Rogue One: A Star Wars Story(12/16/2016)

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In the world of videogames there’s a term that’s been come to used, at least amongst people with some interest in the financial side of the industry, called “annualization.”  This is used when a company, usually a major publisher like Activision or Ubisoft realizes that one of their series is a really popular cash cow and put enough resources into it to have multiple teams working on multiple sequels to it at once so that they can reliably put out a new installment of the franchise every single year.  This makes sense for sports games like Madden but becomes more problematic when it’s applied to series that are actually supposed to have stories like the “Assassin’s Creed” franchise and even when it’s applied to something like “Call of Duty” which doesn’t have a continuous story it still sort of kills a lot of goodwill from consumers who complain that they’re being bilked into buying the same game over and over again, and even if they’re okay with this in principle there’s no doubt that this practice sort of kills that anticipation that players build up for new installments of franchises like “Grand Theft Auto” who take a slower approach and make each installment an event.  This same practice isn’t unheard of in the world of film, in fact you could argue that the Marvel movies have been doing it for years now, but it seems to have really taken a hold now that Disney is also trying to do something like it with their newly acquired Star Wars license.  Now for basically the first time there’s a Star Wars movie in theaters that isn’t an official “Episode,” a sort of Star Wars “Halo: Reach” that’s officially called Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Rogue One is set in the days leading up to the start of the original Star Wars film and focuses on a woman named Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), whose father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) has been coerced into working as an engineer for the Empire.  With this in her past and her mother dead Jyn has seemingly grown up to be something of a streetwise rebel.  Her parentage does catch the attention of the Rebel Alliance, who believe that Galen may be working with an Imperial general named Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) on a super weapon that could end the Rebel Alliance once and for all.  As such a task force led by a guy named Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and featuring a reprogramed Imperial robot called K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) break her out of prison and bring her on a mission to find Galen and determine what he’s up to and if necessary neutralize him.

When I first heard the title Rogue One I had envisioned it as a sort of Star Wars flyboy movie that would focus on a squadron of X-Wing pilots, but the film is more of something along the lines of The Guns of Naverone with a team of misfits setting out to retrieve one of cinema’s most famous MacGuffins.  There are definitely some good ideas at its center.  In essence the movie is trying to give the viewer a better idea of what life under the Empire leading up to the original trilogy and what the fighting in the titular wars was like for those in the trenches rather than the VIPs we follow through the other movies.  That’s a great idea in theory, but certain aspects of the execution here leave something to be desired and the movie gets off to a real shaky start.  The film doesn’t begin with an opening text scroll like the other Star Wars movies, which is a smart way to differentiate it from the “real” Star Wars movies with episode numbers, but the movie could maybe use one because the first act of the movie feels like something of a jumble of names we don’t know and political machinations that could have used a bit of extra exposition to untangle.

A big part of the problem may simply be the new characters that the film introduces just aren’t that strong or maybe that the movie doesn’t do a very job of establishing a connection between them and the audience.  Jyn Erso is a character that certainly seems interesting in theory and Felicity Jones does bring a certain something to her, but at the end of the day she’s a bit one-dimensional on the page and her motivations seem a bit inconsistent.  The movie desperately wants her to be this aloof Han Solo type but she spends the whole movie trying to protect her father’s honor and the movie never really seems to decide how many fucks she gives in general.  Similarly Cassian Andor just seems like a very one note company man and other characters like a defecting Imperial pilot with brain damage or something played by Riz Ahmed mostly just seems to confuse matters and the movie just never makes other characters like Chirrut Îmwe and Baze Malbus just kind of seem to be here out of a nebulous obligation for the movie to build a team rather than because there’s any real reason for their presence in the film.  Not every character here is lame, the robot K-2SO is pretty charming for example, but few of them really leave the same kind of impression as the iconic characters from the original trilogy or even some of the new characters introduced in The Force Awakens.  Hell, for all their shortcomings even the prequel trilogy probably introduced more characters that people are likely to remember the names of than this movie.

Beyond that the film is frustrating in that it establishes this darker tone and puts forward some interesting ideas only to then squander them.  In particular I was not impressed with the way the film suggests that the Rebel Alliance had its shortcomings and destructive tendencies only to fail to really explore them.  For example, the initial mission that Jyn Erso is sent on is to find a guy named Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) who Mon Mothma labels as an extremist Rebel who has ultimately proven to be a liability to the Alliance.  That’s an interesting idea but it goes nowhere, we never really see what makes this guy a Rebel extremist or what he’s up to.  When we meet him he’s certainly an interesting looking character but all he actually does is give Jyn the next piece of the puzzle and send her off to the next location.  Later we’re left to deal with a tension within the group as they debate over whether to assassinate Galen Erso, but the stakes to this are never really clear.  We as an audience know that whatever harm Galen can do has already been done and if it hasn’t then what is the urgency to deal with him?  Later still we have to deal with what is essentially one of these stock standard movie situations where the hero is right about something but the Rebel Alliance acts as this artificial roadblock to the “man of action” who wants to do something and when the Rebels have a change of heart on this point it isn’t terribly clear why.

Having said all that, the film kind of redeems itself in its third act.  It probably isn’t much of a spoiler to say that the movie ends with a big battle scene which is classic Star Wars with the action cutting between three or four different aspects of the action scene each one of them interesting in their own way.  It isn’t just that spectacle that makes this third act work though, it also does a lot of clever things to connect the movie to the beginning of the original Star Wars in ways that are impressively seamless.  I was also impressed with the film’s willingness to have a rather dark ending that isn’t afraid to leave things in a pretty grim place to set up why the Revels so desperately need “a new hope.”  Of course the film’s interest in recreating aspects of the original Star Wars does have some drawbacks.  For one thing, Grand Moff Tarkin is a character in the film, which is narratively logical but it with Peter Cushing having died in 1994 the filmmakers decided to use CGI to resurrect him, an idea I might have been willing to roll with if the technology was there but the result is decidedly a trip into the uncanny valley.  I don’t know that I would have wanted them to recast the character either so I guess I wish they had left him out or maybe done his scenes with those blue hued hologram things or something.  Their decision to bring back Darth Vader for a few scenes was also done with mixed results.  You’d think his costume would make him easy enough to recreate, but there’s just something different about him… maybe David Prowse deserves more credit than he gets.

It’s been a truism in filmmaking that if a movie has a lousy ending it will undue a lot of goodwill a movie has built up and if you have a great ending audiences will forgive a lot of earlier mistakes and Rogue One may prove that to be true.  The film’s last third does indeed really leave you just about ready to completely forgive how poorly written the first two acts are, but not entirely.  I don’t think time and repeat viewings are going to be kind to this movie, the thrill of seeing Darth Vader unleash on some Rebels is going to diminish over time and the unfulfilled potential of the film’s exploration of the messy side of rebellion is going to remain a disappointment.  I must say though, that I feel like a bit conflicted about my reaction to this one.  When The Force Awakens came out I thought it was pretty cool but complained that it stuck too rigidly to the formula of the previous movies and relied too much on old characters and nostalgia, and now here comes a movie that boldly eschews the old formula and plays by a new set of rules and it’s still not really what I want.  I guess that’s what’s frustrating about the movie: it seems to have the right idea and go about it the right way, it just botches the execution along the way and doesn’t handle its best ideas the right way.  Despite all that, on balance there is definitely enough here to make the movie a mostly worthwhile experience as the best parts work like gangbusters, it’s just that you’re kind of left with what could have been.

La La Land(12/15/2016)

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The 1970s were a famously grand and tumultuous time for American cinema.  The “New Hollywood” era as it’s known is when the film industry moved on from the “old Hollywood” style as we now call it and embraced a newer more gritty style.  Of course being as American film did still have its roots in those Hollywood classics to some extent the new crop of auteurs weren’t going to completely abandon what came before and much of the New Hollywood era was dedicated to finding new and relevant ways to bring the old styles to the screen.  Sure enough the filmmakers of the era were indeed able to find new ways to make gangster films (The Godfather), westerns (McCabe and Mrs. Miller), film noirs (Chinatown), and various other familiar film genres, but there was one style they were never really able to crack: musicals.  Of course this wasn’t for lack of trying.  One of the most famous, or perhaps infamous, attempts to bring back the musical was Martin Scorsese’s 1977 film New York, New York, which was a huge bomb at the box office and is often seen as something of a blemish on the director’s career but it is very interesting to watch today if nothing else than for what it’s trying (and perhaps failing) to do.  Now, some thirty-nine years later a young filmmaker named Damien Chazelle seems to be trying to succeed where Scorsese failed and is making his own neo-musical named after a major city and focusing on a rocky relationship between a female performer and a jazz musician called La La Land and it’s finally coming out after a massive wave of hype and anticipation within the film community.

As you can probably guess from the title, La La Land is set in Los Angeles and it focuses very much on the people who are trying to “make it” in the entertainment industry.  Specifically it’s about a couple named Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) and Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling), who are trying to start careers as an actress and jazz pianist respectively.  They actually first meet when Sebastian tries to pass Mia during a traffic jam and she ends up flipping him off but things do improve however when they meet again at a couple of Sebastian’s less glamorous gigs and they end up becoming a pair.  Of course it quickly becomes clear that dedicating themselves to each other is not always easy when they’re also trying to dedicate themselves to making their dreams come true.

Let’s go back to New York, New York: why did that movie fail?  Well for one thing it was too long, but aside from that I think that movie had two major flaws.  Firstly, I think it probably went a little too far into gritty cynicism as 70s films are wont to do.  The relationship between the Robert De Niro character and the Liza Minelli character is completely toxic almost from the beginning to the point of being almost abusive.  It’s not a movie where you want these crazy kids to get over their problems and get together so much as a movie where you want the woman to get the hell away, and that makes its ending a lot less melancholy than it’s supposed to be.  Secondly, New York, New York is kind of more of a musical in theory than it is in practice.  The characters don’t really burst into song in that movie, which is an understandable decision, but the story only occasionally finds reasons to have the characters sing and when they do the songs themselves just aren’t very memorable outside of the title track and while some of the scenes are memorably staged a lot of them aren’t.  I bring all this up to look at what pitfalls La La Land needs to overcome if it wants to succeed where Scorsese failed.

Let’s start by checking to see how the film operates at a musical.  Unlike other screen musicals of recent years like Les Misérables, Into the Woods, Nine, or Sweeney Todd this movie is not a Broadway adaptation.  Instead this is an original musical that’s very much in dialogue with the language of Hollywood musicals of the Vincent Minelli variety but to place it in a contemporary context.  Characters do burst into song and the movie generally embraces the general magical realism involved in the genre and director Damien Chazelle really brings it as a visual stylist to the point where it sometimes feels like he’s showing off.  Take the opening scene, where a bunch of commuters stalled on a freeway overpass get out of their cars and begin a full on six-minute song and dance number set up to look like it was done in a single shot.  This isn’t necessarily emblematic of all the musical numbers in the film as few of them actually involve choruses or backup dancers like that and the numbers actually get more intimate and infrequent as the film goes on, but it is emblematic in that Chazelle is really in take no prisoners form and is very interested in capturing these sort of spectacle moments and is often quite effective in doing so.

That having been said, I think the musical numbers here are in many ways more of a triumph of staging than they are of songwriting.  The music here was written by Justin Hurwitz, a very young composer who’s mainly only worked on Chazelle’s last movie Whiplash with lyrics written by songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul who are probably best known for working on the short-lived NBC series “Smash.”  In other words, the music here was not constructed by Broadway masters of the Sondheim or Lin Manuel variety, and it does sort of show.  Ignore the songs and Hurwitz music does actually function very well just as a film score (and the instrumentation is more front and center than you usually see from these things) but the songs don’t necessarily have those sort of pop hooks that will really get them caught in your head and while the lyrics are often appropriate they aren’t as meticulously crafted and written as some of the best that Broadway has to offer.  It’s not the kind of musical I expect anyone to want to sing along to and there aren’t really any numbers that you’re really going to get stuck in your head.  Also, while Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone can both definitely sing and pull off the songs generally, you can tell they’re actors first and you’re not going to get any super standout vocal moments along the line of Anne Hathaway’s “I Dreamed a Dream” moment in Les Misérables or Idina Menzel’s “Let it Go” turn in Frozen.  Don’t get me wrong, the music here is entirely passable, even quite strong in its aggregate and it all works in the film.  I’m just saying that in the grand scheme of things the songs do have their limitations without Chazelle’s staging.

So the movie handles music better than New York, New York, but what about the central relationship?  Well, it doesn’t make it’s male protagonist an unlikable monster, so it definitely has an advantage there, but I’m not sure that the central relationship in the film is quite as well cooked as it could have been.  In fact the romance gets off to a really questionable start with a series of kind of lame meet-cutes where the Gosling character is seemingly playing hard to get with Emma Stone and being sort of a dick in the process.  I didn’t really buy that part of the movie, but when the two finally do get together it works a little better even if certain things do sort of get glossed over.  It’s never really explained what these two really see in each other beyond the fact that they are the ones being played by the stars and some fairly standard “spark at first sight” kind of material.  This is ultimately a musical and in the history of that genre there are definitely romances that have been explored a lot less poignantly than this one, so I don’t want to be too hard on it, but at times the movie does sort of walk and talk like it’s this deep bittersweet dive into a relationship which it really isn’t when compared to something like Blue Valentine or something.

So, the music and the romance while not perfect still works a lot better than they did in New York, New York, where else do they compare.  Well, there is the matter of how the two movies are in dialog with the musicals of old as both are asking a very pertinent question: does this old style have any resonance with modern and seemingly more sophisticated understandings of the world.  New York, New York for all its problems did find some interesting if perhaps unsatisfying ways to bridge the gap between old Hollywood artifice and New Hollywood grit and it did so at the expense of a lot of the joy people expect from musicals.  There’s very little of that sort of giddy delight people expect from the songs in these movies to be found in Scorsese’s movie and when it did fully embrace the Vincente Minelli-style in the “Happy Endings” number it did so in ways that were bitterly ironic.  La La Land by contrast is a bit more nostalgic, or at least nostalgic in a way that’s a bit more conventionally recognizable.  Unlike Scorsese’s movie, La La Land starts with its giddiest and most Hollywood-style musical numbers right up front and gets more restrained as it goes, and when it starts pulling the rug out from all this later on it feels a bit more organic.

There are concessions to modernity here.  The characters do not have that sickly happy look on their faces as they sing like they do in some of those older movies and the film does more or less position its musical sequences as unreal fantasy moments rather than a diegetic reality within the film, but at the end of the day the film is deeply nostalgic and indebted to the past.  This slightly uneasy relation the film has to the past is made into something of a theme in the movie with the Ryan Gosling character’s purist views of jazz.  The character is laser focused on a dream of opening and running a jazz nightclub where nothing but “pure” jazz is played.  Not the most realistic dream given that jazz is not a terribly profitable genre and that some of his uncompromising ideas he has about running this establishment are kind of crazy, but people have gotta dream right?  Anyway this is challenged when he’d given a chance to join a Jazz/urban fusion band fronted by a guy played by John Legend.  This is counter to all his traditionalist views, but the Legend character makes a pretty good case for what he’s doing.  I expected this to end with the Gosling character realizing that there was something vibrant and original about what this band was doing and that he’d realize that embracing the new wasn’t an insult to the old and that this would be something of a metaphor for what Chazelle was doing to the film musical… but that isn’t really what ends up happening.  The character and the movie both more or less end up dismissing that band’s music as being sellout bullshit and the movie moves on from there.

That didn’t really rub me the right way, and I’ve got to say, this movie’s whole “take a moonshot and dare to dream” philosophy never quite spoke to me.  Here we’re getting into territory that’s largely a matter of personal taste and outlook, but I just do not relate to people who chase unrealistic dreams and I don’t have a ton of sympathy for starving artists.  When I hear people whine about having to work at a coffee shop before they’re “discovered” or talk about traditional jazz as a realistic career goal I can’t really help but roll my eyes a little and it’s hard for me to really sympathize with these kinds of characters who are mostly just suffering the consequences of their own questionable decisions and this might have played a little into why I wasn’t terribly invested in these characters.  When I hear movies tell my dreams I can’t help but think “easy for you to say, what about the people who don’t make it and have to live with the consequences the rest of their lives.”  La La Land certainly isn’t unaware of these pitfalls and even has a prominent music number that acknowledges the how “foolish” these dreamers are while still strongly celebrating them, and this perhaps makes the message a little less naïve than something like Sing Street which goes so far as to actively demand that it’s character drop out of high school in order to start a band but it still seems a bit like a sentiment that is pretty disconnected to the experience of most people.

There are of course movies that are a little more honest about chasing careers in show business do exist, Inside Llewyn Davis comes to mind, but I suppose there’s a reason that those movies don’t make a lot of money or win many Oscars.  And of course it’s hard to talk about this movie without bringing up the “O” word as it’s pretty much been pegged as a surefire Best Picture winner since even before anyone saw the damn thing and because of that it’s kind of hard not to watch it and judge it less on its own merits and more on its worthiness to be given Hollywood’s most prestigious honor.  If I’ve sounded like I’m kind of hard on the movie, this is probably a big part of why.  The movie’s bigger merits are readily apparent; those musical sequences do look great, it’s impossible to not at least admire it both for its filmmaking, its cinephilia, and its general ambition.  Hell, the movie managed to more or less succeed where someone as brilliant as Martin Scorsese in his prime failed, that’s very impressive.  The movie in general is very impressive, but there’s a difference between being impressed with a movie and falling in love with one, and I’m not in love with this movie.

4

Nocturnal Animals(12/11/2016)

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It’s not terribly common but there is something of a history of people becoming film directors after rising to prominence in other fields.  The most famous example would probably be the circle of film critics who would pick up cameras themselves and begin the French New Wave, but there are other examples as well like when Jean Cocteau transitioned from his literary achievement into filmmaking achievements or Pier Paolo Pasolini’s transition from the world of literature and public intellectualism to the world of cinema.  This sort of thing isn’t unheard of today either what with people like Julien Schnabel being able to transition from painting to filmmaking or (on the more lowbrow side of the spectrum) Rob Zombie being able to be both an active rock star and a fairly prolific film director.  However, one of the strangest of all the transitions into filmmaking was that of Tom Ford, who went from being a fashion designer famous enough to warrant having an entire Jay-Z song named after him to being a pretty successful film director when he made the 2009 film A Single Man.  That movie, about a gay man in the 1960s mourning the death of his lover, is not really a movie that’s been at the forefront of my mind since seeing it but I do remember being fairly impressed by it when I first saw it.  Ford’s sophomore effort was seemingly delayed as he focused on his day job, but after about seven years he has returned with a thriller of sorts called Nocturnal Animals.

The film focuses in on a woman named Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) who owns an art gallery and lives a life of cosmopolitan glamour and is married to a stable and attractive man named Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer).  Things are looking up for her until she received a package containing a manuscript for a novel written by her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) called “Nocturnal Animals” (a former nickname he had for her) and dedicated to her as well.  Intrigued she begins reading the novel, which is dramatized at length onscreen as she reads it.  This story within a story focuses on a man named Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal) whose life is turned upside down when a group of rednecks led by a guy named Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) runs him off the road and kidnaps his wife and daughter (Isla Fisher and Ellie Bamber) and leave him stranded in the West Texas desert to die.  This novel disturbs Susan to her core and starts to distract her from her day to day life and leaves her to reflect on where she went wrong in her first marriage and where she is today.

Nocturnal Animals certainly has a unique structure, the way it intercuts dramatizations of the novel with the “real” story actually reminded me a little of the “Tales of the Black Freighter” sections of Alan Moore’s graphic novel “Watchmen” both in terms of format and content.  In fact, the “fake” story might actually take up more screen time than the “real” story; at the very least it has more of a conventional beginning middle and end.  This “fake” narrative also has what is easily the highlight of the movie, a very tense scene in which the novel’s protagonist encounters a band of hillbillies and has a road rage incident escalate into violence in a way that really brings the viewer in on the protagonist’s general impotence in the face of this looming threat against his family.  That material is very effective, but from there this novel within a film starts to get more than a little hokey.  The revenge sections of this narrative are rather clichéd and filled with elements like generally unmotivated villains and police investigations that are rather ridiculous.  To some extent the film can be excused for some off moments here by the fact that it’s reflecting a narrative written by a fictional author of questionable talent ala the sections of the movie Adaptation that were supposedly penned by Donald Kaufman, but at a certain point the film is still spending a lot of time presenting this stuff.

What’s more, it seems a little odd that the Susan character would get this worked up about a book that kind of sucks.  Early in the movie I had assumed that the narrative being presented by the novel would much more closely mirror some pain in Susan and Edward’s past, but as the flashback narrative progresses it becomes clear that the split between the two of them was a lot more mundane and in some ways underwhelming than what the movie initially teased.  Clearly there are supposed to be parallels between the two stories as Jake Gyllenhaal stars in both but the wife and daughter characters are not played by either Amy Adams or the young woman who plays Susan’s daughter in one scene and no one else has a dual role either.  I suppose there are other parallels between the novel and the flashbacks in the vaguest of plot parallels what with both being about a meek man wronged, but if there are any other connections they kind of seem to be in Susan’s mind moreso than on the page and the similarities certainly don’t seem like they’re strong enough to cause her to lose sleep and start seeing creepy things in her day to day life.  If anything this novel mostly just makes its author seem kind of pathetic: a dude who after something like twenty years still hasn’t gotten over being dumped and is still engaging in vaguely stalkerish writing projects rather than moving on with his life.

I got some sense that the movie was trying to make some sort of statement about the “two Americas” that we saw emerge over the course of the recent election: that of urban sophistication and that or rural simplicity with neither depictions seeming true so much as proactively exaggerated.  In the “real” story we get a glimpse of Susan’s life in Los Angeles which is almost cartoonishly vapid and filled with people dressed in ridiculously garish clothing and people backstabbing each other right and left and all this is driven home by Susan’s mother who seems to view class with about as much nuance as Marie Antoinette.  On the other hand we see the rural world of the novel which is filled with random violence and resentment.  It is also almost certainly not a coincidence that the “real” story depicts a world that is largely female dominated while the story of the novel is highly masculine and filled with bravado, resentment, and metaphorical dick measuring contests.  There’s no way that this tension is accidental and yet the movie never really goes anywhere with any of this so much as it drops these observations and moves on without coming to any conclusions.

So, looking at the movie I’m not really sure what it wants to be exactly.  Its format seems to suggest it wants to be this unique and sort of meta-exploration of its character’s psychology but it also wants to be a satire about American class struggles and it also wants to be a kind of trashy revenge thriller and I’m not sure the movie really works on any of those levels.  Its strange structure and abrupt ending will probably baffle anyone expecting this to be work as a sort of beach-read style mystery but I also don’t really think the ideas are there for it to work as anything deeper.  Ultimately the movie is kind of a mess, but not a completely unsatisfying one.  Amy Adams is pretty good in the movie even if she seems a bit young for the role she’s playing and the film’s basic craft elements also function pretty well.  It certainly gave me a lot to dig through even though I ultimately didn’t really like what I found upon further reflection, but there are certainly worse ways to spend a couple hours watching a movie.

2-5_zpsn9coif22

Things to Come(12/10/2016)

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What are we talking about when we call a movie “bad.”  The new Mia Hansen-Løve film Things to Come is a film I intend to give a two and a half out of five star rating, which under the old Ebert rules would qualify as a “thumbs down,” and yet I certainly think it’s better than various movies I’ve given three stars to this year like Deadpool, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, and The Conjuring 2.  Is this simply a matter of expectations?  Of holding non-genre films from respected auteurs to a higher standard?  To some extent, yes and yes.  Those three “three star” movies were all movies I watched on blu-ray instead of in theaters and on some level it’s a lot easier to casually give a “light pass” to something I’m throwing on at home versus something I actually drove to a theater and paid to see.  Also, yeah, to some extent I do have to take the fact that certain movies have more modest goals in mind when I look at them, and that does give something of an advantage to a movie that just wants to show a super hero making dick jokes over a movie about a woman’s existential crisis following a divorce.  If that sounds unfair, well the catch is that when they’re done right these movies I’m holding to a higher standard stand a much better chance of getting a very high rating, which is probably more of an advantage than a disadvantage.  But perhaps I’m getting way ahead of myself and setting the wrong tone for my review of Things to Come.

The film is set in more or less contemporary France (presumably a few years ago as it’s established that Nicolas Sarkozy is the president and there’s some sort of economic austerity measure that everyone’s abuzz about) and focuses on a woman named Nathalie Chazeaux (Isabelle Huppert).  Chazeaux is a middle aged philosophy professor living in upper-middle class domesticity with a husband and two teenage/young adult children.  This all takes quite a blow when it’s revealed that her husband has been cheating on her and intends to divorce.  Meanwhile, her mother’s mental and physical health has been in decline, which has taken up a lot of her energy and she’s also taking a few hits to her professional standings as of late.  That’s a lot to take all at once and the tension of the movie is all about how she’s going to react.

The only other Mia Hansen-Løve film I’ve seen is her last film, Eden, which looked at something like ten or twenty years in the life of an EDM DJ as he rises and falls in the world of Parisian house music.  I admired that film’s ambition and the scope of the story it was trying to tell, but its central character never quite intrigued me enough and I didn’t really care for Félix de Givry work in that role.  Things to Come seems to have the opposite problem in many ways: it has a fascinating central character played beautifully by Isabelle Huppert, but Hansen-Løve never quite seems to provide an interesting enough movie to put her in.  Nathalie is a character with some fairly complex depths, she’s clearly a dedicated to her philosophy studies but it’s never entirely clear that what philosophical school of thought she belongs to, if any, and she seems to react to all the personal turmoil she goes through in the year or so the film takes place in with aplomb.

The character’s general strength is however something of a double-edged sword.  The general format the film is seemingly supposed to follow is: “woman goes through hell, finds her way out, and is stronger for the experience.”  And yet, in many ways Nathalie is so strong that all this craziness only barely seems to faze her and you never really get the impression that she isn’t going to persevere through adversity.  Of course there is something to be said for the film not going down the entirely expected and it is interesting to watch the character handle all this like a pro, but there is a point where it kind of robs the film of drama and conflict.  What’s more I feel like the movie starts and ends in strange places; we see a lot of how her life falls apart but when it gets the “I will survive” portion it just cuts forward a year, plays a coda, and then ends.  I don’t know, I think I might be missing something here and I’d be willing to read up on people’s interpretations of it but for the most part the film just kind of seemed to go nowhere and if there’s any profundity in what we are given it’s kind of lost on me.  Still, that cerntral performance is quite good and the movie is an engaging enough watch even if it’s point was lost on me so you can do a whole lot worse than this but I want my arthouse movies to leave me with a little more to chew on than this.

2-5_zpsn9coif22

Moana(12/3/2016)

12-3-2016Moana

This July I did something kind of out of character: I saw a Pixar movie (Finding Dory) in the theaters.  Don’t have some huge reason for this but it was a slow week, the damn thing was on track to become the highest grossing movie of the year, and I wanted to be “in” on the conversation.  Since then I decided that 2016 was maybe the year to change things up and try to keep up with the major animated movies of the for once, in part because these was starting to look like a banner year for animation and in part because I’m just generally trying to be a little more open minded about what I see in general recently.  I don’t know that I’m going to keep on doing this in 2017, but it’s mostly been fun this year and may well result in this being the first year where I have an actual informed opinion about the Oscar for best Animated Feature for once.  As such I also went to see Kubo and the Two Strings and caught up with Zootopia and the culminations seems to have happened this week when I went to see the latest Disney sensation Moana, which for all intents and purposes seems to be their spiritual follow-up to their 2013 blockbuster Frozen even if it takes place in a decidedly different environment.

The film is set in a mythical Polynesia, specifically a fictional island called Motunui which has been isolated for thousands of years by an ingrained taboo about sailing past the coral reef that surrounds the island.  There we’re introduced to a girl named Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) who is the heir apparent to the island’s chiefdom.  Moana grew up listening to her grandmother (Rachel House) telling stories about how the island was isolated because eons ago a demigod named Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole a magical gem from the Earth goddess and unleashed a lava demon named Te Kā who took over all the other islands.  Moana’s father (Temuera Morrison) thinks these are all just fairy stories but insists that no one leave the island just the same.  Moana however, has long yearned to go out to the sea and after an encounter with some ocean magic as a young child has long felt she had been chosen for some great task away from the island and thinks that her destiny calls after a seemingly magical petulance seems to set in on the island.  Taking a leap of fate she sails out to find Maui and force him to return the magical gem to where it belongs and bring order to the island universe.

Let’s talk about Frozen for a second.  That was a movie that the world seemed to go nuts for back in 2013.  It’s one of the ten highest grossing movies of all time worldwide, but its impact was felt in an even greater way than its box office tally would suggest.  Its songs became major box office presences, it inspired a billion think pieces, and by all accounts kids watched it like crazy.  It did not, however, become a major critical Cause célèbre like some of the better Pixar movies have, and there’s a reason for that: the movie is kind of flawed.  When I finally caught up with the movie I found it intriguing in its first third or so but thought it pretty clearly lost its way in its second half.  It wasted a lot of time with that stupid snowman, it had kind of a predictable love triangle, the rules of the magic in it were not well defined, and it ended with this dumb deus ex machine where sisterhood triumphed over adversity.  That said, I totally get why it was a success.  It did some kind of bold stuff (relatively speaking) in that first third and it was well executed and ambitious in a way that kids movies haven’t been recently.  It was this big bombastic thing that seemed to be triumphantly screaming “Disney is back bitches!” and I couldn’t blame the public for being excited for that.

Moana is clearly trying to pick up on the momentum from that project and build on its strengths.  The film is another post-third-wave-feminism princess movie that’s very interested in molding a traditional Disney fairy tale story in a way that addresses the various criticisms that were leveled at the studio’s previous output.  As such out protagonist, while still technically a princess I suppose, rejects that label and insists she’s simply the daughter of the chief and it’s heavily emphasized that this means she will in fact inherit that office and all the powers and responsibilities involved and it’s never commented upon that she will be a woman in that role.   Unlike Frozen, however, this movie is less interested in messing with the basic story formula.  That movie’s introduction of sister protagonists who are sort of forced onto opposite sides of a conflict was a neat little twist on what you’d expect from a Disney narrative while Moana opts for more of a traditional heroe’s journey adventure kind of thing.  It actually reminded me a lot of this year’s Kubo and the Two Strings in that regard as both basically have their heroes stuck on their own and forced to pick up sidekicks and go on fetch quests.  Moana lacks that film’s neat stop motion animation and general samurai coolness, but it is a little more organic in the way its quest plays out and is better at hiding how episodic it is at times.

The film also followed Frozen’s lead in taking the form of a full musical like the movies of the Disney Renaissance era.  Frozen’s music was written by the musical team behind Broadway’s “Avenue Q” and “The Book of Morman” and Moana’s music was written by (among others) Lin-Manuel Miranda, a man who’s Broadway exploits have become so famous in the last year that even I’ve heard of him.  The soundtrack that he and composer Mark Mancina have come up with is, like a lot of things in Moana, obviously impressive while also feeling a bit calculated and formulaic.  There isn’t really a vocal showstopper here on a par with “Let it Go,” and the closest they come is a song called “How Far I’ll Go,” a show-tune that dutifully follows the “I Wish” formula of songs like “Part of Their World” without deviation and doesn’t really add a lot to the mix.  A lot of the rest of the music kind of sounds like it was recycled from The Lion King except with the African chants replaced with Polynesian chants… again all of this is well done and doesn’t really detract to much form the movie but I feel like it could have been done more creatively.  The numbers that really impressed were some of the film’s poppier and more comedic ones including a really amusing bit of Broadway lyricism called “You’re Welcome” performed by The Rock himself with amazing exuberance.  The other standout is a sweet glam rock song called “Shiny” performed by a giant crab voiced by Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement which has such a good pop hook that you don’t even notice that the scene it’s in doesn’t advance the story much and is basically filling for time.

So how does the film compare to the other animated films of 2016?  Well, I’ve already pointed out some of its similarities to Kubo and the Two Strings, which is in many ways less well written and structured than Moana but its milieu and ethos still probably appealed more to me.  Of the four movies that one is the most stylish and just generally the coolest and the one that felt the least need to throw in dumb comic relief for the kids.  Zootopia by contrast is probably the most original of the four and also the smartest, or at least the most relevant.  You certainly can’t accuse Disney of having coasted on a formula with that one, but out of the four it’s also probably the most prone to dumb comic relief and silliness.  There’s some cringe inducing stuff in that movie (Shakira, I’m looking at you) which does kind of make it hard for me to completely get behind it.  Of the four my favorite might actually be Finding Dory, which is certainly a movie that isn’t devoid of questionable comedy and structural contrivances, but more than any of the others it just felt like a real movie with some original ideas and resonant characters.

As for Moana, it certainly has a lot going for it.  The environmental animation is beautiful, especially in an early scene where some of the magic allows the water to be sort of parted in an interesting way as fish swim around it like the walls of an aquarium.  The movie also manages to be pretty witty and energetic.  There are a couple of dumb kiddie movie jokes here and there, but they’re not too bad for the most part, there’s nothing as consistently annoying as the snowman from Frozen anyway.  I guess you could say that the movie does almost everything right and have made a very entertaining movie that will certainly impress its target audience, but it’s going to have to start to take a few more chances if it ever wants to reach the heights that Pixar reached in the late 2000s.  I used to think that Pixar had picked up where Disney had left off back in the 90s but I’ve come to realize that what Pixar did and continues to do is actually pretty fundamentally different than what Disney has always been doing.  Disney is a company of entertainers and showmen while Pixar is a company of storytellers and filmmakers.  I tend to prefer the later but there’s certainly something to be said for a movie that taps into that old Hollywood moxie and gives the audience a fun journey to go on.

3-5_zpswmhmrc3s

Manchester by the Sea(11/26/2016)

11-26-2016ManchesterByTheSea

Some auteurs are pretty easy to describe in just a few words.  Alfred Hitchcock: maker of meticulously planned out Hollywood thrillers, usually about blondes in danger.  Quentin Tarantino: maker of witty but often violent genre exercises filled with homages and references to the pop culture of the past.  Spike Lee: maker of colorful and energetic movies about the black experience.  All of these one sentence descriptions are reductive and overlook key elements of all those filmmakers’ styles, but the fact that their work can be so easily generalized does say something about the extent to which they were able to put a distinct stamp on their films.  There are however some directors who are still certainly auteurs but who aren’t as easily pigeonholed.  For instance, Elia Kazan is certainly an auteur and given enough time I’m sure there are film scholars who can come up with any number of linkages between his films to prove it but I don’t know that there’s a way I could describe his body of work in a hundred and forty characters that would make him sound terribly distinct from most other directors and his style wouldn’t necessarily jump out as uniquely his at first glance.  Another director like this is Kenneth Lonergan who, like Kazan, got his start working in theater but became more widely known when he directed the 2002 film You Can Count on Me.  Since then he hasn’t been terribly prolific in part because he’s still been doing some theater work and in part because of the troubled post-production on his 2011 film Margaret, but his new movie Manchester by the Sea may finally cement his place among the top American filmmakers.

The film’s title refers to Manchester-by-the-Sea Massachusetts, a town of about five thousand people (Wikipedia tells me it adopted its unusual name to distinguish it from the nearby Manchester, New Hampshire).  However, the movie begins in Boston, where Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) has been working as a superintendent at an apartment complex.  Suddenly one day he gets a call telling him to return to the titular city because his brother has had a medical emergency.  When he gets there he learns that the worst has happened: his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), who had a heart condition, has suddenly died of a cardiac arrest.  His ex-wife Elise (Gretchen Mol), who had a history of addiction is out of the picture and this leaves Lee’s 16 year old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) without a parent.  To Lee’s surprise he finds that he’s been named as Patrick’s legal guardian by Joe’s will, a role he supposes he doesn’t really see himself able to fulfil in part because his hometown does nothing but bring back bad memories and living their again could force him to constantly be running into his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams), with whom he has a lot of baggage.

Manchester by the Sea reminds me a little of the great 2008 film Rachel Getting Married in that both movies are about characters who seem to have a rather stilted relationship with their families and you are quite sure what’s going on until something about their pasts is revealed about at the 1/3 point in their narrative.  This movie is a bit different in that it doesn’t contrast this apparent sadness against a joyful backdrop, although in an odd way it sort of does.  If I were to describe this movie’s plot in more detail it would seem like a very heavy piece of work, but in fact the movie is oddly kind of funny.  I certainly wouldn’t call it a comedy or recommend anyone go see it expecting it to be a laugh riot but the characters all have a sort of gregarious Boston rapport and consequently there are more laugh lines here than you’d expect from a story steeped in tragedy.  That is not an easy tone to balance but there’s something kind of insightful and true to life about it.  A lot of lesser movies about people with bad stuff in their pasts really lean into that and give themselves these really oppressive tones and have their characters being completely glum all the time, but in reality most depressed people are able to put on a functional face most of the time even if their being torn up inside and that’s sort of what’s going on with Lee here.

It’s been said in the media that at one point Matt Damon (who is involved as a producer) was tapped to star in this film, which is tough for me to picture given that he’s a bit too much of a movie star at this point to really be believable in something this raw and down to earth.  Casey Affleck by contrast is perfect; he has the same Bostonian authenticity of his brother Ben Affleck but in much less polished package that’s easier to buy in the role of an everyman.  Lucas Hedges is also quite the discovery as Lee’s teenage nephew, who also has to pull off that tricky balance of inward grief juxtaposed against an outwardly stable exterior.  Michelle Williams also does spectacularly in a small but pivotal role as Affleck’s ex-wife, and while Kyle Chandler isn’t exactly the most novel choice to play a stable small town father, he is convincing as someone who would be Casey Affleck’s brother.  The rest of the cast is also very well filled out, mostly with lesser known actors.  There are maybe a couple of Massachusetts accents here or there that are a little over the top and there was a cameo late in the film that mostly felt like a distraction, but otherwise this is one hell of an acting showcase.

It’s not terribly easy to talk about this movie because it’s hard to explain what it is that makes it so incredibly on point.  It’s just a movie that does everything so right.  It has a great script with quality dialog and which employs flashbacks beautifully, the cast is great, the location is interesting, Lonergan manages to keep things energetic without employing unneeded visual gimmicks, and the emotions are all harnessed perfectly.  There are so many bad and clichéd roads this could have gone down and I really admire how it manages to handle the material just right and never becomes either saccharine or pointlessly nihilistic.  It’s not the kind of movie that’s trying to re-write the language of cinema or make some kind of wildly profound statement, but the way the film digs deep into the lives of its rich characters id both affecting and rewarding.

5