Sing Street(5/15/2016)

Indie Cinderella success stories, and I mean real indies not the kind of “indies” that are produced by Harvey Weinstein and feature a bunch of celebrities, don’t come around every year but when they do they sure are pleasant.  The 2007 Irish film Once certainly felt like an indie sensation even if it never really did cross over.  The film never played in more than 150 theaters and only made about ten million domestic, but when you consider that it was made for €112,000 that is a pretty impressive return and it can be said to have had a larger cultural impact between its Oscar win for best song and the successful Broadway production it inspired.  That film starred an Irish singer/songwriter named Glen Hansard and his collaborator Markéta Irglová and at the time it was easy to simply view it as a product of those two principals rather than its actual writer/director John Carney but Carney has proven to be a bigger force than he initially seemed.  He came back in 2014 with another music movie called Begin Again which wasn’t as well received as Once but which definitely had its fans.  I missed that one in theaters and when I caught up with it on blu-ray I didn’t love it but it was a good movie and one I probably shouldn’t have slept on.  Because of that I’ve opted not to make the same mistake twice and diligently went to see his newest movie Sing Street even though its trappings had me a little suspicious.

Sing Street is set in Dublin in 1985 and focuses on a fifteen year old kid named Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) whose parents (Aiden Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy) are constantly fighting and are also in some bad financial straits.  Because of these financial problems Conor is transferred from the nice catholic school he’s been attending to a less nice catholic school that’s being run by an authoritarian priest.  Alienated and aimless, Conor suddenly sees himself drawn to a slightly older girl named Raphina (Lucy Boynton) who lives at a “home for girls” across the street from his new school.  In order to impress her he says that he’s in a rock band and invites her to be in his bands’ music video.  She says she’s open to the idea, which is sort of a problem because it means he needs to form a band on short notice.  This would seem to be a recipe for disaster but the band he ends up forming with classmates actually turns out to have a kernel of talent but it isn’t entirely clear what direction this will take him in.

I’ll say straight up that this movie was always going to be at a bit of a disadvantage for me because I have something of an allergy for coming of age movies, especially when they appear to be autobiographical.  It isn’t that it’s impossible for coming of age movies to work for me but they need to really hit just right and if they don’t I tend to recoil.  Normally filmmakers lean on the autobiographical coming of age films for their debut film because people keep telling them to write what they know and the only things that twenty-something first time directors know about are stories about what it’s like to be a confused teenager dealing with trivial problems.  And yet, John Carney seems to have gone to this well for his third major film (sixth if you want to include the three indies he made before anyone was keeping track) at the age of 44.  I am of course making some assumptions when I throw around “autobiographical.”  The film is about a 15 year old Dubliner in 1985 with an interest in music and Jon Carney was a 13 year old Dubliner in 1985 who would certainly grow up to have strong feelings about music, I don’t think it takes too much of a leap to guess that this is very much a nostalgia trip about his own youth, especially given the dedication at the end of “to brothers everywhere.”

So, I guess this had a bit of an uphill battle to impress me and I don’t know that it managed to sway me but I can see why a lot of people are going to like it.  Carney definitely seems to have a grasp on the time and place he’s depicting and definitely brings some heart to the table.  The film’s trailer takes the odd approach of namedropping bands that are on the soundtrack as if they were the stars of the film which in this case are the mid-eighties pop-rock acts like Duran Duran and The Cure.  I’m not sure if these acts have been re-assessed in the poptimist era but they have not in my experienced been the most critically respected acts out there.  Carney does seem to make a pretty good argument for them though and suggests that their appeal lay in the way they were a distinct break from the old British rock template set down by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.  The high billing of these acts is also curious in that their music actually takes something of a backseat in the actual movie to the original, if slightly derivative, compositions of the film’s fictional band.  The original music in the film, which was mostly written by Carney himself and a guy named Gary Clark who was behind a number of 80s bands that I’m not familiar with but which I’m sure are well respected by all the right record store nerds, is actually fairly respectable… maybe a little too respectable.  This is, after all, a band that was formed on the fly by fifteen year olds who had minimal musical experience or maturity… how the hell are they making music this decent?

I’m not going to be completely dismissive of the idea that these kids could legitimately make some good music at their age, stranger things have certainly happened, but as a rule it’s pretty unlikely.  If you look at a similarly themed Swedish movie from a couple of years ago called We Are the Best took a more realistic approach by celebrating the spirit of its junior musicians while also admitting that their oeuvre isn’t exactly going to be the stuff of bestselling soundtracks.  The thing is, having a band like this form and still sort of fall on its face would kind of go against John Carney’s ethos.  Over his last three movies Carney has outlined a very clear message, one that wouldn’t be too out of place on an inspirational poster: “don’t procrastinate, follow your dreams and do the great things you were destined to do” and he seems to have gotten less and less subtle about this as he’s gone.  With Sing Street it feels to me like he’s taken this to a bit of a crazy extreme by applying this to people who are straight-up children.  As I watched the movie I was like “dude, can you maybe let this kid graduate from high school before you demand that he drop everything and achieve his dreams?”  Maybe I’m just a little too cynical for this.  This is a bit of an odd one for me, the movie is certainly watchable and there are parts of it that certainly work but it has a vibe that I just cannot jive with and I’m left with the overwhelming feeling that its director is secretly returning to the well too many times and with diminishing returns.

Disneyology 101: The 50s Resurgence

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Disney’s “classic era” runs more or less from when they started making feature films up to the death of Walt Disney in the late 60s.  This broad “classic era” can itself be divided into three eras, there was the widely respected “golden age” from 1937-1942 that I examined in the last installment of Disneyology, and there was also a mixed period in the sixties and early 70s when they were kind of heading toward decline.  Then of course there was the era during the 1950s which I’ll be looking at this time around where they began to lose some of their critical cache as the novelty wears off but also return to box office prominence and in many ways become the durable cinema institution that they are today.  It was also an era when they increasingly started to diversify their business interests.   It was in this era that Walt Disney spent less time personally producing movies and started focusing his attention on hosting TV shows and opening amusement parks.  Meanwhile he trusted a group of subordinates to rebuild his feature film empire after it went into hibernation after World War II killed some of their classic features during their initial runs.  These subordinates were forced to work with compromised budgets at first but over the decade they slowly started to regain their confidence, especially as the money came roaring back in.

 Cinderella (1950)

After nearly a decade out of the feature length animation game Disney finally felt that the time was right to make a comeback and to do it they weren’t going to leave anything to chance.  There would be no classical music experiments or tender ecological narratives here, they were instead going to do everything they could to recreate their biggest success: Snow White and the Seven DwarfsCinderella isn’t a beat for beat remake of Snow White exactly; they have different structures which reflect fairy tales that are pretty different, but most of the major creative decisions are transferred over.  Both films begin with live action footage of a storybook opening, both films have these perfectly angelic princess protagonists, and both films intersperse their fairy tale recantations with slapstick bits on the part of said princess’ allies (in this case the talking mice, which are basically this film’s equivalent of the dwarfs).  Incidentally those mice are probably the worst aspect of the movie.  Disney seems to have employed some version of the sped-up Chipmunk effect on all their voices, and while I’m not sure whether or not they invented that effect I certainly think it’s annoying and all the time they waste on these talking rodents’ antics is time that could have been spent developing out protagonist.  Cinderella is certainly a more well-rounded character than Snow White was but she falls into the same pitfall of being this ridiculously idealized paragon of morality and patience rather than a truly three dimensional character, and conversely her step family is almost cartoonishly evil to the point where they name their cat Lucifer without the slightest hint of self-awareness.

To some extent this is a hard movie to analyze critically as most of the film’s flaws can be written off as simply being a by-product of the film being a fairy tale.  Why does this lady just randomly have a fairy godmother willing to act as her deus ex machina?  It’s a fairytale.  Why does her clothing and carriage arbitrarily run out at midnight (but not her slippers for some reason)? It’s a fairytale.  Why does this shallow prince just fall head over heels for Cinderella at this wack-ass party where his father parades maidens in front of him for his snap judgement?  It’s a fairytale.  Why does the prince get to pick his betrothed anyway rather than marrying the princess of some neighboring kingdom in order to forge diplomatic alliances?  It’s a fairytale.  One’s enjoyment of the film will largely be determined by how willing you are to just go along with it in the spirit it’s intended.  For what it’s worth, by the end of the movie I was surprised to find that it actually had it hooks in my more than I thought.  I actually found the film’s climax, in which Cinderella’s animal friends race to free her from her prison so she can try on the slipper, to be pretty suspenseful and effective.

The film’s animation certainly seems to be part and parcel with the Disney house style but there are certainly fewer frills than there were in the earlier movies.  Cinderella doesn’t have much in the way of major set-pieces and there’s nothing here as challenging to animate as the woodland creatures from Bambi or the more outlandish images from Fantasia.  Like Dumbo it was done on a relatively cheap budget because of the challenges the studio had been having at the time and while they do a lot to hide this it remains that this isn’t a visual powerhouse.  Audiences at the time didn’t seem to mind, but ever the perfectionist Walt Disney certainly did and he was no big fan of the movie because of it.  The film is probably better remembered for its music and is notable for being the first Disney movie to employ Tin Pan Alley songwriters.  Ironically the most famous song these professional songwriters came up with, “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo,” consists mainly of non-sense words… can’t say I’ve ever seen the appeal of that one.  Beyond that song and the “I Wish” song “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” most of the rest of the music here falls into the dated “disembodied 50s chorus” songs, so I’ve got to say I’m not much of a fan of this soundtrack, but the public certainly was.   In general this movie was a pretty big hit and it almost certainly saved Disney’s movie division and probably its entire empire.  Personally, I’d say it’s okay.  It’s basically the simplest and most prototypical example of the Disney fairy tale formula and aside from Snow White (which had its own set of “first time out” quirks) is probably the standard upon which the rest could build on.

Alice in Wonderland (1951)

Out of all the Disney movies from the “classic era” Alice in Wonderland strikes me as being one of the least famous.  I might just projecting my own experience with the film as it decidedly wasn’t part of my childhood, but I definitely don’t see the movie referenced too often.  That may in part be because this is unique from other Disney movie in that (among other things) it is an adaptation of a much more famous source novel than what they usually tackle.  Where Dumbo, Bambi, and to some extent even Pinocchio  were all based on relatively obscure books whose identities have been more or less subsumed by their animated adaptations, Lewis Carroll’s Alice novels have remained ingrained in the literary cannon and most references to the story in popular culture feel like they hearken straight back to the source rather than Disney’s take on them.  The film’s relative lack of fame may also simply be an extension of the film’s failure back in 1951.  Though not a complete bomb, the movie was not well received by critics at the time and it only made $2.4 million, which if you adjust for inflation is actually less than what some of the “failed” Disney movies of the 40s made and it only started to become something of a success in the 60s and 70s when hippies re-discovered the movie for its retroactively psychedelic properties.

There is something of a long tradition of movies and TV shows that are ostensibly for children but actually for adults who are on drugs (see: Ren & Stimpy, Spongebob Squarepants, and the complete works of Sid and Marty Krofft), and this practice can probably be traced back to this movie.  Now to be clear, I’m sure all of this was unintentional on the part of the people making this movie at Disney.  LSD wasn’t a thing yet when this was getting made and I have no doubt that the hallucinogenic weirdness was simply supposed to be a replication of child-like whimsy vis-à-vis 19th Century proto-surrealism, but it remains a rather intoxicated movie that goes from strange episode to strange episode with little in the way of character development or narrative arc.  As someone watching the whole thing sober I’ve got to say I was kind of weirded out by the whole thing.  I think the problem with the movie is Alice herself.  Alice certainly has a neat look to her but the way she behaves through the whole movie is simply bizarre.  Whenever she runs into Wonderlandian weirdness she reacts with insane nonchalance rather than abject horror.  Why make your lead character an outsider if she isn’t going to act as an audience surrogate?

From a craft perspective there isn’t too much to complain about here.  The animation certainly isn’t as vivid as some of their golden age movies, but that’s probably something I’m just going to have to get used to, and they certainly have a lot of elaborate visuals to play with in the world of this movie.  There aren’t a lot of memorable songs here but the movie does boast a pretty impressive collection of voice performances with a number of their regulars like Sterling Holloway (Cheshire Cat), Verna Felton (Queen of Hearts), and Bill Thompson (white rabbit/dodo) and also make good use of some featured performers like Ed Wynn (Mad Hatter) and Richard Haydn (Smoking Caterpiller).  At the end of the day though this doesn’t quite work for me.  To Disney’s credit I feel like more of the blame probably falls on Lewis Carol than anything, as most of what doesn’t work for me like pointless digressions (that walrus story totally put me to sleep) and Alice’s nonchalant behavior appears to be inherent in the book that’s being adapted.  This is certainly an interesting and slightly off-formula entrant to the Disney cannon even if it doesn’t quite work for me.  It certainly has its moments, I’ll give it that.

Peter Pan (1953)

If Cinderella was meant to be the ultimate little girls’ fantasy (from a traditional gender roles point of view) then Peter Pan is the story that’s probably supposed to represent the ultimate little boys’ fantasy what with it taking place on a fantastical island where children can spend endless hours fighting pirates and “injuns” without consequence.  Like Disney’s last movie it’s based on a relatively recent children’s book (or in this case play) which has been remade a billion times but in the case of this one I do feel like Disney laid claim to the story a bit more firmly before the story went public domain and everyone from Steven Spielberg to whoever the hell directed Pan tried to get a piece of the action.  In fact this is probably one of Disney’s more popular movies having been a huge box office success on its original release (it was the highest grossing movie of 1953) and continues to be a huge part of its brand identity.  And yet, it’s also the first of the Disney movies I’ve watched in this article series which  I pretty thoroughly disliked…. like, straight up hated.

In part my distaste for this is rooted in the story that’s being adapted.  The central theme at the center of J.M. Barrie’s story is this reluctance that children have to grow up, and frankly I think that’s a bunch of bullshit.  In actuality children are not remotely reluctant to grow up and no longer have to deal with bedtimes or lack of money or any of the other small indignities of being young.  It’s only when they finally grow up and find out that adulthood also involves mortgage payments and 40 hour work weeks that they start to realize what they lost and reminisce about the carefree days of youth.  As such I feel like this story is less an authentic representation of how kids feel and more a product of parents projecting their own nostalgia onto their kids.  As such you get a lot of curious scenes in the movie like its inciting incident where Wendy is told that she’s too old to still be sleeping in the nursery, leaving her in much distress.  How does this jive with actual human behavior?  Any real tween girl would not be angry to be given her own room, quite the contrary she’d be overjoyed not to have to share a room with bratty siblings anymore.  And I also don’t really buy that Peter and the lost boys would be all that excited to stay a child forever rather than grow into someone old enough to be able to be Captain Hook’s peer rather than some punk kid with a slingshot.

That philosophical difference aside, there’s a lot about this movie that just doesn’t appeal to me on a number of other levels.  For one thing, the aesthetic design of a lot of the characters seems off to me.  Whoever did the “costume design” on this thing definitely should have been fired.  Peter Pan’s green tights certainly makes him look more like a wacky elf than a junior swashbuckler but that’s less confounding than the weird animal themed onesies the lost boys are decked in or the fact that all the real world kids wear pajamas through the whole movie for seemingly no reason except that the animators didn’t want to draw more than one character model.  The only one here who actually looks pretty slick is Captain Hook, but the film totally neuters that character by subjecting him to slapstick comedy from the word “go” and draining him of any menace.  Then there are the Native Americans… I don’t want to dwell on this too much because I don’t want to give the impression that this was a huge factor in why I didn’t like the movie (I’m not one to demand that old movies live up to modern standards of political correctness) but good lord was this even more racist than I expected it to be.  But even if this had been an entirely respectful depiction of natives the concept of them being there in the first place seems rather odd.  Neverland would appear to be a tropical island so what the hell are plains Indians doing there?  It just looks stupid.  In fact a lot about this movie just doesn’t connect and seems silly and cartoony from the antics Wendy’s parents at the beginning (which gave me trauma flashbacks to the unbearable first fifteen minutes or so of “real world” framing that would mar most of the early Harry movies), to Captain Hook’s comic relief sidekick, to the way Tinckerbelle (a much less sympathetic character than I would have expected given her continued importance to this company) backstabs her friends out of petty jealousy.  In general, this is everything I was afraid Disney movies were going to turn out to be and it has me worried about what’s in store going forward.

Lady and the Tramp (1955)

Out of all the movies in Disney’s classic era Lady and the Tramp has always been the one that the culture has always been the most… indifferent to.  It certainly doesn’t have the popularity of a Peter Pan or a Jungle Book, there’s no princess in it to market for decades, it’s fairly unlikely to be turned into a live-action remake until they really start running out of options, and it isn’t even remembered for being any kind of major misfire, it’s always just sort of been there.  The shot of the two dogs accidentally kissing while eating spaghetti is certainly iconic but beyond that one two minute scene it’s never really felt like a particularly popular entry in their cannon.   Surprisingly enough the movie was actually a much bigger hit in 1955 than I would have thought it was, in fact it was Disney’s most successful movie since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs… even more successful than Cinderella and Peter Pan, which suggests to me that its failure to persist in pop culture has less to do with the movie itself than with the difficulties of merchandising it down the line.  It certainly wasn’t one that I was looking forward to watching in this little series.  It is after all a romantic comedy about dogs and I don’t particularly like romantic comedies or dogs.  And yet, having actually watched it I am surprised to find that it’s definitely my favorite Disney movie so far outside of Fantasia (which is sort of a separate beast altogether) and clearly one of their more mature efforts.

I called the movie a romantic comedy before but I’m not sure that’s quite right, in many ways it actually reminded me more of the Douglas Sirk melodramas of the era like All That Heaven Allows, although that might have as much to do with its small town suburban milieu than its formula even though this is ostensibly set in the early 1900s rather than the 50s.  Either way it’s a very small and intimate story, especially when compared to the two straight adventure stories that preceded it and like the other two talking animal Disney movies before it (Dumbo and Bambi) it doesn’t have the distinction of being based on a particularly famous book or fairy tale.  That’s kind of a brave move and it works out in part because they put some real work into making these two dogs likable opposites from different sides of the tracks and unlike other Disney movies which rely on simplistic love-at-first-sight tropes this one actually has its relationship evolve over time.   Both dogs a quite literally well drawn and also have quality voice performances by Barbara Luddy and Larry Roberts.  The movie seems oddly class conscious coming from a guy who once exploited the McCarthy hearing to quash union activity in his studio.

The film also boasts a unique visual style in that it is sort of shot at dog’s eye view with human heads often above frame.  It doesn’t do this in a gimmicky way and will occasionally show a wide shot when its necessary, but its commitment to unconventional framing is noteworthy and makes the film feel more unique and cinematic than the last three movies they made.  Another thing that sets it apart is that it is the first (and also second from last) animated movie to be done in the newly introduced Cinemascope format, which gives it the same 2.55:1 aspect ratio that Quentin Tarantino recently tried to reintroduce with The Hateful Eight.  While it’s almost certainly true that this was done more out of a desire to latch the film onto a hot trend than out of a true belief that this film would uniquely benefit from the format, it does play rather perfectly into the dog’s-eye-view aesthetic of the film in a way that a taller format wouldn’t and does look pretty sharp.  This is also one of the stronger Disney movies musically with Singer/ voice actressce actress Peggy Lee providing the film with a pair of interesting songs in “The Siamese Cat Song” (which is catchy even if it indulges in some slightly uncomfortable Orientalism) and the credibly Jazzy “He’s a Tramp.”  So between the film’s unique style and mature subject matter, this film seems like a win all the way around.  It maybe loses its way a little at the very end when a rat with suspiciously evil intent suddenly comes into the picture just because the film needs a heroic moment for the Tramp and the movie also maybe could have benefited from a little more runtime to let the central relationship develop, the fact remains that this is clearly above and beyond most of what the studio was putting out this decade.

Sleeping Beauty (1959)

Going into this article series I expected the production values for these Disney movies to be fairly consistent over the years but that couldn’t be further from the truth.  The studio was at its most opulent during its golden age of the 30s and 40s but after WW2 led to a string of underperforming films they found themselves limping into the 50s and the first few movies they made in that decade clearly had to cut a bunch of corners but by the end of the decade they clearly had their mojo back and were ready to start dumping a lot of money into their movies again.  This reached its peak with Sleeping Beauty, which is probably the most ambitious production they ever had or ever would produce.  To say that no expense was spared on this one would be a massive understatement.  The movie cost $6 million to make, which doesn’t sound like a lot today but to put that in perspective it only cost $2.8 million to make The Bridge on the River Kwai.  Like Lady and the Trap before it, this was done in Cinemascope but went the extra mile of being filmed in a special 70mm format called Super Technirama which looks absolutely gorgeous all these years later.  It’s a little hard to tell exactly how much of how good the film looks can be attributed to that format since, unlike the last three of these Disney movies I watched, I was able to see this on Blu-Ray instead of DVD and it’s clearly been restored to the nth degree but the fact remains that the film was clearly meant to be a huge showpiece and features a boatload of interesting designs and magic effects.

The money, resources, and skill dumped into the film resulted in a film that was clearly a visual wonder… however, watching it you really wish they had thought to put a few more resources into the writing on the movie because the narrative here is quite the mess.  The central plot, in which Maleficent (a cool looking but rather one dimensionally eeeeevilllll villain) plots to kill a princess for no reason using an insanely convoluted scheme that takes sixteen years, does not make a lot of sense and wouldn’t have worked if everyone involved hadn’t made a lot of mistakes along the way.  The princess is quite boring even when she’s awake and the prince is a rather bland hero who reminded me a lot of Dirk the Daring from the video game “Dragon’s Lair.”  Copious screentime is given to the fathers of these two protagonists even though they’re little more than peripheral comic relief and for all intents and purposes the film’s protagonists end up being the middle aged nanny-looking fairies who aren’t terribly interesting in and of themselves and have rather vague and undefined powers.  It’s a little more realistic about the nature of medival royal marriages than Cinderella was, I’ll give it that, but the dopey rom-com twist of the two young royals meeting and falling instantly in love before they know they’re betrothed is weak.

So, yeah, the movie is far from perfect but having said all that I the fact does remain that this movie looks great and its visual strengths do kind of make it work for me.  The movie  diverges from the usual Disney art style in a number of ways and seem to replicate the look of Medieval tapestries and also benefits from having a slightly harder edge than a lot of the studio’s movies.  The film feels just  a little bit more like a Tolkien-esque fantasy movie than some of the gentler fairy tale movies that the studio put out and ends with a really cool set-piece involving Maleficent in dragon form.   Because of that I’m pretty sure that if I had seen this as a kid it almost certainly would have been one of my favorite Disney movies messy plot be damned.  Seeing it now, I’m kind of torn, part of me wants to dismiss it as style over substance but part of me wants to simply say “who cares, the visuals make it a one-of-a-kind spectacle.  Critics at the time were less forgiving and panned the movie and it was generally seen as a failure.  The movie actually did make money, it was the second highest grossing movie of the year after Ben-Hur, but it ultimately didn’t make its gigantic budget back and Disney responded in kind.  They cut budgets on the next handful of projects noticeably and wouldn’t do Cinemascope again and would only indulge in an aspect ratio wider than 1.66:1 again on two more occasions (The Black Cauldron and Atlantis: The Lost Empire) prior to the CGI era.  What’s more the studio more or less retired the idea of adapting fairy tales altogether up until the “Disney Renassiance” of the 90s.  It’s unfortunate that they over-reacted so much because I feel like they could have made something pretty special if they’d just applied these production values to a better script.

Collecting some thoughts

I’m now ten movies into the Disney retrospective and I’ve got to say that my thoughts are pretty mixed.  At this point I’ve watched most of their most famous movies and while I’ve liked some of them I haven’t loved any of them not do I see myself fully embracing any of them down the line.  On the other hand I can’t say I’ve regretted watching any of them.  The more of these things I see the more I feel like they are important pieces of pop culture that are worth knowing about.  This particular era seems to be particularly impactful and it’s probably no coincidence that four of the five movies that Disney made in the 50s have already been the source of big budget Hollywood adaptations, or multiple adaptations in the case of Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan.  Of these five Peter Pan was the only one that I really couldn’t stand.  I had issues with Alice in Wonderland, but that movie has grown on me a bit since I watched it, and Cinderella was just “okay.”  Then when we got to the end of the decade we were treated to Lady and the Tramp was one of the studio’s best and Sleeping Beauty, which was too interesting to really dislike.  So overall, I’m mixed to positive, and I am sort of looking forward to finishing out the classic era when I restart the series in a month or so.

Captain America: Civil War(5/7/2016)

It’s weird how fortunes can change over the course of a single year.  Take Marvel Studios for example.  These guys were absolutely on top of the world in 2014 after putting out their weightiest movie to date in Captain America: Winter Soldier and their most successfully lighthearted one in Guardians of the Galaxy.  They seemed to be operating at the height of their power… and then 2015 happened.  The year started off with The Avengers: Age of Ultron, which certainly had spirit but was unquestionably an overstuffed mess of a movie that caved in under its own weight.  It has its defenders but it was a bad sign as it suggested that things were going to get really convoluted in this series.  Then there was Ant-Man which was… just kind of forgettable.  It was alright I guess but in a world where they’re making half a dozen comic book movies a year it didn’t stand out and felt more like the kind of super hero movie that would have been made circa 2003 than one from the biggest name in the business.  I would be discouraged by all of that, but crazy as it sounds given how many of these things we already have, the one year delay really just kind of made me hungry for a Marvel film that actually delivered and given that the Russo Brothers more than delivered with Winter Soldier all signs pointed to Captain America: Civil War being the movie that would do that.

Our story this time is set off when the newly formed Avengers headed by Captain America (Chis Evans) and featuring some second tier heroes like Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and Black Widow (Scarlet Johansen) on a mission in Lagos where Crossbones (Frank Grillo) is attempting to steal biological weapons.  This mission goes badly however when Crossbones attempts to set off a suicide vest and Scarlet Witch is forced to use her powers to levitate him away from the crowd but misses her target and sends the explosion into a populated building.  The fallout of this leads world leaders to call for an accord which will regulate the Avengers and place them directly under UN control, a move which Captain America believes will put the world in danger.  Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), however, believes that this is a necessary check on the team’s activities and this causes a fracture among the heroes that is accelerated when Bucky “The Winter Soldier” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) reemerges and seemingly kills the king of Wakanda.  When Captain America tries to save Barnes from police sent to shoot on sight he’s declared a fugitive and soon every hero is forced to choose sides.

Captain America: Civil War is in kind of an unusual place in the Marvel Cannon in that it is ostensibly a follow-up to what is clearly their best movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but the sheer number of superheroes in it makes it feel a whole lot like it’s also a third Avengers movie.  Pretty much every Marvel hero is here except for Thor, The Incredible Hulk, and The Guardians of the Galaxy and Iron Man has a huge role in it to the point where he could be considered the protagonist just as much as Captain America.  There are no fewer than twelve costumed heroes involved in this plot including two (Black Panther and Spider-Man) who haven’t been introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe before and in light of how much of a mess Age of Ultron and a certain other superhero team-up movie from earlier this year, that was a pretty bad sign.  If anything Captain America: Civil War deserves a lot of credit for being as coherent and well-paced as it is given the immense amount of content it needs to pack into its 147 minute runtime.  The movie certainly moves along at a brisk pace and it wisely opts not to overuse certain characters and to mostly focus on the conflict between Iron Man and Captain America.

The basis for this whole conflict seems a bit odd to me.  The incident in Lagos would seem to be the main catalyst for all this division but more often characters cite the Sokovia incident from Avengers: Age of Ultron and the casualties there as a major influencer for people’s anxieties over superpowered people having free reign.  This is curious, in part because Joss Whedon kind of went out of his way to make sure that there were as few casualties as possible in that final scene out of a seeming desire to give the middle finger to the movie Man of Steel, a fact that was not lost in the cultural reception of that movie.  But even if that scene did result in a huge number of civilians killed in the crossfire it would still seem like an odd thing for the world to complain about.  All through Captain America: Civil War I kept waiting for Captain America to make the most obvious argument against these accusations: “Yes some innocent people died during that battle, but if we hadn’t been there Ultron would have sent his vibraniam machine plummeting to Earth killing every man, woman, and child on the face of the earth (including all the Sokovian civilians).”

What’s more it isn’t exactly clear what the checks and balances of the accords would do to save civilians from superhero activity.  If the UN was controlling The Avengers would they really have disallowed them from going to Sokovia to prevent Ultron from causing apocalyptic extinction?  Would that have also disallowed them from going to Sokovia to prevent Crossbones from stealing biological weapons… that could be used to kill every man woman and child on the plant (including the Lagosians in that office building that got blown up).  Seeing a pattern here.  Even if you view the movie strictly as an allegory for more earthly checks on power this global outrage still doesn’t exactly make sense.  We currently live in a world where the U.S. military routinely kills bystanders in drone strikes and even the most peace-loving among us can only barely muster any outrage over it.  Hell, the army once accidently blew up a Chinese embassy and everyone just shrugged and kept the military industrial complex going and quickly forgot the whole thing.  People are generally fairly willing to accept civilian casualties as long as they think they know who the “good guy” is.

But maybe cogent political allegory is a little too much to expect from a movie that most people are going to based on the promise of seeing a bunch of superheroes battle one another for a couple of hours.  On that level the movie certainly delivers, especially in a scene around two thirds of the way through the film where the two opposing teams of heroes have a battle royale which incorporates all the heroes’ various powers in some relatively inspired ways.  The scene’s impact is slightly diminished by the fact that all of the heroes involved have no intention of killing any of their opponents which kind of sucks the suspense out of the whole thing, but it’s pretty fun nonetheless.  There are of course some concessions to corporate nonsense.  While the Spider-Man that’s introduced here is strong it’s undeniable that he doesn’t really fit very easy into the plot and was almost certainly added as a cross-marketing move, but they somehow mostly get away with it.  It would be impossible not to watch this movie and compare it to this year’s other movie which pitted iconic superheroes against each other, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and marvel at how much better this one is.  That other movie’s complete and utter failure perhaps gave me a renewed respect for just how easy Marvel Studios makes the whole superhero team up thing look because this pretty much succeeds everywhere that that movie failed.  It’s not as good as Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which remains Marvel Studio’s best accomplishment but it probably is somewhere in the studio’s top five.

Green Room(4/30/2016)

I have kind of a funny relationship with punk rock, but then so do a lot of its fans.  There is quite a bit of punk rock music I enjoy.  In fact The Clash’s “London Calling” may just be my all-time favorite album of all time.  However, I have absolutely no use for the basic philosophy and ethos that punk rock is based upon and if I met an actual “punk” in real life I’m almost positive I’d hate them.  Anarchy and wild behavior is fun to talk about and fantasize about but there’s really nothing more annoying than someone who indulges every destructive impulse they get.  Of course there are a lot of musical genres that people can enjoy without imitating the ethos that surrounds them: you don’t need to be “hood” to enjoy hip-hop, you don’t need to be a heroin addict to enjoy grunge, and you don’t need to be a dancer to enjoy techno… but those genres don’t tend to be watched over by a vanguard of enthusiasts who are dedicated to policing their ranks of “posers.”  That always seemed kind of strange to me as someone who tends to view pop culture as a window into the human experience rather than as something that one uses to express one’s own identity.  I bring all this up because punk rock is the milieu, though not really the subject, of the new thriller Green Room from Blue Ruin director Jeremy Saulnier.

Green Room follows a modern punk/hardcore band called The Ain’t Rights who are touring the country in a van and living off so little money that they siphon gas from other cars in order to make their trips.  They’re just about at the end of their rope when they arrive in Oregon to play a gig for a local scenester named Tad (David W. Thompson) only to find out that their show has been cancelled.  Feeling guilty, Tad offers to set them up with a quality gig which will get them enough money to return home, the one catch is that the bar they’ll be playing at is mostly patronized by racist skinheads.  The band has had a run-in or two with nazi-punks before and feel they can easily enough stomach their company for an afternoon as long as the gig pays and they can avoid talking politics.  Once they arrive their set goes pretty well despite a couple of rocky moments, but when they return to the club’s green room they stumble upon the body of a woman that one of the skinheads has murdered.  Thus begins a standoff between the band and an older skinhead named Darcy Banker (Patrick Stewart) who owns the club and seems to be leading this “movement” of rowdy skinheads with the band forced to lock themselves in the club’s green room until they can find some way to escape with their lives.

Green Room is being marketed as a horror movie, and while some of the more brutal violence in it would be at home in that genre it would probably be better classified as a grisly little thriller along the lines of something like Deliverance or Straw Dogs.  The fact that this plotline deals with modern racist skinheads would seem to suggest that it has something to say about the nature of hate or about race relations in America, but I don’t think that’s really the case.  There’s a certain genre morality that can be gleaned from the fact that these characters are essentially being punished for momentarily tolerating the company of white supremacists, but for the most part I think the film would be largely unchanged if the bad guys here had been a biker gang or something, the racism mostly just seems to have been added so that the audience will instantly view them has villains and to be on board with the movie once said villain start being brutally killed later in the movie.

To me that feels like a bit of a cheat.  In a movie like this we should be rooting for our heroes because they are likable and because you genuinely want to see them make it out of their predicament, not because their tormentors wear Doc Martins and shave their heads.  Unfortunately we don’t really get a whole lot of time to get to know these people before they’re tossed in the pressure cooker.  The movie starts off well enough in its depiction of this band’s life on the road and the brief glimpses we get of what it’s like to be a dead broke rock band on tour are enticing.  I maybe would have liked to see this section play out a bit longer in order to give you a little more time to get to know these bandmates individually.  Hell, I maybe would have rather seen an entire movie about their rock tour sans the genre twist.  Alternately I might have found some interest in a more sober and straightforward examination of the world of this white supremacist punk bar.  In some ways the movie reminds me a bit of The Purge in that it’s a film that finds a potentially interesting setting and concept and then simply devolves into a run of the mill siege movie.

As it stands, the movie is largely dependent on its execution as a pure genre piece which to me was certainly strong but not strong enough to make up for its general hollowness.  The film’s cinematography is good, although I must say it was slightly compromised for me by the fact that the theater I watched it in wasn’t dark enough to really give the right atmosphere, not that that’s the movie’s fault.  Saulnier also does give certain scenes a reasonable amount of tension but not to any earth shattering degree and I was oddly unmoved and unshocked whenever one of the film’s protagonists was felled.  Overall it just seemed well made but forgettable, which in retrospect is pretty much what I thought of Blue Ruin.  I do think Jeremy Saulnier has talent and I do look forward to what he does next, but next time he picks a color and a word that begins with “R” I hope he can produce something a bit more meaningful to do it with.