Avatar: The Way of Water(12/15/2022)

            You know, it seems quaint today, but even back in 2009 it seemed like Avatar becoming a box office success would be of essential importance in fighting back against franchise tyranny and allowing for original IPs to have a shot in Hollywood.  Then it did succeed beyond anyone’s wildest hopes and yet thirteen years later here we are, franchises dominate the box office beyond even the most dire fears back then and a sequel to a prior success can’t even claim to be a threat to that trend.  And yet the box office success of this sequel seems far more important to cinema (and far more uncertain) than that first movie ever was.  At stake isn’t even a kind of blockbuster so much as the notion of the theatrical blockbuster itself.  We’ve just lived through what sure seems like a disastrous year of box office performance where even the MCU seemed to be slipping and outside of the weird fluke of Top Gun Maverick basically nothing seemed to capture the imaginations of audiences in any kind of lasting way.  That’s… a lot of pressure for any one movie, but especially for a movie in this weird of a position.  Avatar was of course a phenomenon but it was also kind of divisive; its visual and technological prowess was undeniable but its new agey sincerity wasn’t going to be for everyone and there were legitimate criticisms to be made about the film’s adherence to archetypes and formulas as well as its sometimes questionable dialogue.  Personally, I really liked Avatar, in fact I was positively giddy leaving the theater when I saw it but there were limits to how much I could defend it and I’d be lying if the years of “dances with smurfs” mockery hasn’t gotten to me a little.  It may or may not be a great movie but it certainly doesn’t seem like a cool movie to me in 2022, so even I wasn’t quite sure what I’d make of the long awaited sequel Avatar: The Way of Water but it’s finally here and I was there day one for sure.

            This sequel picks up about fifteen years or so after the events of the first movie and we get something of an exposition dump at the beginning.  We learn that Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), now permenantly a Na’vi has married Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) and the two have had three children: The responsible older son Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), the more impulsive younger son Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), and much younger daughter Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss).  Additionally, we learn that the deceased avatar of Grace Augustine mysteriously gave birth to a daughter named Kiri (Sigourney Weaver) who Sully and Neytiri adopted as their own who is now a young teenager, and they have also essentially taken in a human child named Spider (Jack Champion) who was left behind after the humans left and has taken on the Na’vi culture for the most part.  We learn early on that Spider’s biological father is Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the villain from the first movie, and we apparently haven’t seen the last of him either.  Though he was killed in the first movie, we learn that the humans had a backup plan in which they had a copy of many of the consciousness and memories of Quaritch and other soldiers on the Pandoran front on file and implanted them into avatar bodies as part of their plans to reconquer Pandora, plans we see them begin to implement early on in the movie as they violently land back on the planet and build up another beachhead.  From there we flash forward a year to when the Na’vi are once again taking part in a guerrilla war against these colonizers.

            This first half-hour to forty five minutes of the movie does feel very expository and kind of exists to bridge the first Avatar and its sequel as quickly as possible and is probably when the film is at its weakest.  It sort of yadda-yadda-yadda’s the existence of Sigourney Weaver as a teenage Na’vi in this movie a bit too quickly and other odd little connections like making Spider the literal son of the last movie’s villain also seems a touch convenient, as does the return of that villain as a Na’vi in the first place given that I’m not sure that was a character the masses were really demanding more of.  All of this is leading to a moment that will finally drive the Sully family to run away from their war against the “sky people” and go into hiding amongst a different group of Na’vi that dwell in the ocean/reef area of the planet, a motivation I never quite bought given Sully’s warrior chief ways, nor do I exactly understand why the humans are so hell bent on targeting him even after he has ceased to be an active leader of the resistance.  It’s all a bit too convenient, all there basically to bring the characters do a different milieu where the movie wants to take place.  However, once the movie does get to where it wants to go it really starts to sing.

            James Cameron is rather famously fond of oceans and ocean life and oceanic preservation is a cause close to his heart so it probably shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that he went in the direction of looking at Pandora’s ocean life and unsurprisingly he’s really good at it.  This new seaside village that the family embeds themselves in is an interesting new side of Na’vi culture that we haven’t seen before and the flora and fauna around them is about as imaginative and colorful in its own way as anything we saw in the first film and this is where much of that big screen 3D awe factor we remember from that first movie comes into place.  The movie also finds interesting ways to depict the sci-fi boats and hunting strategies that the human villains come up with in order to exploit these sections and the eventual conflict between the two sides are very well rendered.  I probably shouldn’t have been surprised by this but… the action scenes in this totally rule.  The film’s trailers I think kind of oddly undersell that aspect of it, especially in the beginning and the end, when this does function as a war movie that is very interested in showing open warfare between the Na’vi and the humans.  The climactic battle scene in particular goes on for nearly an hour but also manages to be something more interesting than simply being two CGI armies smashing into each other and is choreographed pretty beautifully.

            Beyond all of that the movie has its ups and downs to be sure.  Like the first movie this is definitely a work that brokers in archetypes and its dialogue is at best straightforward and workmanlike.  Jake Sully probably remains the most boring part in his own movie, sort of a bland male hero, but he feels less like a central figure here so much as a figure within the greater ensemble with his immediate family taking over more as a collective protagonist.  The Sully kids are, like their parents, essentially archetypes.  Cameron probably would have done well to differentiate the family’s older brothers both physically and personality-wise because to be honest I couldn’t really tell them apart a lot of the times (yeah, I’ll admit it, all blue people kind of look the same to me), and the youngest sister is mostly there to be an adorable moppet.  I also kind of went back and forth on the character of Spider, who had a lot of potential but who I’m not sure entirely worked in execution and the “daddy issues” aspect of this character doesn’t work and frankly overestimates how much of an impression that Stephen Lang character left on audiences.  I was pretty interested by the teenage Sigourney Weaver character despite the relative oddness of the character’s creation and the casting of a seventy three year old woman in as this adolescent character.  She seems to be taking over for Sully as the series’ central “chosen one,” which is probably a smart move and I think that’s the character that Cameron was most able to tap into an authentic vain of moody teenager-ness to.

            Of course the film’s general focus on “family” feels a bit like a concession to popular tastes and despite James Cameron’s recent surly interviews, he’s absolutely trying to tailor these movies to be one-size-fits-all blockbusters that will appeal to a very wide range of audiences around the world.  An uncharitable way of saying that would be to say that he’s dumbing things down for the lowest common denominator, but that does not mean that he’s chasing all the trends that Hollywood obsesses over.  Rather, this Avatar sequel like its predecessor is defiantly sincere in its outlook in a way that most Hollywood blockbusters are not.  It’s certainly not devoid of humor but it isn’t a movie that’s interested in being self-reverential and hip and it sort of wears its tree hugging heart on its sleeve.  It remains to be determined how that will be received in 2022.  The original Avatar turned out to be pretty well timed coming out in the first year of the Obama administration when people were looking for escape from the Great Recession but still had a lot of hope and optimism for the future.  I’m not sure we’re really in the same place in 2022 and political division may make certain audiences less tolerant of even a visual effect spectacular with some badass action scenes if it’s also something of an environmental screed that wants to save the whales (even though the whales have already kind of been saved in the real world).  This isn’t like Top Gun: Maverick, which had its glorification of the military to rope those audiences in despite its own apolitical apathy and absence of cynicism.

On some level it feels kind of gross to turn a review into a work of box office prognostication like I kind of have at this point, but on some level a movie like this sort of invites that, it’s a movie that exists to entertain the masses and it wears that on its sleeve.  There are things about this that I think will help it quite a bit in that regard.  The new child and teenage characters in this one will probably appeal to younger audiences pretty well, so expect there to be more fanfiction about this one than there was about the first.  I also think if people looking for an action movie give this a chance they will likely be impressed by what they get, because some of these battle scenes are indeed quite cool.  But it’s also possible that people won’t be willing to give this a chance and that people will continue their agoraphobic refusal to leave their homes for entertainment and that kids today just won’t be impressed by the giant screens and 3D effects without some elaborate continuity driving them.  I had a blast with it though, and thought it found canny ways to leave things open for future sequels without feeling unnatural about it.  I suspect that the reason this took so long to make is that, unlike the recent Star Wars sequel trilogy, Cameron really wanted to hammer out his franchise sequel plans without writing himself into more corners with the first sequel and I hope that doesn’t backfire because I do think he has more very cool things to show us in the future if we keep this train going.
**** out of Five

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Armageddon Time(10/21/2022)

Warning: Review contains oblique spoilers

One of the best movies of 2018 was the movie Roma, in which Alfonso Cuarón looked back on his childhood in the titular Mexico City neighborhood during the early 70s.  The movie didn’t quite end up being the Oscar juggernaut everyone hoped in what turned out to be a pretty disappointing Academy Awards year, but still, big time critical favorite that got pretty far despite some obvious commercial disadvantages.  But a funny thing happened in the next couple of years, suddenly every time a director put out a movie with autobiographical elements about their childhood everyone started calling it “their Roma.”  The movie Belfast was deemed to be “Kenneth Branagh’s Roma,” The Fablemans is being called “Steven Spielberg’s Roma,” and I suspect that if Lee Isaac Chung had been a big more famous people would have been called Minari his Roma.  It’s all a little baffling since, well, it kind of seems to imply that Alfonso Cuarón invented the autobiographical coming of age movie in 2018, which is plainly ridiculous.  François Truffaut is probably rolling in his grave every time this gets invoked.  These movies are in fact all part of a very long lineage encompassing everything from John Boorman’s Hope and Glory to Spike Lee’s Crooklyn to Fellini’s Armarcord and I have no doubt that if you searched long enough you can find examples of this going back to the earliest days in cinema.  Making a movie reflecting on their childhood is almost a right of passage for filmmakers.  And it’s a right of passage that director James Gray embarks on with his latest film Armageddon Time, a movie that’s plainly inspired by his own childhood growing up in Queens during the early 80s.

Specifically, the movie is set during the year 1980 and looks at a twelve year old boy named Paul Graff (Michael Banks Repeta) living in a somewhat upwardly mobile Jewish family.  His father Irving (Jeremy Strong) is a plumber and his mother Esther (Anne Hathaway) is heavily involved in the PTA, a position which Paul seems to over-estimate the power of.  Paul doesn’t really seem to respect his parents much but does have a lot of affection for his grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins), who tells him stories about his immigration to the United States back in the day.  Paul goes to a public school which seems to have been integrated recently through bussing, which is controversial amongst the adults in the area and leads to some social stratification amongst the students, but Paul doesn’t know about any of that and he befriends an African American kid in class named Johnny (Jaylin Webb).  The two bond over, frankly, a shared interest in misbehaving in class but they both live very different lives.  Johnny lives with his grandmother, who seems to be senile, and it becomes clear pretty quick that the teachers and school administrators are much less interested in letting Johnny get away with certain things that they seem to tolerate to some degree from Paul.  This stratification becomes even starker when Paul is pulled out of that public school and put into a private prep school.

Though this is Gray’s first time examining his childhood it is nonetheless something of a return to his usual milieu.  Gray came to prominence making movies like Little Odessa and We Own the Night, which are these gritty crime dramas but ones rooted in and noticeably interested by the various outer boroughs New York settings Gray placed them in.  His 2013 film The Immigrant was also a New York story, but one set in the early 20th Century, and with his 2016 and 2019 films The Lost City of Z and Ad Astra he finally removed himself from the big apple and made a pair of movies based in the UK and space respectively.  Ad Astra in particular, while in my view a very interesting film, seems to have been something of a financial boondoggle so making this movie appears to be something of an attempt to re-ground himself and get back to basics.  It’s a move that seems to have paid off artistically however because this is clearly a world that Gray feels in his bones and after all these years he seems to have developed a lot of perspective about this era.

The film is set in 1980, and Gray certainly has some degree of nostalgia for this time and about his family but it’s a very sober nostalgia which re-asses the past through modern eyes which highlight that era’s casual racism in a way that something like “Mad Men” might look at the various social issues of the 1960s.  Here early 80s Queens is not exactly a “hot bed” of racial animus but certainly a stew of it that’s simmering away.  For example Paul’s teacher at the public school is, to be blunt, kind of awful.  I don’t think he’s meant to be seen as “evil” or something but he plainly has no idea how to deal with a kid like Johnny and has not gotten the memo about building kids’ self-esteem, a trait of future generations that is often mocked but watching how this teacher operates you can kind of see where the desire comes from.  Meanwhile Paul’s family, while certainly tolerant of African Americans in broad strokes, will still find themselves talking about public schools in not so subtly racialized terms with one aunt being so bold as to speak the quiet part load about her concerns over integration at one point with only minimal pushback.  Paul’s parents aren’t immune from this either and once he finds himself sent to the private school for dubious reasons the kids there don’t even claim to have such ideals, with one of them showing no hesitation whatsoever to use a nasty racial slur in casual conversation.   It’s also probably not a coincidence that it’s established that Fred Trump is something of a bigwig at the private school that Paul is sent to, perhaps trying to establish the kind of world that you-know-who came out of.

This isn’t to say that the movie is all race relations all the time.  It is, at its heart a movie about young Paul and his moving from the simplicity of childhood into the more complicated world of adolescence and at its core it’s about Paul first starting to build a consciousness about the world that he doesn’t really have the skills or the perspective to really act on.  Racial issues are the domain by which he does this, and having the story of a black kid’s struggles act as something of a sub-plot to a white kid’s personal awakening is something that could easily be… fraught.  This is very much a movie about a white (more specifically, Jewish) perspective of racial relations in America and if people are kind of sick of seeing those stories I can kind of understand.  However, racism is ultimately a problem within white people and it’s a problem that white people are ultimately going to be responsible for solving, so the white view of racism is going to be relevant for better or worse for a long time.  The film is also wading into dangerous territory when it dips into the waters of essentially being a “I had a black friend once” story, in which a black and white kid become friends by seeing the world with more innocent simplicity than their prejudiced parents.  You know, The Fox and the Hound but with humans.  I can’t say this movie completely avoids some of the pitfalls of a story like that but it does approach the idea a bit more sober-mindedly than some movies would.  It understands that “the power of friendship” is not enough to overcome a world that’s stacked against someone like Johnny and it avoids white-saviordom by making Paul someone who’s in no position to successfully save much of anyone despite his best intentions.

“Best intentions” is kind of the key concept of the movie.  The film’s moral center is Paul’s grandfather, played by Anthony Hopkins, who clearly wants to instill the family’s Jewish heritage and immigrant background in Paul and when he learns that Paul didn’t act to defend Johnny at one point he gives him a show stopping speech (some of which is in the film’s kind of spoilery trailer) telling him, in a less modern vernacular, to use his privilege to help the less privileged and to be a “mensch.”   As tends to be the case this is easier said than done, especially when you’re a twelve year old.  When Paul does finally decide to stand up and live by his grandfather’s ideals he does so with the logic of a twelve year old who doesn’t know the ways of the world and it largely ends up backfiring.  This is the harsh reality of the world: the best intentions often aren’t enough.  Ideas that aren’t thought through often backfire and make things worse and there are going to be times where, no matter how deep your convictions are, the deck is too stacked and there’s just nothing you can really do beyond futile self-sacrificing gestures that help no one.  But that doesn’t mean having principles like this is a fools game.  Even if there wasn’t much Paul could do this time around, he did live to fight another day and the principals instilled in him aren’t going away and one can hope he may one day use them to more productive ends.

James Gray is a filmmaker who is in some ways kind of cursed to make good movies that everybody seems to like but which kind of can’t get past a certain level of success and acclaim.  His movies tend to feel a little too “big” to seem like little indies that need to be championed in earnest but too “small” to really be mainstream and in terms of awards and critical accolades they always seem to just get overshadowed by other flashier projects.  Armageddon Time does not seem like it will be an exception to that.  In particular Gray has the misfortune of releasing his fictionalized memoir of Gen X Jewish family life less than a month before Steven Spielberg releases his own fictionalized memoir of Jewish Baby Boomer family life and it doesn’t take a lot of effort to guess which of these movies is ultimately going to get more attention.  Beyond that though it’s just generally hard for a drama like this to get a whole lot of shine these days and the movie doesn’t quite have that novelty factor that will get people lining up for it.  That’s a shame though because this is a strong little movie with smart insights about the world of yesterday and today being made by a filmmaker who’s clearly in a very thoughtful place and it trying to add his piece to the conversation.  It’s not necessarily a movie I’m going to go to war championing either but I think it’s coming from a good place and is well worth a look.
**** out of Five

Amsterdam(10/10/2022)

On December 3rd 2013 it was announced that the New York Film Critic’s Circle has selected as their best movie of that year the new David O. Russell film American Hustle.  That film had skipped the festival circuit and its review embargo had not lifted at the time of the Circle’s vote, so that award win was something of an announcement of what was going to be a major award contender that year.  It then proceeded to get a great deal of praise, earned over $150 million at the box office, and garnered ten Academy Award nominations.  But then something seemed to just “snap” in the culture.  Something of a backlash seemed to emerge around the movie, not over any particular element or controversy, but some people just really didn’t like it or at least didn’t like it as much as they expected from a ten time Oscar nominee that some people were holding up as the year’s best in a fairly stacked year.  It ended up losing every single one of those Oscars and, seemingly embarrassed for having over praised American Hustle, critics seems almost unreasonably hard on his flawed follow-up Joy as almost a make-up call.  And now, seven years later, that distaste of Russell seems to have curdled if anything as they have been similarly ruthless toward his belated next film Amsterdam, which is appearing to be on track to be a fairly substantial box office failure as well.  Does it deserve such infamy, I don’t think so, but it does have definite issues which need to be parsed.

The film is set in New York in 1933 and follows three rather unique people: a doctor named Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) who works at a clinic for the poor, a lawyer named Harold Woodsman (John David Washington) who does a lot of work with Berendsen to similar ends, and a wealthy artist named Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie) who because of some ailment lives with her brother Tom Voze (Rami Malek) and his rather hostile wife Libby (Anya Taylor-Joy).  These three people met during the First World War, after the three remained in Europe and lived a Design for Living-esque life in Amsterdam for a couple of years before eventually parting ways.  Berendsen and Woodsman are working together again in New York and are hired by a woman named Elizabeth Meekins (Taylor Swift) to investigate the mysterious death of her father Bill Meekins (Ed Begley Jr.), a general that the two had known and respected during their military service.  They do find evidence of foul play but Elizabeth is then murdered by what appears to be a hired thug (Timothy Olyphant) and the two become suspects in said murder.  To clear their names they have to follow down the mystery, which will lead them to reunite with Voze and uncover a conspiracy that targeted Meekins and may also come to target another general and veterans rights activist named Gil Dillenbeck (Robert De Niro).

You can probably tell from that summery that this movie has a lot of characters, almost all of them played by pretty major celebrities.  I didn’t even get around to bringing up the characters played by Chris Rock, Mike Myers, Michael Shannon, Zoe Saldaña, Andrea Riseborough, or Matthias Schoenaerts.  The film needs to take time to introduce all these people and give them their “thing” and in general some of them are more distracting than others.  Very late in the movie it suggests that all these characters are important because they represent some sort of tapestry of life but functionally it kind of just makes the whole movie feel very, very, busy.  Structurally American Hustle is the movie Russell seems to be trying to recapture as both films take these not very well known footnotes in history and try to turn them into shaggy dog stories that border on screwball comedy.  Both movies start with non-committal tag “Some of this actually happened” but I feel like even more liberties were taken with this one.

The real even at play here is the so called “Business Plot” of 1933, an alleged coup plot against Roosevelt plotted by wealthy industrialists that was exposed by Marines General Smedley Butler (the inspiration for Robert De Niro’s character) at a congressional hearing.  Congress took this seriously, but the media largely viewed it as a hoax and it was much too tangled to lead to criminal charges for anyone.  Today historians are not quite sure what to make of the whole thing, some think it was a very serious threat, others suspect it was just some cocktail chatter that got way out of hand.  Of course all of this seems to be of much more serious relevance given the January 6th coup attempt that we all witnessed less than two years ago, and while that relevance could have been a boon for this movie I think it may have actually been more of a liability as it may have reduced people’s appetites to see all of this play out as a background element to three wholly fictional weirdos bumbling around and slipping on banana peels for two hours.

The movie’s appeal or lack thereof is a little hard to sum up.  It’s certainly not a completely unenjoyable movie; I was basically never bored watching it.  The thing is the movie is just a very odd stew with far too many ingredients.  They seem to have financed this thing by getting as many celebrities on board as possible, each working for only a week or two, meaning they need to invent a character for each of them and also give each of them a big weird personality.  Some of these characters are enjoyable to be around.  I certainly liked most scenes featuring Robert De Niro and Margot Robbie is pretty strong throughout.  But then there are other people here like Rami Malek who are capital-A annoying, and the movie kind of goes off the rails whenever they show up.  Christian Bale is also going way too big and overall the movie is pretty much never as funny as it seems to think it is or as it should be.  Right up until the end I was still kind of on the movie’s side but then at a certain point I needed this thing to get to the point and it pretty much never gets there.  Russell clearly thinks the true story that inspired this is interesting, but he buries it in so many fictional characters that it’s hard to really learn much about it from the movie with any certainty and the film’s interest in the racism of the time is not terribly insightful and at times seems downright flippant.  Maybe this is how American Hustle felt to that movie’s detractors.  Despite all that, and acknowledging that the movie doesn’t entirely work I do still find myself defending it on some level.  There are much worse movies than this which get much easier passes than this one has gotten.  That said, David O. Russell is way overdue for a re-invention and I hope he comes with fresher ideas for the next one.
**1/2 out of Five

Annette(8/7/2021)

Who is Leos Carax?  It’s not the easiest question to answer.  The man is clearly one of the most important and beloved French filmmakers of our time and yet his movies are few and far between and aren’t always the easiest to catch up with.  The first of his movies I ever saw was his 2012 film Holy Motors, which I had to watch with very little context as to his earlier works in no small part because that was his first film in thirteen years, and his previous film (Pola X) was his first film in nine years and the film before that (The Lovers on the Bridge) is probably the earliest of his films anyone talks about.  So even though he’s been working since 1984 the guy has as of now only made six films, and a lot of those earlier ones are not tremendously easy to find in this country.  Hell, it’s been nine years since I saw Holy Motors and I still haven’t seen any of his other movies, which is weird because I found Holy Motors to have been quite the experience.  That film, which is kind of like a series of almost performance art vignettes set across the city and forming a very abstract story that has been interpreted as an elegy for the cinema as a form, is certainly a rather singular vision, the kind of thing that could almost be a final statement on the art form from an aged filmmaker.  But Carax was actually only 52 when he made that so he certainly wasn’t retiring but had given himself quite the strange film to have to have to follow up, but follow it up he has and with a project I certainly wouldn’t have expected: an English language musical (of sorts) produced by Amazon and starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard… which is every bit as uncompromising and weird as anything else he’s ever made.

Annette is ostensibly a musical though I hesitate to even call it that because I fear some unsuspecting boomers who have never heard the name “Leos Carax” are going to hear “musical starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard,” show up to the theater expecting something along the lines of La La Land, and then angrily walk out.  Thing is, with a simple plot synopsis this actually doesn’t sound dissimilar from something like La La Land.  The film concerns a stand-up comedian named Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) who begins the film in a relationship with Ann Desfranoux (Marion Cotillard), the two marry, have a daughter named Annette, tensions and jealousy get the better of them, and tragedy is on the horizon.  Sounds like A Star is Born, right?  Well, what if I told you that most of this courtship is off-screen, the film spends large portions of its runtime in theatrical quasi-real half sung stand-up routines… and that the daughter Annette is played by a what is clearly a Pinocchio-like wood puppet.  That’s kind of the level of expressionistic anti-realism we’re dealing with here.  Most Hollywood musicals barter in a certain kind of unreality: do the people know they’re stopping to sing?  Is the singing just how the audience witnesses what are normal conversations in the “real” story?  It’s all ambiguous but we accept it because of certain conventions we’re used to.  Here that same ambiguity exists for pretty much everything that happens in the movie whether people are singing or not.

The actual music here was composed by the synth-pop band Sparks, who also have a “story by” credit and appear to have originated the project before Carax came on board.  I must confess I’m not particularly familiar with Sparks’ music.  Edgar Wright released a documentary about them this year, I’ll probably catch up with it, but while watching this movie they were pretty unknown to me and while I wouldn’t call the music here “bad” I can’t say this left me wildly curious about their other work.  It should be noted upfront that this is not a musical that operates in the tradition of Broadway or classic Hollywood.  In fact it reminded me a lot more of movies based on “rock opera” albums like Tommy or Pink Floyd’s The Wall in that it’s largely from the perspective of one central (and rather difficult) figure, it doesn’t have much spoken dialogue between the songs, and has a rather loopy and archetypal story.  That said the tunes here do not necessarily feel like music by a pop band, a lot of it simple recitative in which characters sing dialogue to one another instead of speaking it, which is sometimes framed interestingly (like an interrogation scene where a cop and a “perp” are singing at each other or a childbirth scene where doctors are singing instructions to the woman in labor) but there are other moments where this gets a bit tedious and by and large most of the songs here by design would not work very well out of context at all and little that will get caught in your head.

As a story this is essentially a story about the price of fame, but it’s not terribly sympathetic towards the famous people paying that price.  The Adam Driver character starts the movie seeming like a bit of an asshole and spends the rest of the movie proving himself to be more and more of an asshole than you think he is, then hits the point of the unforgivable before finding other new and innovative ways to be even more of an asshole.  It’s not a terribly sympathetic portrait is what I’m trying to say and it’s never terribly clear what the Marion Cotillard character saw in him in the first place.  We rarely see either of them interacting like regular humans; their relationship is mostly just introduced through a song called “We Love Each Other So Much” in which they establish that they love each other so much by repeatedly saying “we love each other so much,” also we get some relatively graphic sex scenes.  There is a certain satire of the way the public likes to build people up to tear them down but most of the building up is off screen and the tearing down seems largely deserved here so I’m not sure how profound that is as an observation and the film goes off in a new direction in its third act that is rather absurdist in nature and will likely alienate a lot of audiences who were still with it up to that point.  Really the whole movie is alienating.  It feels odd to say this is, in its own way even less accessible than Holy Motors (an essentially plotless movie involving sentient limousines) but in its own way it is because it occasionally fools you into thinking it will behave like a proper love story or musical before pulling the rug out from under you, which can be a harder pill to swallow than a movie that’s just full tilt boogie into the abstract from moment one.

So far this has read like a pretty negative review… and maybe it is one but I’m not quite ready to declare this a naked emperor as it’s a little too interesting to be dismissed.  For one thing I think there are individual sequences here that are worth seeing.  Carax managed to con Amazon into giving him fifteen million dollars to make this thing despite it being a movie that will actively piss off 95% of audiences and you can definitely see that relatively large budget on the screen.  Certain sequences like Driver and Cotillard ill-fated boat trip midway through the film are shot in very interesting ways and there are bits like an onstage breakdown by the Driver character that do start to display some of the film’s messages about fame in ways that are intriguing.  This is the ultimate “it’s not for everybody” movie and I don’t think it’s for me either, but I don’t regret seeing it.  Carax is clearly a major talent and this was a good reminder that I need to catch up with some of his older films and I hope he doesn’t wait another decade before making a new one, but I wouldn’t recommend this as a place to start.

**1/2 out of Five

1917(12/2/2019)

It’s rare but not unheard of for a director to win the Best Picture Oscar with their first movie.  The last time it happened was in 1999 when Sam Mendes won Best Director for his first feature film American Beauty.  This had happened five times before but the previous directors who won on their first time all got to where they were in idiosyncratic ways whether they were actors turned directors like Robert Redford and Kevin Costner, or choreographers who managed to get co-director credit like Jerome Robbins, or people with long television careers like James L. Brooks or Delbert Mann.  But Sam Mendes really did seem like an overnight success story.  Of course he wasn’t, he had actually had a decade of stage direction experience under his belt before that movie came along but in many ways that only complicates the narrative.  A stage background would seem to suggest a career of making talky actor-driven cinema but his movies are usually at their best when they seem like visual extravaganzas, if there’s any common linkage in his career it’s the presence of major cinematographers like Conrad Hall and Roger Deakins.  This perhaps culminated in his work on the James Bond film Skyfall and it would seem that he’s going to be something of an action movie director going forward and now he’s put that to the test with the highly visual World War I film 1917.

As the title would imply this movie is set in 1917 and during the height of the First World War.  It starts with a pair of common soldiers named Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) resting by a tree when they’re unexpectedly called to a meeting with General Erinmore (Colin Firth) who gives them an urgent mission.  Erinmore tells them that the Germans have recently made a tactical retreat that the a colonel has misinterpreted as a regular retreat and is planning an all-out attack.  Erinmore knows this is a trap because he has access to some aerial reconnaissance but the Germans have cut phone lines and he has no way of communicating this.  As such they’re tasking Blake and Schofield to run across No Man’s Land and through a few towns to reach the area this is happening and deliver a letter calling off the offensive, if they fail the whole division of 1600 men could be lost, including Blake’s older brother, who is a lieutenant in that division.

In the last couple of months the film world has been mired in debate over what seemed to me to be a fairly innocuous thing that Martin Scorsese said in an interview about the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  I’m mostly on Scorsese’s side in this but one thing about his statement that does stand out to me as a little odd comes when he compares them to “theme parks” rather than cinema.  I sort of get what he’s trying to say there, but when you look at those MCU films are much more traditional in their construction than that suggests.  In-between the CGI filled action scenes they have plenty of traditional exposition and draw some pretty tried and true filmmaking techniques.  A movie that might arguably be closer to a rollercoaster from this decade might be George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road.  That was a movie where the characters are basically going from point A to point B, and then back to point A, while encountering all sorts of strange sights and taking part in all sorts of action sequences along the way.  But a movie that takes that “film as roller-coaster” dynamic to even more of an extreme might be Alfonso Cuarón Gravity, which kept character interaction to a minimum and almost took place in real-time as it followed Sandra Bullock as she bounced around space and experienced all sorts of exciting adventures in her quest for survival.

I don’t make these comparisons to be insulting, those two movies are pretty great, and their rollercoaster-like formats mostly just make them feel like something bigger and more experimental than most action movies.  Of course I bring this up because I think 1917 would be another film that fits in with this format and in some ways it takes it to the next level by being filmed in a way that gives the illusion that the film consists entirely of a single elongated shot in the mold of other “single-shot” films like Victoria or Russian Ark.  Obviously this was accomplished with special effects and invisible cuts like Birdman was, especially given that it isn’t in real time and given the sheer volume of wild things that happen over the course of this “shot,” but that doesn’t diminish the vision per se.  Once you know about that technique, know the premise, and understand that this is meant to be an “experience” as much as a film you probably have a pretty good idea how the film plays out.  You don’t really know much about these guys outside of their general personalities and levels of determination, by and large the movie is about what they do rather than who they are and over the course of their travel they experience all sorts of WWI dangers.  That said the film isn’t all action and the movie does take its foot off the accelerator a few more times than I expected it to, maybe too many times.  Some moments that are meant to feel like oases of tranquility in the midst of all the action end up feeling less like escapes simply because of how many of them there are.

The real question is whether turning World War I into an “experience” was an idea that was in good taste to begin with.  The experience being depicted here is not very representative of most soldiers’ experience during that war, which is a conflict that generally precluded acts of individual daring.  For most soldiers that war was entirely about being stuck in awful muddy trenches as artillery exploded around them at all hours before they choked to death on mustard gas or got picked off from dozens of yards away by unseen enemies, that is if they didn’t get stricken with dysentery or trench-foot first and most fiction about the war has generally reflected this, it’s probably the least glamorized war ever fought.  I wouldn’t say that 1917 glamorizes the war, it certainly has its fair share of nasty imagery to make it clear that war is supposed to be hell, but there is a focus on individual heroism here that kind of clashes with the usual narrative in a way that leaves me a little wary.  Then again, there’s a pretty good argument to be made that setting a semi-adventure movie in the midst of one of the “good” wars like World War 2 is every bit as questionable and I don’t bat an eye at those, but there was something to said for leaving “the great war” as a symbol for human folly and waste rather than bravery.  But it you look past that this is most definitely a cinematic accomplishment even if the film is a bit hollow beneath the surface.  It’s a movie that is exactly what it is, and if you get on board with that it’s a pretty thrilling experience that shouldn’t be missed.

**** out of Five

Ad Astra(9/19/2019)

Last year when I went to see First Man and this year when I watched Apollo 11 I came to a slightly depressing revelation: the 60s space program has lost a lot of its luster, at least for me and I suspect with a lot of people of my generation.  I think that’s in large part because at the moment space exploration seems like a bit of a dead end.  Back in the 60s people just assumed that landing on the moon was a giant leap for mankind and that by the year 2001 we’d be regularly traveling to space bases and traveling through trippy alien wormholes to reach our next stage of evolution.  Instead we’ve mostly just learned that the moon and Mars are both barren wastelands and that if there is life (or even worthwhile natural resources) out there it’s so astronomically far away that it would be ridiculously hard to ever get there.  Hollywood for their part has kind of given up on space optimism; they usually just go the fantasy route and jump to distant futures of the Star Trek variety without even suggesting how we got there.  The only movie in recent years I can think of which tried to do science fiction in a way that was closer to our current technology was The Martian, but even that movie kind of marginalized the actual space travel part of getting to the red planet.  Joining that film is perhaps the new James Gray film Ad Astra (which is the Latin for “to the stars), a film which looks at a distant but not entirely distant future which seems at least a little bit plausible.

The film begins with an action scene where Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is working on a massive antenna which stands so high that its basically in space when it’s hit by some sort of power surge and he plummets to the surface before being saved by a parachute.  We soon learn that this is one of many such surges that are wreaking havoc across Earth and McBride is brought into a top secret briefing where he’s told that these surges are the result of a mission from years ago called the Lima Project.  This mission, an attempt to find intelligent life in the universe which required a voyage deep into the solar system, was led by McBride’s father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) who the public believes died heroically when that ship was lost sixteen years ago.  In the briefing its revealed that the government believes Clifford is actually alive and that these surges are somehow being caused by the Lima’s power sources.  As such Roy is being recruited to travel to Mars, via the Moon, in order to send out a personal plea to Clifford.  Roy accepts this mission and begins what is sure to be a fateful journey both for himself and for humanity.

What is immediately striking about the future depicted in Ad Astra is that, more so than in even the most grounded of science fiction, it manages to feel legitimately futuristic while also feeling like a fairly natural evolution of the modern world.  The space ships in it can apparently go to the outer-reaches of the solar system in a matter of a few months but they still resemble shuttles and need to use rockets to exit the atmosphere and the clothing and space suits everyone’s wearing are not wildly divergent from modern clothing trends.  They’ve apparently colonized the moon and Mars, but getting to them involves all the same mundanities we need to deal with at modern airports and parts of both are apparently unstable warzones.  All over the film you can tell that a great deal of thought and research was done to build all these futuristic things, but the film doesn’t feel obliged to stop and explain all of it.  Take that antenna thing at the beginning, what is that for?  I don’t know, and unless I missed something I don’t think the movie ever stops and explains it but it’s certainly a striking image and I do have a certain confidence that they thought it through.  The scientific things that don’t make so much sense to me are things that kind of seem like plot contrivances.  I’m not exactly sure why they would need to go to Mars just to send a signal to Neptune and it’s also a bit convenient that in the third act Pitt is able to travel a pretty vast distance in a relatively short span of time, which would seem to raise some plot questions.

Having said all that, the science fiction in Ad Astra is in many ways something of a background element more than the main focus.  This isn’t a movie that’s trying to be a headtrip in the lineage of 2001: A Space Odyssey so much as a human quest modeled after Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” with Pitt as Marlow and his father as Kurtz.  It certainly isn’t a one to one parallel and the overall thematic message is quite different but the basic structure is more or less there.  This also makes the film a rather inward piece of work that focuses almost entirely on Brad Pitt’s character to the exclusion of pretty much everyone else and as a result the film has to rest pretty heavily on a voice-over narration by Pitt that is a bit of a mixed bag.  I certainly wouldn’t want the voice-over taken out entirely because there are definitely sections of it that are needed but I do think it could have been reduced a little bit.  Pitt’s narration in and of itself is a bit monotone and was made to sound like it was recorded in an echoy spaceship, which may or may not have been the best call.  There are also some plot details that bug me in the film, especially a violent turn of events that leads into the third act which seemed avoidable and kind of undermined the film’s ending.

Honestly I do having a sinking suspicion that there are a lot of plot elements here which aren’t going to hold up overly well to strict scrutiny and I don’t look forward to the “everything wrong with” videos that are eventually going to be made because looking at the movie like that sort of misses the point.  At the same time, the film’s general straightforwardness does make it a bit more susceptible to that kind of criticism.  This isn’t the kind of brainy science fiction film that really forces you to untangle some crazy mind bending idea about aliens or time travel or something, it’s ultimately a character study and the journey at its center is about as literal as it is metaphorical.  While I was watching the movie, I really liked it.  It looks great and it has some very strong scenes, but it didn’t really leave me with the same level of food for thought that we’ve come to expect from this kind of science fiction.  It’s a movie that’s fairly straightforward in its messaging and there are plot elements which I just can’t completely overlook.  This is actually the feeling I get all too often when I leave James Gray movies, he’s a guy with clear talent but his movies always end up being a bit shallower than their trappings suggest.  Still, if the movie has failings they’re failings that are set up by high expectations, looked at in the wider world of commercial cinema this is definitely worth seeing especially for fans of hard science fiction.

***1/2 out of Five