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Can't Stop the Movies

Mr. Peabody and Sherman (2014)

Not sardonic enough

Mr. Peabody is the world's smartest dog, master of multiple trades, diplomatic liaison extraordinaire, and adopted father to the precocious Sherman.  They spend their days traveling through time in Mr. Peabody's WABAC machine, and get into trouble when the girl who bullies Sherman is lost in time.  Mr. Peabody and Sherman is directed by Rob Minkoff and stars Ty Burrell and Max Charles.

Not sardonic enoughMr. Peabody and Sherman has been in development for over a decade.  Director Rob Minkoff first thought about bringing the classic animated characters to cinemas at the start of the new millennium and the project has gone through different permutations ever since.  Passion, a love of the source material, and some dogged perseverance is required to stick with a single project for over a decade.  So for those qualities, I admire that Minkoff was able to get through those problems and bring two of my favorite animated characters to life.

The problem with development cycles that long is that the result is rarely good.  Minkoff looked to have the project in capable hands for a while with talents like Ty Burrell and Stephen Colbert attached to Mr. Peabody.  Then there was the matter of his credentials, which included co-directing the superb The Lion King in 1994.  But then there's the matter of Minkoff's other work, Stuart Little, The Haunted Mansion, The Forbidden Kingdom, all films that aim for the lowest hurdle of entertainment and clear it with subdued expectations.

This is not what I wanted for the beautifully dry Mr. Peabody and his boy Sherman, but the long development cycle has drained the resulting film of what little personality it could have possessed.  Instead we are faced with a dry, but not witty, bright, but not energetic, and short, but not well-paced, animated adventure that has only one image worth a chuckle.  Worst of all, those delightful puns that ended each of Mr. Peabody and Sherman's adventures have been reduced to sitcom one-liners.  Such a travesty.


Obvious Child (2014)

The stage is yours

Donna is not having a good year.  She hasn't been able to get her creative mojo going after her boyfriend broke up with her after a set of standup comedy, her mother is on her case about getting her life together, and now she finds out she's pregnant after a one-night stand.  Obvious Child is written for the screen and directed by Gillian Robespierre and stars Jenny Slate.

The stage is yoursObvious Child does not have the markings of a traditionally "important" film.  Gillian Robespierre, who wrote and directed the original short film of the same name, crafted a deliberately low scale film.  The heroine, Donna (Jenny Slate), is a comedienne who has yet to find her voice but based on some early film standup is well on her way to figuring out how to make people laugh with her insecurities.  Donna performs in dingy bars and tries not to starve on the salary her bookshop job can afford.  Her life seems the kind that inspires a brief cut in a commercial for a coffee shop, not a feature-film.

But these minor elements are horribly important to Donna, mundane though they may be compared to other characters in cinema.  As Obvious Child rolls along it looks like a funny, if slight, film about a woman trying to cope with a breakup.  Then Donna gets pregnant, decides to have an abortion, and Robespierre's Obvious Child reveals itself as a film about a lot more than one comedienne and her problems.

In most literature, be it written or filmed, the decision to have an abortion comes at the end of a dramatic plot.  Think back to the slow dolly away from the pristine white of Kate Winslet's dress in Revolutionary Road to reveal the dripping mass of blood on her dress and home.  Rarely is the real decision of having the abortion the source of drama, and even then treated with a comic sense of storytelling like the farcical Ruth of Citizen Ruth.  With quiet, very funny, and painfully sweet charm, Obvious Child is as much a dialogue about the way abortion has gone from a backdoor deal for troubled women to a safer procedure without losing any of the emotional pain that comes with the decision.


Spike Lee: Girl 6 (1996)

Over my shoulder

An out-of-luck actress responds to a lucrative ad for phone sex and soon is the most popular operator in her profession.  But as the phone calls pile up and she starts taking her work home, the line between her identity and what she creates for the customers is increasingly blurred.  Girl 6 is directed by Spike Lee from a screenplay written by Suzan-Lori Parks.

Over my shoulderKyle Commentary BannerGirl 6 has already, at the time of writing this, faded significantly from my memory. I was happy to find that I jotted down some notes while watching the movie, because without them I may not remember anything. Here's an example of Spike Lee trying to fight his (earned) reputation as a storyteller with troubling gender politics and representations of women, and for a while you can see his thought process up on the screen. “I'll have Quentin Tarantino as an asshole director exploiting my main character by asking her to take her shirt off during the audition,” he thinks, “To show how misogynistic and dude-run the film industry is.” Then he makes sure to include a shot of Theresa Randle topless.

That scene pretty much says everything you need to know about the movie—Spike is unwittingly displaying his own cluelessness by embedding it in a misguided and out-of-touch story superficially about empowering its women characters. That the movie jumps illogically from one point to the next—Randle's acting ambitions to phone sex, phone sex to Madonna-led more dangerous at-home phone sex, and all that other stuff to a sunny what-the-shit-hell ending involving an otherwise fairly minor character—makes it poorly constructed in addition to being misguided, so it's not even very interesting in its badness.

There are some elements I liked early on—like the insane, enraged acting coach that just screams at Randle incoherently, and the way a lot of her callers are portrayed as upper-class white businessmen using sex as a way to enact fantasies that reaffirm their own vitality and control—but overall I don't feel like there's a whole lot here we haven't already talked about before. Aside from some of the elements involving the callers—which reminded me of a 2000-times better film, The Girlfriend Experience, in which sex is also acting as a confirmation of men's economic/social power—this isn't spectacularly bad enough to get me outraged, or interesting enough to make me try harder to remember much of the rest.


Crawl or Die (2014)

Guess he didn't crawl

A crew of elite soldiers, led by the mohawk-sporting Tank, is sent to recover the last fertile woman in the universe.  But during the recovery they are suddenly attacked and flee through the tunnel system under the earth.  To escape they have two options...Crawl or Die.  Crawl or Die is directed by Oklahoma Ward and stars Nicole Alonso.

Guess he didn't crawlMy friends and I, back when we could gather easier, used to have "Bad Movie Night".  We'd go out to the local Family Video, grab anything that looked like it had either an astronomically low-budget or an impossibly catchy title.  More often than not we were successful in finding bad films - sometimes so successful that we didn't have to think more than a week or two to think of the worst movies we've seen.  On first glance, Crawl or Die looked like it would fit that bill perfectly.

But the other side of "Bad Movie Night" is that in-between all the quick-and-dirty features and slumming marquee stars we'd sometimes find something interesting.  Rarer still were the films that were damn good.  Only once did we find a great director, which how I began my lifetime love of Vincenzo Natali of Cube and SpliceCrawl or Die introduced me to the talents of Oklahoma Ward, the second promising director I've discovered among all the cash-in clock punchers.

Crawl or Die is eighty minutes of great craft in a ninety minute film with those other ten minutes are still damn good.  It's a reminder that genre work is not just the playground for people who don't have the skill to do other kinds of films, but a method of expression where the raw talent on display makes the case for itself.  In Crawl or Die's case, it showcases a great skill of inducing nightmares with its clear, yet painfully piercing, cinematography and lean storytelling.  The premise may be simple, but the results are anything but, and I found myself scribbling a lot more notes than I expected to while trying to keep up with the skill on display.


Godzilla (2014)

He's here to help - honest

A monstrous apex predator named Godzilla causes devastation when he emerges from the ocean.  Despite humanity's attempts to destroy him he persists, but does not turn his attention toward humans.  But when two ancient creatures awaken and begin rampaging across the United States, Godzilla may be the only one who can save America.  Godzilla is directed by Gareth Edwards from a screenplay by Max Borenstein.

He's here to help - honestThe original Godzilla birthed from Japanese fears of the nuclear future after World War II.  Considering the destruction that spawned his creation, he emerged throughout the years as an unlikely symbol whose mutability has been flexibly adapted to different countries in different ways.  Last year's Pacific Rim was but one in a long line of symbolic monster movies, encouraging an economic and technological alliance of countries that were once allied during, again, World War II - to strengthen themselves against the future.  That film was entertaining more because of the cast and the energy than the giant monster battles, which were indistinct and hazy.

This is why I was delighted to find out that Godzilla was directed by Gareth Edwards.  Edwards' previous film, Monsters, reviewed on this site a few years ago and is one of the pieces I disagree with.  The parallels between the relatively benign monsters along the United States border with these two seemingly vapid people of privilege gave an interesting arc for both.  It's only by accepting the monsters, those beings of lower class, assembled at the border that they are free to pursue happiness outside of their social standings.  The monsters themselves moved with an inelegant poetry that lingered in my memory partly because they were barely in the film.

So for those hoping that Edwards' Godzilla would feature wall-to-wall giant monster action seem to have been disappointed.  Rightly so, if those were the narrow expectations they start the movie with and are unmoved by everything that follows.  Edwards' Godzilla is a film story about how war can birth beings that are capable of being moved by the simple love we feel.  It's shows we, as a country, we need to learn to let go of past violence and trust other powerful members of the world to take the lead.  Only then you get your giant awesome monster action.