It’s really fun to see the different approaches to similar scenarios, which is a bit disappointing when the climax is a straight-forward action sequence. It would’ve been nice to have a few more “resets” before going straight into the endgame.

Grade: B+

Sidenote: I’m always glad that these “live the same day over and over again” films choose an exciting day. I can only imagine if it was just a normal day and the main character would go through a typical week not realizing he or she is stuck in a time loop.   

 

Oculus

Oculus-Mirror-Haunted-Horror-Movie

Oculus made me feel like I was going a little bit crazy. I couldn’t keep track of where the characters were, whether we were watching flashbacks or a present day sequence, and if what was being shown was real or fake. I loved every minute of it.

Oculus is a “killer mirror” horror movie. You read that correctly – a mirror is the monster. It sounds absurd, but the movie is really effective at generating scares and a sense of deep unease.

Years earlier, Tim (Brenton Thwaites) and Kaylie (Karen Gillan) suffered a horrible childhood event. And it all started when their father (Rory Cochrane) bought an old mirror for his new home office. Their father became…different…and their mother (Kaylee Sackhoff) reacts in an unstable and paranoid fashion. After tragedy strikes, Tim and Kaylie are separated (Tim goes off to a mental institution while Kaylie bounces around foster homes). Kaylie blames the old mirror for the tragedy, and Tim initially does too, until psychiatrists and medication convince him otherwise.

This is essentially a film about mental illness. You can interpret it to be a straight horror film ( it actually is a haunted mirror), or question whether Tim and Kaylie are just having a shared psychotic experience triggered by revisiting a childhood trauma. While Tim had professional help to explain what happened to his family in a rational narrative, Kaylie had to cope with the trauma on her own and ultimately developed a supernatural explanation for what occurred, absolving both her brother and father from being responsible for any wrongdoing.

The only problem with Oculus is that it’s not ambiguous enough. I like the interpretation that this is just a shared psychotic experience that the characters (and the audience) are sharing, but the filmmakers seem to really want to push the angle that the mirror is actually haunted. Some of the events that happen late in the film can only be explained if there really are supernatural forces at play, and it cheapens the movie. Rather than an empathetic look at what it may be like to be mentally ill (trying to make sense of a constantly-shifting reality), Oculus instead becomes an above-average horror flick.

I really enjoyed it, but I just wish the ending left things a bit more ambiguous and less reliant on a legitimately haunted mirror.

Grade: B+

Locke

Tom-Hardy-Locke

Locke wonders: will the concrete be poured in time?

Every time I hear about a critically-acclaimed one person film, I always want to see it and I’m always inevitably disappointed. I just don’t have the patience (or it perhaps the attention span) to enjoy being stuck in a static location with another character for an hour and a half. It’s an interesting challenge, but it’s not cinematic. These ideas are better suited for radio plays (which I don’t think are produced very often anymore), especially considering the majority of these films involve the lead characters talking to someone else on a telephone. Alas, I always forget my own opinion and go to see these movies anyway, and it always reaffirms that these films don’t work (at least for me). Locke didn’t break that pattern.

Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) receives a phone call and decides to take a pivotal car ride. By the end of the night, he will have lost his job, his family, and his reputation.

That’s a perfect synopsis. It’s interesting, there’s a mystery (how is Locke going to lose his job/family/reputation?), and we want to know where Locke is headed. Most of the reviews that I read prior to going to see the film suggested that Locke’s final destination isn’t revealed until late in the film, which colours the interpretation of everything that had passed beforehand. It’s a lie. Within the first twenty minutes we know where Locke is heading, why is heading there, why by heading there he will lose his family, and why he will lose his job because of this choice. That leaves an hour and ten minutes of movie to fill, and writer/director Steven Knight decides to fill it with conversations about concrete. Literally.

An honest synopsis of Locke would go as such:

Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) is a construction foreman responsible for overseeing the largest concrete pour ever attempted in England to build the foundation of a large building. The night before the pour, Locke receives a phone call and makes a choice. By making that choice, he won’t be able to oversee the concrete pour the next day. How will the concrete get poured in time? Find out as Locke scrambles to call municipal officials to arrange for permits, asks a co-worker to cover for him (and explains what grade of concrete is required for the pour), and fields angry calls from his bosses! It’s a thrill a minute!

Maybe all the conversation about concrete is a metaphor for something. Perhaps like, because Locke isn’t able to oversee the pour, the building will be sitting on a BROKEN FOUNDATION – just like Locke’s life. I don’t know – but all the talk about concrete grades, maintenance, and construction work isn’t worth a lousy metaphor.

For a film set entirely in a car, Locke loses speed about a third of the way through and never recovers. Once the purpose of his trip and his destination are realized, there isn’t much left to say, and the actual journey to get there is about what you’d expect if you were riding shotgun with a construction foreman looking to skip work the next day.

Grade: D+

 

 

The Iron Giant

Iron-Giant-Movie

What if a gun had a soul?

That was the sentence used to pitch The Iron Giant, a “children’s movie,” to Warner Brothers executives. I’m constantly surprised by the mature themes and questions addressed by this genre of film – one that is generally characterized as “light” entertainment with colourful visuals but little substance (unless Wile E. Coyote chasing the Roadrunner constitutes “substance”). However, this genre of film has some of the most thought-provoking and intelligent films around.

The Iron Giant follows a similar plot to E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial: a young boy befriends an alien creature while the government (and all the adults) are afraid of the alien and consider it a threat. The major difference between the films is that the alien creature in The Iron Giant is essentially a conscious nuclear warhead instead of a botanist. And that’s how the question – what if a gun had a soul? – is explored.

I don’t think there’s one “true” answer to the question. It simply spurs on more questions: If a gun had a soul, would it choose to shoot or refuse to shoot? Is it really a choice when the gun has been built to shoot (i.e. shooting is the basis of its existence)? Can a gun be a pacifist?

The most important moment in the film is when the boy is showing off his collection of comic books to the Iron Giant and gushes about Superman. The Iron Giant notices the cover of another comic book – a robot that looks similar to himself, attacking innocent people and destroying a city. The implication is clear: the comic book robot is the villain, and because the Iron Giant is a robot, he must be a villain also. The boy explains to the Iron Giant that this isn’t true – you’re not born a villain, you choose to be a villain. And then the boy proudly proclaims that the Iron Giant will be like a Superman – a hero.

That’s the theme of the film (and the film’s answer to the gun soul question): you choose who you want to be. It might not be the right answer, or the most satisfying one, but it is the most hopeful answer, and that’s why it’s the best one. Despite the Iron Giant’s programming to be a weapon of mass destruction, he can choose to be a hero and not hurt anyone.

In the 1950s, the television show The Twilight Zone used the science-fiction genre for thinly-veiled political and social commentary. This was during the McCarthyism era, when any questionable opinion or association could get an artist “blacklisted” for being a communist sympathizer. The Twilight Zone was able to sneak subversive commentary by authorities by dressing it up with fantastical elements like robots, monsters, and spaceships. Obviously, something with these elements couldn’t be carrying with it a serious message, at least that’s what people unfamiliar with the genre thought. Children’s movies like The Iron Giant are doing the same thing: provoking serious discussions under the guise of “light” entertainment.

Grade: A

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