Friday, May 29, 2015

"Best" Movies of the Year Part 3 (Boyhood, Theory of Everything, Big Hero 6)

More madness.  Part 1 here and scroll down the page for part 2.  Or you can just click here.

12 Years a Tool

With so many gushing critical interpretations of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood and so many steaming critical dissections of Michael Bay’s Transformers: Age of Extinction polluting the internet with their repetitive pull quotes, one would think that somebody would already have written an in-depth comparison of the “best” and “worst” movies of the year.  Boyhood and Transformers 4 have the same run time for one thing, both weighing in at a wearying 165 minutes.  Most would call this an ironic coincidence, for while Transformers is unanimously censured as “mind-numbingly” overdrawn and excessive, Boyhood’s “ambitious” and “epic” breadth of scope is the very thing in critics’ minds that elevates it above every other movie released in 2014. I wouldn’t call it irony so much as fate’s funny way of illuminating how alike two seemingly unlike things truly are.  If Boyhood had been loaded with special effects and seasoned with a couple racial or sexual jokes (no, the Transformers series doesn’t have any racist jokes; words mean things), it’d be virtually indistinguishable from the summer blockbuster everybody loved to hate, and probably be considered just as vacuous.

Transformers is universally criticized for the leanness of its 3-hour plot, the final act of which always boils down to an interminable, big-city brawl between good robots and bad robots who look more or less the same (OK, the Autobots usually have bright color schemes and consumer vehicle forms while the Decepticons are steel, military models, but if you weren’t paying attention during any of the movies in the series, you probably wouldn’t know that).  But as simplistic and lazy as the narrative timeline points are in a Transformers plot, Boyhood literally doesn’t have a plot because it’s an experimental, pretentious art project.  I was watching with a group of 3-5 other guys who came and went as the film dragged on, and one of them just kept asking when The Conflict was going to enter the picture.  We have a throwaway abusive step-father subplot, kids smoking and drinking and falling in with the wrong crowd, and the pervasive absence of irresponsible liberal Ethan Hawke from his family’s lives, but overall there aren’t any major problems, consequences, or resolutions that face the protagonist through his journey from little boyhood to older, college-bound boyhood.

Boyhood has no grander point than to be a slice-of-life picture comprised of individual snapshots of a character’s life, and in a way that’s a pretty audacious approach to storytelling.  Real life usually isn’t a wholly inspirational or wholly depressing sketch of a mountain, whereby someone’s whole story can be neatly diagrammed as one or two problem points on a line.  Lots of people we fancy “friends” enter our lives for brief spurts whom we’ll never speak with again after our common interests diverge.  I give Richard Linklater props for thinking outside of the traditional boundaries in filmmaking, but Boyhood doesn’t demonstrate its theory nearly as well as it should, which is why so many people think it’s so freaking boring.

I didn’t hate all the movie’s individual components.  Ethan Hawke plays his vehemently anti-Bush, foul-mouthed slacker really well at the beginning, and the scenes with him are arguably the most believable and emotional of the film, more so than Patricia Arquette’s many tear-streaked shows of falling apart on camera.  Then Hawke marries into a Christian, redneck clan of bitter clingers and his whole life is turned around for the better in one of the movie’s most sentimental and cheesy strikes of magical character transformation.  Nevertheless, I thought the way that Linklater lightly incorporated political changes – viz. the Iraq war and 2008 election – into the background was clever and brought a scope to the project that might have been lost if he just shot the whole thing over a year and tried to recapture America’s political landscape from memory.  The dialogue is a mixed bag, at some times sounding rough and realistic with pauses and grammatical hiccups that other writer-directors don’t account for, at others sounding like melodramatic, condescending Hallmark fare.  The absolute worst example is Ethan Hawke assuring his teenagers that he knows how many kids are  at their age and he doesn’t really care whether they do it themselves but just hopes they use proper protection when they do.  Granted that he’s not supposed to be an ideal father figure, but what self-respecting parent straight-up tells his kids that he’s totally cool with them committing coitus so long as they follow the instructions and wear a condom?  This is what people without kids of their own advise other parents to tell their kids.

In the end, Boyhood and Transformers are both meaningless escapism, dominated by individual scenes that don’t add into a functional whole with binding cinematic vision.  The only difference is that Boyhood openly acknowledges how fractured and nonsensical it is, while Transformers 4 revels in the stupidity that Michael Bay knows his audience shares.  The final shot is an awkward exchange between Mason and a possible new love interest (to be explored a decade or so later in Manhood), the two smiling and pontificating about how “the moments seize us…” and “time… is all around us” while watching their roommates clowning around at a distance.
So deep. And guess what knucklehead isn’t doing in this scene.*

If you think this is in any way profound and not a pseudo-philosophical homily, then you’ll probably enjoy Boyhood.  If, like me, you think that’s just a bunch of pretentious BS they teach you in art school, you’re better off waiting for the “Good” Parts Version to show up on FX or Hallmark.  I’m giving it two stars for the fun alternative hits soundtrack, Nicole, and reminding me of Mason at school.  Plus it took them 12 years to make!  Nothing has ever taken 12 years to make before.  Boyhood!

Language.

The Theory of Global Warming
How?

I’m going to keep this one short and to the point: had The Theory of Everything solely been a story about some unknown, physically well scientist and his contributions to whatever field he worked in (“Cosmology”), it would have been a undercover, made-for-TV docudrama that everyone would dismiss for being boring and artificially sentimental.  The only reason this got any awards attention was because the subject is a champion of the Left struggling with an Important disability, so important that all socially conscious people last year were expected to thoroughly drench themselves in cold water for the sake of reminding people that it exists.  Every element of this is so calculated to extort critical acclaim that it’s really kind of repulsive. Scene after scene we’re subjected to heartbreaking images of Stephen Hawking’s body breaking down set to horrorshow sad musical themes, as when he tries playing croquet with his wife and shambles awkwardly across the grass while she inwardly weeps, or when he tries in vain to pull himself up the stairs and weakly reassures his two-year-old that Daddy’s OK.

Eddie Redmayne’s acting as Hawking is adequate from the first half; whether he gets any better once a computer starts delivering his lines for him is for others to judge as I didn’t burn time watching that long.  By no means does he give a more deserving performance than Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler, Michael Keaton in Birdman, Miles Teller in Whiplash, either of those idiots in 22 Jump Street, or any of the nonhuman actors in Dawn of the Apes, none of whom had the utility of mimicking a living person formerly documented on video and had to manifest a made-up, believable character using nothing but their imagination.  If The Theory of Everything proves anything, it’s that awards voters are completely oblivious to what constitutes a compelling story with lasting value.  The absolute best movies of 2014 – Interstellar, Whiplash, Birdman, Nightcrawler, and arguably Apes – were pieces of fiction, created by visionary and independent directors, which focused on topics that were neither “important” nor “just as relevant today as they were 50 years ago” but still succeeded in making much broader and deeper statements on the human condition than a handful of faux-biographical, temporal movies “based on ‘true’ stories” that shamelessly aimed to capitalize on social media headlines (not spending enough money we don’t have on veterans, black people not being able to vote for the Democrat party and/or getting beaten by the evil po-lice, homosexuals not being able to “marry” someone of the same sex without the illegal intercession of illiterate judges).

Stephen Hawking proposes that the beginning of time and formation of the universe can be explained by a single mathematical equation.  Needless to say he doesn’t find it in this film or much of anything else that will interest the average viewer.  If you liked A Beautiful Mind, you probably won’t like this film.  If you didn’t like A Beautiful Mind, you probably won’t like this film.

How To Train Your Flying Robot to Beat the Bigger Robot
I would rather be playing Skylanders.  Or watching Tron.

Big Hero 6 isn’t the worst animated film I’ve seen from the last few years, but it’s not even the third best that came out in 2014. I thought that Disney’s Frozen was pretty lame, but that movie at least retained my attention through the whole runtime.  Big Hero 6 is practically the most generic and uninvolving story Disney could have chosen for adaptation, complemented by an equally lifeless and blank inflatable white robot that I’m guessing didn’t pose many difficulties for the animators.  Some people think Baymax is really “cute” and exhibits the “Wall-e effect” of having really deep, expressive eyes.  If you felt any emotional attachment to the characters as they fought the bad guy or fixed the air leaks in their rubbery plating, all the power to you.
Humor in Disney’s 2nd best animated movie ever

I would write more about how vapid and meritless Big Hero 6 is, but the blind commitment of Disney and Marvel fanpeople is such that none of my words would have an impact.  People already hold animation to such a lower standard than live-action that it’s kind of a waste of energy to highlight in detail why a junky children’s cartoon is just that, a children’s cartoon; if it keeps the kids quiet and fixated on the television, parents are more than willing to turn off their brains and lavish the film with much higher praise than its screenplay deserves.  I don’t even hate Big Hero 6 (or Boyhood really) that much compared to some other beloved garbage; I’m just extremely apathetic towards its universe, to the point that I remember next to nothing from my single, half-engaged viewing some two months ago.  There were a couple pretty shots of the main characters flying through a city cloned from How To Train Your Dragon, one of the sidekicks had the dumbest superpower conceivable (I don’t recall what she did exactly – something about balls that make a sticky mess – but my friends and I agreed that it was useless), Baymax made a public hair joke, Fall Out Boy predictably recorded a bad original song, and it all ended in typical superhero movie fashion with a giant battle against the nanobot guy over who knows what.

Though none is without drawbacks, Dragon 2, Mr. Peabody, and The Lego Movie are all immensely wittier and more heartfelt than Big Hero, which aims as high as Pixar’s worst and surpasses them only in that its action scenes are halfway interesting and quite colorful.---



Aside from Selma Is In The Mirror and Foxcatcher, I did see most of the other awards movies and they were actually pretty good.  Unbroken was kind of mediocre, and I thought that Grand Budapest Hotel, while enjoyable and pretty to look at, actually had the weakest story out of the Wes Anderson movies I’ve seen, which either means that 2014 was a really lame year for film (it wasn’t) or the Academy finally cracked this year and decided to give the Wes Anderson cult a special nod just for their patience.  Oh well.  Is it better than just ignoring Wes altogether?  Who’s to say?


I’ve already written down my thoughts on Interstellar, have yet to organize them in an entertaining blog form, and would prefer to write more than just a page and a half on Birdman-Whiplash-Nightcrawler because they were all on the meatier side of cinema.  Then I have to review three recent theater releases, Half-Life 2, and Facebook, among other things.  But empirics and basic logic tell us we get more hits by writing negative (and usually contrarian) opinions, so I may just write about Facebook if I don’t have time for all that other jazz.


* I hate to admit it, but this is one of the few well directed scenes in the movie.  The way they nervously check each other out while trying to sound cool and blathering utter nonsense, awkwardly look away while smiling at how silly the other sounds, each steal a glance in turn, then look at each other again, then smile and look away in embarrassment, then shoot a momentary gleam of satisfaction towards the camera operator… it’s just so real.  Richard Linklater has truly created a masterpiece, flawless in every way.

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