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Doesn't manifest the same kind of mocking and low-level humor of its obvious influence, yet doesn't make a great case for its characters either, 9 February 2016

NOTE: This film was recommended to me by YouTube user Soxsun for "Steve Pulaski Sees It."

Lily (Loren Horsley) is a shy, socially awkward fast food worker, who enjoys writing her music despite the ostensible fact that nobody cares enough to listen. She has a crush on a frequent customer named Jarrod (Jermain Clement), a geek who works in a video game store, and finally gets the opportunity to spend time with him when he invites her to a costume party with the only condition that Lily dress as her favorite animal; she shows up as a shark, while Jarrod goes as an eagle, claiming that, or a cobra, is his favorite animal.

What entails is a quirky romance only film could capture; a striking portrait of two social misfits, unaccepted by the masses, and free to guide themselves in the own strange, niche world they craft for themselves. The two don't wind up becoming friends as much as they do close, personal acquaintances given how little they explicitly let on to one another, particularly Jarrod, who lives so deeply in his own world he can't even adequately see what both him and Lily have in common - not even the mole they share above their upper lips. Jarrod has been plotting to take on a bully from high school in a fight in front of a large audience for the last several months, and Lily stands by his side, in utter compliance, largely because she's just so honored to be able to be seen beside the man of her dreams. As Jarrod slogs away at life, meticulously planning a meaningless brawl and taking nearly everything his family says as an offensive remark, Lily is there for him, be it a passive observer, or subtle moral support.

Therein lies the twinkling beauty of Eagle vs Shark; Lily's devotion and consistent loyalty to someone she probably knows, deep down, is four tires short of a car. Despite Jarrod's general initial indifference to her presence, he begins to see how Lily is the only person who has had his back since the beginning. Her incomparable trust and admiration for him almost effectively undermines the negative characteristics Jarrod embodies, including, but not limited to, sexism, close-mindedness, lack of empathy, and narcissism.

Taika Waititi's film embodies the similar kind of approach to outsider culture as Napoleon Dynamite did three years prior to Eagle vs Shark's release. The difference here is that rather than focusing on empty, intolerable characters we, the audience, were essentially laughing at rather than laughing with, Eagle vs Shark is more empathetic to its characters' situations and looks to profile them by examining why these two souls connect so well, or at least so nonchalantly, together. Waititi, who also serves as the film's writer, crafts a film bent on its own eccentric personality and sense of whimsy, and for the most part, succeeds on the charisma of both Horsley and Clement, who embody one of the more unique on-screen chemistries I have yet to see from independent films.

Is Eagle vs Shark consistently funny? Unfortunately no, and there are some long segments where the film drags and meanders, despite only being eighty-seven minutes (even the film's conclusion sometimes feels like it's frustratingly plodding to nowhere fast. Is the film occasionally grating because the personalities of the characters aren't wholly likable? Absolutely. These two nudging features make this film hard to truly love or embrace, but given Waititi's decision to make this a shorter film, one predicated, again, on the warmth of its settings and the quirks of its characters, the film winds up becoming a more tolerable character study than a frustrating examination of misfits. Misfits that, ultimately, you'd rather simply walk past on the street rather than linger on with a camera for an upwards of ninety minutes.

Starring: Loren Horsley and Jermaine Clement. Directed by: Taika Waititi.

Articulates being a menace to yourself in addition, 8 February 2016

Menace II Society shows growing up in an impoverished urban area plagued by violence by detailing numerous different perspectives; compassion, aggression, resistance, compliance, brute force, contentment, and more. Various scenes in the film, which is largely a string of vignette-style events strung together rather than a fully formed plot, focus on characters discussing their motivations to either combat or work around the violence in their area, with some choosing to try and fight it by contributing to it, and others simply trying to function in a community that is more like a warzone.

The Hughes Brothers, Albert and Allen, who directed and co-wrote the film with Tyger Williams, craft their film around two young black teens growing up in South Central Los Angeles. One is Kaydee "Caine" Lawson (Tyrin Turner), who's father was a drug dealer killed when he was only ten, while his mother was a heroin addict who died shortly after. He went on to live with his grandparents, though their strict, moralist attitudes rooted in religion didn't stop Caine from becoming a petty drug dealer like his father. The other young man is Kevin "O-Dog" Anderson, who shows his best friend Caine what he can really do when the two go to a Korean-owned cornerstore to buy malt liquor and the owners watch them suspiciously and nervously walk around the store. After the cashier makes a derogatory comment, O-Dog loses his cool and winds up shooting both the cashier and his wife before robbing the cash register and taking the surveillance tape. Just another day in South Central, it seems.

The film winds up showing the day-to-day life of Caine and O-Dog, which involves Caine nearly dying after being shot in a carjacking, as well as petty crime involving cracking cars for insurance money. We also get a glimpse in the life of Ronnie (Jada Pinkett), a single-mother with a young son she is desperately trying to shelter from the bleak environment and unrelenting violence that engulfs the neighborhood. Her character's introduction begins the Hughes brothers' descent into examining different perspectives of the neighborhood.

Consider the scene where Caine is playing with Ronnie's young son, who is clearly growing up fast for a five-year-old, as he loves to be able to hold Caine's pistol, drink liquor, and hang out with the crowd of older boys. Ronnie is disgusted by Caine's compliance with allowing her son to hold a pistol and hang with his friends as they sip some of their ostensibly endless supply of malt liquor and smoke marijuana. Caine claims that this is for the young boy's good, as this is a rough and rugged neighborhood that laughs at kids who are kept from witnessing the violence in such a miserable landscape. The Hughes brothers allow you, as a member of the audience, to judge for yourself on both perspectives and hear each of their characters out; it is because of this even-handed approach that we see that Caine's point, while holding weight, also shows the cyclical pattern of young black men getting incarcerated or killed at a young age due to violent crime or the solicitation of drugs, and we understand Ronnie's protectiveness as a parent, but wonder if that approach is also just buying time for another funeral.

The Hughes Brothers take a very liberal approach to Menace II Society in terms of crafting its characters. Unlike John Singleton's directorial debut Boyz N The Hood, a film that illustrates how and why you should care about its characters and why they are all smart men stuck in a hopeless situation, Menace II Society never gives you a reason to like Caine and O-Dog. By the conventionality of Hollywood cinema, we, the audience, should detest Caine and O-Dog for their criminal ways and their unconscionable resort to violence and immediate gratification whenever they get the chance. The Hughes Brothers likely feel the same way, but they challenge us to find reasons for us to care about them throughout the course of the film, and see if we can find even some sympathy for their situations.

For much of the film, I didn't feel too sympathetic, until the third act, which takes a strikingly raw turn. Granted much of the film is captured with a gritty sense of realism, one doesn't really see the ugliness unfold until the third act, when karmic revenge circumvents and finds its lead characters unprepared to lie in the bed they've made for themselves. Menace II Society's only lacking feature is the Hughes brothers' directorial choices; the camera never seems to stay still, and either finds itself oscillating around the main characters in a 360 degree fashion or loosely tracks its location in a way that sort of oddly details spatial relations between characters and their surroundings when there's really no need to do so.

With all that being said, Menace II Society winds up using its narrative and directorial grittiness in a manner that's germane to its illustration of various character perspectives in how to deal with growing up in a tumultuous neighborhood. The end result bears all the pain, immediate gratification, and whirlwind of emotions you'd expect and winds up being one of the strongest dramas I've yet to see that details the hood in a painfully realistic light. Finally, it works to emphasize that while your drug-dealing and violent crime is indeed a menace to society, it's also makes, perhaps equally significant, a menace to yourself.

Space Jam (1996)
Authentic fun on everyone's behalf, 7 February 2016

NOTE: This film was recommended to me by Ryan Clevenger for "Steve Pulaski Sees It."

Living in Illinois, Space Jam is a film that hits the tender spots of the last two generations; one generation that got to experience Michael Jordan's unfathomable legacy as arguably the greatest basketball player who ever lived, and the other, mine, that reflects on his legacy through highlights and documentaries to keep the memory of such an all-star alive. Jordan's legacy didn't stop at on-court talent, as he was one of the most marketed athletes of his time and helped popularize the NBA, let alone the Chicago Bulls, on a previously unforeseen international level.

If we remove the nostalgia factor from Space Jam, which is a very difficult thing to do by the way, then the film serves as Jordan's versatility. After retiring from the NBA at a relatively young age to pursue a career in baseball, Jordan only became more of a fascinating person, in addition to someone with impeccable charisma. Space Jam exists as a response to Jordan's departure from the NBA to the MLB, as the Looney Tune gang of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Tweety Bird, Sylvester the Cat, Porky Pig, and Lola Bunny all call Jordan out of retirement when they challenge a group of intergalactic invaders from "Moron Mountain" to a basketball game in exchange for the planet.

The Looney Tunes thing this will be an easy win, until the aliens from Moron Mountain, who are relatively puny in size and strength, find a way to steal the talents of star basketball players like Charles Barkley and Larry Johnson and become the "Monstars" of the court. Meanwhile, Jordan agrees to play for the Looney Tunes team, but it takes all of the five minutes of practice to show that the team is disproportionately talented towards Jordan. As a result, the team indulges in some aggressive training tactics to beat the Monstars and save the planet.

As an amalgamation of live-action and animation, especially in an age where Pixar was coming on the scene and traditional animation was soon to be phased out, Space Jam is bright and vivid. The real-life characters of Michael Jordan, Wayne Knight, who has an amusing role, like he always does, Larry Bird, and even Bill Murray's interactions with the animated characters of Bugs Bunny and the like in a convincing, believable manner. The result is a beautifully colored and nicely executed mix of whimsy.

Because both worlds of reality and animation are explored here, Space Jam has the luxury of being a film that can go beyond traditional boundaries of a sports film, and the Looney Tunes are no better characters to incite such zaniness. The animated bunch are quick-witted and ecstatic, and Jordan is clearly doing this for fun and excitement rather than a phoned-in project or another endorsement. Had Space Jam been more of a lackluster cash-in, sports fans and Jordan fans would've seen it from a mile away and dismissed the film immediately. However, because everyone involved recognizes what a zany project this is, they don't try to fight the lunacy, but instead, play along, and that provides us, the audience, with a wickedly entertaining stride into a lively sports film that is so fun you almost, almost miss the clichéd underdog element.

Starring: Michael Jordan, Wayne Knight, Bill Murray, and Larry Bird. Directed by: Joe Pytka.

The Choice (2016/I)
5 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
Problematic in presentation, gender relations, and believability - your average Nicholas Sparks film adaptation, 6 February 2016

As Nicholas Sparks' film adaptations go, Ross Katz's "The Choice" is a better film than the bland "Longest Ride" we got last year and certainly miles past the perplexing and downright unbelievable "Safe Haven" in 2013. With that being said, it's still burdened by the same kind of misguided tropes and cloying incredulity that makes each of these films a chore to sit through. These films come decorated in the same kind of clothing as the next, as they're built from the ground up on impossibly romantic circumstances, characters that always look beautiful no matter what, a truly tragic plot device played up perfectly to engineer an emotional reaction rather than naturally warrant one, and a slew of "perfect moments" to make your relationship with your significant other look like a slog. And, specific to this one, seriously questionable treatment of its female character. Happy Valentine's Day.

This time, we focus on Travis Parker (Benjamin Walker), a veterinarian working with his father (Tom Wilkinson) at his practice, living in the small coastal town of Beaufort, North Carolina. Travis lives on his own and enjoys the peacefulness brought on by cold beer, his beach chair, and his dog, until his quietness is disrupted by his new neighbor Gabby Holland (Teresa Palmer). Gabby is a med student, who is currently dating a fellow doctor, but her playfully stubborn aura makes her all the more attractive to Travis.

When her boyfriend leaves for a medical retreat for several weeks, the two succumb to intense emotional desires, have sex, and begin to that thing that so many young people do nowadays where they act like they're dating to others, have sex and sleep together like they are, but really aren't together. When her boyfriend gets back, Gabby immediately wants things to go back to the way things were before he left, leaving Travis out to dry, and making them both look like immature, stupid people who can't appropriately handle or discuss their own baggage. Nonetheless, Gabby winds up breaking up with him and her and Travis wind up getting married and starting a family of their own.

This may sound like I just went through the entire film's plot, but that wouldn't make sense since I never addressed the core "choice" this film and its two lead characters love to talk about through narration. Well, "the choice" comes towards the end, when a catastrophic accident occurs and leaves one of the parties with a big decision. However, Katz (who directed "Adult Beginners" two years ago) and screenwriter Bryan Sipe rush through this whole circumstance at the end like it's a big afterthought. The fundamental "choice" of the film isn't introduced until far too late in the picture, where it can't develop, and as a result, feels like a tacked on conclusion.

"The Choice" is a tad more forgivable than many other Sparks-branded pictures because at least one of our leads has an ounce of personality this time around. Benjamin Walker's, who already looks and talks like a young Colin Firth, Travis is a very snarky character throughout the picture, which at least makes him an interesting personality rather than a plastic presence. Teresa Palmer's Gabby is a blander, more ordinary female lead, but her ability to handle the more dramatic scenes with competence makes up for her lack of character development.

I think the most problematic thing about "The Choice" as a whole is the strange way it tries to pass off unromantic instance as romantic, and, if we're going to be completely critical of the film's ideology here, almost makes a case for "no means yes" misogyny that has plagued women for decades. Consider the scene when Travis drives all the way out to Gabby's parents' home, where she is staying for the weekend, to ask her parents for her hand in marriage. Gabby is clearly horrified by this entire circumstance, yet her mother and father are in awe of Travis's conviction of wanting to marry her. Though she repeatedly says "no" a good dozen times, her mother and father keep insisting that this is what's best for her, going as far to say this is what she wants, and even encourage Travis by giving him a ring with which to propose. The next scene, they're happily married in a church. What a strange, uncomfortable scene that illustrates the least romantic circumstance that basically tells Gabby's character, "stop resisting, smile, and accept the ring, you ingrate."

Getting all riled up about the gender relations in the latest Nicholas Sparks' film is a losing battle in and of itself because these films are so contrived and detrimental not only to men and women but romantic expectations in general that pervasive analysis only warrants a headache. This is another loser in the long line of these mediocre, incredulous films that perpetuate false ideas of romance with the same narrative structure and emotional manipulation so much so that the white flag I've been waving at these films for the last few years, in utter defeat and contempt, has long been discolored.

43 out of 68 people found the following review useful:
Satire that lacks energy, conviction, characters, character development, a focus, and nearly everything that makes good satire, 5 February 2016

After the phenomenal and emotional roller-coaster of "Inside Llewyn Davis," a film that still hasn't found the audience it so desperately deserves, Joel and Ethan Coen followup arguably their best film with one that might be their most forgettable. "Hail, Caesar!" is a disappointment of epic proportions; an empty, unfocused satire on Hollywood business that has too many characters fighting for too little screen time, almost no energy despite attempting to work with a high-stakes plot, no strong character relationships despite the fact that everyone is trying to get a word in at all times during the course of the film, and finally, no central conflict that results in the characters ostensibly mustering up any kind of energy. If the characters themselves barely care about the situations they're in, why should we, the audience, who is now out of the high cost of a movie ticket?

The film revolves around a Hollywood mogul Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who is hired to help fix the troubled production of a Hollywood epic known as "Hail, Caesar!." The film stars the famous Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who winds up being drugged on-set and kidnapped by a radical group of communists that call themselves "The Future." Mannix is tasked with giving the group $100,000 in exchange for his star actor.

The Coen brothers spend much of the film hopscotching from different characters and different sets in what feels like a setup for a mini-series rather than a one-hundred minute film. Such characters are Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), a very meticulous director, Thora and Thessaly Tacker (both played by Tilda Swinton), rival, twin-sister gossip columnists, Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), a low-rent Western actor-turned-movie-star, who is one of Mannix's closest clients, DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), an actress who becomes pregnant out of wedlock in the middle of her film, and Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), a Gene Kelly-type actor, also working under the order of Mannix, who winds up at the center of the film's outstanding dance sequence between a group of Coast Guard members about to embark on a nautical mission that will prevent them from seeing a dame for months.

"Hail, Caesar!" is a film of moments, meaning that, once the film is over, you'll remember certain scenes you enjoyed, certain actors' cameos (which most of the aforementioned are) you appreciated, and if you're lucky, lines you can quote verbatim. At the end of the day, the sporadic humor that those little moments provide is not enough to recommend a film. The Coen brothers don't seem to know what direction they want to take this film, and with such a concise runtime, they have no time to make good use of the actors they probably paid quite a bit to show up on set for one day. This gives the film the look and feel that most of these A-list stars are simply fighting over screen time, and that isn't funny, especially when you have true talent being only momentarily showcased so the film can dart off to the next decorated setpiece.

Then there's the issue of the film just not having much life to it outside of immaculate costume design and some strong cinematography (done by Roger Deakins, one of Hollywood's most masterful cinematographers working today). Because the actors aren't given characters to work with, no real energy or interest builds for them, and neither do character relationships. What we were supposed to gain from the scene involving Jonah Hill (who is on-screen for maybe a minute and a half) and Scarlet Johansson where Johansson's DeAnna asks Hill's Joseph if pressing down on the machine that stamps the papers hurts his forearm? Was this sort of flirtation so necessary that it needed to be included, or were the Coen's too busy giggling under their breath to notice?

"Hail, Caesar!" is overpopulated with scenes that don't work to further what little plot is here, and with such a high-stakes story about a lead actor being kidnapped by a band of communists, Clooney's Braid Whitlock doesn't seem too phased, Brolin's Mannix, who has never been a particularly strong actor to show real emotion or gusto in his personals, doesn't seem too concerned, so what is there left for us to care about?

Some comparison has been made between both "Hail, Caesar!" and Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel," and while the two have a similar approach to dry wit and deadpan humor, as well as similar actors like Fiennes and Swinton, Anderson's picture was a perfect example of copious energy and exhilarating, rapid-fire comic exchanges. "Hail, Caesar!" is the exact opposite; a frequently dull and almost entirely uninteresting film, predicated upon the strength of a few great scenes and some decent, albeit far, far too short, performances in a thoroughly muddled picture.

A film that's so close to striking gold that it's a shame it winds up digging around it, 3 February 2016

NOTE: This film was recommended to me by Glen Malec for "Steve Pulaski Sees It."

One of the recurring theological debates is where a person who commits suicide is destined to spend eternity; the concept of a person killing themselves has disrupted the dichotomous notion that good people have their eternal souls rest in heaven whilst bad people have their eternal souls rest in hell. In a Christlike sense, a suicidal soul should still go to heaven if they found themselves victim to the pressures of life, or worse, an unrelenting mental illness. In a sense pertaining more towards the Christian doctrine, however, somebody who commits suicide should perhaps go to hell, for their action has made it so they can no longer serve God, in addition to disrupting the sanctity and safety of their body, the temple of God.

In Wristcutters: A Love Story, however, people who commit suicide are sent to what is essentially purgatory. It looks largely the same as the real-world, only far bleaker and everyone lacks the ability to smile or even grin and no stars decorate the night sky. This is where we, the audience, find ourselves following Zia's (Patrick Fugit) successful suicide triggered by the recent breakup with his girlfriend. Zia finds himself more miserable in this world than he was in the previous, as he slogs away each and every day with his roommate Eugene (Shea Whigham), a hasbeen rockstar who killed himself by pouring a beer onto an electric guitar.

One day, Zia learns that his ex-girlfriend Desiree (Leslie Bibb) has killed himself, which motivates both him and Eugene to take a road-trip across this wasteland to find her. Along the way, they pick up a hitchhiker named Mikal (Shannyn Sossamon), who has just found herself in this world and is searching for the "people in charge" in order to be dealt another hand at life.

Wristcutters has the potential to be a seriously downtrodden film, encapsulated in its own misery so deeply that it becomes an unenjoyable experience. It's the kind of material that treads dangerous waters, where if it goes much deeper it risks being too caustic or offensive, but if it lies dormant and sticks to safer material, it risks being too shallow. Early scenes showing Zia's uneventful daily life are some of the most interesting up until he meets Mikal, for we see the real sadness that seems to simply plague him. He claims he thinks more about Desiree now that he has killed himself, and dictates to us through narration that he can just imagine her distraught, but finding solace in cute, romantic sex with other men. That thought eats at him, and writer/director Goran Dukić puts us in the position of a true voyeur; one who witnesses something troubling occurring but is ill-equipped to do anything about it.

Patrick Fugit does a nice job as the lead here, playing disconnected and completely unmotivated to do anything. Also very much an engaging presence is Shannyn Sossamon, who comes in just at the right time in the film to prevent it from being a mopey slog. The issue with Wristcutters is despite two very talented performers, it never officially crosses over from being an initially miserable slog to a bleakly funny dark comedy. The film is filled with deadpan, as one would expect, but its joke are never too funny or enlightening to really find amusing, and some frustration builds as the purgatory these characters inhabit goes overlooked in favor of more alone time with the characters.

This is the kind of material that really would've benefited from the hand of Mike Judge, who has already proved himself to be a master of satirical comedy, taking jabs at workplace drudgery, eco-friendly liberal conventions, and shallow consumerism. The idea of suicide isn't the first concept for a comedy, but like all ideas, an appropriate approach and direction is always possible to make humor out of the darkest subject. Dukić is so close to striking gold with Wristcutters, however, he seems to be perpetually digging around it as he tries to find something enlightening or relevant to say.

Starring: Patrick Fugit, Shannyn Sossamon, Shea Whigham, Leslie Bibb, and Tom Waits. Directed by Goran Dukić.

Titan A.E. (2000)
A testament to animation and its limitless realm of infinite visual possibilities, 3 February 2016

The name "Don Bluth" doesn't mean anything to a generation of kids raised on the previously unimaginable visual beauty and thematic potency boasted by each Pixar release every year, but prior to that, Bluth's animated works were an oddity of their own. In the 1980's and 1990's, Bluth's projects, no matter how strange or out of place, always seemed to be greenlit. He's responsible for giving my generation beloved home video classics like The Secret of NIMH, The Land Before Time, and even All Dogs Go to Heaven. Despite those films not boasting record box office office numbers initially, they went on to be classics and have spawned their own line of sequels, particularly The Land Before Time.

Bluth's formula seemed to be "give it time;" eventually, his films would find their desired audience once that same audience convinced their parents to rent or buy the VHS tape after having failed to live up to their promise of taking them to see the respective film during the initial theatrical run. This is likely what kept Bluth working into the new century after repeated box office failures; despite costly studio efforts that have the ability to roll eyes just by titles like Rock-A-Doodle and Thumbelina, Bluth kept on pursuing his visions, most likely with studio-heads still possessing the mindset that Bluth's films would be hits in due time.

With the inception of Fox Animation Studios by Bluth and frequent collaborator Gary Goldman, Bluth had a whole new playground on which to operate. His next move and the studio's debut would be Anastasia, Bluth's first box office hit in years, one strong enough to make his studio look to have a lot of potential. That's when his fate was sealed with Titan A.E., debatably the biggest cinematic risk in his filmography. Titan A.E. was stylistically, thematically, and fundamentally different from his previous films; unlike the music-heavy, cartoony look of his previous works, this was a darker, more violent film that combined the slick palette styles of anime with the traditionalist principles of hand-drawn animation to create something that was visually unique and resembled a graphic novel.

Fox was convinced the project was promising enough to funnel more than $90 million into the production alone, plus God knows how much in the marketing department. Bluth's biggest risk ended up being a devastating financial blow to the studio, barely meriting a third of its production budget back, and scaling Bluth's studio far enough back before it was shuttered later in 2000. Bluth's studio closed basically as soon as it opened and Titan A.E., as well as Bluth in some respect, went on to be a curious piece of history.

Titan A.E. isn't a mind-blowingly elaborate animated film, but its charm and its energy is undeniable. Taking place in 3028 A.D., humankind has found a way to perfect space travel and intergalactic communication with an invention called "Project Titan." When the device is first used, however, it awakens the Drej, an energy-based alien species who begin to attack Earth with intent on wiping out the human race. When the Titan's lead scientist is killed in combat, he sends his son to the evacuation ship to seek safety.

Fifteen years later, the story focuses on the son, Cale (voiced by Matt Damon), who is working in a salvage yard. He is eventually found by Joseph Korso (Bill Pullman), the captain of the Valkyrie spaceship, who reveals that a map to his father's original project. In order for humanity to regain control of its planet, or at least have the means to start a new one, all the fate lies in Cale obtaining the Titan, and after being joined by the beautiful Akima Kunimoto (Drew Barrymore), it's difficult for him to refuse, especially when the Drej have turned to using incredible violence in roder to remain in control.

As mentioned, the animation in Titan A.E. is slick and stylish; characters are drawn sharply and in a manner that highlights their physical features with great artistry. It reminds me of Atlantis: The Lost Empire, which would open theatrically under Disney's impenetrable umbrella to mixed reviews and middling box office returns, that also showed extreme desire to break free from the time-specific confines of animation to be something new, exciting, and impacting. These kinds of films appealed to another kind of young child, but that young child didn't seem to discover these respective films until they were much older, perhaps even college-aged, like myself.

With that, nothing about Titan A.E. is particularly special; its characters are painfully average archetypes, its plot-points are foreseeable, and its character-chemistry is forced in many aspects, particularly the love interest between Cale and Akima. The reason I'm recommending it, however, is that this film features some seriously skilled art direction and enthralling action sequences that remind us why animation is such a wonderful medium. Bluth and Goldman work to remind us that the ostensibly unimaginable can be achieved through the medium, and effectively make most of the film's weight rest on the competence of the animation team rather than the screenplay by a trio of writers (one of them, Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Joss Whedon).

Needless to say, with the challenge the animators had presented in front of them - make an action-adventure film with the visual depth and potency of a computer-generated project in-line with Pixar under the guidelines and abilities of traditional, hand-drawn animation - they did a wonderful job. Titan A.E. is far from narratively perfect, but it's a beautiful film in size and scope, and works to remind many of us, especially Bluth, who has had a fairly dormant film career since the closing of his studio that is looking to be revived with a Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaign, interesting failures will always be more fascinating than modest or unambitious successes.

Submarine (2010)
Avoids narrative and thematic circumvention for a neverending game of connect the dots, 1 February 2016

NOTE: This film was recommended to me by Rachel Davis for "Steve Pulaski Sees It."

Richard Ayoade's directorial debut Submarine is so close to being a Wes Anderson film that all it's missing is the polish. By polish, I don't mean Ayoade's film is sloppily constructed or poorly shot, but unlike Anderson, who emphasizes heavily decorated sets, immaculate symmetry, and astute framing, Ayoade emphasizes a more natural and intimate style of filming. Ayoade works to emphasize character facial expressions, in addition to his characters becoming sole subjects of a scene as they discuss the film's events or narrate certain parts in a manner that breaks the fourth wall.

The result is a quaint comedy-drama that unfortunately succumbs to its identity crisis and its desire to try and find a path before it figures itself out, much like its main character, Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts). Oliver is a fifteen-year-old boy living in Swansea, with a crush on his cute but ordinary classmate Jordana (Yasmin Paige). The two wind up going out after Oliver's passes result in defeat on Jordana's behalf and acceptance after her own attempt to make her ex-boyfriend jealous failed. Oliver is also concerned with his parents' disintegrating marriage when he notices his father's (Noah Taylor) increasing disconnectedness and his mother's (Sally Hawkins) brewing relationship with a new-age guru (Paddy Considine) that she dated back in school.

Oliver is very demanding and blunt, with a desire to use people in his circles as pawns for his greater good without even really knowing it; he takes "having all his ducks in a row" to a new level. He's not necessarily evil, he's just never really been told "no" or been let down in his life until his relationship with Jordana begins going south beyond his control. His intents are not malicious, but his conception of boundaries leave a lot to be desired. Having said that, the relationship he crafts with Jordana throughout the course of the film is a precious one, as is much of the film (until heartbreak begins setting in, and Oliver begins writing notes to himself that will make anyone who has went through heartbreak shatter a bit inside).

Submarine is crafted in that indie movie light that emphasizes the quirky and the largely improbable or eccentric. This is the kind of film that requires your suspension of disbelief more often than its filmmakers would like to admit. Going back to Anderson, his films largely work because of the whimsical world they create. In films like The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom, we get the sense that the verisimilitude Anderson crafts is meant to exist in a fictional realm of reality, where things are unrealistically beautiful and painstakingly decorated, not exactly the world in which we are currently. Anderson is also an anomaly because he can do this without asserting the presence of the world he creates nor really emphasizing that we are leaving the world we live in to inhabit a new land.

Ayoade's biggest struggle is not really being sure how to capture Oliver's unpredictable behavior, and in turn, how to communicate its direction to the audience. Is this supposed to be a satire on the absurdity of coming of age films? Is this supposed to be an all-out parody, or sort of a "teens do the darnedest things" episode? Ayoade isn't exactly sure it seems, and as a result, neither am I. The Oliver character isn't grossly unlikable, but he's not a particularly strong or convincing protagonist, despite Roberts doing some strong work as an actor in terms of the copious amounts of dialog he needs to recite within the scenes. However, the monotone nature of the film lacks any kind of justification as to whether or not we're supposed to feel glum during the course of this film, or at least recognize the film channeling morose themes of love and early onset disillusionment.

When a film's intentions and themes are muddled, the only thing one can do is spitball, and that's what Submarine requires - a lot of spitballing and contemplating in terms of what it's trying to say and do. The film is heavily reminiscent of later works like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and The Perks of Being a Wallflower in that it belongs to the category of, what I call, "neo-coming of age," where films are bent on quirks, eccentricities, and heavily scripted dialog in the form of lengthy monologues and precocious characters to appeal to the kids who aren't as likely to speak first in class or completely go unnoticed all together. For a soul as quirky as Ayoade, who did some brilliant comedic work in the British Television show The IT Crowd, I would've expected, yes, a film with more polish and direction. The film's humorous moments and grin-worthy sequences only go so far before we realize that the circumvention we expect from a film is missing and traded for an endless game of connect the dots.

Starring: Craig Roberts, Yasmin Paige, Noah Taylor, Sally Hawkins, and Paddy Considine. Directed by: Richard Ayoade.

2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Embrace the immediate, 1 February 2016

Don Hertzfeldt's seventeen-minute animated short World of Tomorrow, one of the Academy Awards' Best Animated Short frontrunners this year, does an amazing job of examining the flaw that most of us have as people and that's an inability to be satisfied or truly content with the present. We do not appreciate the present until it is the distant or the very-recent past, depending on how we deem the quality of our current situation. We look to the future as a relief or even a catalyst of the conditions we're currently facing, and we struggle to objectively define "self," especially in the age of the internet, where selves can be socially constructed or constructed in the lieu of the moment.

I realize I've proposed some lofty existentialist ideas with that first paragraph, but Hertzfeldt's beautifully detailed and immaculately animated short film effectively make your mind cycle through a whirlwind of feelings and thoughts about the human condition. The premise concerns a four-year-old girl named Emily Prime (voiced by Hertzfeldt's four-year-old niece Winona Mae, who was recorded while playing and drawing in order to generate natural dialog for the short), who has the typical wide-eyed wisdom and wonder that four-year-old girls have. Her days consist of playing with her precious cars, eating lunch, and wandering off to each adventure; her perceptions of happiness and sadness are heavily dichotomous and immediate. She is never both at the same time, and ostensibly never trying to avoid one or minimize another. Her moods are changing in the most obvious manner, but she's never one way for too long. She helps embody most of us in the way that we're occupied with life's trivialities and daily events.

One day, while playing with her cars, she's visited by an older Emily Prime (voiced by Julia Pott) via a transmission on a machine. This Emily is a third-generation clone broadcasting and communicating to Emily from two-hundred and twenty-seven years into the future. Older Emily explains to her younger, more idealistic self the cloning process, and how there are various methods for cloning; the wealthy can afford a safer process that permits time travel and such, successfully achieving immortality into adulthood, while the poorer members of society must settle for riskier cloning methods that could result in the very opposite - instant death.

This Emily takes her younger self on a journey through her life, which has seen her fall in love with rocks, robots, and eventually a fellow clone, who, because of his finances, had to settle for a less safe process. In addition, she walks younger Emily through a series of commonplace situations and features of the modern day, including a museum that houses a brainless human in a clear stasis tube where passersby observe him in a passive state while he grows older and withers before dying at 72.

In this futuristic utopia, memories are the most sacred part of the human experience, and increasing technological advances have allowed memories to be kept in small, black cubes in order to be stored for eternity - a process also afforded by society's most wealthy - or to be put on display in museums for humans to observe. These museums serve as the last piece of "real life" that humans can experience; most of the time, humans observe history, the day's events, and enjoy conversations with people through screens, severely limiting the idea of "reality."

World of Tomorrow accomplishes so much visually and thematically that it's stunning to note how short this film is, let alone how quickly it races past. Its ideas are dense and detailed, and its articulation so brisk and elaborate that it immediately warrants multiple viewings. At the heart of its depictions of technology and constant progress is a simple demand to all those living right now and that is "live." "You are the envy of the dead," Emily's clone states, with her echoing, monotone voice that has come with years of stagnant disillusionment and the inability to feel significantly. Often we cannot see the truth in that statement because, circumventing to what I said earlier, we are so caught up in the optimism and the aura of the future or the nostalgia for the past that we rarely observe what is occurring in the present.

Emily's clone states that day-to-day life's trivialities and benign occurrences are always irrelevant, and it's living which is the most sacred gift of all. The conception of reality, in addition, is another thing that has greatly been disturbed by internet (the world that Emily's clone shows her is called "the outernet," according to her). The ability to see and discern history through a few mouse-clicks and make far-away places seem closer have gone on to make what was closest to us more distant. Emily's clone shows this through her tired and dreary persona; she and her peers have been so accustomed to living life by finding multiple different channels and locations to pursue and attempting to be everywhere and do everything at once, that personal relationships, human connection, and love have all suffered as a result. The close becomes the distant and the distant becomes the immediately accessible.

World of Tomorrow's ideas are so expertly communicated that it's unfortunate how the genius animation and look behind it finds itself a secondary feature. The art design and illustration, all handled by Pott, as well, communicates a beautiful, harmonious relationship between the old, traditionalist style of animation coupled with the new, more experimental side that shows that 2D animation can still exercise immense creativity and visual possibilities on a totally different playing field than its counterpart. The result, coupled with dense themes and a true zest to define the world we're currently inhabiting, make World of Tomorrow such a masterwork of animation.

Voiced by: Julia Pott and Winona Mae. Directed by: Don Hertzfeldt.

4 out of 8 people found the following review useful:
A film as easy to dismiss and forget as a wrong number, 31 January 2016

While "The Finest Hours" is by no means the dreary, ostensibly never-ending mess that was last month's "In the Heart of the Sea," it's by no means even close to matching the quality of "The Perfect Storm," one of the best swashbuckling films of recent time. This is another by-the-numbers Disney film, that turns an incredible true story into a series of shortchanged and theatrical instances of peril that has numerous studio executives crossing their fingers, hoping it will somehow lumber its way to be a huge financial hit in a season when few films of more than average quality are out.

If all of Disney's eggs are in "The Finest Hours"'s basket, as I'm sure they aren't but just for the sake of argument, then it simply shows what this time of the year really does to Hollywood. There's nothing fundamentally nor glaringly wrong with "The Finest Hours" other than it's a painfully average, uninteresting slog that does so very little to assure any kind of practical methods were taken to really get to the heart of the helpless characters and those brave enough to embark on what seemed like nothing more than a suicide mission.

The film revolves around Bernie Webber (Chris Pine), a member of the Coast Guard stationed in Massachusetts on Cape Cod. Bernie's duties are pretty laidback, until the same day he plans to ask his commander Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana) for permission to marry Miriam (Holliday Grainger), the girl of his dreams, he is ordered to guide a lifeboat and a small crew to rescue the S.S. Pendleton. The gigantic ship has just broken in half after getting caught in a violent nor'easter off the coast of Cape Cod, and Bernie and his three-men crew have to figure out a way to track down the ship and rescue as many or all of its thirty-two passengers.

This is exactly the kind of remarkable story that we would be calling implausible had it not been based on a true story (same goes for films like "Argo" and even "Trumbo"), and because of that, it's a film that was ostensibly going to be a bit alienating from the start. The reason being is that when you have a film telling this extraordinary of a story, if you don't make the film about the characters, or at least confine the setting and the focus where it appeals to basic human emotions and practices, such as connection and survival, it's going to feel cold and empty. "The Finest Hours" doesn't go for the survivalist route of "All is Lost," showing its characters at their most helpless and hopeless, nor does it opt for spectacle as it revolves around two developed characters like in "The Perfect Storm."

What's left for "The Finest Hours" to do is produce a simple, well-shot action film that does a good job at giving us a chronological timeline of the Coast Guard/Pendleton rescue back in 1952, but nothing else. There's no staying power thanks to thin characters, and there's few enticing or memorable action sequences because we're too often cutting back and forth between what is occurring on the water and Miriam's constant worrying over her husband (in yet another vague and almost entirely worthless female role), providing for desperately little continuity.

The film was directed by Craig Gillespie, who seems to be one of Disney's go-to directors for basic live-action entertainment that makes caricatures out of characters and makes the factual seem like the overblown (Gillespie also directed "Million Dollar Arm," another almost instantly forgettable film). In a month when films have ranged from the average to the barely tolerable, perhaps it would've been better for "The Finest Hours" to downright suck because it would've given me a better, more exciting review to write and a funnier, more relevant review for you, dear reader. Instead, I feel, much like a captain of a ship when all is going well, on auto-pilot as I reflect on a film that is about as easy to dismiss and forget as a wrong number.

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