Jeff's reviews this summer's blockbusters (part 1)

Okay so let’s face it: summer movie reviews are played out. The whole process is stale—you have got your previews (which have gotten far too long by the way), mid-point previews, wrap-ups, look-backs, and sneak peaks. It is unoriginal and it is boring. I get it. But, I wanted to try, so bear with me.    

Before we start, I want to explain the format. There will be three parts to this article. Each will consist of two superlatives. The latter will be a serious review while the former decidedly less serious (though still informative).

Without further ado:


SUMMER MOVIE REVIEW PT. 1:

MOST UNNECESSARY SEQUEL:

Summer is a time for the franchise; ‘tis the season when we witness them shamelessly birthed and, two-to-three years later, grow. However, this summer—though abundant with reboots—really lacked a solid offering of sequels. While I saw Thor, Captain America, and X-Men and could have done without them, I am not labeling them as “unnecessary sequels” because I must admit I found them a bit enjoyable. Their cinematic quality is undeniable, especially X-Men’s.

The Contenders: The Purge: Anarchy, Transformers: Age of Extinction

The Purge: Anarchy poster © Universal Pictures, Transformers: Age of Extinction poster © Paramount Pictures 

The Purge: Anarchy poster © Universal Pictures, Transformers: Age of Extinction poster © Paramount Pictures 

Let me start by saying that I dislike most movies that have a colon in the title. Granted, neither of these movies made the ill-fated choice of including such punctuation in their first iteration (sorry, Percy Jackson), but it is still, generally speaking, a bad sign. It screams “I’m only in this for the money.”

Let’s begin with The Purge: Anarchy. Just right off the bat, stupid premise. I am usually not a stickler for “realism” in film but come on. For those unfamiliar with the premise of The Purge, it is one night a year where there are no laws. Not even against murder. Everyone gets out their pent up angst and frustration so they can live happily and comfortably for the rest of the year. Now I understand that there are certain allegorical purposes (governmental policies that maintain existing social arrangements) for this premise, but if we do accept that it serves the purpose of social criticism, can’t we agree that it’s ham-handed at best?

Aside from the basic premise being fundamentally flawed (good start), the sequel to the 2012 surprise hit shakes up the premise of the original almost entirely. I get not wanting to rehash material you have already worked with, but James DeMonaco (writer and director) seems to have entirely changed the genre of the film. The original was a home-invasion thriller ala Panic Room. This one changes the game and sets the main characters out on the mean streets. It kind of looks like Escape from New York; except not fun. I only liked Escape from New York because it was fun. And because of Kurt Russell. Purge: Anarchy has neither of those.

 

Then we have Transformers: Age of Extinction which is a blatant cash-grab. It is a prime example of the trend in action movies over the last decade or so to be disguised as if made for American audiences,  but they are actually just for the international audience. Explosions translate without subtitles. The plot is not hard to catch on to. Yet, for some reason, I am kind of okay with it in this case because of the fact that it does indeed grab a shit ton of cash (over $1 billion as of this writing); and they replaced Shia LeBouf with Mark Wahlberg—who was okay in The Fighter and The Departed—so I do not hate him.

Verdict: Purge: Anarchy

 

BEST DOCUMENTARY:

Life Itself poster © Magnolia Pictures

Life Itself poster © Magnolia Pictures

Now for the serious bit.

Life Itself is a documentary about Roger Ebert. It is an interesting choice of subject as he was a celebrity that was never exactly famous. People knew of him. They may not have read any of his reviews but they were aware he was important. But Roger, the man behind the critic, was ignored.

I always had the sense that Ebert was simply a mild-mannered man. Essentially an elder statesman of film. One of the vanguards of a movement responsible for popularizing a critical approach to movie going, even if it did result in the terribly reductive “thumbs-up, thumbs-down” system of rating film.

The arch of the film is interesting in the way that it subtly mirrors the arch of Ebert’s life and relationship with the public. As a younger man the view of the public was manufactured, filtered by the producers and such behind his review show At The Movies. However, once medical complications took his voice and ended his career in front of the camera, he began to interact with moviegoers in a more authentic manner through his presence online and with social media.

Similarly, the first half of his life is covered somewhat distantly with only scant cracks made in his façade. Then once Steve James (the director) was actually present and filming live, the façade is outright shattered. He is emotionally naked. There is one scene in particular where he is having his mouth and throat cleaned that made me completely forget the image of Ebert that I once had of him: that of the smiling older gentleman on the film’s poster.

All told, the film painted a complete picture. One that you would want to know. However, it never shies away from showing either the hard-to-watch  moments that challenge this perception. Life Itself achieves the goal of humanizing its subject. It shows his good and bad. The result is powerful. 7/10.

by Jeff Bernstein
jbernstein@gm.slc.edu

 

SLC Phoenix

The Phoenix is a non-profit, student-run publication representing the voices and opinions of Sarah Lawrence College community members. Our print edition publishes bi-weekly on Tuesdays, and our online edition is updated multiple times per week. Anyone may attend our open meetings at 9:00 PM on Wednesday nights in the North Room of the Pub.

Ernest and Celestine excels in animation, yet feels clichéd

artwork by Melkorka Tómásdottir '17    

artwork by Melkorka Tómásdottir '17    

Ernest & Celestine is ambitious in parts and lazy in others. Though visually striking, the characters felt two-dimensional and the plot – in particular the resolution – thin. It may be a movie meant for children, yet, in the context of Pixar and movies such How to Train Your Dragon and most recently The Lego Movie, that excuse for lack of depth in such a context is flatly invalid.

Following an unlikely friendship between a bear, Ernest (voiced by Forrest Whitaker), and a mouse, Celestine (voiced by Mackenzie Foy), Ernest & Celestine attempts to impart the message that one should not judge a book by its cover. However, this message seems to crack at the seams under the weight of its oafish, yet lovable – though mostly oafish – bear of a protagonist.

Ernest & Celestine takes places in modern France save people, who are now bears. The mice make up the underclass (perhaps the Algerians). The bears occupy the surface, the mice the sewers. Each vilify the other despite only having, at best, chance encounters to base their opinions upon. Furthermore, most of these encounters consist almost entirely of either running from or trying to kill the other; certainly not trying to get to know one another.

Even though their groups are in such opposition, Ernest and Celestine inhabit very similar realms within their respective societies. They each occupy the periphery, as their aspirations do not seem in line with those of their peers. Over the course of the film, it is this fact that brings the two of them together as they slowly come to help each other get by in a harsh, unforgiving world.

By helping each other, the two become wanted criminals. The resolution takes place in parallel court room scenes: Ernest being tried by the mice, Celestine by the bears. When all is said and done, the resolution feels weak and, at times, even forced. The message is good – one of the dangers of prejudice –  though it has been told before and more completely.

Plot-related shortcomings aside, the film achieves what it was meant to. Namely, it adequately provides a backdrop upon which to display the true achievement of the film; the animation style. Even though I have seen films that utilize a similar, seemingly-unfinished style, none quite feel as complete as Ernest & Celestine. The plot is simple enough for a child to follow, while delivering a worthwhile didactic message, and the animation plays to both children and their parents.

The version of this film that was recently released stateside is dubbed with American actors. It should be said that I am not a fan of dubbed foreign films, independent of any lip-mismatching that is bound to result. I believe there is a poetry to the native language that is present – whether intentional or not – that is lost whenever studios try to pander to audiences. Moreover, a good screenwriter does not just take into account the meaning of the words being said but also the sound – and, if done properly, the harmony – they make. However, I was not able to write on such a subject as I only had the watered-down version to go off of.

All things considered, Ernest & Celestine is a solid film that can be enjoyed by both children and adults – even without the presence of the former. The subject-matter is light and the film works very well for a short, date-type movie. Yet, it would have served this purpose more fully had it not been dubbed. Regardless, it was worth the admission price as it served as a worthy respite from either the explosions of action/comic book films or the heavy-handed, rain-drenched scenes where one character decries his/her love for another that has become typical of the modern romance film. It surprised me – in a good way. Though it could have been better, it is certainly worth your time. 5/10

by Jeff Bernstein '15
jbernstein@gm.slc.edu

artwork by Melkorka Tómásdottir '17
mtomasdottir@gm.slc.edu
korkimon.com
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nstagram: @korkimon

 

SLC Phoenix

The Phoenix is a non-profit, student-run publication representing the voices and opinions of Sarah Lawrence College community members. Our print edition publishes bi-weekly on Tuesdays, and our online edition is updated multiple times per week. Anyone may attend our open meetings at 9:00 PM on Wednesday nights in the North Room of the Pub.

The Grand Budapest Hotel meets pastel-toned expectations

original work by Alexandria Brown '17

original work by Alexandria Brown '17

My stay at The Grand Budapest Hotel was thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish. More visually-driven than Wes Anderson’s previous work, Grand Budapest hits all the notes it needs to. Yet, overall, the film failed to leave me with the same satisfied feeling that I had fter first seeing Moonrise Kingdom; however, it should be noted the only real similarity between these two movies comes in the form of the directorial flourishes of Anderson; in that regard, fear not. Grand Budapest lives up to the Wes Anderson style in the truest sense of the ill-defined term.

The movie follows the relationship of Gustav H., played by Ralph Fiennes, and Zero Moustafa, played by Tony Revolori, as the two embark on a journey to prove Gustav’s innocence in the murder of a close acquaintance. As the action unfolds, so do a bevy of cameos, whimsical set pieces, and smile-inducing quirks. The framework of the film is a retelling of a story, which effectively results in a three-layered narrative that altered by the effects of time on memory. In this way, Grand Budapest essentially offers a “stylistic explanation,” a feature unique among Anderson’s films that, especially in the seemingly vapid characterizations, works to smooth over some the films weaker points. To be clear, the existence of a valid explanation does not mean that I am “okay with” those weaker points.

All told, the story works—it does what a good story should, namely keeping the audience invested. However, there are times when this pseudo-whodunit/prison-break/love story/coming-of-age tale/buddy adventure feels like just that: too much, too indecisive. Granted, in scope and style this movie is undeniably the most ambitious of Anderson’s career. While many elements feel intentionally shrunken down, the storytelling suffers a little under the immense weight of countless cameos, locations, and layers.

Visually speaking, the movie has a very clearly defined texture. As with most of his previous projects, Anderson makes use of a curiously crafted and meticulously executed mise-en-scène that runs throughout the film, bleeding into every last element from the dialogue to the shot transitions.

The result feels contained, even when following an ‘exhilarating’ sled chase. In essentially every scene are striking, pastel color combinations that are like a four-star all-you-can-eat buffet for the eyes with similar consequences; it is both delicious and nauseating in its decedent richness.

Outside of Fiennes, the performances fall flat. Most of the actors simply are not given enough of an opportunity to shine especially in light of the distant manner of the dialogue that defines Anderson’s films. The biggest disappointment is Revolori. Though Anderson has had a pretty successful history working with first-time actors in lead roles, nod to Rushmore and Moonrise Kingdom, the nature of Grand Budapest, being far less of a character study than a plot-driven spectacle, leads me to want to place the onus more on Anderson than Revolori. The character would have benefitted far more from an actor with quicker delivery that expresses more through facial expressions and body language than his tongue (an Owen-Wilson type), rather than the sweet – if not flat – performance delivered by Revolori.

Though my very high expectations were not met, I would certainly recommend this movie. Almost every single shot has something – quirk or otherwise – that will put a  smile on your face, if one’s not already there. Despite this, Grand Budapest is definitely Anderson’s darkest film to date though not his most grown-up (I’d give that distinction to Darjeeling Limited). 6/10.


by Jeff Bernstein '15
jbernstein@gm.slc.edu

 

SLC Phoenix

The Phoenix is a non-profit, student-run publication representing the voices and opinions of Sarah Lawrence College community members. Our print edition publishes bi-weekly on Tuesdays, and our online edition is updated multiple times per week. Anyone may attend our open meetings at 9:00 PM on Wednesday nights in the North Room of the Pub.