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Saturday
Jun182016

Finding Dory (2016)

Net Gain

I wasn't the biggest fan of Pixar's Finding Nemo in 2003. Revisiting the film ten years later with my son (a toddler at the time), I found myself on edge when Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks) got separated from his son, Nemo (Alexander Gould). His titular quest resonnated more than the silly adventures that comprised it, and I was more than a little bummed when my boy decided he'd rather play with Cars (as in toys based on another Pixar hit) than finish the movie.

One of my initial problems with Finding Nemo, as I recall, was Dory, the sidekick/comedic foil to the perpetually worried and grouchy Marlin. Ellen DeGeneres was a little too perfect in her bubbly, amnesiac obnoxiousness for my taste, and I quickly came to cherish the moments when she wasn't on screen. Like many Pixar fans who react with hope but mild disappointment whenever the studio announces that its next project will be a sequel instead of an original idea,* I had doubts about Finding Dory. Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3 proved that the studio can imbue anything with heart, groundbreaking animation technology, and reason to be, but later sequels like Cars 2 and Monsters University showed that not everything created by the juggernaut brand resonates with audiences.*

I really enjoyed Finding Dory in the moment, and my opinion of it grows day by day. It's the rare film that I think would be far more effective by losing twenty minutes, but it's hard to say which scenes deserve the axe. For every repetitive excursion into or out of a glass tank/pipe/aquarium, particularly in the second half, there is a magnificent comedic or dramatic punctuation that makes the not-so-thrilling bits worthwhile.

I'm getting ahead of myself. Finding Dory is part origin story and part mystery. The sequel finds Marlin and Nemo (now voiced by Hayden Rolence) taking lesser roles as Dory sets off to find the parents she'd been separated from as a child, and for whom was searching when she entered the first film. Thanks to acute "short-term remember loss", Dory must rely on out-of-the-blue flashbacks to get clues as to where her parents might be--and to hold onto those clues long enough to follow up on them.

Much of the film takes place in the bowels of a massive California aquatic center, which greatly tones down Finding Nemo's color palette in favor of a murkier, more industrial look. It's a bold decision aesthetically and an important one, thematically. Director Andrew Stanton's last Pixar film, Wall-E, was set on a futuristic Earth ruined by junk, a depressing, toxic nightmare world that humans had long since ditched for shiny spaceships and an infinite celestial playground. That same sense of intrusion rears its head early on, as Dory, Marlin, and Nemo outrun a gigantic octopus lurking in the bowels of a wrecked container ship. As the camera revealed more and more about the spooky cargo and unoccupied posts, I couldn't help but think of the man-made disasters and missing airliners that have dotted the news landscape in the last thirteen years. I wondered if we'd see bodies, or hints of lost life, somewhere in all that rusty evidence of peril.

Of course, this is still a kid-targeted film, so there aren't any Jaws-style heads floating out of crevices. There are, however, much heavier ideas at play than just making one's way back home. I won't spoil what happened to Dory's parents, except to say that it bucks a major Disney convention while also delivering an implied history that's just as sad as what we were, perhaps, expecting from the plot. Finding Dory isn't Inside Out heavy, but it walks (swims?) the fine line between goofball entertainment and more challenging lessons that may not make it a parental go-to for long car rides.

On a related note, though the movie is 3D-animated, and is offered as a premium 3D-viewing experience, I can't stress enough that families see this in 2D. The technology's key disadvantage is a slight lack of brilliance while wearing 3D glasses. In the case of Finding Dory, with its selectively muted colors and numerous scenes shot in dark locales, the audience will need as much help as it can get in following the action and getting the most for their money. I haven't yet seen the 2D version, but I know a number of parent-critics who agree that their next screening will be glasses-free.

Don't worry: the film is far from a heavy existential-crisis flick. It hums with a fun stable of new supporting characters, including a surly "septopus" (a seven-limbed octopus, voiced by Ed O'Neill), an eager-to-please beluga whale (Ty Burrell), and a trio of greedy sea lions (Idris Elba, Dominic West, and Torbin Xan Bullock). I should also mention Piper, the transcendent, silent short film that precedes the feature, which (though unrelated to Finding Dory story-wise) offers a tidyl summary of its central theme: learning about one's inner strength by working with others to overcome fear.

Which brings us back to Dory. I couldn't stand her in Finding Nemo, but she's one of my favorite characters now. I can relate to her struggle of being stuck in a past she only kind of remembers. Whether this is a result of looming middle-age or a bi-product of Pixar's relatively new penchant for digging deeper into the adult aspects of their stories--I can't say. It could just be old-fashioned movie magic. Whatever the case, Finding Dory is more than just a sequel. It's downright remember-able.

*For the record, I really enjoyed Monsters U, and can't understand the hate. I saw half of Cars 2, and can see why it turned a lot of people off.

Friday
Jun172016

Jeepers Creepers 2 (2003)


Where'd You Get Those Eyes?

One of my favorite conspiracy theories involves Stanley Kubrick and his big-screen adaptation of Stephen King's The Shining. Legend has it the visionary filmmaker was instrumental in faking the Apollo moon landing. Wracked with guilt, he left subtle and not-so-subtle clues in the film as both public apology and exorcism of a rage that would not be suppressed. It just so happened that King's novel was also about the deteriorative effects (on people, on buildings, on the very fabric of reality) of keeping secrets locked away.*

I won't go further down that rabbit hole, but I'm fascinated by the idea of an artist sabotaging his or her work, in a way, by infusing its subtext (and text-text) with a cry for help and a soul-scorching admission of culpability. Similar to Kubrick's dilemma (real or imagined), it's easy to apply the word "coincidence" to Victor Salva's Jeepers Creepers. The Internet was still a toddler in the summer of 2001, so its likely that mass audiences would not have even known about the writer/director's conviction for child sex crimes a decade earlier. One would have had to dig for that information (as opposed to seeing it writ large on Wikipedia or Google), and the movie itself doesn't, at first glance, suggest that it was made by a child molester.

Viewed through the lens of ubiquitous knowledge, one can interpret the story of a humanoid beast stalking a young man and whisking him off to his subterranean feeding ground as an obvious metaphor for Salva's predatory past--an analysis made chillier by the Creeper's obsession with stealing Justin Long's eyes, and which invites at least a tenuous cosmic connection with the real-life incident. Salva served fifteen months for sexually assaulting a twelve-year-old boy and filming it, ostensibly to add to the collection of child pornography seized from his residence during the arrest.

Two years after Jeepers Creepers, Salva returned with Jeepers Creepers 2, which, like many sequels to surprise low-budget horror hits, delivered a concomitant expansion of the first film's mythology and scope with its larger budget and cast. It delivers little more than the superficial updates one would expect: improved gore and creature effects, and an ostensibly better "On a/In a" premise (instead of "It's Speed on a boat!", or "It's Leprechaun in space!", this is, "It's Jeepers Creepers on a bus!").

A college football team gets stranded in Creeper territory, after the monster disables their bus along a deserted country road. The monster picks off the driver and coaching staff, and stalks the smorgasbord of macho players, hangers-on, and cheerleaders--one of whom manifests psychic powers during the ordeal. At an hour-and-forty-five minutes, Jeepers Creepers 2 wears out its welcome halfway through, as the action moves off the bus, then back onto the bus, then off the bus, then into a field after the bus explodes, and...it's really not compelling.

Still, there's a lot to mine from the sequel. In the cold open, the Creeper snatches a young boy from his family's farm by posing as a scarecrow. Ray Wise plays the boy's father, and his desperation to save his son from an unspeakable evil perched right in his midst is palpable--even if the setup is eye-rollingly obvious. Knowing what I know of the director, I couldn't help but feel a tinge of gloating on Salva's part as the Creeper drags the boy through the rows, struggling, screaming, and confused. Salva drops a sight gag into the ordeal, with stalks popping like mad during an overhead shot of the cornfield.

Outside the greater context, it's just a tone-deaf misstep. In context, this flaunting of the cool-looking monster with awesome CGI wings and a new habit of taunting his quivering prey with Freddy Krueger-esque** pantomimes is really unsettling. In this movie, the Creeper stops being an organism that must feed on terror to survive, and becomes a boastful glutton. It knows the pain it inflicts on its victims, and has no remorse about acting on sinister impulses. In fact, the taunting and the toying become part of the allure.

The dad character resurfaces later, wielding a souped-up post gun mounted to the back of his pickup truck and determined to help what's left of the football team fend off the Creeper. The kids team up with the spiritually wrecked father to dismember, beat, and stab the Creeper into near oblivion, before a natural self-defense reflex cocoons its head, forcing the monster into dormancy for another twenty-three years (ah, kooky lore).

It's not a spoiler to say that good triumphs over evil here (temporarily, at least). Jeepers Creepers 2 ends on a note that can be read as either conciliatory or vengeful--possibly both. In the final scene, we flash forward to the days preceding the Creeper's next awakening. Wise's character has mounted the cruciform monster to his barn wall, and charges ourists five bucks a pop to see the "Bat Out of Hell".

But the display isn't just a roadside attraction. It's a vigil. The dad knows his son isn't coming back, that there will always be a vacuum at the center of his heart and a pock on his world view. But the monster will return, and he won't allow it another chance to ruin more lives. This coda would mean one thing if the film had been made by Salva's victim, or by someone speaking on behalf of the victim. Jeepers Creepers 2, however, was written and directed by the monster himself.

What do we do with this information?

Do we read the Creeper's savage beating as Salva's self-flagellating, public plea for forgiveness? Or is the barn scene fan acknowledgement that Salva will never be "cured" because these dark impulses are in his DNA? Pedophilia, remember, is not a crime. It is a thought, an attraction. Acting on that attraction is illegal, and in the final moments of Jeepers Creepers 2, Victor Salva seems to tell his audience, "This is who I am. This is what I want to do. This is what I have, in fact, done."

Most of us will never understand those specific impulses, but we all have urges that occasionally get the better of us. Some tackle these struggles alone. Others have what are called "accountability partners". Salva has millions of those: a watchful, suspicious society that will likely keep him in check to such a degree that he could have trouble getting his planned conclusion to the Jeepers Creepers trilogy off the ground.

This may or may not be fair. In a strictly legal sense, Salva paid his debt to society a quarter century ago, and has shown no apparent signs of recidivism in the years since. But he knows we're watching, and he knows that we know he wants to be fed.

*To learn more about this theory, and the truckload of others devised and expanded upon by fans over the years, check out Rodney Ascher's wild documentary, Room 237.

**Ah, yes, Freddy Krueger, cinema's other great child molesting horror icon. Why does he get a pass? I have two theories: 1. To my knowledge, his creator, Wes Craven, didn't incorporate actual sex crimes and murder into his research. All of A Nightmare on Elm Street's twisted ideas are rooted firmly in imagination. 2. In the numerous Elm Street sequels, the filmmakers downplayed this aspect of Freddy's villainy and focused on older-teen and adult protagonists banding together to take down a reality-warping nightmare monster.

Wednesday
Jun152016

Jeepers Creepers (2001)

Predator, Too

Jeepers Creepers works better as a time capsule than as a movie. Victor Salva's 2001 road-trip-gone-wrong thriller was one of the last original horror films to receive a big mainstream push, before Hollywood became obsessed with Japanese imports, torture porn, and turning decades old properties into viable "brands" to be sequelized, prequelized, remade, and rebooted until the end of time.

Two weeks after Jeepers Creepers came out, 9/11 jolted America awake from a decade of cultural isolationism. Shocked, we compartmentalized the drumbeat to war and sought refuge in entertainment that made us nostalgic for a time when everything wasn't so scary--indeed, so foreign. We wanted to feel safe. At the movies, that translated to sick empowerment narratives involving maniacs taking people apart with graphically ghoulish precision and giant robots tearing up the Middle East. When the reanimated corpses of childhood bogeymen Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, and Leatherface re-took the movie landscape, they re-introduced the post-Viet Nam Era nihilism that had given way to gags and cartoon gore in the 80s, fusing moviegoers' collective, impotent bloodlust with nostalgic warm-fuzzies. Finally, mass murder was fun again.

In a way, Salva's film presaged that pending real-world nastiness. Though Jeepers Creepers is a silly little horror movie featuring college kids making bad decisions; authority figures making worse ones; and a monster whose makeup and costume design are better conceived than its abilities and motivations, the film's resolute tone of naturalism elevates it to more than just a mash-up of Predator and Duel. Salva tells us from the very beginning that great danger is coming, from which there is no escape, but our age-old belief that the good-hearted heroine will always defeat the bogeyman (even if said bogeyman is destined to return) refuses to let us doubt.

During a cross-country drive home from school, Trish (Gina Phillips) and younger brother, Darry (Justin Long), are overtaken by a super-fast, super-creepy old truck. Darry catches a glimpse of the license plate, which reads, "BEATINGU". It's an omen that neither the protagonists nor the audience wants to believe. Further down the road, the siblings spy the truck parked near a house, its driver dumping what appear to be wrapped-and-roped bodies down a large pipe. After some debate, Trish and Darry decide to investigate, on the off chance that A) they're correct in their assumptions and B) some of the victims might still be alive.

After falling down the pipe, Darry discovers a vast underground lair with waxy, naked corpses lining its walls and ceiling. The driver, it turns out, isn't actually a man; like the titular beast in Stephen King's It, this shadowy humanoid emerges every couple decades to feed on the innocent. Despite their best efforts to find help in the next town, no one can stop the man/thing from pursuing our heroes--not the local psychic (Patricia Belcher), not the gun-wielding cat lady (Eileen Brennan), and definitely not the entire Poho County Sheriff's Department.

Jeepers Creepers disguises its bleakness in a series of bland, drawn-out car chases and police stand-offs that seem quaint by today's standards. Salva pulls off quite a bit of cool stunt-work, and that goes a long way in stretching his limited budgets, locations, and (I hate to say it) actors. Everyone is dialed up to 7 in this movie, with an earnest but misplaced back-of-the-house expressiveness that recalls early-80s slasher films. By film's end, it becomes apparent why Salva insists on so many close-ups of Justin Long's wide, terrified eyes,* but the motif gets corny quickly, and I couldn't shake the stunned image of Marty McFly in Back to the Future, after realizing he'd just sat down next to the teen version of his dad.

There is no hope at the end of Jeepers Creepers, only a damaged family who must live with the fact that an aberrant predator swooped in from out of nowhere and destroyed its notions of innocence for (at least) several generations. Coincidentally, if you look up writer/director Salva on the internet, you'll see him listed first as "convicted sex offender", then as "filmmaker". Yes, Salva served fifteen months in prison in the early 90s for an unspeakable crime against a twelve-year-old boy. Keep in mind, this was years before he made the mainstream hit Powder in 1995 and a decade before Jeepers Creepers.

How is this possible, you might ask? I'm not sure, but that information doesn't lessen my appreciation for Salva's work, from a purely artistic standpoint, anymore than do Roman Polanski's crimes affect my opinion of Rosemary's Baby. It does, however, add yet another layer to his films' narratives.* Like the hat-and-coat-clad monster that stalks Trish and Darry, Jeepers Creepers wraps itself in our expectations of what horror movies should be, and what they used to be. Beneath the surface, however, lurks a sinister compulsion to obliterate the status quo and leave witnesses scrambling for cover, begging for answers, and desperate for assurances that will never, ever come.

*The other closeups we get are embarrassing to watch. The corpses in the Creeper's lair look so doll-like, that I couldn't believe Salva wanted to show us the fine details. They look hastily prepared, and background-filler cheap.

**Which I'll explore further in an upcoming look at Jeepers Creepers 2.

Friday
Jun102016

The Idol (2015)

This is the Voice

I won't pretend to be well-versed in Israeli/Palestinian politics, or to even know enough to support one side over the other. But I know great art when I see it, and Hany Abu-Assad's latest film, The Idol, definitely qualifies. The drama about an aspiring young Palestinian singer, who would grow up to win the Arab Idol competition in 2012, is a moving, sometimes corny, always emotionally honest look at art as a mechanism for spiritual and societal healing.

The film opens in 2005 and finds brother/sister musicians Mohammed (Qais Atallah) and Nour (Hiba Atallah) struggling to upgrade their neighborhood band's homemade instruments. At every turn, they're set back by unscrupulous adults: one tries to steal a fish from their makeshift beach market, another makes off with their meager savings and threatens violence if they try to collect. As hopelessness takes hold, the kids receive encouragement from a local music teacher, and begin performing paid wedding gigs (which brings its own complications, since Nour must disguise the fact that she's a girl in order to perform in public). 

The first third of The Idol is a scrappy, feel-good sibling story that doesn't treat smart, talented kids as precious objects. Mohammed and Nour are real, cool kids who've built a rock-star world with their big dreams and the kind of optimistic self-assuredness that shines so bright before adulthood. Unfortunately for them, the real world disrupts these grand plans and, no knowing anything about Mohammed Assaf's story before seeing the film, I was utterly sucker-punched by what happened.

I leave this mystery for you to discover. Just know that Act Two rockets us seven years into the future, which finds Gaza and its inhabitants markedly different than how we left them. Mohammed is now a college student and a cab driver, and his fares take him through the bombed-out remnants of a once thriving city. The band broke up long ago, and Mohammed's former friend, Omar (Ahmad Rokh), became a military man and religious fanatic after Nour rejected him romantically.

Mohammed eventually finds the strength to rekindle his passion for singing, and devises a plan to sneak in to Egypt for the Arab Idol auditions. It's here, in this last third, that The Idol loses a bit of steam. In an interview with Abu-Assad, the director told me that the events as, depicted by him and writer Sameh Zoabi, are mostly true--which makes what happens to Mohammed as close to a real-life fairy tale as I've ever seen. Mohammed gets into Egypt; gains a spot in the closed-off audition line when another would-be contestant gives up his spot; and (as you know from either history or the opening of this review)--takes the top prize.

I doubt I'll have the same issue with the last leg of The Idol on second viewing, now that I know how it all pans out. Thematically, the upbeat ending is a great pay-off to the hardship and cosmic cruelty that darken the rest of the film. I just wish some of that conflict had made its way into the end. I should count myself lucky, I guess, that Abu-Assad spared us the episodic auditions and gaudy pageantry. Buoying this last section is a soulful performance by Tawfeek Barhom, who plays the adult Mohammed as a man who wants nothing more than to move on from a childhood that was stolen from him. When he sings, even though it's only for a reality-TV contest, his voice transcends music and becomes the sound of freedom.

In pop culture, dreams are cheap. It seems every hayseed who grew up singing to themselves in the mirror thinks they deserve to be Kelly Clarkson, simply because they had the "courage" to answer an open casting call. It's easy to dismiss these shows because they are ubiquitous and generally awful. But The Idol presents us with the big idea that sometimes mass-audience entertainment can bring people together; can help people make their dreams come true; can elevate genuine talent beyond obscurity. Beyond the ratings, the catfights, the cults of personality, there are real people fighting every day to become more than their circumstances, and The Idol reminds us of the beauty that is sometimes buried under our justifiable skepticism.

Wednesday
Jun082016

Journey to Space (2015)

Beyond the Final Frontier

Earlier this year, I reviewed a film about astronaut Gene Cernan, called The Last Man on the Moon, and lamented the fizzling out of our collective will when it comes to space exploration. Mark Krenzien's Journey to Space has rekindled some of my personal hope and wonder--not due to any hard-hitting scientific or philosophical revelations, but purely based on visual spectacle. Journey to Space has the distinction of being an IMAX film and an early 4k Ultra HD release, which means it boasts the scale and the resolution to match its ambitious goal of setting imaginations ablaze.

Narrated by Patrick Stewart, the film offers a breezy primer on man's quest to move beyond his physical limitations and take to the skies, then to the stars, and through whatever portal the Great Beyond might open up to us next. Using restored archival footage and state-of-the-art digital animation, the filmmakers create a comprehensive timeline of achievements past and present, and even speculate as to how a Martian colony might take root.

Our guides are, naturally, a couple of astronauts. Christopher Ferguson commanded the shuttles Atlantis and Endeavour, and he speaks to a long lost reverence and awe for the space program. Talking over footage of the Endeavour's last tour before arriving at its new home, the California Science Center, he marvels that the craft was operated by a computer system less sophisticated than the phones we carry in our back pockets today. We're also treated to 3D-enhanced photos from the Hubble Space Telescope, which come alive as Impressionistic paintings of deep space.

But how to reach these heavenly bodies? Serena Auñón tackles that multi-faceted quandary as one of the key advisors on the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), which will someday transport a small team into deep space. We see her conduct exercises with other astronauts ranging from physical endurance tests that simulate the conditions on Mars, to tweaking designs in the futuristic suits that will allow the initial crew of volunteers to survive and work on what may very well be a one-way trip.

From inflatable habitats to zero-gravity training exercises to deep-sea simulations of space walks and footage of scientists constructing the International Space Station in low-earth orbit, Journey to Space turned my brain synapses into a fireworks display, lighting up my imagination through truly breathtaking images. It also solidified for me exactly what it was that I couldn't stand about last year's other big red-planet movie, The Martian: Ridley Scott's gazillion-dollar epic looked great but lacked soul.

Space exploration is one of our noblest, most promising, and most terrifying endeavors, and to see it reduced to pat hipster snark in the form of Matt Damon's quipping cypher and Drew Goddard's nearly conflict-free screenplay is mind-boggling in the context of films that are supposed to be taken seriously.* Though Krenzien was not in direct (or even intentional) competition with the other film, he wound up creating the superior "Mars movie" of 2015. Journey to Space captures the spirit, the reason, the fear of space exploration--and in a third of the time as Sir Ridley.

*I was one of three people on the planet who didn't arch an eyebrow when The Martian was nominated in The Golden Globes' "Comedy" category.