Sunday, April 27, 2014

Spring Movie Diary: Bears

Date: April 26, 2014
Time: 2:45 pm
Place: Tinsel Town
Company: Derrick, Grayson, Penelope

Food:  mixed red and blue Icee, popcorn, Whoppers
Runtime:  1 hour, 17 minutes
Rating: G
Directors: Alastair Fothergill, Keith Scholey

Quick Impressions:
A few months after our wedding, my husband and I were on an exciting weekend trip with my then four-year-old stepson.  While relaxing in the hotel room before dinner, we happened to catch a documentary about bears on TV.

“Ohh!” I gushed (because they were so cute).  “Look at them!  They’re so cute!”  (They were!  They were so cute!)  “Bears are so cute!  I want a bear!”

With a look of grave concern, my stepson turned, looked me right in the eye, and said gently but firmly, “No.  We cannot get a bear.  I’m sorry, but they are just too dangerous.” 

His tone was so hilarious, like a parent who loves you but fears you’ve gone too far this time and must be protected from yourself.

Anyway, my five-year-old daughter has been dying to see “the bear movie,” as we all call it for weeks now (thanks to relentless Disney Channel marketing, no doubt), so bears have been all the gossip in our house, and I’m sure I’ve retold that anecdote about her brother at least thirty times in the past month.

“I think you were right,” my daughter decided about halfway through the movie today.  “Bears are so cute.  Maybe we should get one.”

“But where would we find a bear?” I whispered back.

“We could just steal him from the zoo,” she suggested.  “Of course, they might notice.”

“We could dress him up in people clothes and sneak him out the exit,” I offered.

“Daddy’s clothes would work,” she decided.

Clearly my stepson is the sensible one in the family.  His sister has a totally different personality.  It’s like that in the bear family, too.  Scout is independent, but Amber likes to ride around on the back of their mother, Sky.  They all like to eat, of course—if they can ever find any salmon! 

You’ll find out more for yourself when you watch Bears.  (Okay, honestly, there’s not much more to find out.  A mother bear and her two cubs spend a year looking for salmon in Alaska.  That’s about it, refreshingly simple and pretty engaging onscreen.)

The Good:
I’ve always liked bears.  There’s something so human about them—except they’re bears, kind of like me.  (Well, I mean, okay, I’m not technically a bear, but at some moments I distinctly feel like I’m only just technically a human.  Maybe humans are slowly evolving into bears, and I’m the missing link.  Or maybe I’ll be a bear in some future life.  I really like the idea of hibernating.   Why go to sleep when there’s stuff to do?  Better to crash somewhere cozy and dark once all the excitement dies down, I think.  The bears have the right idea.  Plus I love rolling around outside in the grandeur of nature, and I hate it when wolves try to eat my children.  You see, I’m practically a bear already!)

I’ve also always liked nature specials about wildlife, and I’ve been watching Disney’s spin on the animal kingdom since as far back as I can remember.  My mother was a particular fan of The Yellowstone Cubs, and I remember watching that over and over again when I was about six.  (I assume it kept re-airing on the Disney Channel because we didn’t get a VCR until the following year.)

I should mention, though, that while I’ve always liked children’s wildlife documentaries (made by Disney or others), I don’t go into them with particularly high expectations.  With any documentary, authenticity is far from a given.  Unless you’re the one standing out in the field with your camera inches from a bear’s nose, you really can’t be sure how much the footage you’re seeing has been manipulated. 

Around the same time we watched the bear show with my then four-year-old stepson, we also took him to see the movie Arctic Tale which very movingly depicts the lives of two sets of animals, a mother walrus and a mother polar bear and their babies.  By the end of the movie, you’re sobbing (and ready to apologize to the polar bear for that time you took a really long shower and almost singlehandedly melted her entire habitat), and then suddenly you see this disclaimer up on the screen saying that all the footage is of many different animals, the characters are composite, and the entire storyline is fabricated.

Stuff like that happens a lot with “documentaries” for children, so at this point, I don’t even expect authenticity.  I just hope to see a lot of well shot footage of cute animals playing (and hopefully none of cute animals dying horribly in agony).  Honestly you never know what you’re going to get.  Will the movie be completely faked with a contrived storyline and ridiculously happy ending or will it be very raw and real with a meandering plot and abundant gruesome carnage?  That’s less of an either/or thing and more of a spectrum, really. 

So I’m happy to report that Disney’s Bears exceeded my expectations.  By all appearances, it truly is the story of a real group of particular, individual bears going through a given year in their actual lives.  (Now of course, it could be as fake and contrived as Arctic Tale, but if it is, it has the good sense not to advertise the fact at the end of the movie.  It could be fake, but since it’s in Disney’s hands, the public will never be given reason to suspect.  Forty years from now, in fact, we can probably expect the release of another Disney movie, celebrating the gritty, “true” details of the making of Bears because the people running the Disney empire are not stupid.)

The bears are so cute, too.  They’re everything you could possibly want from bears and more (more because there are more bears than just the three featured heavily in the previews).  Although we mainly follow Sky and her two young cubs, we also meet a variety of other ursine characters, including the dominant male and his outcast rival, several growly females, and a few nondescript strangers.  Animal lovers will be thrilled that the movie also heavily features a dangerous wolf and several arresting birds (in particular an apparently psychic raven).

The only human actor is narrator John C. Reilly who does a fabulous job.  Not only does he provide sonorous, clear narration, but he also sometimes slips into a kind of free indirect discourse (sometimes even discourse outright), describing a given situation from the imagined point of view of one of the characters onscreen.  He’s really very good.  He’s easy to listen to, and he does a great job of making the characters vivid and sympathetic through his presentation of their “thoughts.”

The movie’s goal seems to be encouraging children to consider life from the point of view of a bear.  We see what a mother bear and her cubs go through in a year, what drives them, what scares them, what disappoints them, what worries them, what saves them.  It’s pretty hard to see all that and fail to sympathize (even, to a degree, empathize) with the bears.

My strong impression is that the movie is asking us to have respect and compassion for bears as fellow creatures sharing our planet.  Unlike Arctic TaleBears does not end with a heavy-handed round of shaming or a rousing call to action.  Instead, it merely intends to engender a respect for bears and (by extension) for all creatures and for the world in which we all live.

I’m pretty sure this is the aim of the movie, and I think it succeeds beautifully.  About ten minutes before the film ended, the narrator made a comment about Sky longing for salmon, and my daughter whispered thoughtfully, “She has been looking for that salmon since the beginning of the movie.”

“Yes,” I replied.  “That’s what it’s like to be a mother bear.  You wake up hungry and have to think about, ‘What can I do today to feed myself and feed my children?'”

She whispered back, “Yes, and it’s so hard because you have to watch those cubs, and everything in all of nature is trying to hurt them and kill them.”  So the movie definitely does successfully encourage children to think about the world from a point of view other than their own.

Best Scene:
It’s a good thing my stepson was sure that nothing bad was going to happen to the little bear cubs because I definitely wasn’t sure, and somebody had to reassure my daughter.

Though for a film about wild animals, there’s very little blood and violence, Bears relies heavily on moments of peril and suspense to capture the audience’s attention.  Those little cubs just can’t stay out of trouble.  They are always in danger.  Sometimes, it appears that one is just sitting there and nothing is happening, but don’t be fooled.  He’s in mortal peril at that very moment, and he’s so aware of his fate that he’s having an existential crisis, and that little growly sound his mother is making is the bear equivalent of taking an entire bottle of Prozac.  Good grief, they’re in such hysterics that they can barely control their racing thoughts before the crisis is resolved.  We know all this because the narrator pointedly tells us, again and again.

Every time those cubs were in danger, my daughter nearly descended into madness.  She was beside herself with anxious horror.  Fortunately, her brother kept telling her, “It will be okay.  Nothing bad will happen.  The cubs obviously live or they wouldn’t have made this movie.”

I wanted to believe him, but I was less sure.  After all, in many of the (more honest) nature specials, animals do (frequently) die on screen (especially smaller, weaker animals).  Death comes up a lot in realistic movies about nature because…well, I mean, that’s is how life ends…for everyone.  I wasn’t completely sure what would happen to those bear cubs.  I wanted to reassure her, “Of course, nothing bad will happen.  Bears are magical creatures that live forever,” but I didn’t know for sure if my lie would be sustainable, or if I’d say that and ten seconds later, Scout would fall off a cliff into a waiting Venus trap or something!  (Wait until you see the movie!  It’s always Scout getting into these situations, never Amber!)

This is a Disney movie, though, made for little kids, so I think my stepson had its number long before I did.

Anyway, my point is, all of the “little bear in peril” moments really captured my daughter’s attention.  The best of these is the scene when the tide rises unexpectedly, creating immense suspense that my daughter barely survived herself.

Funniest Scene:
When Scout is trying to figure out how to open a shell and get a snack, everyone in the theater was giggling (especially the young children).  The little bear is extremely adorable on his own, and John C. Reilly’s narration enhances the hilarity of the situation.

Best Action Sequence:
Without a doubt, the biggest treat in the movie is watching the salmon swim upstream, fly out of the water, and whack the befuddled bears in the nose.  Gun battles, car chases, helicopter crashes, alien invasions—that kind of stuff happens in basically every other movie out there.  I mean, we all know by now that the only reason Roland Emmerich even makes movies is for the visceral thrill of blowing up the White House!

Buying a ticket to a mainstream movie today pretty much guarantees you at least one eyeful of excessive violence and CGI explosions.

But how many movies show you salmon in slow-mo flying up out of the water and smashing smooshily against the side of a bear’s responsive face?  The best part is, Mother Nature is doing all the hard work (unless Disney has some animatronic crew member hiding under the water throwing up fish at regular intervals, which now that I think about it, is almost certainly the case).  

(I’m just kidding.  This has more integrity than some children’s nature “documentaries” I’ve seen.  As the end credits play, we get to see production photos of diligent camera men invading the bears’ space in eerie silence.)

Best Scene Visually:
I’m a huge fan of the scene featuring the “free buffet” on the rocks at low tide.  There’s some pretty showy time-lapse photography going on, but even apart from that, the natural textures of the scene are so layered and eye-catching.  There’s also a gorgeous shot just before this scene (I think) of mists misting around (or clouds clouding around.  Just trust me, you’ll know it when you see it.)

The Negatives:
Honestly, this movie is totally inoffensive, perfectly sweet, beautifully shot, and entirely kid friendly.  If you like bears—or even if you just want to see some beautiful shots of Alaska—then Bears is sure to please you. 

Since it runs only about an hour and fifteen minutes, though, adults without children may want to wait and watch it at home.  That’s the only real reason not to see this movie in the theater.  It delivers exactly what it promises—a little more than an hour of narrated footage of the first year of life of two young bear cubs and their mother.  The target audience is clearly children.  Adults without children simply may not be interested in spending movie theater prices to watch three bears walking around for an hour.

I think you would have to try to be offended by this movie, but if you were really in a bad mood when somebody dragged you to the theater, I can think of one aspect of the film that might legitimately get under your skin.

Early on, John C. Reilly made some comment (about one bear’s interior life), and my daughter whispered suspiciously, “Does he know how to speak bear?”

I think she’s onto something.  Whether he knows how or not, the narrator behaves as if he is fluent in bear for the entire movie.  It’s like he’s The Bear Whisperer or something.  How in the world is he privy to their innermost thoughts and secrets?  As I watched, I thought, It’s good to see this and be encouraged to look through a bear’s eyes.  We’re all so often guilty of dehumanizing bears.

And then I thought, Hey wait a minute!  Bears are not human.

That gave me pause (because I was turning into a werebear! (just kidding)).  Unbearable puns aside, I really did stop and think about the narration.  John C. Reilly was so compelling when speaking for the bear.  But do the makers of the movie really know what the bear is feeling inside?  I do believe bears have feelings and thoughts and regard for their young, but do they experience stressful situations in the same ways that a human would?  Is this movie giving us an intimate look at bears, or is it anthropomorphizing bears?

I mean, in some scenes, we see the bear turn to the camera with a tormented look, and then we hear narration like, “Her mind is racing with panic right now,” but I mean is it really?  In the credits, they show us the camera crew filming the bears.  To get some shots, they appear to be standing within twenty feet of the bear (at least).  Isn’t it possible that sometimes when the bears get those weird looks on their faces, what they’re really thinking is, Who is this guy and why does he keep following me around and staring at me?

Clearly some of the stress of the threatening situations was at the very least built up by the narrator in order to maintain dramatic tension in the movie.  The only question is, how much of the stress how much of the time?  Was the anxiety entirely manufactured, or did the bears genuinely worry at some situations?

Then I just started thinking about narration in general because 1) the plot is very minimal and 2) I’m always thinking about stuff like that, anyway.  I’m obsessed with the use of narrative as a way of finding/creating meaning/limiting chaos.

So I started thinking about how children (and maybe also adults) probably believe what the narrator is saying.  Why would they question it?  Children usually believe narration because they’re used to it.  The narration shapes their understanding of the events they’re seeing.  I mean, half the time now, I catch myself repeating what was told to me as a child to my own child.  Our early caregivers (often our parents) typically explain the world to us much more than we (or likely they) even realize at the time.  And then we see reality through that lens, at least until we become aware that it is a lens and likely even after that discovery.

Children don’t really have the skillset or inclination to recognize the narrator’s speech as motivated interpretation rather than uncomplicated discovery of fact.  Of course, now that I’ve said that, I remember that my own child seemed skeptical that the narrator could speak for the bears with such conviction.  So maybe I’m the one who goes around obliviously believing everything that’s said to me, and everybody else in the world just thinks I’m dumb (including the bears.  Why else would they look at me like that?  What must they think of me!  I’ll ask John C. Reilly.  He’ll know for sure.)

My point is, if you’re looking for things not to like about the movie, you could easily heckle it by saying, “You don’t know what’s in that bear’s heart, you liar!  And do you honestly expect us to believe that they’re desperately following this one magical raven who knows all the secrets of the world?”  If that’s how you feel, though, I would really like to know why you thought it was a good idea to give Disney their cut of your $7-$12 so you could watch a bear movie made for little kids.  If you know so much about how the world really works, then you should know yourself a little bit better than that by now, I think.

Bears shows us a year in the life of Sky and her two young cubs as they avoid predators and search the wilds of Alaska for the salmon they need to stay alive.  The bears are adorable.  The Alaskan wildlife is beautiful.  Some of the photography is amazing.  And John C. Reilly’s narration is expertly done.  If you have young children and want to take them to a first movie, this is a good choice because it’s very short and highly engaging. 

Our eleven-year-old boy and our five-year-old girl both really liked the movie, and so did all the other kids in the theater (because they kept saying so).  This is really not the kind of movie that anyone hates.  It’s well done and highly palatable.  The only question is, do you want to spend the money to see it in the theater?  Will buying the tickets mean a) no real sacrifice to your lifestyle, b) passing on another movie, or c) letting your baby roam bear-style in the yard for a few days because you can no longer afford diapers.  As long as you didn’t answer (c), going to Bears is a safe bet, but waiting until it comes on TV seems like a fine alternative, too.

Also, just so you know, if you're the type who cringes at animal suffering, we don't see much of that in this movie.  I did unexpectedly start crying at the end, though, at the thought of the emotionally turbulent challenges of being a mother nurturing children through the first years of life.  Of course, I should admit that once when I was still pumping breastmilk for my daughter, I let down for some cute bear cubs I saw on TV, so my responses are, perhaps, not typical.  This really isn't a tear jerker (but you should probably call your mother, anyway.  She's given you so much!).

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Spring Movie Diary: Transcendence

Date: April 21, 2014
Time: 4:20 pm
Place: Alamo Drafthouse Lakeline
Company: Derrick

Food:  Greek wrap, Dr. Pepper, water
Runtime:  1 hours, 59 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Director: Wally Pfister

Quick Impressions:
Wally Pfister is best known as Christopher Nolan’s go-to cinematographer.  He was director of photography not just for Nolan’s Batman trilogy, but also for basically all his other famous films (Momento, Insomnia, Inception).  Back when I originally heard Pfister had decided to scoot over into the director’s chair for the first time, I got kind of excited.  But then time passed and I forgot all about the entire project—until Pfister’s name flashed on the screen during the opening credits this evening.

Honestly, I think even if you didn’t go in knowing that the director of Transcendence had a high profile background in cinematography, you’d figure it out for yourself pretty quickly.  This is a very visually oriented movie.  There’s quite a lot of (highly successful) visual storytelling.  In an early scene, a kid uses a keyboard to wedge open a door, working in tandem with Paul Bettany’s narration to establish very quickly that the computer age is over.  This film is all about spaces and ways to occupy them, and much of it looks really cool even when it doesn’t have to.  (The nanite mist, for example, could easily be invisible or just vaguely cloudy, but in this movie, it’s designed to catch the eye.)  And I’m pretty sure Will and Evelyn Caster must have hired a cinematographer to help design that underground laboratory.  I can imagine Will’s eerie, not-quite-human voice advising her, “Now we’re going to need a long, white corridor that you will look mesmerizing walking down.  It will be replete with visual symbolism, sex appeal, horror, and mystery.”

The movie looks pretty good (though not as good as Oblivion, the film that I couldn’t help remembering as I watched this one).  On a superficial level, Transcendence is very appealing.  The script is also (ultimately) pretty deep.  The story suffers a little in character development, though.  There’s a frustrating disconnect between the lovely surface and the deeper meanings, and I think it’s because even though the cast is fantastic, the talented actors are not given time to reveal their characters to us gradually. 

Several times—like literally a million separate times (okay, not literally)—I thought to myself, “This would really work better as a TV show.”  I keep hearing that nowadays TV is way better than movies could ever hope to be, but I don’t believe it.  In this particular case, however, I think television might be the superior medium.  It’s not that you can’t tell a satisfying story in two hours.  It’s that the type of story Transcendence tells isn’t as effective when it feels rushed.  We really need to connect to the characters.  You could take a season of television to tell the same story, and I think audiences would be more pleased with the results. 

The Good:
I’ve mentioned that Transcendence reminds me a lot of Oblivion.  You know what else it reminds me of?  Everything.

Okay, not everything.  But mostly everything.  In the beginning, it made me think of Her.  Then it reminded me of stuff I think (and write) (and worry) about all the time.  Then it kind of turned into Rosemary’s Baby for a while.  And—though this may seem improbable—by the end, I was thinking, This reminds me of The Iliad…except now it reminds me of Billy Budd.  (Not until the final scenes of the movie did I realize, I don’t think the Easter weekend release date was an accident.  You could easily take this whole thing as a Christ allegory.)

On the plus side, you’re never intellectually bored while watching this movie.  After I got done being distracted by the memory of all the incredibly exciting new summer movie previews, I spent the first third of the movie trying to figure out if Transcendence is really giving us something worthwhile or simply coasting by, cleverly reminding us of fairly fascinating stuff our entire society is currently obsessed with.  I found myself wondering, Does this movie actually have anything to say, or is it just throwing out buzz words and captivating images?

Ultimately, the movie is not shallow, and the story is well constructed (if not always as well told as it could be).  But personally, I was not convinced that it wasn’t just slapdash topical mediocrity until it was almost over.  About halfway through, I started realizing, This movie could end like X, but if it doesn’t make that move, then it’s really generic and mediocre and not worth people’s time.  Fortunately, however, the movie redeems itself by having a worthy ending.  Interestingly (to me), my husband told me afterwards that he had assumed it would end that way the entire time.  For me, the film often seemed like a horror movie, a nightmare, a primal fantasy turned all-engulfing terror.  For him, watching Transcendence was a mainly frustrating, infuriating experience because he approached it with a different set of expectations and wanted to throttle at least one of the characters most of the time.

What Transcendence actually gives us reminds me a bit of the last thing Willy Wonka says to Charlie (in the 1971 film, anyway).  You kind of feel like the movie has been toying with us all this time, trying to see if it can freak us out, being deliberately ambiguous and provocatively misleading, not unlike the tonally confusing Willy Wonka.

Without spoiling the film, I think this movie intends for us to revel in the kind of messy ambiguity that is an essential part of being human.

Watching really does keep you on your toes.  Somehow, the character interactions feel less satisfying than they should, but all the time you’re asking yourself, what is this movie doing?  Is it a sci-fi thriller?  Is it a horror movie?  Is it a love story?   Is it actually about questioning faith?  Is it about myth building?  Is it about the dangers of misunderstanding, the perils of focusing on the wrong thing?

In the end, I think I’d call it a metaphorical meditation on grief, almost like a little parable.  Johnny Depp may be the star of the movie, but the story is about Rebecca Hall, and the person who recognizes the worth of her particular story is Paul Bettany, and so he’s telling it to all of us, for our benefit. 

Best Scene Visually:
I was blown away by the introduction of Kate Mara’s character.  I’m not exaggerating.  It truly amazed me.  

Well there she is! I thought.  The strength of the impression stunned me, took me by surprise.  I mean, movies do this all the time.  On the one hand, it’s pretty standard stuff.  We get a shot of a bunch of characters, and one of them pointedly stands out. 

So when that happened, I immediately started paying attention to the way she was being shown, trying to figure out how he was achieving that effect.  What was he doing to make her stand out?

And that’s the really amazing part.  I could never quite figure it out.  (It’s not that she’s Kate Mara.  Kate Mara is like the least famous member of her family.) 

Afterwards, I mentioned it to my husband, and he replied, “Well, she was in the center of the screen.”

But that’s just it.  She wasn’t in the center of the screen.  She also wasn’t the only one dressed in red/wearing a conspicuous scarf/mysteriously sitting in the glow of a spot light.  How did he do that?  How did he draw so much attention to her so subtly?

And it wasn’t just that I noticed her.  It was that I immediately knew almost exactly who she was and what made her tick when she hadn’t even been introduced yet.  How is that even possible?

As I watched, I could never quite figure it out.  In the car, my husband suggested that her dramatic eye make-up made her stand out.  Maybe so.  But in that case, why did I think, Oh, I know exactly who she is instead of simply asking myself, Hey, is that Avril Lavigne?

Maybe I’ll never know.  But this piece of entirely visual storytelling worked exceptionally well in my opinion.

Best Scene:
To be honest, what I’m going to remember about this movie is the introduction of Kate Mara’s character, and that great moment when the kid shoves the keyboard in the door.  (We get to see that twice.)  But surely that’s not the intended takeaway of this film.

To be less honest, I’ll say that the best scene is the final scene.  That also gives us a very memorable image.  And Paul Bettany’s narration is good, too.  Honestly, sometimes I think I would prefer to listen to the story than to watch it, so maybe this would work better as a book, too.

I also loved the farewell between Morgan Freeman’s character (Joseph Tagger) and Evelyn Caster (Rebecca Hall).  That’s one of the most intense, exciting, thrillingly charged moments in the movie.  In fact, Evelyn’s ongoing response is incredibly engaging.  I’ve always liked Rebecca Hall, and in the last third of the film, she gets the opportunity to give a very captivating performance.

Best Action Sequence:
This is the wrong movie to watch if you’re looking for mind-blowing action.  I like the late “rescue” from the motel room.  It just feels very quick and urgent.

The Negatives:
This movie should be better than it is, but it’s not.  For a long time, I sat staring at the screen asking myself, What is wrong?  This film seems well made, and it raises questions about topics I’ve been fascinated with for a long time.  It raises serious questions about science, ethics, religion, grieving, faith, wish-fulfillment, myth-building.  So why do I feel so disconnected from it?

All I can say is that the character development is lacking.  It’s hard to explain why.  But when I think back trying to remember my favorite parts, it’s very difficult.  So many brilliant, charismatic actors, and yet so few moments that stick out.  Something’s wrong there.  The characters just aren’t given any time to win over the audience.   A movie could be flat out horrible and still cause people to say with a satisfied giggle, “Remember that part when X did Y?”  (I should specify that Y is an action, not a person (in most cases.))  We just don’t get any of that in this film.

Johnny Depp is one of the most charismatic, watchable actors around, but in this movie, he seems a lot like a robot well before his consciousness flows into a computer.  I don’t think there’s actually anything wrong with the performance.  The problem is, he’s Johnny Depp, and the audience is going to expect him to be there dazzling us throughout the movie.  But the movie is really much less about Will than Evelyn, and Depp’s role is just not a very showy one (which might not matter with most stars, but certainly seems likely to baffle and disappoint an audience rabidly devoted to Johnny Depp).

Cillian Murphy is another actor with intense charisma.  He’s totally wasted here.  Morgan Freeman makes his character standout, but part of the reason we’re so interested in this man is because he’s being played by Morgan Freeman.  We really don’t have a lot of background on the character and who he is as a person.  (We just know where he works.)

Paul Bettany and Rebecca Hall give two strong performances that actually work—when they’re allowed to.  So much of the time, though, these two are getting swept offscreen hastily or presented in a fragmented, disorienting way.  I feel like the movie wants to surprise us, and in order to do so, it keeps us at a ridiculous distance from the central characters and withholds a lot of key information.  We really don’t know much about Evelyn’s day-to-day life, and we also don’t know how much she knows.  That’s all kind of frustrating.

By far the most maddeningly underdeveloped character, though, is Kate Mara’s extremely charismatic (but ill-defined) Bree.  Her scene in the tent (or wherever they are) with Paul Bettany’s Max just feels painfully anticlimactic.  Watching the start of their little heart-to-heart, I thought, Ooh, here comes her backstory.  Now we’ll learn more about her and this mysterious group of anarchists.  Except we don’t.  We don’t learn anything.  Probably the biggest problem with the movie is the complete lack of motivating information possessed by this mysterious group.  Based on their behavior, we expect them to have some kind of secret intelligence, but honestly, they are entirely fear based.  Now possibly that’s intentional and is intended to hammer home a point to audience about the nature of fear, hearsay, misinformation, knee-jerk panic.  But because of the lack of any substance to this character and her group, watching the movie becomes a somewhat frustrating, unsatisfying experience.

Now in that scene we do learn more about Max.  But here’s the thing.  You watch it and think, Wow, this would be such a profound, shocking moment—if I cared.  Seriously, if this exchange happened on Game of Thrones, everybody would gasp and spend days chattering about it online.  The problem is, as I watched, I was aware that the scene should elicit a powerful reaction, but I didn’t feel any stirrings of anything like that.  And I know why.  It’s because we haven’t spent enough time with Max or Bree for any of this to matter to us particularly.

My husband was so frustrated with the character of Bree.  He spent most of the movie wanting to throw her out the window.  He just found her completely exasperating, and this anecdote of hers almost sent him over the edge.  “Why was she so worried about the monkey on the screen, anyway?  Why wasn’t she more concerned with the monkey in the chair?”  Of course, this line of questioning led us to speculate that perhaps the movie intentionally shows us the dangers of focusing obsessively on the wrong thing.  (Both Evelyn and Max disappear off the face of the earth—as far as most people are concerned—for a huge portion of the movie, and all the people in charge are like, “Oh well.  Let’s worry about what might be happening with some computer.”)

I think the movie’s ending goes quite a long way toward redeeming the entire cinematic experience.  But it’s also too impressed with itself.  I wish I could talk more frankly about a lot of the late events in the film.  I won’t because I don’t want to spoil the movie.  I’ll just say again that in the end, this movie really reminded me of Oblivion (and a little of Frankenstein).  I’ll also reiterate that I think the whole thing is actually a metaphorical parable about grief.  One of the strengths (or possibly the weaknesses) of Transcendence is that it forces you to ask a bunch of questions and try to answer them.  Then it pulls the rug out from under you by asking, Are you sure those are even the right questions?  I suppose that does make for a reasonably satisfying ending, but it also creates a very frustrating cinematic experience.

Transcendence certainly is not bad.  I wouldn’t call it great, though.  The ideas that it puts out there are all much better than anything it does with them.  Some movies are fun to watch even though they’re only fluff.  This one is that rare opposite that has quite a bit of deep, important stuff to say, but is about the farthest thing from fun to watch far too much of the time.  Now it might improve on repeat viewings, and it will also probably seem better on the small screen when audiences haven’t spent money to see it expecting lots and lots of Johnny Depp.

If you like Rebecca Hall, she does (eventually) have a very good part here, and Paul Bettany is also pretty great as the narrator.  As I think back on Transcendence, I’m glad that I watched it because I came away slightly changed by the experience.  It’s a pretty story to look back on, and one that knows that it presents itself with a deceptive simplicity.  That lovely ending is much messier than it may look at first glance.  So is humanity.  That’s what makes life worthwhile.  (Does containing this pearl of wisdom make Transcendence worthwhile, though?  Anyone looking for such insight can surely find similarly inspiring works in the public domain, and movie tickets are so expensive.)  Still I’d be stunned if you left Transcendence sorry you saw it (less than thrilled that you paid, perhaps, but never sorry that you saw it).

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Spring Movie Diary: Rio 2

Date: April 12, 2014
Time: 3:50 pm
Place: Cinemark NextGen Stone Hill Town Center
Company: Derrick, Grayson, Penelope
Food:  Mixed red and blue Icee, popcorn, Whoppers
Runtime:  1 hour, 41 minutes
Rating: G
Director: Carlos Saldanha

Quick Impressions:
When I first saw Rio in the theater, I thought it was simply an okay story with decent animation, brilliant use of color, and catchy music.  But Rio is one of those movies that grows on you with multiple viewings.  My mother loves to pop in the Blu-ray when she’s doing housework, and quite honestly, you don’t even have to start the film to fall in love with it.  That opening musical sequence playing over and over again is quite infectious enough to provide hours of entertainment all by itself.  So naturally, we were all very excited to see Rio 2.

Apparently my five-year-old was so excited that just after waking up this morning, she put a banana on her nose and announced that she was a toucan.  I wasn’t there to witness this delightful episode, but I know all about it because she recounted it to me in a very loud whisper while I was trying to watch the movie this afternoon.  Fortunately, all the other kids in the theater were whispering, too—when they weren’t singing along, gasping in alarm, or bursting into giggles and falling out of their seats.

The Good:
Rio 2 is a consistently, constantly entertaining movie.  The songs are wonderful, and as the film goes on, the musical numbers just keep getting better and more frequent.  The visuals are fantastic, too.  Director Carlos Saldanha is from Rio, and he’s really done a fantastic job of bringing his home town to glorious life for eager young movie goers around the globe.  This time we get to see more than just Rio, too.  We bounce all over Brazil and finally end up in the Amazonian jungle in a beautiful treetop paradise where humans seldom go.  It’s pretty great.

The plot of the movie—or should I say plots, since there are about fifteen hundred unfolding concurrently—is pretty simple and doesn’t matter much.  All that really matters are these three things: 1) Families should love each other and stick together.  2)  People should not destroy the rainforest 3) Bruno Mars may be more impressive than Jesse Eisenberg in every way possible but that doesn’t matter in the end because in the end, the movie is over.

Another important thing to remember this time around is that Jemaine Clement is back in the movie playing Nigel, the now even more damaged and demented bad bird.  The audience really loves Nigel, and that’s a good thing since we’re basically the only ones who even realize he’s in the movie.  The other characters have enough on their plates without even acknowledging him.

This is a great but busy movie.  Nothing that happens is too important (except the emotional journey of Blu), but you’ll never want to look away because it’s all so pretty and enchanting.  Kids love it, and adults would have to be bringing baggage with them to hate it, in my opnion.

Best Scene/Best Scene Visually:
The entire movie is absolutely gorgeous, featuring rich, vibrant colors and aesthetically pleasing locales that are so easy on the eyes.  Imagine a wonderful candy that tastes sweet as the rainbow but despite its teeming sugar content, relaxes you into a pleasant trance.  That’s basically what your eyes are in for as you keep them fixed on the screen during this movie.  I guess it’s like watching a really pretty, swirly margarita.

But the scene I found the most breathtaking and delightful was the dance of the blue macaws that takes place not long after Blu and Jewel’s arrival in the Amazon colony.  I remember thinking at the time, This must be the big, show-stopping number in this movie.  But I was wrong.  Practically every other song after that was just as compelling.  Visually, though, this was the cream of the crop.

I also like the bit with Nico’s hat.

Best Song:
I’m very fond of Nigel and Gabi’s bizarre romantic duet (I say bizarre because in traditional romances, one of the lovers isn’t unconscious).  (Traditionally both are unconscious.)  (Just kidding.)  This is really not the most impressive song in musical terms, but the lyrics are sort of delightful, and the whole thing has a grand, tragic silliness that I really enjoyed.

Honestly, though, all the songs in the movie are good.  There seem to be millions of them. The soundtrack must be phenomenal, even better than the soundtrack to the first Rio.

Funniest Scene:
Nico and Pedro’s Carnival auditions cracked up practically every kid in the entire theater.  (We were sitting against the back wall, so we could see everyone.)  My own kids were laughing.  I was laughing.  The two little kids sitting next to me were laughing.  Their baby sister was saying, “Dadadadadada,” which I understood as the sound of infant joy. 

Seriously, everybody loved this part.  Now don’t expect the height of novel wit.  It’s just very silly and fun, and the energy and hilarity build as the segment progresses. 

One child seated at the other end of our row even repeated a line that he found particularly hilarious, then burst into peals of giggles.

Even if you’re cynical enough to withhold every chuckle while watching the comedy onscreen, I dare you not to smile to yourself at the reaction of the audience. 

The Carnival auditions made everybody happy (with the possible exception of Nico, Pedro, and a succession of unwitting delicacies).

Best Joke for Adults:
Anyone who has taken a family road trip recently should appreciate the frequent GPS jokes.  If you’re like us, you’ve surely noticed that no matter how well the GPS works under ideal conditions, the moment you really need to find a Texas Roadhouse quick, you invariably wind up in a run-down residential area next to a sketchy sign reading “The Tomb of Abraham Lincoln” with an arrow that seems to point into an iffy-looking garage.  Or is that just us?  (Either way, next time we drive to Chicago, we are not stopping for dinner in Springfield, Illinois!)

These jokes aren’t all that clever, but they’re extremely honest, and for that reason, they really resonate.  I found myself waiting in delight for the next one, and there was always a next one coming.

There’s also a pretty funny line late in the movie that seems like kind of an inside joke to me (or at least, an associative joke).  Gabi the frog (voiced by Kristin Chenoweth) is involved in an exchange that to me seems to be a sly reference to Disney’s Frozen.  Maybe I’m reaching here, but Chenoweth and Idina Menzel did star in Wicked together on Broadway, and my husband got the same impression I did.  Watch for yourself and see what you think.

I also love the way Roberto says goodnight to Blu.

Best Action Sequence:
If you don’t count the unpredictable blow dart fight the kids sitting next to me were having with their Icee straws (which certainly kept me on the edge of my seat), then probably the best action sequence comes near the very end when all the birds band together against a common enemy. 

It’s nice to see Blu get some respect for once.  Plus at this point, the worst of the interpersonal is largely resolved.  (I thought of rewording that but on further reflection see no reason why a bird could not have a persona just as legitimately as anyone else.) 

My daughter was so stressed out by the family turmoil.  Last week she had no problem at all with Captain America and all its intense violence.  But hurt feelings within a family group?  She kept putting her hands over her eyes and looking away, whining vaguely in distress that she “couldn’t stand much more of this.”  At one point, she informed me, “If it weren’t for my peanut M&Ms, I wouldn’t stay here another minute!”  She just doesn’t cope well when friends don’t get along.

So she was absolutely delighted (as she always is) to see the villains get their come-uppance and the heroes all make friends with each other at the end.  (That shouldn’t be a spoiler.  If you’ve seen the first film, then you know that in the Rio universe, at the end of the movie, all of the good guys make friends, and all of the bad guys meet a terrible, yet G-rated fate.)

The Negatives:
This movie is a lot like Carnival, absolutely stuffed—well past the point of saturation or even sanity—with colorful characters possessing boundless energy.  I wouldn’t call the movie overplotted exactly (because the plot is pretty straightforward), but it does have far more antagonists than anyone needs and a number of subplots that could easily be trimmed for time.  (The difficulty would be in deciding what to keep and what to cut since, honestly, nothing that happens matters very much.)

To be honest, the conflict with the other blue macaws is really conflict enough to sustain the movie, particularly because it affects Blu (the protagonist) so profoundly.  Jesse Eisenberg is still definitely the film’s star, and he does have a substantial role.  His co-stars are not so lucky, however. There are just so many voices to hear, so many stories to tell.

In some ways, the addition of the sinister logging thugs is completely superfluous.  The only reasons that logging subplot matters are 1) It provides a way of solving the conflict in the main plot.  2)  It teaches kids not to destroy vulnerable eco-systems. 

(You could argue that the logging plot is the main plot, but I’m privileging the struggles of the film’s protagonist, Blu.)

Now, of course, it’s nice that the Tulio-and-Linda Vs. Loggers plot intersects with the Blu Vs. the Other Macaws plot because each storyline provides the solution necessary to resolving the other.  But still, the result of cramming in both plotlines is that none of the supporting characters gets much time.  We really hardly see Linda and Tulio, let alone the cabal of wicked new villains led by Miguel Ferrer who has more lollipops than lines in the movie!

We get a lot more time with the new birds, but there are so many new birds, so most of them get overlooked, too.  Roberto (voiced by Bruno Mars) gets some high-profile, choice moments, and it’s impossible to be an adult and not notice that Andy Garcia is playing Eduardo.  Garcia seems to have twice the lines he does because of his dominating presence.  But then there are all these other new birds we spend practically no time with at all (and one of them is even voiced by Rita Moreno!).

Even Anne Hathaway as Jewel has a dramatically reduced role this time around.  The character is still crucial, but she seems to have fewer lines.  (I don’t know if she actually does or if it's just a perception thing since she’s fighting to share the screen with about 467,000 other characters, both new and old, friend and foe.)

Friends from the first movie like Rafael (George Lopez) and Luiz (Tracy Morgan) do appear, but for essentially no reason, in roles so reduced that they’re basically glorified cameos.  Nico (Jamie Foxx) and Pedro (Will i Am) still provide comic relief throughout the film, but that’s basically all they’re there for.  Plotwise, they are really not doing anything important.

And then we come to Nigel, Gabi, and that anteater.  To be brutally frank, there is absolutely no reason for them to be in the movie.  Nigel may be the tragic hero of his own imagination, but for about 99 percent of the movie, the other characters (the supposed nemeses he’s actively plotting against) don’t even have any idea that he’s there.  And then when they do find out, it only matters for like two seconds.  Jemaine Clement and Kristin Chenoweth are great, but they’re not what you’d call essential plotwise (unless you consider Nigel an antagonistic co-protagonist, so that his story matters just as much as Blu’s.)

Of course, as far as I’m concerned a villain who travels by anteater while plotting revenge and quoting Shakespeare is perfectly welcome in any movie, relevance be darned!  (That sounds odd, but the movie is G-rated, so the review probably should be, too.)  Actually, it’s funny that Nigel keeps quoting Shakespeare because along with clowns Nico and Pedro, he and his crew seem to be operating within a decidedly Shakespearean comedic subplot, the kind that barely affects the main story.  (Honestly, all together, they remind me a bit of the supporting characters in Twelfth Night.  They’re constantly up to something, but the actual protagonists seem to have almost no awareness of them.)

One other weird thing is that right before the feature, the theater re-showed the Dreamworks short (with Steve Martin and the aliens) that originally played before Mr. Peabody & Sherman.  Did Blue Sky prepare a short that got pulled at the last minute or something?

Rio 2 is absolutely jam-packed and overflowing with all kinds of attention-grabbing material, so let’s face it, you’re bound to like some of it.  I have a hard time imagining anyone hating this movie.  It’s so thoroughly pleasant, so manically determined to pull out all the stops to give the people what they want—pretty birds singing catchy tunes.  (It’s kind of like if cartoon versions of Jamie Foxx and Will i am took over the Tiki Room in Disneyland.)

If you liked the music and visual art in the first Rio, then you should like what you see here.  The soundtrack surely contains even more rousing numbers than before, and the visuals are both rousing and relaxing simultaneously.  It’s also a great way to get excited about the 2016 summer games and to introduce your kids to the rainforest and ecological responsibility.

If you liked Rio, you’ll like Rio 2.  It delivers exactly what it promises, and it’s rated G, too, which is a rarity these days even in children’s entertainment.

Penelope in the Flowers