Author: Arthur Martinez-Tebbel

Box Office Democracy: The Good Dinosaur

There’s a quote from [[[The Tale of Genji]]] that has stuck with me since I read it more than a decade ago (and I swear this is going to be a review of The Good Dinosaur so stick with me a moment here) in which they describe a painting Genji made for a painting contest thusly: “this, done at undisturbed leisure by a genius at the art, was beyond anything.” It’s become a kind of shorthand used by me and a couple of my friends who took the class with me when we describe something particularly good we’ll describe the creator as “a master at leisure” but there might be a second way to interpret the quote. It might not just be that a phenomenal talent with unlimited time will make the greatest art, it could also be that an exceptional artist freed from the turmoil of their normal routine could make something not just good but quieter, more subtle. That’s what I think The Good Dinosaur is, a work freed from the turmoil of modern filmmaking that focuses on these sublime emotional moments and nails every last one of them.

It was a long road to the theaters for The Good Dinosaur and it missed its original release date by over a year to go through what was, reportedly, a major rewrite and an almost complete recasting. After all that, the story we get here isn’t terribly complex or original. The first act feels like an agrarian rewrite of The Lion King and the film ends terribly abruptly like a student film that ran out of stock. In between the movie is good but not terribly ambitious; it seems like a terrible waste to give us a world where dinosaurs never died and developed agriculture and society and then only show us the tiniest slices of that society. We see a single farm of brontosaurs (or whatever long necked herbivores they are), a family of tyrannosaur cattle ranchers, their raptor rustler antagonists, and a strange pterodactyl death cult. That’s all fascinating and frequently well executed but it left me wanting much more.

The plot of The Good Dinosaur is quite basic and there probably aren’t many sequences that will stick with me the same way Buzz Lightyear flying or Marlin and Dory going through the jellyfish did but the character work is rock solid and the movie packs a real emotional punch. I might be a little oversensitive to father/son stuff but the relationship between Arlo and his father, Henry, just killed me. Jeffery Wright does such nuanced work as a father struggling with feelings of frustration and disappointment but also profound overpowering love for his son. When the movie decides to linger on emotional moments with Arlo and Spot it’s also very effective, surprising because Spot doesn’t talk and is less like a human and more like a dog but something in his animation or voice acting or some other aspect of his “performance” makes it work. I’m not too proud to admit that I’ve cried in Pixar movies before (or even to admit that I was tearing up at the end of The Croods) but I was surprised at how frequently devastating The Good Dinosaur could be. Somewhat less surprising is what a treasure Sam Elliott is as a voice actor and how his thick drawling voice lends such a satisfying quality to a very important monologue.

I’m a little concerned my affection for The Good Dinosaur is some kind of Pixar elitism, and if this were the latest effort from Sony or Dreamworks I would be going on and on about how boring this movie was. I hope that’s not true, I hope I’m not that biased, but that’s also the cachet you get for making good movies for decades and never once making me sit through a Madagascar film. This feels not like a boring failure but as the work of a master at leisure, content to make something simple but haunting and beautiful. I love the spectacle and the completeness of a Wall-E, or an Up, or a Toy Story and that’s ok, they don’t all need to be that but they should all feel this real.

Box Office Democracy: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2

The Harry Potter franchise is, of course, a cultural institution. It was the formative literary experience for a generation of young people and a monstrously successful film franchise. Unfortunately, it also popularized splitting a climactic book in to two movies; a practice that has since gone rampant leading to the division of the very thin Breaking Dawn into two films to cap off the Twilight series, the ludicrous extension of The Hobbit in to three endlessly bogged down movies, and now The Hunger Games is left to limp across the finish line with Mockingjay Part 2, a film that struggles to justify its existence and ends up feeling bloated and insubstantial.

It serves the narrative but there’s so little of what I enjoyed about the Hunger Games movies up until this point. There’s very little Haymitch so there’s no opportunity to enjoy Woody Harrelson one more time. Effie Trinket gets a role I believe was absent in the books so we can get a fleeting glance at Elizabeth Banks. There are similarly small parts for Donald Sutherland, Jeffrey Wright and Stanley Tucci. Basically any incidental character that helped shape this film series is pushed to the side so we can get more of the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale, and those characters as presented in these films are far and away the least interesting choices— and while Jennifer Lawrence is trying her damndest to make this material sing, Josh Hutcherson doesn’t get enough room to sell a very complicated character arc, and Liam Hemsworth is just far too bland.

Francis Lawrence’s direction continues to be the best part of this franchise. There are two superb action sequences in this installment: a sewer chase with a bunch of vaguely lizard-like zombie-esque monsters and a stunning battle sequence late in the film. The chase through the sewer and the fight sequences it contains is the best this series has ever seen, we finally get beyond the moral dilemmas and have every prominent character just let loose in a furious violent crescendo. By contrast, the battle scene late in the movie shows how small and insignificant the principal characters are, as they just sort of amble onward as the explosions and gunfire destroy everything around them and, at the end, they aren’t really a part of this war. It’s a wonderfully shot sequence with the camera fixed on Katniss as the action happens seemingly incidental to the framing of the shot. The chaos builds and builds and the audience can feel the frenetic disarray. These bits are arresting cinema and redeem so much of the little problems this movie has.

I’m going to get in to spoilers from here so consider yourself warned.

One big problem is that the story in both Mockingjay films is weaker than the ones that came before them. The idea that invading a city is really just like another Hunger Games is a silly conceit, but it’s one the movie inherits from the books. The way the film deals with the death of Prim is somewhat less excusable. Prim is killed suddenly, out of nowhere and the moment is given no air with which to breathe, to affect the audience. The movie barrels forward from that moment to the end credits with an inexplicable momentum considering how long we’ve lingered on so many more trivial moments. It’s hard to accept the big choices that come after if we don’t have a proper lens to see how this has affected Katniss. If this was the only way to get the scene with Katniss and Snow in the greenhouse I suppose I can accept it, it’s one of the best films in the series, but I bet I could have cut five minutes somewhere else to give this gigantic moment a little more space to resonate.

I’ve grown to appreciate The Hunger Games quite a bit since I grudgingly enjoyed the first film three and a half years ago. The first film was an admirable adaptation of a tricky book and the second film was an honest-to-goodness triumph of the genre, easily the best of the young adult book adaptation films, and a genuinely excellent movie. It’s unfortunate that we’ve had to watch the wheels fall off from there a little bit. Taking the weakest book, the one least-liked by fans, and turning it in to two films has been an artistically questionable decision but it’s even taken a financial toll on these last two installments. Mockingjay Part 2 had a weaker opening than Part 1, which was weaker than Catching Fire. While we aren’t quite in the realm of failure here, it’s a bump in prestige to watch this franchise lazily bounce after soaring to such great heights. I hope this doesn’t tarnish a set of films that could have been an enduring cultural touchstone— but I’m not sure the odds are in its favor.

Box Office Democracy: “The Peanuts Movie”

I was a huge fan of Peanuts when I was a kid. I can vividly remember staying up late in bed reading collections of the comic strip until I could barely keep my eyes open. This should make me the ideal audience for The Peanuts Movie, but instead it just serves as a reminder of how far this franchise has fallen. I have this hipster-esque longing for a time before Peanuts became so damn commercial (a time that never existed in my lifetime, mind you) and back before the Schulz estate seemed locked in a nefarious race with Jim Davis of Garfield to see who can make the most money with the least amount of artistic effort. The Peanuts Movie is a soulless movie stitched together from the corpse of a very soulful comic strip.

The script for The Peanuts Movie feels like it was stitched together from three episodes of an abandoned TV show. There are definite segments (Charlie Brown wants to learn to dance, Charlie Brown is a genius, Charlie Brown prepares for a talent show) and these segments build to a conclusion, are broken up by a Snoopy vignette and are then largely forgotten about by the rest of the movie. It never feels like a story worthy of a feature film, and the story doesn’t feel unique to the Peanuts characters or universe. I also despise how much they’ve sanded down the characters so that they barely feel evocative of the characters from the comic strip. There’s no philosophy or nuance; every character is just the first two adjectives you would use to describe them at the very best. These were characters with a rich history, and to see them basically reduced to catchphrases and rote characterization is sad. (Also, and this is an incredibly nerdy nitpick, having Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy, Marcy, and Peppermint Patty in the same classroom is a flagrant violation of canon and it makes the world feel smaller. This is not a complaint worth seriously considering.)

I didn’t much care for the visual style either. The 3D models look ok and the characters are unmistakable but the trademark narrow eyes tended to bleed on to the noses and looked weird. The hair was textured a little too realistically for the cartoonish feel of the rest of the world. I don’t know how easy any of these problems are to fix, but they both led to moments where instead of focusing on what was going on in the film I was taken with how disturbing this character or that looked in the moment. Like the script, the animation feels like it would have been good enough for TV and just never got the upscaled treatment for the silver screen— except that’s not the origin of this movie and it just looks cheap for no discernable reason.

Ultimately, I don’t think the goal of The Peanuts Movie is to entertain children so much as it is to appeal to the nostalgia of their parents. Between It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and A Charlie Brown Christmas mid-November is peak awareness of the Peanuts characters, assuming we aren’t getting a blitz of MetLife ads. This is a movie designed to bring up warm fuzzy feelings in parents while pacifying their children for 90 minutes, but there’s no artistry in this film… just a simple boring regurgitation for the sake of a quick buck. This would be antithetical to the comic strip as it was in the 1960s, but seems par for the course for the latter-day commercialism and exploitation of the brand that dominated Schulz’s later life and his heirs. I’m not always fond of Bill Watterson being so inflexible with people wanting to let Calvin and Hobbes branch out in to merchandise or other media, but if it means I’ll never have to watch anything as dreadful as The Peanuts Movie starring those characters I’ll have to accept it.

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Box Office Democracy: Spectre

In Casino Royale, a bartender asks James Bond if he wants his martini shaken or stirred and Bond looks back at the man and responds, “Do I look like I give a damn?” and if your theater was anything like mine the crowd went nuts. It was a clear signal that we were discarding some of the older more tired aspects of the Bond franchise.

In Spectre, Bond orders a martini, adds that he would like it “shaken not stirred” and it was a deflating moment. It was a sign that for whatever reason the people responsible for making Bond movies are no longer interested in making something exciting or fresh (or even a transparent attempt at grabbing for Bourne fans) but to make the thing they’ve made so many times before. While Casino Royale felt like a look ahead in to the 21st century of action movies Spectre is a wistful glance back at the 1970s, and that’s not what I want out of a movie anymore. Spoilers ahead.

The thing that separates Spectre from the Bond movies at all is that the plot continues its trajectory away from sweeping supervillainy and more towards personal conflict. While the eponymous organization is surely evil as their board meeting of crime activity suggests the plan they hope to execute in this film is honestly rather mundane. Spectre wants to be the technical backbone for a multinational security surveillance treaty, essentially a slightly more evil version of the Trans Pacific Partnership, a bad thing certainly but it pales in comparison to irradiating all the gold in Fort Knox or holding the world hostage with stolen atomic bombs. Perhaps this is supposed to reflect the changing face of global fear in the modern world but once I’ve accepted all these other things it just feels like lower stakes.

Where the stakes are much higher are with Bond himself. This movie goes to incredible lengths to show that all of the personal problems, depicted on-screen or otherwise, that Bond has experienced have been the direct result of the machinations of Ernst Stavro Blofield, the man in charge of this massive criminal organization. The events of the previous three films were all leading to this and it’s probably best you don’t pick at that too much because it doesn’t make much sense at all. I see what they’re going for, that it would be nice for these movies to feel a bit more personal, but I’m quite sick of hearing about Vesper at this point and it makes the film feel more generic because every action film is going for this kind of thing, the climax of this film could easily have been a Lethal Weapon finale, it doesn’t feel particularly unique.

I might be asking too much from a Bond movie. Spectre provides so many of the things we expect from these movies. There are stunning locations, beautiful cars, exquisite tight-fitting clothing for both men and women, and a healthy dose of quips in dry British accents. That’s the franchise right there, that’s enough for the vast majority of the audience and if we accept that those are the bullet points Bond movies are supposed to hit this one does a great job: I would very much like to visit Morocco, drive a DB10, look as good as Daniel Craig and be as cool as a British secret agent. This is top-notch escapist power fantasy.

I don’t understand all of the casting choices in Spectre. Dave Bautista is asked to show none of the charm he displayed in Guardians of the Galaxy as he basically plays a brick wall for Bond to bounce off of in this film. I’m not even sure he has three lines if we’re not counting screams and grunts. Christoph Waltz is a brilliant performer as ever but he gets only the bare minimum of screen time for a Bond villain. He gets to reveal his evil plan, he gets to arrange an elaborate death trap, and he gets to participate in a chase. Waltz is in one scene in the first half of the movie and that creates anticipation but also makes the rest of the events feel less important. The worst casting was Andrew Scott as the head of British intelligence. You can’t cast someone most famous for playing a scheming villain, cast him as the smarmy new authority figure and then expect to get a meaningful third act beat out of his inevitable betrayal.

Perhaps I was just wrong about what this run of Bond movies was supposed to do. It seems that they don’t want to move in a new direction for the franchise, instead it looks like they wanted to create the illusion of a brave new direction while they went and rebooted everything even further back. We have a stuffy older man as M again (sorry Ralph Fiennes), we have Moneypenny back again, we have Q delivering tricked out Aston Martins, and we have villains in elaborate remote bases with their fluffy cats and their slow avoidable death traps. Pierce Brosnan could have been in this movie; hell, with a filter or two this could have been Timothy Dalton, and that’s disappointing. This could be a modern action franchise but instead it seems willing to go back to trading in nostalgia and clichés.

Box Office Democracy: “Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse”

In his wildly popular book on screenwriting [[[Save the Cat!]]], Blake Snyder suggests that every movie needs to fulfill the promise of the premise; to give the audience all of the things they expect to see in the movie based on the title and the promotional materials. You can’t make Legally Blonde without having scenes where a ditzy girl applies her skills as a socialite to the buttoned-up world of law school and you can’t make Star Wars without having some interstellar battles. Unfortunately, Scouts Guide to the Apocalypse didn’t take this to heart as it’s a generic teen comedy layered on top of a generic zombie movie with just a sprinkling of the scout gimmick tacked on mainly at the end. It results in a movie that feels tired and unoriginal.

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse colors inside the lines very closely. It hits all of the teen comedy beats you know and love, including: kids who want to ditch an uncool friend so they can appear more attractive, kids who get invited to a party by people much cooler than them, awkward teen who doesn’t know to deal with a crush, oversexed teen who pursues sexual gratification at inappropriate times. They take these well-worn classics and slap on a quick zombie overlay and call it a day. This is a movie that feels like Superbad meets Dawn of the Dead, but instead of being those movies they’re the off-brand knock-offs you would find in the bargain bin at a Wal-Mart. Even at its highest highs, Scouts Guide doesn’t feel like it touches the splendor of the movies it copies.

That’s not to say that there isn’t good comedy in here, because there is, they just do the damndest job hiding it. There’s a joke in this movie involving grabbing on to a zombie while falling out a window that I laughed harder at than anything I’ve seen in months. That joke comes well past the halfway point and I had pretty much given up on the entire film at that point so to get such a huge, genuine, reaction from me at that point was practically a miracle. Where was anything near this funny the rest of the way through? I saw two groups of people walk out of the theater before this sequence; they needed to do a better job keeping people engaged. The whole first act was plagued by jokes that the movie clearly thought were funny falling flat and later there are plenty of funny ideas that don’t get enough space and simply die on the vine (zombie cats being the most egregious example). A zombie singing a duet of a Britney Spears song with the main character got a whole chorus.

This is the kind of movie where I can’t help but wonder if there was some kind of tragic problem in the production process that led to such an uneven effort. Three people share the screenplay and story credits, an arrangement that might hint at some kind of dispute over a rewrite. It’s also a hard R movie that I can’t understand how it would appeal to anyone over the age of 17, so this might be a token theatrical run hoping it has a long tail as a cult classic movie passed back in forth as a contraband DVD at middle school sleepovers for years to come. I want to believe that some conflict or secret conspiracy is behind this failure because it’s a movie that fails to live up to a halfway clever title, and that’s just a failure so sad it defies belief.

Box Office Democracy: The Last Witch Hunter

The most painful thing about The Last Witch Hunter is how clear it is that Vin Diesel is passionate about the material and is having an amazing time. Almost every profile piece I’ve ever read on Diesel has mentioned his love of Dungeons & Dragons, or that he wrote the introduction for their 30th anniversary retrospective book, or that his character in xXx had a tattoo with the name of his D&D character on his stomach; his nerd credentials are beyond reproach and they’re on full display in this film. Unfortunately instead of turning that knowledge and experience in to a quality fantasy movie, we’re given a film that is about as interesting as listening to the guy behind you in line for Star Wars tell you stories about how amazing his character is in his buddy’s D&D game.

The Last Witch Hunter suffers immensely from a lack of stakes. It features an immortal badass killer, Kaulder, who not only can’t die but any injury he suffers heals instantly Wolverine-style. All of the supporting characters are seemingly introduced immediately before being put in peril so you have to really bond with them quickly to feel anything at all for them. Michael Caine, the only actor in the cast capable enough to overcome this script problem, is imperiled off-screen and is afflicted with some kind of curse that is barely explained nonsense seemingly designed so they could have their emotional moment but still bring Caine back for the sequel. Things ramp up dramatically toward the end of the movie when they strip Kaulder of his immortality and directly imperil the entire world or maybe just New York City (and honestly is there even a difference) but by then I was just too far-gone to care.

Reportedly, this script came about from Vin Diesel telling one of the screenwriters about one of his Dungeons & Dragons characters. While I’m not sure any movie should come about through a story like that, it makes his investment in this movie palpable. He believes in his character and every silly nonsense word that comes out of his mouth. In a weird way, it’s one of my favorite performances of his career because he’s trying to put this movie on his back and just make it better through sheer force of acting. Diesel isn’t on that rare level where he can make a movie better just by trying harder, but I can appreciate that effort even if it isn’t quite enough.

There isn’t enough original stuff in this movie to make it feel worth the time and effort of making it. Fantasy is so well trod these days there’s nothing in the flashback scenes that I haven’t seen in Game of Thrones, or Lord of the Rings, or even How to Train Your Dragon. The contemporary stuff at its very best feels like a slightly reskinned version of Men in Black and at worst like an episode of Charmed. I sort of liked their take on a bar for witches (even if that’s not exactly new ground) but my enthusiasm was dashed when the place is destroyed within five minutes of being introduced on screen. Nothing feels like a fresh take, or a new use of metaphor, or a deeper look at a theme, it’s just recycling stuff we’ve seen and hoping the new arrangement proves compelling and it doesn’t.

I often complain about movies feeling too compact or too drawn out, and The Last Witch Hunter is in a strange limbo in between. Everything feels too rushed and there isn’t any space for the story to breathe or for the characters to reveal themselves to us, but also I left that 106-minute movie convinced it had been two and a half hours long. It might be an impossible task to make this a compelling film narrative. This is a story that would work much better in a novel: it would have proper space to build, internal monologues could make exposition a little less clunky, and the stakes could be more clearly defined.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I would want to read that novel either.

Box Office Democracy: Crimson Peak

In almost four years of reviewing movies the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been in a movie theater was watching Mama, the 2013 horror movie produced by Guillermo del Toro. I remember very few of the particulars of that movie but what I remember quite viscerally was scene after scene of being transfixed by the action on the screen and wanting nothing more than for it to be over. Crimson Peak is the first movie since then to recreate that feeling so precisely, when the movie wanted to scare me I was consistently scared to what I believe to be the maximum level I can be scared while watching a movie. No matter what else I thought about the movie, it was completely successful at its objective and that’s worth a lot.

Guillermo del Toro seems as if he was put on this earth to make a movie set in a decaying Victorian manor house full of ghosts. It takes a little while to get to the titular setting, but once we’re there the movie is consistently breathtakingly beautiful. The house is falling apart, the roof is barely present in the main hall, the pipes run with blood red water, and the house is sinking in to a foundation of soft red clay and every little detail is the perfect visual metaphor for the story at hand. Crimson Peak has the perfect gothic look and it seems so effortless; like what Tim Burton would do if he could let go of being quite so precious.

I suppose if we keep the Burton metaphor alive, then Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain feel more than a little like a redux version of Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, but that’s not giving either actor enough credit. Neither makes me feel quite as weary playing well-worn gothic archetypes, although between this and Only Lovers Left Alive, Hiddleston should probably watch his step. Chastain is especially good in this and is playing so far against her normal type that she becomes almost completely enveloped in the role of Lucile. Lucile is a magnetic character that demands attention whenever she’s on screen, and while she never has to share the screen with one of the film’s grotesque ghosts I would say she’s even more arresting in the frame.

I’ve said that this movie is terrifying, beautiful, and has standout acting, but unfortunately the story is a little thin. The actual plot is very straightforward, and anyone who has regularly consumed any media at all in their life will know all the twists and turns of the plot in the first half hour or so. All roads lead in one direction and the film happily chugs along that path with no real diversion and a handful of pit stops to show off some horrifying ghost effects. It doesn’t make the movie less enjoyable to watch, it’s always the journey more than the destination with any piece of narrative, but it would have been nice to be surprised by something that wasn’t a specter bursting through a wall or floor.

I’m deeply impressed by Crimson Peak, and I sincerely hope that del Toro goes and does a few more things before returning to horror. I would love to see a Pacific Rim sequel or another Hellboy movie or if he still has the desire to do an endless fantasy epic after his adaptation of The Hobbit fell through I would gladly watch that. I could use another 30-month break before I have to squirm through a collection of scenes as scary as I was given in Crimson Peak or that he influenced in his work on Mama. I’m delighted to get to watch a master work the way del Toro makes horror movies but I’m afraid I just don’t have the constitution— and more than that, I’m afraid to see what he’ll do to scare me next time.

Box Office Democracy: The Final Girls

The Final Girls is a movie that came to a crossroad about what kind of movie it wanted to be, and instead of making the choice stayed at that point reading the signs until it wasted away. There’s a good madcap comedy in there spoofing the Friday the 13th series and slasher movies in general, but it feels a little superficial when you consider that horror parody has been a persistent genre over the last two decades. Likewise, there’s a good metaphor in here about getting over grief and moving on after the death of a loved one, and at times it feels like the film wants to be very powerful on this topic, but it only feels like it exists in the scenes specifically designed to deal with it. Without walking down either path quite far enough, we’re left with a journey that never feels complete.

There’s not a lot of new space to make jokes about slasher movies. Scream gave everyone a full rundown of many of the clichés, but the genre has been firmly entrenched in self-parody almost from the very beginning. To point out that there are specific character archetypes or that certain behaviors will often lead to character death isn’t clever anymore and it’s only fleetingly funny. The bits that do work usually work because one of the better actors is delivering the material. Adam DeVine is a transfixing comedic presence that makes bad jokes seem good and good jokes seem amazing. Alia Shawkat is similarly magnetic in her screen time and it’s unfortunate that her character seems to fade further and further in to the background as the movie progresses and it becomes clear that her relationship with the main character is not the important one.

The main character, Max, is perhaps the biggest source of my frustration. I’m not entirely clear if the problem is the part is underwritten or if Taissa Farmiga is just in a bit over her head, and it’s probably a little bit of both. Max is supposed to be consumed by grief, and while that might explain her tendency to drift through the events of the film it doesn’t make her feel like a compelling character. At the end of the film the only things I felt like I knew for sure about Max is that she was sad a lot, she has a crush on a boy, and she was capable of remembering a pop song from the 80s. Farmiga also feels like a less compelling screen presence than her co-stars, particularly Malin Akerman, DeVine, and Shawkat. More than anything else, the poor casting underscores that this is an indie movie, and is stuck in my craw as a great “what might have been” for the film.

I am probably being too harsh with The Final Girls, or at the very least underrating how pleasantly surprised I was that this wasn’t another horror movie parody that’s really about sex politics. I don’t mean that there isn’t a place for those kind of critiques, but I feel like they’ve been done to death and I’m a little tired of them from a narrative sense. Instead, The Final Girls is about grief and the struggles to move on from an important loss, and the decisions made around this theme are so much more clever than the jokes they string up to hold the plot segments apart. The looping events and paradoxical geography of the camp are something I’ve never seen used before to talk about the feelings one can get stuck in after the loss of a close family member. It felt so much fresher than some of the other stuff, and I wish that whoever made the choice thought that stuff was more interesting that another round of jokes about how alcohol is always around cursed campgrounds.

Box Office Democracy: The Martian

I really enjoyed watching The Martian when I was sitting in the theater, but that love has faded quickly in the days since. There’s a high amount of amazing spectacle and suspense to keep audiences engaged but there’s an emotional emptiness to the film that makes it feel inconsequential in the long term and hurts the film. Ten minutes after I thought it was an Oscar contender released too early, two days after it feels like just another movie, and in a couple months I doubt I’ll be thinking about it at all. I suppose this is what Ridley Scott is these days and it’s so sad that the man who made Blade Runner and Alien is making such hollow science fiction these days.

The set pieces on display in The Martian are as good as anything I’ve seen this year. From Martian sandstorms to daring space stunts to random bouts of explosive decompression it’s a thoroughly arresting film. The action is interesting and it’s fun to hear all of the characters try and scheme their way out of impossible space problems. The interplay between Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, and Chiwetel Ejiofor is particularly crisp and feels if not what actual NASA meetings are like certainly what I would like to imagine them to be.

The problem with all these fascinating situations is we never get to see any real emotional reactions. Matt Damon is supposed to be almost certainly doomed millions and millions of miles away and with the exception of brief moments we never see him particularly sad or on the precipice of despair. We never see that reaction from anyone on earth either, neither from the people at NASA or from a member of his family, the stakes of the movie are so high but without seeing someone really care they don’t feel like anything. The Martian ends up feeling like a series of math problems to be solved and not like a life or death situation, and while approaching them like math problems might be what gets them solved from an institutional standpoint it doesn’t make for an effective movie.

There’s a chance I’m being too hard on this movie. It’s quite likely that “enjoyable but forgettable” actually describes a movie that’s more or less good, but I can’t help but hold Ridley Scott to a higher standard. I know he can make movies that are more affecting than this but seems trapped in a downward spiral of spectacle over substance that kicked off with Robin Hood, spread through Prometheus, hit critical mass with Exodus, and now has left us with The Martian a movie that barely seems to care about how little it cares.

Box Office Democracy: Hotel Transylvania 2

Hotel Transylvania 2 is so much better than Pixels and it’s hard to figure out exactly why. The material isn’t substantially better, it still feels like the scripts are written by an elementary school joke book come to life— although maybe for Hotel Transylvania the living book has to turn in a couple more drafts. The animated medium might open up for a few more ambitious sight gags but it isn’t like Pixels was stingy with the effects shots. Perhaps it’s that with live actors you can see how little effort they’re putting in and how much they’d rather be doing something else, and an animated character looks more engaged even if none of the voice acting is particularly ambitious. It could just be that an engaged Genndy Tartakovsky is far and away better than a Chris Columbus just out for a paycheck. Something makes this movie sparkle while Sandler’s other latter day efforts are tarnished husks.

While almost certainly not intentional, Sandler and Robert Smigel have written an oddly poignant film about Jewish assimilation in the United States. Adam Sandler’s Dracula has always sounded a little more like an old Jewish man than a Romanian count and for this installment they’ve cast Mel Brooks, who’s been the prototypical old Jewish man for almost 50 years, as his father Vlad, but his daughter, Mavis, is played by Selena Gomez who is doing no stereotypical Jewish inflection on her voice at all. Dracula and Vlad are concerned that by marrying a human and having a potentially human baby that their family is losing the connection with their monstrous roots in much the same way the last few generations of American Jews have seen their community disperse out in to the larger gentile world. This is compounded by the rest of the monsters who live in and around the hotel have also largely given up on their traditional monster ways learning to get along with humans as the world now demands. The end hits a little hollow on this front as Dracula never has to come to a firm opinion on the modern or the traditional as the movie invents a synthesis for him but it’s better than I was expecting to be quite honest. Again, I’m quite sure almost none of this subtext is intentional and that this is really just supposed to be a couple degrees of separation from rehashing The Jazz Singer but it’s interesting to think about especially when you consider the script comes from two people who have made careers out of occupying different Jewish staple characters to various degrees.

Otherwise, this is a slightly above average comedy. I laughed often enough, and because it’s an Adam Sandler movie some of those jokes might have been a little easy or a little corny but this is a nitpick from a comedy snob and should not really hold anyone back. I enjoy Tartakovsky’s work immensely and he’s made a visually arresting movie yet again and some of the best bits in the film are sight gags that I choose to believe are mostly his work. Blobby is one of the funniest characters in the film and has no lines just a steady stream of good physical humor.

This is a movie for young kids and, honestly, I probably aged out of the Adam Sandler demographic 15 years ago, but unlike some of his other efforts the Hotel Transylvania movies feel like they’re willing to try and keep me engaged. The showing I went to was crowded with young kids who seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely, laughing at all the right moments and quietly paying attention most of the rest of the time. I had a good time too, I was laughing and while perhaps I spent a little too much time figuring out if there was a deeper message about 20th century immigrant communities but this has all of the positive qualities of the best kids movies I’ve reviewed, a solid sequel, and maybe even the basis of a successful franchise.