“Dear White People” Review

Dear White People is one of the best films of 2014 because it tackles a new form of racism. The safe Ivy League campus of which the story takes place breeds the type of racism that is more subtle and creeps into your skin where it festers into an almost invisible hate. It’s easy to spot racism when it presents itself in the form of the Klu Klux Klan, Nazis, blackface, old-world stereotypes, slavery and “the big N.” Those are big targets easy enough for any reasonable person to nail with a palpable hit. It’s quite another thing to find a way to deal with racism in the form of media, elections, tribalism and romance. These are not so easy to spot and even harder to resolve. Perhaps they can never be resolved.

This becomes painfully apparent when one of the school chairs remarks that there is no more racism in America anymore (“except for Mexicans”). From his perspective, racism is dead especially for these privileged kids. He doesn’t spot any lynching, fragrant uses of the N word, banning others for their skin color or a vulgar play of stereotypes in sight. But racism doesn’t come in such simple packages and cannot be dismissed simply because the biggest issues have been quelled.

The film takes a look at the subject from a micro level, following four very different black students on campus. The centerpiece is Samantha White, the loud and proud racially-motivated radio host and filmmaking student. She writes a book of black people observations on what makes a positive African American role model and what constitutes a walking stereotype. Her initial film project is The Rebirth of a Nation, a modern role-reversal of D.W. Griffith’s blatantly racist film The Birth of a Nation (1915).

Sam’s tactics on the subject are strictly eye-for-an-eye. But her path is built on a shaky foundation. When she applies to be the head of a local fraternity, she only does so to rile the masses. She does not expect to win and when she actually does so there is panic in her mind just as prominent as her opponent’s. The added burden coupled with her school work, radio show, secret white boyfriend and medical issues at home start to make her pillars crack. When she’s on the radio, ranting and classifying the racist world she perceives, Sam is calmly and casually in control. When she receives news about her dad’s illness or is challengingly questioned by her caucasian partner, she’s a mess and the us-versus-them mentality begins to display its ugliness of separation.

Other characters we focus on go to the other end of the spectrum not so much by choice, but by design. Colandrea Conners, or Coco as she would prefer to be known virally, is obsessed with becoming a celebrity achieving reality show status. But Coco is not exactly what a hunting producer is seeking. Namely, the black producer wants somebody more in-your-face with the culture and Coco tries too hard to shun her ghetto roots. He finds himself more interested by Sam’s speeches than Coco’s talking head videos on YouTube. Jealous and willing to do anything for the attention, she rants against Sam White and immediately generates a favoring with both the producer and white college students. We can see this is not entirely what Coco wants to say or do, but she carries on believing it’s the only way to get anywhere in the lime light.

The most interesting character to examine in the movie is Lionel, a gay black student with a large curly afro (which curious white girls can’t help but play with). Lionel does not choose a side in the racial debate and is just not sure of his place in the world yet. Fraternities lock him out of the house and treat him as both the outcast nerd and the gay mascot, both titles he sighs at with disappointment.

An enigmatic editor takes notice of Lionel’s writing and hires him for the local paper. But is the editor interested in him more as a writer or just the color of his skin? This question is raised even further when the two of them enter into a relationship. Does he see Lionel as a boyfriend or his black boyfriend that he can tout as a point for the qualifications of racially tolerant white people? In one of the most hurtful moments for him, one of the editors earnestly refers to Lionel as being black, but “not really black.”

Dear White People tackles modern racism in a way that is intoxicatingly honest, smart and uncompromising. It shares an undeniable similarity to Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (1989) not for its subject matter, but for its characters. There are no good or bad characters in this film; just ignorant ones. The ignorance goes all the way around displaying characters who would seem politically correct discovering the big kinks in their armor when the bullets of racism fly.

Director Justin Simien makes his debut with this feature and he proves that he not only has a lot to say, but a knack for placing all those thoughts and commentaries up on the screen. The college life is perfectly portrayed in the awkward quiet moments in addition to the hustling and bustling of campus activities. Sam argues with her white boyfriend all the way back to her dorm room and even continue the conversation when they’re alone, kissing and undressing. There plenty of beautiful shots in the bedroom that capitalize on the young intimate experience. Brief shots of the clothes on the floor or a ripped open condom wrapper stick out as we witness the characters basking the afterglow letting their inner thoughts leak out.

This is not an easy comedy, a simple examination of racism or a one-note societal commentary. For being so daring and off-beat, it strikes a genuine chord as an awkward picture that may make you squirm, but also make you more thoughtful and vocal about race. The film ends with real photos of “black themed” parties at college campuses featuring white college students in rapper garb, donning gold chains and even covering themselves in black face. These are present to remind us that this is not just an isolated incident within an Ivy League microcosm that racism is still alive. The racism that plagues these upper-class colleges may be lesser than that of the inner city or ghettos, but it still exists and is just as ugly in the way it eats away at individuals.

“Green Street Hooligans: Underground” Review

While there are many movies out there that attempt to satirize the cheese of macho sports flicks from the 1980s, Green Street Hooligans: Underground seems to be one of the most earnest attempts at recapturing that goofy charm. It whips out all the old clichés of the sports training picture from the driving jog through the streets to the slow passionate scene of lovemaking to the quintessential giant of a nemesis. The soundtrack even echoes that familiar sense of 1980’s synth. Since it’s all kept rather subtle, you never really get that feeling of it being a-typical of the 80’s sports genre until about midway through the picture. There’s something rather admirable about a film that can keep up such a tone without added camp. It almost makes its spotty storytelling worth viewing.

What helps keep its 80’s sports roots well hidden is its premise of focusing on the world of street fighting football fans. Danny Harvey (Scott Adkins) returns to his old stomping grounds of West Ham when his little brother is murdered. Determined to find his brother’s killer, he decides to delve back into the world he left. He sticks around the pub to hook up with the lady bartender and acquaint himself with the Green Street Elite of fighting football fans. Out of shape and overweight, they’re far from being the best when it comes to street rumbles with opposing football team fans. Danny decides to whip them into shape for the main goal of tracking down his brother’s murderer (I think). There’s also an undercover cop in all the fighting seeking to find the murderer as well (I suppose).

Most of the film is dominated by montages with music. The violent drinkers hit the gym for some much-needed exercises before the big fights. They lift some weights, punch some bags and do plenty of push-ups. The fights themselves are treated almost like tournaments in the way the film tracks each street match. They take place everywhere from steel cages in fields to abandoned buildings with flares for lighting. They go at it like dogs, kicking and punching wherever they can land a blow, in some brutally bloody sequences. And, of course, there’s the sex scene montage which isn’t all that erotic in the least.

The fights themselves are very frequent and quite graphic. Heads smash through car windows, faces are stomped on by multiple fighters and groins are smashed. There’s not much craft to any of these scenes though. All the training they do for these matches eventually boils down to who can hit harder and gang-up on the most people. I also found it rather amusing how they keep track of these fights as if it were some sort of fantasy football league. This makes me question why the film couldn’t just be a comedy. The montages are laughable, the fights are over the top and the dialogue is just a comical mess of cuss words. I just couldn’t take such a film seriously for how straight it probably wanted to play up the world of organized underground football fan fighting. Then again, I was never much of a fan of organized underground football fan fighting. Maybe I’ll try to catch a few games on ESPN and see if it’s my thing.

Green Street Hooligans: Underground truly does feel like one of those forgettable and silly B-movies from the 1980s you’d put on for a laugh. But since I’m not so sure the director was in on this angle, I’m afraid I have to call it like I see it. This is a worthy rental as a party film to mock with your best buddies over a few beers. As a legitimate action picture about underground fighters, however, you’re better off finding something a little more grounded.

“Kite” (2014) Review

Of all the Japanese animated movies to adapt for a live-action presentation, Kite confuses me. The original source material was a one-hour, over-the-top action romp with ridiculously violent fights and overly graphic sex scenes. So disturbingly pedophelic were these sexual encounters that the general release had to be edited down severely with the “director’s cut” being released under a pornography affiliate. Tracing its inspiration, an obvious suspect would be Luc Besson’s Leon The Professional, a sub-par American remake of Besson’s superior action picture La Femme Nakita. Perhaps the producers of the Kite remake somehow thought that the talent would come full circle.

In reality, it’s a bland mess of an action picture drowned in cliché and confusion. The setting seems to have shifted from Japan to South Africa (never stated, but that’s where it was filmed). The world has just suffered an economic collapse and society has crumbled to a world of flesh cartels and vicious gangs. It seems like a more likely future free of robots and holograms, but most of the setting sounds like the present even without the economic crash. I guess that backdrop makes the abundance of mobsters and nightclubs more acceptable.

Our protagonist is the young vigilante Sawa (India Eisley), fighting her one-woman war against the flesh dealers to avenge her dead parents. She poses as a prostitute in her boldly colored wig and lures the men in with her sexual offerings. But, surprise, she murders them with skill just before they do the deed.

Her weapon of choice is a bulky pistol that fires bullets with a timed explosive charge upon impact. This sounds like it would make for some neat kills, but we never see any of them since she aims directly for the head killing the gangsters instantly.

In the opening scene, Sawa puts a bullet in the brain of her lasted perverted catch of the day in an elevator. The bullet is apparently strong enough to put a baseball-sized hole through the victim’s blocking hand, but not enough to blow away his skull. The music swells as the beeping of the bullet lodged in the corpse grows faster until there is a bloody explosions. This director is actually seeking tension in if a dead body can get deader. The movie never gives us that satisfactory moment where a gangster is wounded by one of these bullets, corners Sawa with a deadly assurance of her demise and loses a limb from the explosion.

But the a-typical mafia men in tacky suits are not the only opponents she has to deal with. There is apparently a roaming gang of feral humans that seem to be lost on their way to the set of Mad Max. They leap and bound from city structures like parkour artists on adrenaline. They travel in packs giving the standard whistle for more of their kind to join in the hunt for money, guns and whatever they can loot off their victims as they brutally beat them to bloody pulps.

Where are the cops in all this? They’re just as corrupted by the crippled economic state. Karl Aker (Samuel L. Jackson) is one such detective working semi-outside the law to give Sawa with plenty of guns and drugs. Her narcotic of choice is known as Amp which is apparently supposed to make you an efficient killer, but also degrade your memory severely. Of course, this clouds her true purpose for avenging her parents which will eventually surface.

Everything about this movie is sloppy from its laughable twists to its poorly edited action sequences to even the sound design. In order to make this vision seem just a tad futuristic, the movie adds these strange synth sounds to the cop car sirens. This sound clashes heavily with the techno soundtrack where you’re not sure if the music is building or if the cops are approaching from the distance. Supposedly, Rob Cohen (Shark Night) was attached to direct, but died before production began and David R Ellis stepped in to direct. Given Rob’s resume, it’s possible he could have delivered a movie that was just as campy as its anime counterpart. What we got instead is a dreary picture that attempts to be dark and bombastic without ever hitting either target.

Lacking in bite, blood and pulp, Kite is a remake doomed to obscurity if not for its bland production than its overuse of clichés. Honestly, how many more cherry-colored bob wigs do I have to see a movie prostitute/assassin wear before this trope is retired. I’ve already seen it used twice in 2014. Somebody please put a bullet in this tired device to put it out of its misery.

“How to Train Your Dragon 2” Review

The sequel to How to Train Your Dragon succeeds where many continuing animated features falter. Having established this fantasy world, the next step is to naturally expand on the characters and exploring new wonders. Some films are not strong enough to keep these elements going and usually display how there was only enough material for one film. Thankfully, How to Train Your Dragon 2 proves that it has plenty of character, lore and fun to keep the film series going. At least for one sequel anyway.

The Viking island of Berk has grown very accustomed to the presence of dragons. They’re not just pets or fulfilling Flintstones-style jobs, but companions they befriend for flight and games. While the village enjoys the dragons for all these benefits, Hiccup and his dragon Toothless explore the many islands to map out undiscovered regions. It’s not just something fun to do with his dragon pal as he tests out his new flight suit, but helps him clear his mind of his father pressuring him to take over the clan.

While exploring the regions, they run into a band of dragon capturers who work for the warlord Drago. Hiccup and Toothless stumble upon this group and their bitter feud with a mysterious figure known as the Dragon Rider. Curious about the special powers of this Dragon Rider, Hiccup seeks out the individual which turns out to be a long lost family member. While Hiccup attempts to reunite his family and spend some time discovering more secrets of dragons, Drago has set his sights on both the Dragon Rider’s home for dragons in the mountains and Hiccup’s hometown of Berk. With a massive army at Drago’s disposal that continues to grow, Hiccup is going to need all the help he can get to save his people and his newfound family.

Returning director Dean DeBlois succeeds at bringing back the wonder and amazement for this world of dragons. In the first film, a select group of dragons were classified and explained. The sequel brings so many new and colorful kinds of dragons into the mix and let’s the audience get lost in the splendor of it all. From the little baby dragons with their erratic behaviour to the glacier-sized elder alpha, there are so many interesting creatures on screen that leaves you scrambling for the pause button to catch everything.

What helps keep the film moving is that it never slows down for anything. There is no elaborate narration given for the rules of the dragon sports game they play in Berk; it plops you right into the scene and trusts your eyes to convey how it works. There’s no detailed examination of how Hiccups fire-sword works; just a quick explanation of combining gas with a trigger. And one of my favorite moments is the reveal of Hiccup’s missing family member that’s unloaded gently and with grace as opposed to dumping it all into the script at once. This film is a perfect example of how an animated film can show instead of tell when there is so much to show.

Everything about the production is A-grade. From the various vast landscapes to smallest amounts of details on the character’s faces are top notch. I love the little defining features of the human characters from the aged whiskers of Stoick to Hiccup’s tiny scar on his chin. But, of course, the diverse mix of so many dragons that fill the screen are just as strong a sight to behold. From the triumphant score to the intricate sound design, I could down the list all day of just how many elements are knocked out of the park with this production.

The biggest flaw that many of these animated sequels fall into is becoming so obsessed with developing and playing with the already established elements that they forget to write an impressive story. DeBlois proves that he still has a story to tell and isn’t just rehashing. The family aspect to the story packs some real emotion that really does give the film its own tone providing a much more personal story than the first film. You really get a sense of family with the passing of the torch and taking care of your own. It’s a simple theme that plays so nicely you don’t mind how uneven the first act appears.

Whereas most sequels to stellar animated films seem just barely enjoyable, How to Train Your Dragon 2 manages to rise above the already spectacular predecessor. It’s a well-written machine with genuine emotion, fantastic flying sequences and still manages to be whole lot of fun. As far as Dreamworks sequels go, this is by far one of their best and certainly one I’d treasure for more than a few viewings.

“Maleficent” Review

Be it the popularity of Game of Thrones or that trend of darkening up classic fairytales, Disney has taken a new approach to the story of Sleeping Beauty with a focus on the villainous Maleficent. But as the voice-over introduction implies, there’s more to the story than we originally thought. In fact, this version believes that the story is completely wrong. Maleficent wasn’t a villain at all, but a wronged woman who ends up saving the day. Such a route isn’t uncommon as the only two ways to make a movie about a villain is to either have them turn around as the hero or slink comfortably into their role of evil. But in the quest to make Maleficent the hero in this story, so much else is sacrificed in the name of making a female-friendly witch of great power and pathos.

The movie begins innocent enough portraying Maleficent as a curious, young fairy of the forest who fancies a prince that wanders into her domain. The two form a relationship, but their souls grow apart as the kingdom of humans threatens to encroach on the magical forest. Battles ensue between the king’s army of knights and Maleficent’s army of trees. Eventually the prince must make a serious choice about where he stands by cutting off the wings of his secret love. And this is the moment where the story loses all its character and tone the way Maleficent being de-winged is staged as a rape allegory with her being drugged, sliced and crying in a pool of her tears in the morning.

This would seem to be the setup for a darker path of a villain given how horribly wronged she was by her first love. But once we get to the familiar story of Sleeping Beauty with the iconic scene of the wicked witch cursing the princess, the movie starts dipping down into the depths of a mediocre fan-fiction. Rather than despise Sleeping Beauty and attempt to keep her comatose for eternity, the magical matriarch regrets her decision after years of watching over her like a mother hen. Rather than harbor some fleeting emotions of their earlier romance, Maleficent and the prince-turned-king are simplistic enemies. And rather than Sleeping Beauty being awakened by the kiss of a prince, she’s actually awakened by Maleficent herself.

All of this staged as if to imply that the true story of Sleeping Beauty was a massive coverup by a patriarchal society. There’s nothing wrong with rewriting a fairytale from a different perspective, but this one appears more vindictive than creative. The best part of the picture is Angelina Jolie as the cackling and sinister Maleficent, embodying the role as no other actor could. The worst part of the movie is everything else. The character that surround Maleficent’s arc are all one-dimensional. The king who descends into madness has no buildup – one scene he’s a boy in love with a fairy, the next he’s a babbling madman swinging a sword. Prince Charming appears in the picture, but only as a worthless red herring. The three fairies that watch over Sleeping Beauty are just forced comic relief embodying a female version of The Three Stooges. And Sleeping Beauty herself would have been better off spending the entire movie asleep with how little she has to say or do.

The consensus among both the writer, director and Jolie was that they felt compelled to make this movie as an aspiring figure for little girls. Sure, because this is what little girls want to see in a movie, right? They don’t want a fantasy story filled with enchantment and wonder – they want rape allegories and pathos in a tone-deaf revenge tale. The movie is entirely dependent on Jolie’s performance to hold this rickety narrative together that tacks on CGI battles and light humor. At its best, the grand effects of walking trees and fire-breathing dragons is serviceable. At its worst, the bickering of the fairies will have you tearing your hair out in annoyance.

Maleficent features Angelina Jolie all dolled up as the perfect villain with nowhere to go. She leaves behind every single actor in the dust as if her magical powers sucked every ounce of character out of the cast. Even her companion – a crow that transforms into a man – isn’t much for conversation. Though given how terrible the dialogue is of the three fairies, maybe he got off lucky. It’s such a shame that the marvelous talents of Jolie are wasted on a ham-fisted script where she has to act against cardboard characters. Sure, she’s a memorable character for rediscovering love and she emits a palpable charm, but at what cost? I want to love her and this movie, but it’s hard to do that when this picture refuses to define its characters or pick a consistent tone.

“Transformers: Age of Extinction” Review

The fourth entry in Michael Bay’s ‘Transformers‘ movie saga has new characters and the same old flaws. It’s a clunky and bloated mess of a movie based on the popular 1980’s toy line and cartoon/3o-minute commercial series. This is the very definition of a mindless summer blockbuster that is all presentation and zero substance. In other words, it’s just another Transformers movie with all the flashy graphics and major plot problems we’ve come to expect from this franchise by now. It’s a movie that doesn’t so much leave me foaming with hate, but sighing in disappointment.

At almost three hours, this is a needlessly intricate plot for what amounts to a soulless robot battle. The Autobots, the ‘good Transformers’, are currently being hunted down the by the CIA after their last big battle resulted in too much damage and loss of life in Chicago. To dispatch them, the American government comes up with the genius idea to use the visiting Transformers creators in wiping out their own ilk. We know this is only going to result in the destruction of humanity when the creators turn on the humans, but nobody ever once bothers pointing this out. In addition, the government is also working with a science division to create their own Transformers with a new element known as Transformium (what an original name). In doing so, they end up reviving Megatron (rival villain of the Autobots) who now has the ability to a-sexually reproduce more Transformers for some reason.

None of this matters though as it’s all just an elaborate excuse for Mark Wahlberg and his family to run around robot-infested battlefields. Wahlberg plays a poor inventor who happens upon the Autobot leader Optimus Prime and is conflicted about helping him or turning him in. The decision is easily made when the CIA arrive at his door and threaten to kill his daughter unless he hands over Prime. They escape in a big explosion and it’s now working man versus government and Autobots versus Transformer creators. Instead of taking advance of all the various plot points and angles you could take from the multitude of story elements tossed in, they’re just stepping stones to the inevitable.

The computer graphics for the Transformers and the action sequences are top-notch as always with a nearly seamless blending of live-action footage and CGI. But what is it all for? None of these characters are developed enough that we don’t care who is killed or who shoots what. The entire last hour is a frenetic mess of moving parts clashing on screen. I can’t tell which Transformer is which with such horrible designs that lack any iconography or personality. How is it that in a movie year where we have films with CGI raccoons, ninja turtles and apes are far more expressive and competent then the smattering of gears that are the Transformers?

Why is Optimus Prime riding a robotic dinosaur and wielding a sword? Who cares – he just cut a Transformer in half. That is the only justification I could imagine for everything that happens in this movie. This is the very definition of a film with no shame. It doesn’t care that the characters are one dimensional. It doesn’t care that plot is a string of lame gags where everybody is comic relief.  And it certainly doesn’t care about the worst product placement I’ve ever seen – as if Bay is trying to outdo himself in this one department. If Michael Bay cares only about the technical aspect and none of the story, why should we give a hoot about anything in this film? It’s the junkiest of the junk food cinema, guaranteed to give you a brain ache.

“Lucy” (2014) Review

‘Lucy’ may not be one of Luc Beeson’s best action films, but it’s certainly his most ambitious and challenging given the subject matter. It attempts to find some meaning and reasoning to the essence of life from the perspective of someone who can see almost every aspect of reality. That’s not quite the story you’d expect from a director that specializes in gun-toting action sequences. And while Beeson still doesn’t shy away from his bread and butter, he at least takes some unexpected chances for a conceiving a very different action picture.

Our title protagonist played by Scarlett Johansson is party girl unwittingly forced into a drug smuggling campaign by a Hong Kong mafia boss. The blue powdered substance is apparently so powerful that a hefty dose can fry your brain. This does not bode well for the drug mules that forcefully hold the packaged material within their abdomens. Lucy, however, has her bag of the lethal narcotic opened, exposing her body to the harmful effects. Somewhat to her benefit, the drug increases her brain activity above the usual 10%. With her newfound superpower, she can read minds, float objects and fire guns with pinpoint accuracy. The only drawback is that her awareness will continue to grow until she eventually dies. With little time left on this Earth, Lucy makes the tough decision of what to do with new awareness as her time runs out.

Unlike this Beeson’s previous works, this scenario is not limited to a revenge plot. In fact, the revenge on this mafia head himself is very early, very brief and more of a torture than a takedown. She seems far more preoccupied by making sure the drug doesn’t get out into the public. Additionally, she takes an interest in a scientist (Morgan Freeman) who she confides her knowledge with and hopes that she can in trust him with the secrets she’s discovered. Of course, those expecting her to use these psychic powers on an onslaught of gangsters will not be let down either. She disassembles guns, traps the bad guys inside invisible walls and suspends them in the air to get what she wants.

Scarlett Johansson really puts her all into this performance as a woman who tries to grapple with her new understanding of the world. Despite her initial status, she’s not bouncing around playing all kinds of goofy parlor tricks with her new powers. She knows far too much about the world and finds a certain vulnerability at comprehending all of existence through her super brain. Her cold delivery and exploration of life creates a fully realized character that you both sympathize with and genuinely want to see her succeed in her end goal of bettering human life. I was surprised to find this in a film where the title hero is essentially an immortal god capable of perfect accuracy and undefeatable psychic powers.

While I don’t quite feel the film is as transcendent as it likes to think it is with some unsubtle editing, it’s still a wildly impressive visual treat that takes more chances with it subject material. It would be all too easy to play it safe by making ‘Lucy’ a simple story of a dying mutant’s revenge. Beeson attempts to say so much more about human existence with the piece even if he’s not exactly putting the puzzle together very accurately. This is an action movie that won’t exactly expand your mind with its science fiction angle, but it will give your brain something unique to chew on.

“Space Station 76” Review

The awkward indie comedy scene need not be relegated to the hipster landscape. ‘Space Station 76’ defies that sub-genre by injecting a similar writing tone into the setting of an isolated space satellite, ala ‘Space: 1999’. Rather than filling this retro vision of the future with stock characters constantly flipping switches and speaking technobabble, this is a collective of bitter and tired people bred from the sterile and lonely environment they occupy. It’s that harsh light of insecure reality shining down an otherwise whimsical location which gives the film its very weird and watchable charm.

Introduced into the hive of silent turmoil is the new co-pilot Jessica (Liv Tyler), a genuinely sweet personality that does her best to make friends on the station. She tries to maintain the station’s safety, but the drunken Captain Glenn (Patrick Wilson) dismisses her words as he struggles to deal with his closet homosexuality. She does seek some kinship with residents Ken and his daughter Sunshine, but is viciously despised by Ken’s drugged up wife Misty. While the trio of good-natured individuals struggle to keep a stiff upper lift, the adulterers of the station battle their own personal demons through drinks, smokes and robot-operated psychiatry. They hate their jobs, their relationships and the lives they find themselves saddled with out in space.

This is the type of film that sort of catches you off guard luring you in for what may seem like a campy satire of  ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ that ends up being a rather peculiar dramedy. You can feel seething hatred and jealousy emitting from this group within the hospital-style interiors.  Even within the characters that seem more pure like Ted, there is an almost haunting presence of temptation. He looks out into space and fantasizes about a naked woman within a star. Sunshine discovers a pornographic magazine in her parent’s dresser and begins to have doubts about her body. These scenes may make the film seem like a depressing journey, but I found it more intriguing for the fact that in a wondrous future people still have the same social problems. A space station free of alien monsters and looming intergalactic threats breeds its own difficulties. It doesn’t help that the robot they all rely on for psychiatric help is only programmed to respond to certain key words and doesn’t actually help them.

With so much vitriol, it doesn’t seem like the best idea for a comedy. In fact, it’s almost hatable for the first act. There are some redeeming factors that prevents it from being completely soulless as with Sunshine’s anti-gravity game in which her dad cheers her on as she float around the room. And the inevitable climax which could’ve easily taken a disastrous turn winds up being a more touching ending that brings the characters back to what’s really important. This is a very strange type of genre blending that I can’t exactly say I loved, but didn’t really despise all that much either. I got a few laughs even though it was mostly that awkward kind of amusement that comes from dark improv. I had some fun following these flawed characters even though most of their issues seem to pile up too quickly. The real deal breaker for me were the special effects and set design of a space station that embodies the 1970’s era. Popped collars, brown wallpaper and Beta tapes litter the halls of a very familiar looking design for a livable space environment. It’s those moments that give the film its true edge of speculating a future with more advancements in everything except people.

“Jack and the Cuckoo Clock Heart” Review

Computer animated films tend to follow a specific track to keep everything looking clean, pretty and bouncy. ‘Jack and the Cuckoo Clock’ attempts to break all the rules and delivers a more artistic animated film as if it were a trippy fantasy from the 1970’s. It plays with the medium, switches it up constantly and constructs a unique world of European gothic. The movie also happens to be a musical set with a darkly romantic tone and an undeniably odd charm. It’s as if someone took the brain of Tim Burton and injected it with a large dose of pep.

Our protagonist is a boy born on the coldest day that his heart was made of ice. Before it could melt, the midwife replaces his freezing organ with a cuckoo clock. After the depressed mother leaves, Jack is raised by the midwife so that he’ll adhere to the rules of maintaining his heart: Keep it clean, keep it wound and don’t fall in love. If the latter occurs, his clock could break down and kill him. But a little death by organ failure can’t stop a romantic youth. On his first visit into the city, he breaks into a song with the lovely Miss Acacia. During their duet, Jack pulls back just in time to save his faulty heart, but loses sight of his love at first sight. Pining for his love-at-first-sight, Jack attends public school with Acacia nowhere in sight. His presence is instead given note to the local bully Joe, determined to mock and assault our poor protagonist. Karma catches up with him, however, when Jack’s cuckoo goes off and pluck out Joe’s eye.

The threat of imprisonment forces Jack on the lamb where he joins a freak show circus of colorful characters. Led in by an eccentric camera man, Jack finds work as a haunted roller coaster host. It is there that he finally meets the lovely Acacia who turns out to have a freaky talent for growing thorns from her skin. Unfortunately, several years have past and the girl no longer recognize Jack as the cute boy she shared a song with on the streets. She recalls the moment, but doesn’t it relate it to Jack. He’s going to have to win her back and fast seeing as how she’s already taken a liking to the villainous Joe.

This is a tremendous film with animation unlike any other feature film out there. Everything from the character designs to the architecture feel very off with a gothic tone adding to the otherworldly quality. I especially dug the design of the trains as octagon accordions that stretch and contract when in motion. The characters all look like big-headed dolls from some old collection unearthed specifically for this film. They don’t have the largest range of emotion, but I couldn’t take my eyes off them. The film also happens to be very well shot, playing with every single advantage of computer animation from the coiling shadows to the strange perspectives through dreams and cameras.

I should mention that this movie also happens to be a musical. The songs are not exactly memorable, sounding more like an opera, but they serve their purpose well adding more style and charm to a film that is already bursting at the seams with it. This is one of the most alluring animated films I’ve seen with an appealing dark fantasy that hooks you almost instantly. Though it may echo elements of Tim Burton’s worlds, it’s presented in this film with far more originality and creativity. The film ends on a somber note with the most artistic representation of accepting one’s fate with the climbing of snowflakes in a frozen world. ‘Jack and the Cuckoo Clock Heart’ is a true artistic feature film that dares to experiment in an expensive medium.

“School Dance” Review

I may have been out of the schools for over a decade, but I sure don’t remember any school dances like the one in this film. Actually that title isn’t even accurate as the key event is a school lock-in. That being said, I’ve been to school lock-ins as well that were nothing like this. Even within the cartoonishly satirical world weaved around this event, this is a movie that defies logic on such a ridiculous level that even over-the-top high school comedies of the 1980’s would blush at such a product. That’s to say nothing of the fact that it is disgustingly vulgar, sexist and racially backwards for what is supposed to be a comedy. This is a film that demands you not only check your brain at the door, but your sanity as well.

The only character who seems to be sane is Jason, our teenage protagonist seeking to be initiated into a popular clique while at the same time trying to acquire his true love. And, wouldn’t you know it, his two issues happen to collide as the only way to be accepted by the social group he seeks is to retrieve a woman’s panties. Who better than your true love, right? The best time for swiping a pair of female undergarments happens to be the school lock-in in which all the students drink, smoke and have sex. The teachers don’t give two damns seeing as how they’re very poor stereotypes of adults drowned in the rap lifestyle. The principal does nothing but talk about women as bitches and the white, female teacher is constantly talking about rap music.

What makes matters worse is that the movie tries to capitalize on typical high school plots without any rhyme or reason for getting from point A to B. The school lock-in happens to have a rap battle where the grand prize is $2000 which works out nicely for a student who desperately needs that exact amount of cash. Where did the money come from and why is the school holding such a contest? Beats me. The female love interest also happens to be the relation of a rival Mexican gang of Jason’s would-be clique. I’m sure this was intended to give a sort of Romeo & Juliet angle to the love quest, but it’s treated more as a comical turf war as if it were from another terrible movie. At one point the gang of Mexicans smash a man hole cover on a black gang member’s face repeatedly while he calls for help from his wimpy gang members. The assaulted man ends up with little more than a few cuts on his face. This is when the movie crosses over from a real high school comedy to a pure cartoon. Nothing seems at stake until the final act where somebody gets shot on school grounds and it’s apparently a laughable moment.

The most insulting thing about the movie is that it’s a mess of stereotypes. All the girls at school are highly sexualized, the black characters are all seen as slanderous gangsters and the white cops are dumb racists who fall for easy traps like pot brownies. It’s moments like this where I have to ask myself if this sort of dated perception of the world is still funny. It’s certainly not challenging. The way the movie was directed is almost like MTV vomited all over the cut which seems to randomly insert rap music videos. And I don’t mean to imply that the film is a musical because it’s not. The movie has far too many long stretches where everything will stop for one rap song that comes out of nowhere with hardly any relation to the story. The high school tropes are just awfully inserted as well when Jason does the tired narration of the high school cliques from the sexy ladies to the nerds. What importance does introducing the nerds have on the plot? Nothing since they’re never used. So why introduce them? And why does Patrick Warburton constantly show up in Jason’s head as his mental coach? The reasoning is just baffling.

Why include any of these elements if they’re not expanded or developed properly enough? The failure of the film to find reasoning in anything makes it feel more like a machine than a presentation. Rap music, gangster speak, sexy teens, dumb cops, gang war, high school dance, clique initiation, cut, print, grab the money, next film.