Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Catch-Up: Amblog Extracurriculars

Question: What does an Ambler do when he's not Amblogging?

Answer: A lot.

Comic-Con 2014

I recently traveled to America's Finest City to experience San Diego Comic-Con for the fifth time and my second trip as a member of the press.  Covering the event for Screen Invasion, I met more fascinating artists, creators, writers, actors, cosplayers, journalists, and fans than you could fit in a TARDIS.  I partied on a decommissioned aircraft carrier.  I sang along with a backpacking troubadour who knew Weird Al's entire discography by heart.  I saw a sports bar overrun by sweaty nerds gyrating to the soundtrack from A Goofy Movie.  And I did a little bit of writing:

- The minds behind the beloved cult sitcom Community expressed optimism and bemusement about their miraculous renewal by Yahoo.  (I also interviewed showrunner Dan Harmon a while back about his new documentary.)

- I learned that '90s metal gets Daniel Radcliffe in touch with his darker side at a press conference for the horror/fantasy/dark comedy Horns.

- LAIKA Studios is (almost) single-handedly keeping the stop-motion animated feature alive, and the roundtable interviews for The Boxtrolls renewed my confidence in their mission.

- Mike Tyson talked about his new animated series for Adult well as a bunch of other stuff.  Hands down the most unpredictable encounter to be had at this (let's face it) glorified trade show.

- And in my biggest coup of the Con, I had a wonderful conversation with Guardians of the Galaxy screenwriter Nicole Perlman, who had plenty to say about writing, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and science in popular culture.

What Were We Watching? Podcast

Oh, you want more?  How about a brand-new podcast where I join forces with the analytical genius of my filmmaker friend Cam Siemer (@CinematicESP)?

On What Were We Watching? we re-examine the movies of our childhood and find out how much of them we're still carrying with us today.  It's more biographical than critical - it's not about good and bad, but then and now.

The podcast accessible on our new blog as well as through iTunes, and you can reach out to us via our Twitter account, @w4podcast.  The first episode, tackling Good Burger, is already available for your listening pleasure, with episode two coming in the next couple of days.  New episodes will post every other week.  Subscribe, and hold onto your butts.

Blog-iversary 3: Senior Year

I continue to get worse at recognizing my own milestones, so here's where I belatedly mention that Ambler Amblog celebrated its third anniversary last month.  I started this project primarily as a creative outlet with no expectations/delusions of becoming anyone's trusted source for movie reviews, so I'm genuinely touched that you all continue to read and discuss and have faith in what I write.  Without you, the reader, this would have faded into obscurity (well...a greater obscurity) a long time ago.  I sincerely thank you.  Now go to the movies!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Dir. Matt Reeves

3 out of 5

A twisted Darwinism courses through Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the latest contribution to a long-running allegory of human behavior via the journey of intelligent, talking primates up the same rungs of the evolutionary ladder.  Even more so than its direct predecessor, Rise of the Planet of the ApesDawn is faster, louder, and grimmer than the talky late '60s/ early '70s epics that inspired it, taking those older films' ideas about inter-species conflict and making them more visceral than cerebral.  Picking up 10 years after the apes' initial rebellion led by the alpha-chimp Caesar (Andy Serkis), Dawn's opening credits clue us in to a new world order.  A viral plague has wiped out a large percentage of the world's human population; meanwhile, the apes have consolidated themselves into a thriving community just outside of San Francisco, where a band of desperate human survivors clings to life.  When a few of these people encroach upon ape territory in search of a power supply that could save their fledgling settlement, it fosters a mistrust within both communities that eventually leads to violence, despite the best efforts of sympathetic human allies such as Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his physician wife Ellie (Keri Russell), and their teenage son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee).  

Dawn is essentially about the failure of diplomacy in the face of disastrous internecine conflict, a theme supported more by the film's stunning visuals than its draggy plotting and questionable logic.  Building off the technological advancements and Serkis' groundbreaking motion-capture performance in Rise, director Matt Reeves fills the frame with all sorts of CGI primates: running, leaping, screeching, riding on horseback, handling automatic weapons - the possibilities are endless in a seamless blend of motion-capture and live-action footage.  These fantastic digital compositions are the movie's greatest triumph, elevating a script that disappointingly settles for inert, two-dimensional flesh-and-blood characters.  Reeves commands Dawn's visual layers with confidence and an occasional flair for bombast - most memorably in a sequence that frames a coup d'etat by Caesar's main rival, Koba (Toby Kebbell), as a literal descent into hell.

As a whole, however, Dawn leaves little to inference or interpretation.  At its best, the Apes series was once a conduit for intriguing (if heavy-handed) commentary on race, ethics, and civil rights.  Now, even the faintest subtext is made explicit, with the human-ape parallels written in big, obvious letters and served up with a forceful directness that spells out what this story has become:  another big-budget action saga on autopilot, with little space for frivolity or nuance.  (Or well-rounded female characters, for that matter.  Russell is capable and tough, but doesn't have much room within her Florence Nightingale role.)  It's admittedly effective, competently executed and well acted by an overqualified cast - including Gary Oldman as a human leader suspicious of the apes and their potential threat.  But it's also a familiar product and, despite the bold downer endings of its predecessors, is wary of deviating from the status quo.  While Dawn of the Planet of the Apes includes nods to both its heady sci-fi roots and its inherited B-movie sensationalism, it clearly favors the latter, and the film's technological marvels belie its reliance on hoary Hollywood story templates: even as it pulls focus away from the human characters, it's still ultimately about a clash of alpha males.

Thursday, July 10, 2014


Dir. Richard Linklater

4 out of 5

Parenting is difficult.  Watching movies is not.  But engaging with a film can be a bit like seeing a child grow up.  We are there in its first moments and are struck its initial self-confidence.  We watch as it finds its footing, hoping that it develops an identity without suffering too many growing pains.  And we may be disappointed or upset when it doesn't turn out the way we wanted, but you still have to find a way to accept it on its own terms.

Richard Linklater's Boyhood employs no such analogies, yet I felt for the movie the same way I felt for its main character, Mason (Ellar Coltrane).  Filmed intermittently over a 12-year period with the same group of actors, it follows Mason throughout a childhood that transforms him from a daydreaming 6-year-old into an artsy, introverted 18-year-old.  Friends and girlfriends come and go, but he's primarily influenced by his family members and their own changes - mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette), a hardworking single parent whose desire for upward mobility collides with a tragic and turbulent love life; father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), a hyperactive "cool dad" who gradually reforms his absentee ways; and sister Samantha (the director's real-life progeny Lorelei Linklater), whose energetic presence early in the film gives way to the kind of shyness you'd expect from a normal teenage girl coming of age in front of a camera.

Still, Boyhood's success depends on Coltrane, and Linklater has to be thanking his lucky stars that the casting turned out so well.  The movie's tone is set by Mason's combination of bemusement and curiosity, then later by his rebellious streak.  He doesn't over-react to things - even when he probably should - which lets the movie unspool its epic-length story without seeming like a collection of puberty's greatest hits.  If there's one issue with the pacing, it's that Linklater downplays the traumatic moments a bit too much, leading to a strange sensation where the audience is ready for them to pop up at any moment.  More than once, a scene feels like it's heading into after-school special territory before it ends in almost the most prosaic way possible.

Beyond its central experiment, Boyhood also cannot help but be a commentary on the times in which it was filmed.  Mason Sr. is Linklater's mouthpiece for complaints about the George W. Bush administration and the war in Iraq.  Olivia symbolizes the squeezing of the middle class, as her attempts to provide more for her family end with her in a position of even greater financial vulnerability.  And the film really gets how people increasingly find connection and fulfillment inside popular culture.  For a long time, it's the common tongue of Masons Sr. and Jr. - "Do you think they'll ever make a new Star Wars movie?" is dad's idea of a conversational springboard.  These injections are as natural as Linklater can possibly make them, but there's inevitably a patchwork aesthetic, with reliable storytelling shorthand like the style of Mason's hair or the jarring use of distinctive - though not exactly timeless - pop songs used to mark the passage of time.

However, it's obvious that Boyhood is very dear to Linklater's heart.  The latter parts of the movie borrow liberally from his biography as a young man struggling to make art in Texas, geographically and culturally removed from the people who would better understand his aspirations.  His rebellion is understandable, but in a way Linklater condescends to people who doesn't share Mason's soulful purity or sense of detachment.  There's definitely a transition from Boyhood into Pretentious Teenagerhood as Mason's angst hardens into a kind of high-minded solipsism.  But as they say, it's just a phase.  And knowing the trials that Mason went through, it's tough to for us to label him as permanently disaffected or cynical.  Boyhood is simply an achievement on so many levels -  as a masterclass in editing, as a document of Texas' natural diversity, as a Herculean labor of persistence - that I can forgive the film and the character this little bit of patronization.  Boyhood might not be exactly what I wanted or expected from a wide-angle look at the modern American adolescent, but I'm proud of it just the same.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Land Ho!

Land Ho!
Dirs. Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz

3 out of 5

There’s more than a whiff of anthropological interest in Land Ho!, a road movie about two ex-brothers-in-law that’s part bonding exercise, part environmental study of seniors adapting (or, in many cases, not adapting) to unfamiliar surroundings.  When the wife of even-tempered Aussie Colin (Paul Eenhoorn), a former banker, passes away, his boisterous American relation Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson), a recently retired surgeon, tries to boost his spirits with an impromptu vacation to Iceland.  Though the two men have not been particularly close since Mitch divorced Colin’s wife’s sister many years ago, they try to discover the potential of their friendship amidst the rugged beauty and stylish ultramodernism of their Nordic environs.

It’s quite fair to say that Land Ho! is really a vehicle crafted for Nelson, the real-life second cousin of co-director Martha Stephens.  Nelson’s Mitch is undoubtedly the highlight of the film, an incorrigible good ‘ol boy with a hearty appetite for T&A and red meat who’s also a pot-smoking libertine.  Whereas most people approach travel as a means to greet the world, Mitch is convinced that it’s the world that’s meant to meet him – even if he mostly ends up aggravating it instead. 

And while the movie has a lot of fun with the classic mismatch of travel companions, it’s more entertaining to watch Mitch annoy others, from urging a couple of twenty-something Ph.D. candidates to wear more revealing clothing, to grilling a honeymooning couple about their sex life.  To their credit, Stephens and her co-filmmaker Aaron Katz don’t promote Mitch’s eccentricities and tactlessness as a statement on his age or his generation, nor do they pass judgment on him as a person.  He simply is.

That sentiment applies to the film as a whole.  Bits and pieces of the men’s prior lives drift into the story – concealed sadness, regret, and even depression signaling from across the gulf of their mutual misunderstanding – but the filmmakers struggle to develop the audience’s interest in anything beyond the surface of their relationship.  Land Ho! is precisely what it looks like, which is often a gorgeous Icelandic tourism ad, scored to dreamy synths and the heavily-rotated ‘80s pop hit “In A Big Country.”  More than once, the camera drifts away from Mitch and Colin’s conversations to take in another stunning panorama, as if Stephens and Katz are copping to the slightness of their well-worn premise.  

But just because a movie aims for the center doesn’t mean it’s easy to hit the mark.  As crowd-pleasers go, Land Ho! is plenty lively and seeks an agreeable middle ground between caricature and nuance.  It’s a fizzy, fluffy film that nonetheless feels more substantial for its earnest assessment of lives in transition.  As it turns out, that recurring Big Country song is utilized perfectly:  “I’m not expecting to grow flowers in a desert/But I can still live and breathe and see the sun in wintertime,” it goes, a fitting anthem for the movie’s two eminently lovable heroes.

This review was originally posted to Screen Invasion.

Monday, July 7, 2014


Dir. Ben Falcone

2.5 out of 5

When Melissa McCarthy falls down three times in the first eight minutes of Tammy, I want to believe it's a strategy designed to divert us from the darkness of her titular character losing her dead-end job and her unfaithful husband - essentially, her entire life - in that same timespan.  Otherwise, it's simply a harbinger for the disappointing use of creative capital that defines this passion project co-scripted by McCarthy and her husband (and director) Ben Falcone.  Trapped between broad, obvious comedy and bitterly funny family melodrama, Tammy feels like an attempt at an edgy character study that was somehow transformed into the story of an alien beamed down from the planet White Trash with a mission to mildly annoy more genteel folk.

Tammy (McCarthy) is a rude, selfish, shrill, and impulsive ex-fast food employee whose response to intense personal crisis is to stomp two doors down to her mother's (Allison Janney) house and demand a getaway vehicle.  When mom demurs, Tammy instead hits the road with her brassy grandmother, Pearl (Susan Sarandon), another black sheep who's got a car, some cash, and an desire for one more adventure - to see Niagara Falls like her father once promised.  That doesn't happen, of course, as the two women quickly attempt to one-up each other in an impromptu contest of poor decision making.  

Tammy isn't the first film to present the road trip as a method of devolution, but it might be the most proudly formulaic.  It's a movie full of Pavlovian emotional simplicity that's all the more frustrating for the more complex paths that Falcone and McCarthy decline to pursue.  (I would love to see this premise get the Big Fan/Zero Charisma "sour loner" treatment as an indie film.)  It's an issue that tied up in McCarthy's almost Ferrell-ian ability to inspire solidarity with her self-delusions, gaining our trust just as she veers into jokes with tepid, over-determined punchlines.  It's not enough for Tammy to rob a restaurant in a silly getup of Crocs, a novelty t-shirt, and a greasy paper bag on her head; we have to watch a slow pan of her entire ridiculous ensemble set to a hip-hop song before the encounter becomes a mannered discussion about pies and hot tubs.

Still, plausibility is not the problem with Tammy - Falcone wisely resists piling on the wackiness, and McCarthy's far less indulgent in this type of role than just about any other comedic star.  The failure to establish a clear identity sinks the movie.  It tries to float along on the genial lack of decorum that defines McCarthy's onscreen persona without explaining what makes it consequential.  Don't get me wrong, it's satisfying to see her get back up whenever she's knocked down.  I just wish we cared more about why she was falling in the first place.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Life Itself

Life Itself
Dir. Steve James

4 out of 5

"I was born inside the movie of my life" begins the memoir of beloved writer and legendary film critic Roger Ebert.  That metaphor, three years after it was published, takes on a more literal meaning in Life Itself, a poignant documentary adaptation of said memoir from veteran filmmaker Steve James (The Interrupters).  Combining recollections from Ebert's friends and family, as well as candid scenes from his difficult recovery from a broken hip suffered just before shooting began, Life Itself is by turns inspiring and heartbreaking, courageous and cagey - a movie that finds the essence of its late subject in its captivating broadness.

Through archival footage and interviews, Ebert emerges both as a man of Falstaffian appetites - for culture and camaraderie; as well as food and drink, in earlier days - and intense intellect.  The many health problems that marked Ebert's latter years robbed him of his ability to pursue the former.  But the latter remains, and the movie's great revelation is in showing how intelligence evolves from justifiable, though perhaps insecure, claims on authority to an serene yet still scrappy sense of wisdom.

Life Itself is concerned, rightly, with the highlights of Ebert's 40-plus year career as a movie critic, tracking his progress from zealous young newspaperman to populist bellwether as public intellectual-cum-TV star to, finally, the emergent dean of American cinephilia.  James makes a convincing case that Ebert came along at just the right moment, when the oversaturation of pop culture and the rise of anticipatory film culture (with its attendant disappointment and shorter attention span) made the champions of challenging and quality cinema more important than ever.  

However, Life Itself cannot possibly find any more threads to unravel.  In a sense, Ebert stymied the actual movie of his life by writing it down first - not only in his memoir, but also in a lifetime of articles, reviews, interviews, and televisions appearances - and in his uniquely confessional and prolific style.  (The film is arguably more revealing about Ebert's longtime colleague and eventually friendly rival Gene Siskel, whom James treats with equal reverence.)  When you read an Ebert review, you learned as much about the reviewer as you did about the movie.  In his movie, we're allowed to contemplate much more than one man's career in journalism, for it encompasses so much more: the making of a national treasure; the sine wave of love and loss; the collective unconscious as projected onto a large screen in a dark room; and, indeed, life itself.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014


Dir. Bong Joon-Ho

4.5 out of 5

How we love our machines.  The top billing of Bong Joon-Ho's first English-language film, Snowpiercer, arguably belongs not to any of its international movie stars, but to the titular train, a self-sustaining pleasure carriage that's now an ark for the last remnants of humanity after a misguided scientific solution to global warming wound up freezing the entire planet.  For 18 years the ark has rumbled across the globe while its passengers became entrenched in a strict caste system.  In front are the elites in well-appointed cabins with plenty of comforts and amenities, while the poor occupy the rear of the train, a grimy and cramped powderkeg of discontent.  One of those miserable souls, the idealistic Curtis (Chris Evans), is determined to succeed where others have failed.  He plans and executes a revolt designed to overthrow the train's shadowy designer and chief engineer - known only as "Wilford" - contending not only with security forces, deadly hitmen, and a drugged-out accomplice (Song Kang-ho), but also the equally pernicious forces of social inertia and the soporific comfort of the status quo.

Movies can be machines too, especially in the summer, and Snowpiecer purrs better than any blockbuster Hollywood is likely to release this season.  That's because Bong clearly understands the path to success in genre cinema is not necessarily to be original, but to always be distinctive.  Based on a French graphic novel first published in the early 1980s, Snowpiercer is Bong's vision through and through.  There's environmental commentary with a kick-ass action chaser, a la his Korean monster movie The Host.  There's also an emphasis on familial bonds that propel personal sacrifice (see: Bong's haunting 2009 thriller Mother), whether it's the young turk Edgar (Jamie Bell) looking up to Curtis as a father figure or protective mother Tanya (Octavia Spencer) risking her life to find out why Wilford's agents plucked her five-year-old son from her arms with no explanation.  There's some brand new shit I can barely describe, like Tilda Swinton playing a cross between Margaret Thatcher, Eleanor Roosevelt, and an officious DMV employee.  And throughout it all, there's a general aplomb in the storytelling.  For example, it's not enough for Bong to deliver some mid-film exposition through a lessson for eager front-section elementary schoolers, so he frames it as a gonzo sequence that feels like a paramilitary re-education camp and ends it with a gunfight initiated by a pregnant woman.

That's probably the fifth or sixth most unexpected thing that happens in the movie.  Because beyond its formal trickery and thin character archetypes, Snowpiercer is driven by its need to yank the rug out from under the audience as many times as possible.  Bong never really leaves his destination in doubt.  It's just that he takes a more circuitous - and satisfying - route to get there.  In this way the film reminds me of last year's Stoker, another English-language debut from a successful Korean director that outstrips its closest American contemporaries in terms of mood and aesthetic.  Snowpiercer is even better - weirder and riskier, yet still acknowledging the audience's expectations of a good time and a (reasonably) happy ending.  It's everything you could want from a summer movie...and a few things you probably didn't anticipate.  Going off the rails has never felt so exhilarating.