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Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Middle School (And a Word or Two on Passengers and Hacksaw Ridge)

Middle School is most definitely not the movie that most people have been looking forward to this week. As such, here are a few thoughts on two of the week's truly noteworthy films.

As you may have guessed, my Middle School review can be also be found at Channel 24 but my thoughts on the other two films, no matter how short, are exclusive to Because Everybody Else Has One.

Man, I really should have come up with a shorter name for this blog, though...

Hacksaw Ridge is a potent reminder of both Mel Gibson's very real skill as a director of visceral, affecting, engrossing cinema (albeit cinema with all the subtlety of a very, very large sledgehammer) but it's also a reminder that it's not always easy to separate the artist from the art.

However much this may be Gibson's "repentance" movie where he makes up for his past sins by shining a spotlight on a genuine hero whose story absolutely deserves to be widely known, I couldn't help but be distracted by an underlying sense that something ugly lies beneath the surface of the film. I admit, had this not had Gibson's name attached to it, I would probably never even consider this but, is it just me, or is the basic gist of the film that World War II was about the ultimate battle between good, white Christian Americans and animalistic, heathen Japanese? Why did the Nazis and the rest of Europe not even deserve the smallest mention?

There are undoubtedly perfectly adequate in-story explanations for this as the film does centre on a specific American-Japanese battle and our hero does come from a small town where it's entirely possible that for him it really was all about the fact that the "Japs" attacked Pearl Harbor and not about a larger war against fascism. Plus, there's really little point in denying it, the Japanese were, by all reports, genuinely notoriously monstrous during the Second World War, which is why they adopted an anti-imperialistic national outlook after 1945 in much the same way that Germany embraced an inclusive, liberal and anti-fascist outlook that has persisted to today. For all I know, Gibson's intentions really were entirely pure with the film and he truly has put his ugly past behind him but I would be lying if I said these thoughts didn't cross my mind at various times throughout the film.

All this aside, though, the film may have its genuine flaws - most notably some cliched writing, an occasionally overbearing score and the fact that it's hard to take too seriously a film that preaches pacifism but relishes in it gory violence in the way that most Mel Gibson movies do - but it's still a worthwhile piece of work that absolutely should be seen for its stunning war choreography, the incredible true story its telling and for a number of very solid performances with Vince Vaughan putting in his best work since Dodgeball as an impressively funny and sympathetic drill instructor and Andrew Garfield who simply nails it as our easily sympathetic hero. I even enjoyed the undoubtedly goofy first half, which has an easygoing charm to it that is rare in a Mel Gibson movie - and, of course, for Teresa Palmer lighting up the screen everytime her otherwise under-written character shows up.

Passengers, on the other hand, is a film that engenders a lot of good-will going in thanks to its supremely likable leads and its pretty terrific premise but comes dangerously close to squandering it on an end product that may be solidly enjoyable and really quite efficiently put together but is also tonally inconsistent, full of plotholes (albeit mostly forgivable plotholes) and, most, damningly it is all too quick to jettison its tough moral questions and slow-burning intelligence for a fun but utterly out of whack third act.

Shift your expectations away from Arrival-like intelligent sci-fi towards something along the lines of "Titanic in space" and you'll find plenty to enjoy. Though, admittedly, once you shift the attention away from the gigantic moral mishap in the middle of the film, then you are left with a romance that is based on a very troubling foundation. But, then, it is precisely this tonal whiplash that stops the film from ever actually working from whichever angle you look at it and it is this, more than anything else, that has clearly been the cause for most of the mostly damning reviews out there.

For me, though, the film's numerous flaws and ultimate failure to be as good as it should have been aren't ever quite enough to detract from the fact that it still a very enjoyable watch with Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt and Michael Sheen lending both their serious acting talent and sheer, undeniable likability to a space adventure that would undoubtedly have fallen completely apart without them.

And, now, onto our usual (paid) programming...

What it's about

Rafe Katchadorian is a quiet, imaginative teenager who is about to start at a new school but when he finds that the place is run by a draconian principal whose sole mission seems to quash the individuality and creativity of the students, Rafe decides it's time to stand up and fight the school's asinine laws and the uptight principal who seems intent on enforcing them at all costs.

What we thought

Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life, to give it its full title, is based on the first of a series of children's books of the same name by publishing sensation James Patterson and Chris Tebbets and it is clearly aimed at exactly the age group its title suggests. That's not a bad thing in and of itself, especially since it should work brilliantly for its target audience, but is there anything there for parents who accompany their kids to the cinema over the rest of the holiday season?

Surprisingly, the answer is more positive than you might perhaps think. This is not a film that anyone in their right mind would recommend for adults to choose to go see themselves but it is, largely, a perfectly amiable, even charming little film that might even strike the right nostalgic chord from time to time. And, despite the fact that its humour is very, very juvenile, I would be lying if I said I didn't giggle a few times – which, frankly, is more than certain “adult” comedies manage to get out of me.

Now, the film's flaws are extremely obvious – from its occasionally ropey (though actually mostly fine) acting, its flat direction, its inevitable fluffiness and its very weird, thoroughly misjudged turn to the tragic – and I certainly don't agree that such things don't matter when dealing with (older) kids films but there is something genuinely admirable - even surprisingly so – about the film's anarchic spirit.

This is not a film that tells kids to follow adult authority figures blindly and it's most certainly not a film that suggests that there's nothing to the certain real level of disempowerment that kids feel at the hands of their parents, teachers and pretty much every adult in their lives. With its unabashedly, if understandably innocuous, anti-authoritarian streak, its willingness to confront the feelings of kids at this age and its keen emphasis on individuality, creativity and empowerment, it's not hard to see why the books are such a hit with middle schoolers (which is the equivalent of grades 6 to 8, apparently) and why they’re sure to enjoy the film itself.

It also helps that the kids in the cast, though playing rather younger than they actually are, are extremely likeable and that the adult cast, mostly includes a number of perfectly respectable, sometime flat out excellent actors mostly known for their TV work like Lauren Graham, Adam Pally and Reta and comedians, such as Rob Riggle and Andrew Daly. The latter, in particular, is really good goofy fun as the totally over the top Principal Dwight, clearly relishing the chance to let his silly flag fly. As for the very promising Griffin Gluck as the film's hero, the kid clearly has a future in the business – what with his appearing in two films this very week (the other being the moderately amusing Why Him? - which, actually, despite being easier to recommend to older audiences is actually a less successful at engaging its audience than Middle School is).

Again, this doesn't all change the fact that, if you fall even slightly outside of the targeted age group, there's really no need to see this. But, if your child (or you, for that matter) are the right age, this is one of the better live-action holiday offerings out there and one with its heart firmly in the right place.


Oh, and speaking of Why Him, it doesn't really deserve its own review as it is the very definition of a middling comedy, even with the great Bryan Cranston attached, but I do want to quickly draw attention to one of the songs in the soundtrack: Crazy, Beautiful Life by Thomas Hien and Scott Chesak. It's a really gorgeous slice of melodic folk that I almost definitely wouldn't have heard otherwise. As it is, it has turned me onto some other similarly lovely work by Thomas Hien, including his and Scott's EP, Crazy Beautiful Life; his solo album Late Night Conversations and an album he did with his other musical partner, Christopher Anderson, as Chris and Thomas. All are highly recommended for anyone who's a fan of unpretentious, beautifully melodic folk-pop.  

And they're all available super cheap on Google Play and iTunes. Check 'em out!

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