What I’ve Been Watching: Hiatus Edition

It’s been just over a month since my last post, which may be why I feel so strange writing this one. In the time since my review of Swiss Army Man, I wrapped things up at my old job, packed up my belongings, and drove from Tulsa to LA to begin life as a graduate student in the Cinema and Media Studies program at USC. Until a few days ago, I’d never been farther west than Farmington, NM, and—after two years away—I certainly don’t feel ready to be a student again. I don’t know this city. I don’t know this school. And I don’t know how to study film at this level (reminder: my undergraduate degree is in English). On a related note, I’ve been incredibly overwhelmed by a number of things for a while now. A lot is changing, and I no longer have the comfort of a routine that I know well. I don’t even know where the nearest movie theater is (although, I’m sure I could figure that out pretty easily). But I’m here. And I’ve brought my blog with me.

In light of both my recent relocation and my impending status as a master’s student and TA, it’s clear that my life will be changing even more in the upcoming weeks and months. And so, this blog might change a bit too. . . though I’m not sure how. I may find that I can no longer see movies in theaters and may focus more on films that have been out for a while instead. I might choose to write about films that come up in the courses I take. I might attend so many screenings on campus and be so wrapped up in my studies and work that I barely have a moment to breathe. I might also start writing less reviews and more analyses, or I could even broaden the scope of this blog to include posts in which I discuss life as a student in USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. As always, time will tell.

But for now, here’s a few quick words on the movies I watched for the first time over the last several weeks.

Film: Equilibrium
Director: Kurt Wimmer
Primary Cast: Christian Bale, Taye Diggs, Sean Bean, Emily Watson, Christian Kahrmann, William Fichtner, Sean Pertwee
US Release Date: 6 December 2002

On July 13, 2016, I—in a moment of sheer unthoughtfulness—clicked Equilibrium after opening Netflix. Instead of doing any research on the film or looking through the site for something a little more worthwhile, I watched a movie based on nothing more than its genre (sci-fi/action) and the fact that it was right there in front of me.

While the cold and gray dystopic future in which Equilibrium is set initially holds promise for a thought-provoking film on human emotion and on what becomes of man under totalitarianism, it quickly abandons such potential. Instead of using his genre film to explore what it means to be human, Wimmer elects to present a shallow, watered-down tale that doesn’t have quite enough style to disguise its unfortunate lack of substance.

There are moments when Equilibrium is entertaining, but it is also terribly forgettable. Even with its slick action sequences and its invented setting, the film feels uninspired. Certain plot points are also rather contrived, and none of the performances are particularly impressive either. For a film so concerned with emotion, Equilibrium fails to give viewers reason to feel anything at all. Instead, Wimmer wastes a perfectly good sci-fi premise on a film that offers little in ideas and viewing experience alike. Unless they have some incredible love for long black outfits or have (somehow) all but run out of movies to watch online, Equilibrium is a film viewers should have no qualms about skipping.

Film: Blazing Saddles
Director: Mel Brooks
Primary Cast: Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Harvey Korman, Madeline Kahn, Slim Pickens
US Release Date: 7 February 1974

I’m not sure why I took so long to watch Blazing Saddles, because I thoroughly enjoyed The Producers and Young Frankenstein, and Gene Wilder has long held a special place in my heart.

Inevitably, Blazing Saddles reflects the time in which it was made and, as a result, some moments in the film (such as Mel Brooks in red face) made me squirm a bit. Still, I also understand that Blazing Saddles is very much aware of racism, and that it means to put certain types of prejudice front and center.

Content, context, and political correctness aside, I definitely had a good time watching Blazing Saddles. Parts of the film are better than others, and the script (which was penned by 5 people) is a little uneven, but it all comes together to form something that works. The movie is incredibly fun and is much more clever than it may seem at first. To many, Brooks is the master of “low” comedy (or of “high-low” comedy if you prefer), and I have no intention of arguing with them. Blazing Saddles is a mess, but it knows it’s a mess, and—most importantly—it’s a hilarious and entertaining mess at that. Mel Brooks does what he wants, and his comedy is one-of-a-kind.

As for the performances in the film, I particularly enjoyed Cleavon Little. He is incredibly charming as Bart, and he is like a bright ray of sunshine at the center of this frenetic film. Although his character is less likable, Harvey Korman is also quite memorable.

Now that I’ve seen Blazing Saddles, I find myself itching to rewatch and explore some of Brooks’s other works. He isn’t for everyone—hell, I only really like him when I’m in the right mood—but his films, even when they are ridiculous, are worth paying attention to. I can’t yet say whether Blazing Saddles is my favorite Brooks, but I definitely liked it better than Robin Hood: Men in Tights.

Film: Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Director: Taika Waititi
Primary Cast: Julian Dennison, Sam Neill, Rima Te Wiata, Rachel House, Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne, Oscar Kightley, Taika Waititi, Rhys Darby, Stan Walker, Mike Minogue, Cohen Holloway, Troy Kingi
US Release Date: 24 June 2016

With just two films, Taika Waititi has become one of my very favorite working directors, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople is currently one of the best films of 2016.

Waititi’s latest is an adventure dramedy that gave me the most fun I’ve had at the movies in a while. And I felt the same way about his vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows when I saw it last year. Waititi is a talented and inventive writer, and he clearly has a knack for intelligent, quirky comedy. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is built on its characters, and it never forgets its story, but it never goes too long without a laugh either.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is genuinely funny. It’s also incredibly charming. There is something precious and undoubtedly touching about Waititi’s tale of accidental fugitives who develop an unlikely friendship. Even at its most whacky, it never lacks heart. Narratively speaking, there’s a little bit of Up in the film, and some of the jokes and visuals are reminiscent of Wes Anderson, but Hunt for the Wilderpeople stands apart from any such influences. Above all, this film—which is positively overflowing with personality—is built on its writer/director and on its wonderful cast.

The most important member of that cast is Julian Dennison, who is absolutely fantastic as young Ricky Baker. As Baker, Dennison is sure to captivate the hearts of audiences the world over, and he’s pretty hilarious too. The chemistry between Dennison and Sam Neill is also impressive, and the two make for a wonderful onscreen duo that easily carries the weight of Waititi’s vision.

I love this movie. I’d probably give it a hug if I could. Waititi is a gem, and I hope we get a lot more from him that allows him to showcase both New Zealand and his distinct personality the way that this film does.

Film: The Little Prince
Director: Mark Osborne
Primary Cast: Mackenzie Foy, Jeff Bridges, Rachel McAdams, Paul Rudd, Marion Cotillard, James Franco, Benicio Del Toro, Ricky Gervais, Riley Osborne, Albert Brooks, Bud Cort, Paul Giamatti
US Release Date: 5 August 2016

I’ve never read The Little Prince; and while I’m sure that more intimate knowledge of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s famous tale would have made it easier for me to follow some of Osborne’s recent film, I had no problem enjoying it.

The release of Zootopia may have impacted Paramount’s decision to drop The Little Prince, but the film’s script and storytelling style may have also had something to do with it. Even though The Little Prince is a story often read by the young, its message is one that adults need to hear. While animated, Osborne’s The Little Prince is not necessarily aimed at kids, and it occupies a strange (but perfectly valid) place that may have left certain executives anxious. For instance, the movie lacks the sort of flashiness and loud humor often seen in children’s films and opts for a more tender and occasionally somber tone instead. This is not a bad thing—it is part of what makes the film so good—but it may have left studios worried about its mass appeal and marketability. The film also has a complex narrative structure, which could confuse some viewers, especially younger ones.

That said, The Little Prince is delightful, and it deserved the wide US theatrical release that Paramount robbed it of. The film isn’t perfect, but it’s well above average. It’s visually strong, it’s emotionally powerful, and it doesn’t dumb itself down just because its protagonist is an animated child.

One of the very best things about The Little Prince is its animation. Notably, the film successfully uses multiple animation styles in a way that enhances its overall look while also strengthening the story it tells. If viewers find themselves preferring the gorgeous, vivid, and textured stop-motion images of the little prince’s story, they shouldn’t be surprised; for, they are the images of love and imagination, whereas the dull CGI of the little girl’s regimented, serious life represent a less desirable way of looking at the world. At a time when so many animated films seems to share a single visual style, The Little Prince sets itself apart quite beautifully.

Osborne’s film also boasts a high-profile voice cast. At the top of the list sits Jeff Bridges, whose unique sound lends a good deal of personality and heart to The Little Prince. Rachel McAdams, Paul Rudd, and Albert Brooks also provide some memorable moments. However, child actors Riley Osborne (Kung Fu Panda) and Mackenzie Foy (Interstellar) are the real (rather gentle) heart of the story.

The Little Prince has a fractured, multi-part narrative. Taken as a whole, its parts form a solid and affecting film, but certain sections are noticeably stronger than others. The stop-motion segments, as well as a particularly fantastical sequence near the end are simply more interesting than much of the film that surrounds them. As good as The Little Prince is, its unique structure may leave viewers frustrated whenever the story is set firmly in reality. Of course, those viewers could just simply find their inner child and focus on that which is “essential,” but that’s another matter.

Until Next Time
Thanks for stopping by! I also rewatched X2: X-Men United (because I am X-Men trash), The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (because I love LotR and TTT is my personal favorite), and Spy Kids (because I couldn’t remember anything about it) while I was not posting. Make of that what you will.

If you want to keep up with this blog in between posts, make sure to follow WordsonFilms on twitter. You can also follow me on letterboxd, but my account is a complete mess, and you aren’t allowed to hold that against me.

Also, for what it’s worth, I spent approximately 50% of my free time during my hiatus watching (and rewatching) Bojack Horseman. Which I love. Which you should watch. Because it’s the best.

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