Beautiful and touching, but hardly ‘Epic’

We’ve seen them before. They lived under the floorboard and called themselves the “borrowers” in Disney and Studio Ghibli’s film, “The Secret World of Arrietty.” They woke up with armor-like shells in Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.” Or perhaps their insect-like qualities aren’t explained — like in the case of PBS’s animated television series “George Shrinks,” about a 10-year-0ld boy who’s three inches tall.

The concept of little people isn’t new — although adventures may seem grander when you’re smaller. Stature isn’t what makes Chris Wedge’s animated 3D film “Epic” epic, if it even is epic, extending beyond ordinary size or scope.

“Epic,” loosely based on William Joyce’s picture book, “The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs,” follows M.K. (Amanda Seyfried), a 17-year-old girl sent to live with her estranged father after her mother dies. As the product of divorce, M.K. contemplates what to say to her father, Bomba (Jason Sudekis), a frazzled scientist obsessed with finding little people. This obsession cost him his career and marriage, and is the reason he’s a hermit, vigilantly tracking tiny people in the woods with his network of cameras.

The cameras are trying to catch what we see with 3D clarity: the breathtakingly beautiful, green and luscious world of the “leaf men,” tiny soldiers assigned to guard their Queen (Beyonce), the majestic Mother Nature by the name of Tara. Dandelions rise, revealing tiny faces beneath their puffs. Hummingbirds soar, carrying the leaf men, including Ronin (Colin Farrell), Queen Tara’s top guard, and Nob (Josh Hutcherson), Ronin’s teenaged charge.

As our saga begins, the Queen has just selected her heir from tiny lily pad buds when the evil Boggan leader, Mandrake (Christoph Waltz) — the Scar of this Pride Rock — kills the Queen. Stumbling upon the fallen Queen in the woods behind her father’s house and magically shrunken to the size of insects, M.K. is witness to the Queen’s dying wish: to protect the bud until it blooms by moonlight. It is only then that she will return to her normal size.

Although produced by Twentieth Century Fox Animation, “Epic” seems like an amalgamation between Disney, Studio Ghibli and Pixar, carrying just as much heart. The character Nob looks nearly identical to Flynn Ryder, one of Disney’s protagonists in “Tangled.” The amount of green in this movie can rival Studio Ghibli films, including “Spirited Away,” “My Neighbor Totoro,” and “Ponyo.” The animation has the feeling of Pixar, known for their realistic-looking figures, from Merida in “Brave” to Flik in “A Bug’s Life.”

The visuals are stunning, but the story isn’t as epic as the title may suggest. Crafted by a team of five writers (James V. Hart, William Joyce, Daniel Shere, Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember), the screenplay contains ordinary scenes, familiar to any Disney consumer. M.K. becomes Alice — shrinking and falling into a surreal “wonderland” — only her hookah-smoking caterpillar is replaced by a singing one named Nim Galuu (Steven Tyler), who like the wizard Oz, proves to be rather useless under his curtain. (The white rabbit, Queen of Hearts, Mad Hatter, Wicked Witch, Cowardly Lion, Tin Man and Scarecrow are absent from this retelling of Lewis Carroll and L. Frank Baum’s story.)

Meanwhile, Nob and his surrogate dad, Ronin, experience a “Lion King” moment — the one where Mufasa is hanging off a cliff, before falling to his death trampled by wildebeests. Instead of wildebeests and lions, in one scene, Ronin battles an endless Boggan army as Nod watches helplessly from a cliff above.

“Epic’s” version of Timon and Pumba are a comedic slug-and-snail duo named Mub (“Park and Recreation’s” Aziz Anisari)  and Grub (Chris O’Dowd). As one may imagine, Mub and Grub, who would be sustenance for the larger Timon and Pumba, don’t have conversations about eating crunchy and slimy bugs, although they would both agree that the slimy kind is better (but not to be eaten).

The scenes from “Epic” are familiar, but combining a bunch of scenes from known movies doesn’t make an “Epic Movie” epic or a “Scary Movie” scary. And satire doesn’t seem to be what Wedge’s family-friendly film is after.

“Epic” may be cute and touching, but it lacks the 10-year odysseys, wars and bloodshed that would make this story epic.

“Epic” was directed by Chris Wedge and written by James V. Hart, William Joyce, Daniel Shere, Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember. The story is based off of William Joyce’s book “The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs.” 


‘Star Trek Into Darkness’ reflects the times

It’s been 242 years since two Muslim terrorists hacked a British soldier to death with a machete and a meat cleaver in busy London streets, but in the year 2255, terrorism still prevails. This time, a terrorist blew up a building in London, killing 42 men and women and waging war against the United Federation of Planets.

The culprit is John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), a former top Starfleet agent who went rogue. After Harrison infiltrated an emergency Federation meeting and killed Enterprise’s Captain Jim Kirk’s (Chris Pines) mentor, Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), Kirk resolved to chase after Harrison to bring him to justice. Under Admiral Alexander Marcus’s (Peter Weller) orders, Kirk, Spock (Zachary Quinto) and the rest of the Enterprise crew are armed with 72 nuclear torpedoes and sent on a secret mission (unaffiliated with the Federation) to kill Harrison.

Aligned to his Vulcan moral code, Kirk’s first officer, Spock, believes in habeas corpus, or at least a futuristic version of it. He thinks Harrison should be transported to Earth, where he could be properly tried for his crimes, whereas Kirk and the admiral’s plan would employ torpedoes, which could have unfortunate consequences (perhaps like President Obama’s drone strikes, which killed 4 Americans).

In their sequel to their 2009 film reboot of Gene Roddenberry’s “Star Trek” television series, “Star Trek Into Darkness’s” writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof and director J.J. Abrams neither planned the real-life terrorist attack in London nor the U.S. drone strikes, but with today’s arsenal of current events, “Star Trek Into Darkness” resonates on another level.

The photos from the aftermath of the fictional London bombing look eerily familiar. We’ve seen them on television sets or laptop screens, or in person, at the Boston marathon, World Trade Center, or Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. With the media’s coverage of scandal — from the IRS targeting conservative groups; the U.S. justice department taking phone records from the Associated Press; and the government’s handling of Benghazi, where a U.S. ambassador was killed last September — it’s easy to see the corruption and conspiracies.

“Star Trek Into Darkness” is a trek after answers, asking the whys — the question that is often unfathomable after events of terror.

Let me put it this way: the why isn’t, “They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other,” — President George W. Bush’s words after the 9/11 attacks. The “why” explained in the film is much more sinister, suggesting that the Federation or government betrayed humanity and encouraged perpetual warfare between civilizations.

That’s a frightening thought — as alarming as George Orwell’s ideas of Big Brother surveillance and room 101 torture chambers. But even more frightening is how closely art resembles real-life. If our protectors are corrupt, who can we trust?

Thankfully,”Star Trek Into Darkness” isn’t all dark. It reminds us of the humanity throughout tragedy. We learn to trust in Kirk and our heroes, who selflessly throw themselves into danger again and again — the brave firefighters running back into burning buildings, the civilians volunteering their homes and food to strangers. We learn to believe that there is good out there, despite all this evil.

We see this good in the interactions between Kirk and Spock. As Spock preaches his code of utilitarianism (“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one”), Kirk counters, “We can’t let you die!”

“Star Trek Into Darkness” is about love and friendship, showing us that if this is the future, perhaps we, too, can “live long and prosper.”

“Star Trek Into Darkness” was directed by J.J. Abrams, and written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lidelof, based off of the television series by Gene Roddenberry.

Bendjelloul’s ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ is a great story

South African record shop owner Stephen Segerman is driving along the winding coast of Cape Town, Africa. His favorite song’s playing: “Sugar Man” by a folk-rock legend named Rodriguez.

As the legend goes, Rodriguez committed suicide at one of his concerts: sang one last song called “Forget It” and shot his brains out. It’s a great story, but the one Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul weaves is more fantastical.

Bendjelloul’s debut documentary, Searching for Sugar Man, investigates the tall tales surrounding Sixto Rodriguez. The first hour of his Oscar-winning feature-length documentary builds up the mystery surrounding the man. Rodriguez, a Mexican-American singer/songwriter from Detroit, always wore sunglasses, and sometimes a dark hat, shrouding his dark, shoulder-length hair. When the producers (Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore) of his first studio album, Cold Fact (1970), heard his voice, they were in a smoky bar where they never saw his face.

“We thought he was the inner-city poet,” one of his producers says.

Steve Rowland, who produced Rodriguez’s second album, Coming from Reality (1971), for Light in the Attic Records, credits Rodriguez for writing and singing the saddest song he’s ever heard: “Cause,” about a man losing his job two weeks before Christmas.

Rowland doesn’t miss the song’s ironic premonition. Coming from Reality was released in November 1971; but two weeks before Christmas, Rodriguez found out his album wasn’t selling. He lost his job and shelved his music career for a life in construction.

That’s all a sidebar to the real excitement of the documentary — in the winding coastal city of Cape Town, Africa. While U.S. album sales never picked up during the ’70s, Rodriguez was becoming quite a name in South Africa, where an estimated half a million albums were sold.

White South Africans credit Rodriguez’s working class songs as “the soundtrack to revolution.” That, combined with the fact that his records were banned during the apartheid, made Cold Fact as obscene as porn, which naturally, spread its popularity. Rodriguez became a household name, next to music greats like Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel.

Segerman set up a website featuring Rodriguez’s face on a milk carton. After music journalist Craig Bartholomew Strydom tracked Rodriguez, then 56, in Detroit, and published a widely circulated article about his and Segerman’s search, Rodriguez’s eldest daughter, Eva, saw the site and connected with Segerman. Her response: “Yes, I know this man! He’s my dad!”

Not long after Segerman talked to Eva, he received an unexpected phone call from Rodriguez. That’s how Rodriguez discovered his South African fame.

Searching for Sugar Man is a true modern fairy tale. Rodriguez, a mysterious but humble man, gets his “happily ever after” in 1998, years after he gave up on his albums. Sure, the plot sounds ridiculous, but Hollywood has prepared us to swallow the unbelievable. We root for the underdogs. We want those happily ever afters. And Searching for Sugar Man has that familiar narrative arch.

But Bendjelloul’s 2012 documentary doesn’t carry the story past 1998. Sure, we know that Rodriguez toured in South Africa, and that he still lives in Detroit as a part-time construction worker, but where has Rodriguez been in the 2000s? Despite making Rodriguez a household name in America as well as South Africa, Searching for Sugar Man seems outdated, lacking the epilogue. After all, Rodriguez will turn 71 this July. What happened in those years in between?

If you’ve never heard of Sixto Rodriguez, much less his music, the film does provide a sampling of both. Searching for Sugar Man takes the listener through more than a dozen Rodriguez songs, including “Sugar Man,” “I Wonder,” “This Is A Song, It’s An Outburst: Or, The Establishment Blues,” “Inner City Blues,” and “I’ll Slip Away.”

His songs strike a chord with the common man. Rodriguez’s “Sugar Man” is like Billy Joel’s “Piano Man”; they’re both cures for the weary. “I Wonder” was the teenaged anthem for those growing up in 1970 South Africa — its most scandalous line that spread the song’s popularity: “I wonder/ how many times you had sex.” The song’s steady bass line is jazzy and soothing, even as Rodriguez sings about societal problems from loneliness to war and hatred.

Searching for Sugar Man may be fantastical, but it connects with the everyman. After all, doesn’t everyone secretly wish he or she were secretly rock stars?

‘Iron Man 3’ resembles ‘Die Hard’

Iron Man 3 is Tony Stark’s epilogue to The Avengers, Josh Whedon’s film about the formation of Captain America (Steve Rogers), Iron Man (Tony Stark), Thor, the Hulk (Dr. Bruce Banner), Black Widow (Natasha Romanoff) and Hawkeye (Clint Barton) into the superhero team. Since Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) fell out of the sky after battling aliens in The Avengers, Stark’s been plagued with nightmares. Even thinking about New York sends him on panic attacks.

The genius billionaire playboy philanthropist has a lot to panic about. The Avengers’ enemies span worlds and galaxies. But the action in Iron Man 3 doesn’t have to do with the Avengers’ shared past.

The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a terrorist who has been bombing sites from Kuwait to the Grauman Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, has a personal vendetta against Stark. Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), the criminal mastermind behind the Mandarin’s plans, offered his think tank services to Tony Stark years ago, but Stark refused. Now, the villains want what Stark has: his girlfriend, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). And Killian is willing to ruin Stark’s Christmas.

Written and directed by Shane Black, the third installment of Iron Man resembles the narrative arch of John McTiernan’s 1988 action flick Die Hard, which followed NYPD officer John McClane (Bruce Willis) as he tried to save his wife against German terrorists during a Christmas party in Los Angeles. In Iron Man 3, Colonel Rhodes (Don Cheadle) serves as Stark’s Sgt. Powell (Reginald Veljohnson), the friendly black cop who assisted McClane in his rescue operation.

Not only do both the movies occur during the same time of year in warm, sunny places, but they also feature spectacular explosions and fireworks. The films contain terrorist plots and show the bravado of its heroes. Officer John McClain walks on broken glass while Tony Stark throws himself at glass windows at one scene, not wearing his protective Iron Man armor.

To continue the analogy, both films have been well received. During its opening weekend on July 22, 1988, Die Hard brought in $7,105,514, ranking third in box offices. Iron Man 3, which was released on May 3, brought in an estimate of $175.3 million domestically, ranking no. 1 in theatres during its opening weekend. Despite containing a nearly identical story arch, this illustrates the successes of both films.

Although Iron Man 3 is an upgraded version of Die Hard, its popularity extends beyond the fiery-orange explosions. Rather than limit the action to 40 floors in one building,  Iron Man 3 capitalizes on its global plot. Shane Black and Drew Pearce’s screenplay takes Stark from his mansion in Malibu, Calif., to investigations in Rose Hill, Tenn. With unlimited Stark Industries technology, Iron Man 3 shows off Stark’s new armor and gadgets. He can now power multiple robotic suits without wearing them.

Compared to other films in the franchise, Iron Man 3 highlights Stark’s emotional distress. Although Stark is known for his biting wit, Drew Pearce and Shane Black’s screenplay shows that underneath his robotic armor, he’s human. He’s cagey when Colonel Rhodes questions him on his lack of sleep. Instead of replying with a flippant remark, we see Stark break down with post-traumatic stress.

This is a clear departure from the Tony Stark we’ve come to love and expect. In fact, in one scene when the audience expects a witty or misogynistic comeback, Stark’s response is, “I’ve got nothing.”

Without his sarcasm as a shield, Stark seems more vulnerable and serious. This is exemplified in one scene featuring Stark and Harley Keener (Ty Simpkins), a Tennessee boy who finds Iron Man in his garage. As Harley begins prying into Stark’s life and the events in New York, Stark starts hyperventilating about not being able to save Pepper Potts. With the straightforward reasoning of a child, Harley is able to calm Stark down: “You’re a mechanic, right?” Harley asks. “So build something.”

“Okay,” Stark answers.

Internet ≠ freedom, Morozov writes

morozov_net-delusionJohannes Gutenberg’s printing press was to the Reformation as Jack Dorsey’s Twitter is to the Arab Spring. In the drafts of American history, both are credited for revolution. But unlike journalists like Andrew Sullivan who reported “the revolution will be Twittered,” Boston Review’s contributing editor Evgeny Morozov provides a cautionary tale on Internet power.

In his book The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, Morozov argues that the Internet is a tool that can both help and hinder social change. He clarifies the faults of the Google Doctrine (“the enthusiastic belief in the liberating power of technology … in the global fight for freedom”) and cyber-utopianism (a naïve belief that all online communication is positive) through case studies from the Arab Spring, Cold War, and Eastern European, Venezuelan and Chinese history. Facebook groups — which can advertise a public protest — can also provide the identities of activists to leaders of oppressive regimes. Cell phones — which activists can use to coordinate — allow governments to send mass text messages spreading propaganda or admonishing potential protesters. While technology makes knowledge more accessible, Morozov points out that it takes increasing Big Brother surveillance and censorship.

Yet George Orwell’s 1984 doesn’t paint the only analogy between oppressive governments and their people, and Morozov is quick to incorporate Aldous Huxley’s views from Brave New World. In the chapter “Orwell’s Favorite Lolcat,” Morozov acknowledges that both Orwell and Huxley’s ideas are valid and working, but suggests that perhaps Huxley’s thesis that “a man has an almost infinite appetite for distraction” is more effective. “Even authoritarian governments have discovered that the best way to marginalize dissident books and ideas is not to ban them,” Morozov writes, “but to let the invisible hand flood the market with trashy popular detective stories, self-help manuals, and books on how to get your kids into Harvard.” Western television placates East German and Russian citizens, and, he argues, this escapism makes them less likely to rebel. This passivity extends to activism in social causes.

Coining the term “slacktivism,” Morozov describes what happens when someone creates a Facebook group and invites his or her friends. Yes, Facebook allowed for political mobilization of online campaigns, but the catch is, it can further fake campaigns as well. “If a nonexistent… cause could garner the attention of 28,000 people, more important, well-documented cases… can certainly rally millions,” Morozov writes. But Facebook doesn’t equal engagement. How can you affect change if all you’re doing is sitting by your computer and liking posts?

Morozov asks us to reconsider the media narrative of the Arab Spring, providing a critical counterpoint to the stories of Internet activists like Wael Ghonim — credited for managing the Facebook page of the Egyptian revolution. (Ghonim documented his involvement in his own book, Revolution 2.0.) “I see nothing wrong with established political groups using the Internet to spread their gospel,” Morozov writes. “What bothers me is the emergence of brand-new, decentralized, leaderless structures that exploit all the benefits of the Internet to mobilize their supporters while also believing that they won’t need to become centralized, hierarchical, and competitive in the political arena.” It’s a fair point (remember the Occupy Wall Street movement?).

While Morozov offers a convincing narrative about the dangers of over-trusting the Internet, his intended audience is cyber-utopianism subscribers creating these media narratives. He structures his argument by introducing his terms, cyber-utopianism (someone who doesn’t see any negative effects from the Internet) and Internet centrism (the Internet is a vehicle for democracy). Then he sets up the reported media narrative of the Arab Spring, in which “on one side are government thugs firing bullets and on the other are young protesters firing tweets.” Look, Morozov argues, aren’t we giving the Internet too much credit here?

“The premise of this book is thus very simple: To salvage the Internet’s promise to aid the fight against authoritarianism, those of us in the West who still care about the future of democracy will need to ditch both cyber-utopianism and Internet-centrism. Currently, we start with a flawed set of assumptions (cyber-utopianism) and act on using a flawed, even crippled, methodology (Internet-centrism). The result is what I call the Net Delusion. Pushed to the extreme, such logic is poised to have significant global consequences that may risk undermining the very project of promoting democracy. It’s a folly that the West could do without.” – Evgeny Morozov, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom

The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom is a persuasive warning to view the web more cautiously. Morozov echoes the battle cries of Howard Zinn, Martin Luther King Jr., and others before him, adding, “Tweets, of course, don’t topple governments; people do.”

‘The Place Beyond the Pines’ is where two stories meet

Call it fate, destiny or karma, but “The Place Beyond the Pines” is where two roads converge into one.

Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) is a motorcycle stuntman at a traveling fair when he finds out his fling Romina (Eva Mendes) has a 1-year-old boy. Luke quits his job and stays in Schenectady, N.Y., to support them. However, with work experience such as driving motorcycles fast, his income is limited. After Luke meets Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), the two begin a bank-robbing spree. Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper) is the cop that eventually catches Luke, known as “the motorcycle bandit.”

Derek Cianfrance, writer and director of “Blue Valentine,” creates another drama that flits between the past and present. However, unlike “Blue Valentine,” which chronicles the failing marriage of a young couple through flashbacks, “The Place Beyond the Pines” is told chronologically.

The first third of the 140-minute film follows Luke and his motorcycle. The roar of his bike and the scream of the carnival crowd are deafening. While Gosling’s stunt double, Rick Miller, performs the most dangerous stunts, such as driving a motorcycle into a spherical cage or driving the bike through the woods and a cemetery, Gosling does some stunt work, such as driving a motorcycle into a busy intersection.

Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt specializes in producing long one-take shots that follow the character. Because of this, Gosling and Miller did not have time to switch positions in that particular scene. In the most impressive one-take sequence, Bobbitt’s camera follows Luke as he gets dressed, walks into the carnival tent and then gets on a bike. The camera then follows the bike into the cage.

This isn’t the first time Gosling played a stunt performer — he was the driver in Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive” two years ago. Compared to his performance in “Drive,” Gosling is much more vocal, if not violent. He’s desperate as he screams obscenities at the bank tellers shoving money into his backpack. In another scene, he punches a man in the eye, drawing crimson blood. While Gosling, the face of the “Hey Girl” memes, is personable, his character tiptoes along the precarious line of good and bad.

For Cooper, this isn’t his first time behind the wheels of a police vehicle. He drove one over Las Vegas sidewalks for a brief stint in “Hangover.” Now playing an actual cop, Cooper drives his police car through the cemetery with the director of photography is sitting in the passenger’s seat, filming Cooper and the motorcycle he’s chasing.

While Cianfrance creates an engaging drama, “The Place Beyond the Pines” may be too ambitious. The film contains three stories: the stuntman-turned-bank-robber, the cop who pursued him, and their sons, which could easily have been three separate movies or episodes. While each storyline is well crafted, the film feels lengthy, running almost two and a half hours.

“The Place Beyond the Pines” may contain plenty of exposition, but Gosling and Cooper’s performances support the film’s long, convoluted script. Cooper, who has a similar height and build to Gosling, is a believable casting choice to play the heroic cop in a corrupt frat-boy police force. Moreover, his and Gosling’s similar appearances allow Cianfrance to create more efficient parallels. Both Luke and Avery have 1-year-old sons, both are placed in morally ambiguous situations and both characters’ similar looks highlight these plot points, creating a sense of closure.

While “The Place Beyond the Pines” ties three stories together through a central point in time, it’s an ugly and messy story, filled with crime, corruption and karma.

To view this post in The Ithacan, click here.