Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Zootopia / *** (2016)

Disney’s wildly inventive “Zootopia” is the rip-roaring realization of all the quintessential values of modern feature animation – it has color, enthusiasm, whimsy, likable characters and cheerful comedy, and wraps them in a story that excites as easily as it conveys dependable messages about social diversity. The fact that it accomplishes so much all while showing us locales beyond anything we’ve seen before only adds to the astonishment. Sure, we are accustomed to taking adventurous excursions into places made entirely in the minds of eager animators, but how many of them show the level of detail of a city of civilized animals? A casual stroll through the streets of this fabled metropolis is a marvel all its own, and certainly propelled by the screenplay’s suspicion that much more is going on in the alleys than the visuals let on. However you approach the film will depend on what your expectations have come to be of movie cartoons in the age of limitless possibility, but after savoring its details in the wake of “Wreck-it-Ralph” and “Frozen,” it is clear that the pioneering studio of this genre has finally returned to the standard of consistent and reliable family-oriented output.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Little Children / ***1/2 (2006)

Drastic tonal shifts are among one of the more difficult chords for directors to master in filmic orchestration, and in the wrong hands they can derail a story’s momentum just as quickly as bad acting or shoddy plot development. Sometimes that means they must become fluent on the tact of transitions in order to neutralize such opportunities, or at least become cognizant of their usage; because certain subject matters can emphasize extreme opposing values, it can be rare to move between sadness and laughter without the transitions feeling contrived, especially if they are used to exhausting indecency. I can only imagine what sorts of questions came to Todd Fields’ mind when he was confronted with those dubious possibilities in “Little Children,” and certainly it must have seemed like very foreign territory; having only directed the stark “In the Bedroom” up to that point, this was a man seemingly accustomed to the forlorn nature of premises where there could be no opportunity for lighthearted considerations. What was on his mind as he directed this picture, a suburban drama about dysfunctional adults behaving like irresponsible adolescents? Were those fragments of humor convincing in the screenplay, or did it require added effort to convey them plausibly?

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

As Above, So Below / ***1/2 (2014)

If I was to describe “As Above, So Below” as a handheld horror movie about a group of archaeology enthusiasts who wander into the Paris catacombs and discover the gates of hell, most readers would be inclined to respond with guffaws. But if I were to tell you that the premise lays the groundwork for a rather thrilling assemblage of shocking twists and turns, would those scoffs become intrigue? It is our instinct as seasoned moviegoers to dismiss the ideas of an endeavor if it is in the service of a tired gimmick, and who can blame us? The “found footage” device – sometimes referred to as the “queasy-cam” technique – has persisted vehemently through the fabric of the modern horror genre, and seldom to the benefit of intriguing stories or serviceable characters. But this, a relatively unassuming excursion with simple goals, carries something simmering under the surface that goes to violate the quintessential acceptance of these movies, which often stumble on a tightrope that reduces dialogue to nonsensical shouts and the images into a blurry collage of details. And that doesn’t even count the narratives, which are often circular exercises designed to set up momentary jolts or elaborate death sequences

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Cloverfield / ***1/2 (2008)

Consider the identity of the primary witness in first-person horror films. When a handheld recording device winds up in the hands of any unfortunate onlooker during a random catastrophe, it becomes just as much a lifeline as it does a record of truth. Perhaps something about the existence of an instrument of documentation provides the advantage of personal security; for the victims, often perplexed beyond coherence, a barrier between themselves and the action can be empowering to their fragile sense of perspective, creating an illusion of endurance that inspires them to capture and preserve all the mayhem occurring around them. Because the underlying rules also suggest that such a position in a tragic event must also mean they can be spared from the inevitability of death, the lens seemingly drives them to look far deeper into the conflict than any innocent bystander might be willing to do. Because after all, when the chips are down and everyone around is caught in the snare of great pain and suffering, who else is going to make it out alive to tell the story besides the one carrying around the most detailed personal evidence?

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Triumph of the Will (1934)

Among the hundreds of endeavors of the 20th century that helped define the intricate language of cinema, two in particular were made from the fuel of dangerous personal ideologies. The first was D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation,” and the second was Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will.” Both movies represented a time when historical doctrines could (and often did) disrupt the social progress of their audiences, and yet through them a few of the most revolutionary technical achievements were realized – some that would even go on to set the tone for nearly all filmmakers that were to follow. But to watch them now and regard their aesthetic triumphs is to struggle with the context in which they are used, sometimes to an end that creates alarming moral uncertainty. Can we suspend that which we are at odds with for the sake of admiring the indelible techniques that were born from their ambitious frames, or must we, indeed, consider art as an impossible measure when it is done in the provision of evil deeds?

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Spotlight / **** (2015)

If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.

One of the first rules a young journalist must learn in the newsroom is often the hardest pill for them to swallow: good ones never betray the principles of their profession. As a fresh face in college quietly observing the rationale of reporters throughout history in classroom case studies, I was silently baffled by the moral gray areas they routinely danced on to get a story, even apart from their dichotomous reasoning (whether it be for information or sensationalism). That risk-takers could equally produce both great correspondents as well as tabloid vultures wasn’t an uncommon phenomenon, but the stigma of the latter certainly helped to undermine the reputation of genuine newspaper sleuths, whose work on the field could often be met by the suspicion of partial truths and lurid exaggerations. Part of that thought process worms its way into the fabric of Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight” at various intervals, and yet the obstacles these reporters face are valid concerns: there is a shocking story to tell, but many of those targeted have waited too long for some semblance of justice to assume that the media is willing to publish unfiltered versions of their stories.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Witch / ** (2016)

They want you to believe the hype. They have sold the illusion well. Everywhere you turn – whether it is in media plugs or face-to-face acknowledgments – “The Witch” is the latest commodity hot on the lips of filmgoers, who have lauded the endeavor as a bold new precedent in the method of modern horror movie approaches. What that practice entails, however, isn’t nearly as profound as so many colleagues and observers have bought into. Perhaps the relative ambiguity of it all gives it a quality of fascination, and it’s easy to see why; we live in the clutches of a horror genre now drunk on the blood of its own gratuity, and the mere suggestion that all of it can be restrained for the sake of evoking a mere mood seems like such a novel concept. But it is one, in either case, that is already familiar to anyone who has ever taken the time to look beyond the mainstream supply of hack-and-slash vomitoriums. Psychology is the driving force of the most resonating scarefests, and good ones will take their time to silently unravel our security before hitting us with the sensational stuff. Unfortunately for this one, that trajectory is uncertain in a premise that seems orchestrated from an absent-minded perspective.