Thursday, August 14, 2014

Day 312: The Giver

"I like this map. Don't mess it up, I'll be wanting it back."
Published in 1993, Lois Lowry's book The Giver was a revolutionary if slim tale of a dystopian future where the inhabitants of a futuristic society lived in relative peace due to the removal of emotion from their lives. In 2014, every hack writer imaginable is creating dystopian future young adult books, so what once seemed like a novel idea feels like a Johnny come lately variation on a theme teens have been spoon fed for years. Nevertheless, these movies are a license to print money (for the most part), so of course now there's a movie version of The Giver, whether we wanted one or not. Could it buck the trend and actually be worth a damn, or would it succumb to the very notion of sameness which the book condemns at length? Read on to find out...
Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) lives in a community where everything seems perfect. There is no death, no pain, no emotion, and everyone's destiny is decided by a council of elders headed by the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep). When Jonas turns 18, he and his friends Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan) are given their roles in adult society. Jonas is selected to be the new Receiver of Memories, a position currently held by a wily old coot called The Giver (Jeff Bridges). His destiny is to be the one person in the society to carry the memories of all of human existence so that when the elders reach an impasse or need help making a decision, they can consult with him for guidance. 
It isn't long before Jonas begins to see his black and white world in color, and begins to slowly absorb emotions. There is a horrible truth about the society, however, that The Giver tries to keep secret from Jonas, but when it is revealed to him, Jonas decides that it is time to act. No longer content to let his friends and family be guided by an emotionless existence, Jonas makes a decision to try and free the people of his community from the bonds of oppression.
Admission time. I haven't read The Giver. My 8-year old daughter Clementine briefed me on all the pertinent information beforehand, but I just couldn't bring myself to read the book, hoping to let the movie introduce me to the world, and perhaps entice me to read the book afterwards. This is not a review of the book, so please don't accuse me of not knowing something that may have been fleshed out on the page. Also, at 35, I'm hardly the target audience for this film, which is another thing to bear in mind as you read my thoughts on it. I think that there are a lot of interesting ideas at play in The Giver, but none of them are given the time or space to be explored. It feels not unlike the Cliffs Notes version of the book, throwing ideas at you without giving you time to absorb them. Hell, at 95 minutes, there's not really time to absorb anything. The film is well-paced, but it's like saying you've watched an entire season's worth of a television series when in actuality you've only watched the "Previously on..." recaps that precede every episode.
The concept is interesting, but not explored in any meaningful way, and the film is well made but not very interesting. It's an odd dichotomy because it works fairly well as entertainment, but fails miserably as a parable exploring the ramifications of utopia. It also fails as art because it has a horrible digital sheen to it that just reeks of artificiality, and not in an intentional way as a commentary on the falseness of this perfect society, but rather as a film so tampered with in post-production, it feels and looks not unlike a student film shot with an HD camera. The word that kept running through my head throughout the entirety of the film was lame. It was just a lame movie, preaching a gospel of humanity while demonstrating a value system more in line with being a homogenized product, tailor made to reach as wide an audience as possible while failing to connect with any audience in a meaningful way. 
It was also a hopelessly convoluted film, one of those worlds where everything has a label that's six words long when two would suffice. Needlessly wordy terms like "Food Delivery People," "House of the Old," and "The Ceremony of Release" are bandied about as some sort of statement on human institutions, but yet again, nothing interesting is done with the concept so it feels like unnecessary fan service. Also, since this is a movie aimed at teens, that means they've got to up the ages a bit, so Jonas can't be twelve like he was in the book because god forbid pre-teens have any sort of decent role models. Instead he's got to be a hunk that all the teenage girls and their creepy moms can go gaga over. It's just further proof that movies are made by committee, and no longer the work of craftsmen and women that care about story and character above all else.
Jeff Bridges is perfectly fine in the title role, though his choice to deliver all of his lines like a stroke victim was horribly distracting. Meryl Streep also does good work, though even she's not immune to this recent trend of taking a respected actress and slapping a goofy wig on them so we know that this is science fiction (for other examples of this see Glenn Close in Guardians of the Galaxy and Julianne Moore in the upcoming Hunger Games movies). The teen actors don't fare as well, falling victim to their robotic original nature and overcompensating for it when they discover their emotions. I would also be remiss if I didn't mention Katie Holmes as Jonas' mother. Holmes' time away from acting did little to help her grow in any way, and she still feels like the lovesick teen she played fifteen years ago on Dawson's Creek.

The Giver isn't a bad movie, it's just a horribly lame one. It seems to exist primarily for fans of the book, who are also the most likely to up in arms over the artistic license taken by the filmmakers, particularly in the action packed third act. It's a moderately well directed film with a garbage script and some decent performances, but there's really no reason for it to exist, which is one of the worst sins a film can commit. I'll still read the book because I think that there's value in its message, but I would hope that kids the world over will choose to do the same because, frankly, they deserve better, more edifying entertainment than this film provides them with. 
GO Rating: 2/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

In Memoriam: Robin Williams

"You're only given one little spark of madness. You mustn't lose it."
The past 48 hours have been some of the darkest of my entire life. I've now lived through the divorce of my parents, my own divorce, my children moving away to the other side of the country, and an awful lot of misery in my 35 short years on this planet. Granted there have been a lot of good times and good memories, but it's truly hard to put into words how deeply and irrevocably the news that Robin Williams had taken his own life hit me. I didn't start out to write a piece about myself, but I realized while researching this piece how ingrained in my life this man truly was. I didn't know Robin personally, but as anyone who prides themselves on their sense of humor knows, there's something truly amazing about encountering a person that you know in your heart of hearts is funnier than you are. My sense of the world was shaped by the people that made me laugh, and there are sadly very few people left in this wicked world that made me laugh as much as Robin did. 
Like many people of my generation, I was raised on television and movies, and Mork and Mindy was the first time I ever laid eyes on this manic bolt of energy that was simply unlike anyone else I'd ever seen. When I was told that this was the same man that played Popeye in that musical I loved so much, I knew I was a fan before I even knew what being a fan meant. I wanted to consume everything he did. It led me down some strange roads, to movies I couldn't appreciate at such a young age like Moscow on the Hudson and The World According to Garp, but I just wanted more and more and more of whatever it was that he possessed. The fact that there was a one inch thick piece of glass separating me from greatness was enough to fuel the fire of passion, creativity, and humor that dwelled inside me. 
Like all funny men, Robin sought to be something more. He sought to touch people absent the laughs, and he really began to pursue that with his late 80s and early 90s run that is by far the most fertile period in his acting career. His work in films like Good Morning VietnamDead Poets Society, and The Fisher King, all of which unsurprisingly earned him Academy Award nominations, showed that with the right combination of character and actor, we could see real magic happen right before our eyes. This was someone to aspire to, to model a career on, to emulate, to imitate, to lionize, and idolize.
The 90s brought new frontiers for him to conquer. He basically turned voice work into a cottage industry with his performance as the Genie in Disney's Aladdin, and his work in The Birdcage gave all of us pause when he so effortlessly demonstrated how a brilliant comedian could play the straight man to utter perfection. Yes, there are films I'm purposefully ignoring, whether they be ridiculous comedies, or maudlin dramas, or even a dreadful combination of both, but when the work was good, it was second to none and that's what we all remember and strive towards. He finally won an Oscar for his wonderfully understated work in Good Will Hunting, and moved into the new century with a renewed sense of life and accomplishment. 
The three films he did in 2002 will be studied years from now as incredible contrasts in how an actor can simultaneously play on your expectations of him and brilliantly subvert them. One Hour PhotoDeath to Smoochy, and Insomnia is the kind of triple threat an actor would kill for, and Robin got to do them all in one calendar year. His work would continue steadily over the next decade, though with varying degrees of success, yet his career was such that you always knew no matter how weak the work he might be doing today was, the promise of something amazing always lay right around the corner. In 2009, his longtime friend Bobcat Goldthwait gifted him with the role of a lifetime in World's Greatest Dad, a film whose eerily prescient subject matter makes it all the more difficult to even think about in light of his death.  
By all accounts, Robin was a selfless man in his personal life, always ready to lend a helping hand or a laugh to those in need. He made many an unheralded, unannounced, and spotlight free trip to entertain our troops in the Middle East, a passion that was ignited in him after his work on Good Morning Vietnam. Stories abound of his trips to comedy clubs to meet the owners, sign autographs, take pictures, and spend time talking to everyday folks. The fact that you've heard so many stories of people having met Robin in the last few days is a testament to how much he truly did care about those whose life and work were altered by him. 
All of this is leading me inexorably towards a discussion about his death. Robin took his own life as a result of a lifelong battle with depression. The last thing that anyone should do in this situation is rush to judge or label his death in any way other than to say what it was plainly a desperate act by a man who felt he had no other options. There is something inherently ironic about a man who brought so much joy to others being tortured by personal demons which finally got the better of him, but anyone that thinks that way doesn't understand what true, bone-deep depression does to a human being. Perhaps the reason it hit me so hard is because it's something I've also struggled with my entire adult life. 
It's so easy for someone to offer platitudes like "laugher is the best medicine" or "tomorrow is another day" to a person that wrestles with depression. It's difficult, nigh impossible, for someone that doesn't really know what depression is to understand how harmful such statements can be. We live in a culture that prides itself on bucking up and laughing off adversity, when in actuality, that's shit advice. Depression is a beast that can't be slain. It can be controlled, but it never goes away. It lays in wait for you to convince yourself that tomorrow really is another day and then it grabs a hold of you, and in many cases gets the best of you. Our society is so quick to write addiction and mental illness off as made-up problems, ones that aren't on a par with diseases such as cancer. The real shame in all of this is that if people would take the time to see the lateral nature of such problems, we might actually begin to find a way to eradicate them together, instead of working within bubbles where our own problems will forever trump those of another. 
My heart breaks to know that the same thing I struggle with every single day of my life took away a fellow soldier in our never-ending battle against it. Robin Williams was a genius, but at the end of the day, he was no more immune to this problem than any of the countless faceless others that succumb to its vise-like grip everyday in this world. The day that we stop casting aspersions and work together to understand one another as intimately as we think we do is the day we might see problems like this come to an end. If you think that this outrageously funny and talented man made a selfish choice by taking his own life, you are 100% a part of the problem. 
If Robin's death does nothing else for all of us, I hope that it teaches us to listen, to care for one another in such a way that we'll always be there for one another. In a day and age where your friends are reduced to nothing more than a number on a social media website, it couldn't hurt to actually try and give a shit about each other. Robin's life and work united us all in fits of laughter and tears of joy. I can only hope that his tragic death with similarly unite us in a spirit of knowing, caring, and understanding one another at a level that extends beyond 140 characters.
Rest in peace, Robin. You were truly one of a kind.
[Photos via 12345]

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Day 311: Into the Storm

"I spent the last week filming time capsule videos about the future, and now it looks like I don't have one."
The found footage film has gone through a lot of changes since The Blair Witch Project more or less introduced it as a cheap, moneymaking genre film fifteen years ago. As audiences have theoretically gotten savvier about questioning how and why certain things were being filmed, filmmakers have in turn created an ever increasing number of boneheaded explanations. While some of these films have succeeded, Chronicle leaps immediately to mind, most are an abysmal failure mainly because they become so beholden to the concept that everything else becomes secondary. Writers are now so consumed by presenting reasons for the movie existing in the first place that character, plot, and virtually all the basic tenets of screenwriting go out the window.
The latest found footage film Into the Storm decided to spice up the genre by mashing it together with another genre film that has just as many well-worn tropes, the disaster film. Could it succeed despite the overwhelming odds against it, or would it be another in a long line of missed opportunities? Read on to find out...
The residents of the small town of Silverton, Oklahoma are prepping for high school graduation. Donnie (Max Deacon) has been tasked by his distant single father Gary (Richard Armitage), the vice principal of the high school, to create time capsule videos for all of the graduating seniors which they can view in 25 years. Donnie has an unrequited crush on Kaitlyn (Alycia Debnam Carey), the most popular girl in school who just so happens to need help creating a video to land that big summer internship. Donnie offers his services and pawns off graduation filming duties onto his younger brother Trey (Nathan Kress).
A group of storm chasers, led by Pete (Matt Walsh), are making a documentary about tornados, but have yet to encounter one. Pete blames PhD Meteorologist--and single mom away from her daughter for the first time in her life--Allison (Sarah Wayne Callies) for being too scientific with the locations she's sending them to, and not using instinct enough to track the storms properly. Just as their funding gets cut, the group track the storm to Silverton, which at first seems as if it's going to be another dead zone. What no one in the town of Silverton is prepared for, however, is that the biggest storm in history is headed right toward them.
First things first, I really need to get this off of my chest before I go any further with this review, this is a god damned stupid movie. It might be one of the dumbest movies I have ever seen, and that is really saying something. The film mindlessly telegraphs everything that's going to happen, allowing anyone with even a cursory knowledge of poor screenwriting clichés to stay five steps ahead of every single character in the film. When Gary finds out that his son Trey is carrying a knife, even though he's not allowed to have one, he confiscates it from his son and puts it in his pocket because, well, he's going to need it later in the film. Just as Pete's about to fire Allison for her umpteenth bad judgment call, she turns out to be right on the money with her prediction. Will a casual mention by Donnie of childhood CPR lessons come in handy later in the film? Will the guy on the storm chaser team that almost quits because he fears for his life be the first to die? Will the most selfish character in the film be the one that makes the most selfless sacrifice at the end?
This is horseshit hack screenwriting 101 which is only further exacerbated by the fact that it's also forced to introduce characters that have access to cameras because they're going to need to cover every angle of the storm. Honestly I was shocked that Gary and Allison didn't end up together in the end, because it's basically the only trope the film manages to avoid, and then expects you to pat it on the back for dodging that one piece of flying debris. It's the kind of film that creates flawed characters solely to give them redemption arcs, and literally stops the action of the film cold to pay homage first to Twister then, bafflingly, to The Matrix Revolutions (which, like this film, are both Warner Bros. productions). It also takes itself so seriously that it doesn't even see the inherent comedy in having a cameraman chase his camera into the tornado, when five minutes earlier he was pissing his pants because he was afraid he was going to die while shooting the storm.
The visual effects are impressive, when they mercifully show up about thirty minutes into the movie, but they're not remotely worth sitting through such dross to get to. The film this seems to have the most in common with is 2010's Skyline, a film that was made by two visual effects supervisors who spent their lives watching sci-fi flicks and thought to themselves, we can make a better movie than these. If you've seen Skyline, you know how miserably they failed to do just that, and this film reeks of the same sense of unearned self-importance. If Michael Bay's career has proved nothing else, it's that the best visual effects in the world are utterly meaningless when they're in support of a story that's just not worth telling.
The actors are all fine, and do their jobs effectively, but none of them stand out. While the average person doesn't know who Matt Walsh is, I must admit I was a tad disappointed to see him playing such a humorless character when he's an hysterically funny and gifted comedic actor. Richard Armitage, freed from the confines of his Thorin Oakenshield makeup, is also serviceable, but looks distractingly like he could be Hugh Jackman's stunt double, and really doesn't give his character much time to transform into a decent guy, it just sort of happens all of a sudden. The atrocious script does him no favors, but it would have been nice to actually see an arc there rather than just a change of heart that's no more noteworthy than a light switch being flipped on.
Into the Storm is pure garbage. It's a film that falls victim to literally every cliché imaginable, except the one exception I already mentioned, and treats well worn territory like they're discovering the cure for cancer. It's one of those films where the opening scene lets you know exactly how ridiculous and clunky it's going to be, and if you're not on board by the time the title comes on screen, you're not likely to ever get on board. The found footage genre as a whole just needs to disappear. There's nothing left to discover, and even this film gives up on it at times, gaining camera angles and footage that was absolutely impossible given the number of people in the shot. It's a dumb film that has a blatant disregard for the intelligence of the average audience member, and those that can't recognize that they're being pandered to are likely the only ones that will get any enjoyment out of it.
GO Rating: 1/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]