Tuesday, November 29, 2016

(Not So) Recent Movie Roundup 22

It's pretty far down the very long list of reasons for its awfulness, but 2016 has not been a great movie year.  The failures of this year's summer movies have been sufficiently enumerated, but the truth is that by the time they rolled around, I was sufficiently burned out by the disappointing spring that I didn't even bother to watch most of them.  And a great deal of interesting 2016 films that I would have liked to see--such as Midnight Special, The Lobster, High Rise, and The Handmaiden--didn't even make it into theaters near me.  This post, therefore, actually covers something like five months of movie-watching, and though some of it has been worthwhile or entertaining, none of it counters my impression that 2016, in its cruelty, couldn't even offer us the distraction of good movies.
  • Love & Friendship - The biggest and most vexing question raised by Whit Stillman's adaptation of Jane Austen's unpublished novella Lady Susan is: why the title change?  Not only is Lady Susan a perfectly good title, but Love & Friendship is actually a singularly bad one for a story that is all about selfishness, manipulation, and stupidity coming very close to ruining the lives of some perfectly inoffensive people.  Actual love and friendship are in short supply, shoved off into the background while the real business of the movie focuses on the machinations of Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) as she schemes to marry off her daughter to a rich man whom she doesn't love, to arrange occasions in which to meet her own, married lover, and to entertain herself by seducing an upright young man who believes himself impervious to her charms.  If there's any love and friendship on screen in this movie, they are the ones between Susan and her best friend Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny), who supports, without question or qualm, Susan's schemes and manipulations.  It's here, however, that Love & Friendship fails to take advantage of its opportunities, to expand and fill in some of the gaps in the original novella--such as Alicia's lack of a personality except as Susan's supporter and confidant, or the blankness of Reginald de Courcy (Xavier Samuel), the young man whom Susan seduces, and who eventually falls in love with her daughter.

    None of this is to say that Love & Friendship is anything less than delightful--Beckinsale is wonderful as a completely amoral woman, and the cast around her, which includes familiar faces such as Stephen Fry, Jemma Redgrave, and James Fleet, all on top form, are extremely entertaining as they try to grasp the truth that they can't hope to deal with a person who understands society's rules perfectly, but has no sense of the values underlying them.  But despite occasional gestures towards expanding the story's world beyond what Austen made of it--characters discussing religion or poetry, and philosophizing about the meaning of life in a way that makes it clear that even these privileged aristocrats are trying to give their life more meaning than that offered by the tropes of a Regency novel--Love & Friendship never manages to feel like more than what it is, an adaptation of an imperfect but highly entertaining minor work by a great author.  Which is still quite a lot, and a great deal of fun to boot, but given how few works Austen left us, and how rare it is for a skilled, appreciative artist to try to adapt them, it's a shame that Stillman didn't try to put more of his own stamp on her work.

  • Ghostbusters - Before watching Paul Feig's reboot of the beloved 80s comedy series, I sat down and rewatched the two original movies, for what was probably the first time in twenty years.  This, as it turned out, was doing Feig a huge favor, because time has not been terribly kind to either of these movies.  The original Ghostbusters feels more like a proof of concept, whose jokes--either because I know them all so well, or because fashions in comedy have changed--just aren't very funny anymore; and the less said of Ghostbusters II, the better.  The new Ghostbusters isn't a great movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it's more competently made than either of its predecessors, and has several scenes that cracked me up, which is more than I can say for the older movies.  It also, however, has a lot of dead air, and in fact the film's core problem is that it feels like a bunch of skits strung together by someone who didn't have the heart to go in and trim the ones that aren't that funny.

    What saves the film, even in its slower moments, are its four stars, and even more than that, the charming and engaging characters that Feig and co-writer Katie Dippold have created for them.  Whether or not it's funnier than the original, the new Ghostbusters has a great deal more heart, and that's completely down to its main characters, whose friendship, rivalry, camaraderie, and mutual exasperation are all believable and instantly lovable.  My only complaint here is that I was a lot less engaged with the central story of former friends Erin (Kristen Wiig) and Abby (Melissa McCarthy), who must heal their ruptured relationship over the course of the film.  What I wanted was a lot more scenes with Kate McKinnon's zany mad scientist Holtzman, and Leslie Jones's MTA worker (who also has an encyclopedic knowledge of New York history) Patty.  They don't have character arcs of their own, but it was always a joy to see them on screen, either on their own or interacting with each other, and I hope that the sequel, if it happens, gives them more space in the story.  (Also, it is officially time to accept that Chris Hemsworth can't act.  His role, that of the Ghostbusters' dumb, hunky receptionist, should have been one that Hemsworth could carry off in his sleep; but instead his scenes are consistently the most boring in the movie.  Maybe it's time to reevaluate whether men can even be funny.)

  • Doctor Strange - Marvel's latest standalone movie has a great opening scene, and a final battle that toys with some really interesting ideas, finally upending a lot of the conventions of this increasingly formulaic filmic universe.  In between these two bookends, however, there's an origin story so tediously familiar, so derivative and by-the-numbers, that by the time I got to Doctor Strange's relatively out-there conclusion, all I wanted was for the thing to end.  As noted by all of its reviewers, the film is very pretty, positing a society of sorcerers who fight by shaping the very fabric of reality, causing geography and gravity to bend in on themselves in inventive, trippy ways.  The film's opening scene, in which bad guy Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) and Dumbledore-figure The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) stage such a battle in the streets of London, turning buildings and roads into a kaleidoscope image, is genuinely exciting.  For a brief time, you think that Marvel might actually be trying something new.

    Then the story proper starts, and a familiar ennui sets in.  Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is Tony Stark without the charm, the vulnerability, or the penchant for self-destruction.  In other words, he's a bore, and the film's attempts to make him into yet another brilliant asshole thrust unwillingly into heroism feel perfunctory and unconvincing.  The film's middle segment is essentially a protracted training montage, in which Strange, seeking a cure to an injury that ended his career as a surgeon, travels to Nepal to be healed by the Ancient One, and realizes that he'd rather learn to be a wizard instead.  Once again, there isn't a single original beat in this entire part of the film, and though Swinton's performance--alongside Chiwetel Ejiofor as fellow acolyte Mordo, and Benedict Wong as kickass librarian Wong--gives these scenes a little more personality, ultimately what they amount to is an Asian-inflected Hogwarts, notable mainly for pretty set dressing and effects (and, of course, for the decision to put a white actress in the middle of it), but still rather tedious to get through. 

    About twenty minutes before it ends, Doctor Strange finally lands on a raft of interesting ideas, any one of which might have enlivened the film and given it a personality if it had been threaded throughout the entire story, but which, at that point, no longer has the space to be developed adequately.  There is, for example, the fact that Strange suddenly remembers that he is a doctor, sworn to do no harm, and his refusal to become the kind of warrior that Tony Stark or Steve Rogers take for granted.  Or Mordo's increasing disillusionment with Strange and The Ancient One's willingness to bend and even break the laws of nature in order to achieve their short-term goals.  Taken together, these lead to a genuinely format-breaking final battle, in which Strange, instead of causing the devastation of a major city, works to undo it (the fact that this city is an Asian one feels particularly significant, given the way that previous Marvel movies have trampled cities in non-white countries as a way of establishing stakes, before gathering their heroes to defend New York or the fictional but still white Sokovia), and defeats his enemy by outsmarting rather than outfighting him.  If these themes had been present throughout Doctor Strange instead of just showing up shortly before it ends, it might have been something to see.  As it is, it feels as if director Scott Derrickson and writer Jon Spaihts had a few interesting ideas, and no clue how to tie them together into a worthwhile story.

    (I wrote the above on the weekend of Doctor Strange's release, when the world seemed headed towards a Hillary Clinton US presidency.  A week later, in a world that is about to be ruled by the bigot and rapist Donald Trump, the priorities and preconceptions of this movie suddenly seem much darker.  Only a few days after white men (and women) overwhelmingly decided that eight years under the leadership of an intelligent, compassionate, visionary black man was more than they could bear, and that a highly qualified and competent woman could never compete with a lazy, fraudulent, perpetually dishonest man, the very concept of a story in which we all--women and POCs included--are saved by a privileged white man, while the black man who criticizes the white heroes for their abuse of power is revealed as a psychotic villain, feels like a cruel joke.  Along with the rest of Hollywood, Marvel buys into--and indeed, helps to perpetuate--the mentality that if there isn't a white man in the middle of the story, there must be something wrong with the story.  We have just seen how that mentality plays out in the real world, and we will all spend years paying the price for it.)

  • Manchester by the Sea - Kenneth Lonergan's Oscar-hopeful feels like an object lesson in the arbitrariness of Hollywood's prestige ladder.  The film's premise has been, and will continue to be, the stuff of millions of weepies and made-for-TV movies: protagonist Lee (Casey Affleck) receives word that his beloved older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died of an illness, and that Lee is now unexpectedly the guardian of Joe's teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges).  This forces Lee to return to his home, the titular fishing town, where he is haunted by memories of a terrible trauma, and by lingering resentment from some of his neighbors.  Obviously, it's the execution that differentiates between shlock and drama, and Manchester by the Sea is indeed a well-made, closely-observed and deliberately low key variation on its extremely familiar story.  But I can't help but rankle at the fact that that very avoidance of melodrama is being hailed as proof of the film's seriousness, of its being an exceptional and especially worthy example of its type.  It feels telling that a male writer and director has taken a genre typically associated with women, told a story within it that concentrates almost exclusively on men, focused on "hard", violent emotions such as Lee's still-simmering anger and guilt, and gotten effusive praise for it.  Take, for example, the way that flashbacks spread throughout the movie reveal Joe's role as the strong, supportive center of his family, someone whose loss, by the end of the movie, feels genuinely devastating.  Now try to remember the last time that a movie--much less one as prestigious as this one--made its dead wife or mother as real or as human, anything more than something for its male heroes to get over.

    The ultimate effect of this was that I found it hard to appreciate Manchester by the Sea for the thing that it has been most commonly lauded for, Affleck's performance.  He is, of course, very good as a man struggling, and ultimately failing, to overcome terrible loss, but I found myself resenting the way the film valorizes Lee's anger and inability to move on--there is, for example, something almost ridiculous about the eventual revelation of his inciting trauma, as if Lonergan couldn't stop himself from piling on yet another detail that would make Lee's loss more horrific.  What does work, however, is everything around Lee, and particularly Patrick, whose depiction as someone who, on one hand, is a great deal more together and connected to the world than his uncle, and on the other hand, is still a child, is one of the most realistic filmed portraits of a teenager I've ever seen.  The relationship between Patrick and Lee feels real and lived-in, full of unspoken but clearly felt history.  So, too, is the portrait the film paints of the close-knit working class community of Manchester, which supports the struggling family but also makes it impossible for Lee to escape his past.  And the film's ending, which avoids an easy solution to Lee and Patrick's problems while still offering hope for the future, is perhaps the greatest rebuttal Lonergan can offer to his story's melodramatic roots.  It's not entirely Manchester by the Sea's fault that I wasn't blown away by it--a lot of it comes down to the industry around it and the way that it prioritizes men's stories over women's, even when they're the same story--but I still found myself appreciating the film more for its background details than for the figure in its foreground.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Arrival

It's been about four years since the movie adaptation of Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life" was announced, and during that period, every time I heard a piece of news about the film's progress, there was always one question paramount in my mind: how?  How could you possibly take Chiang's story, a trippy, challenging piece of writing whose ultimate conclusion needs to be carefully laid out for even the most attentive and game reader, and translate it into a mainstream movie, in a medium that isn't normally permitted to spell out its themes and ideas the way written fiction is?  For me personally, there was an element of protectiveness to this wondering.  "Story of Your Life," which I first read in my late teens, was an eye-opener for me.  In its focus on the "soft" science of linguistics, in its willingness to use relatively abstruse concepts from both linguistics and physics to build its premise, and in its foregrounding of a thoroughly unsentimental mother-daughter relationship, it expanded my ideas of what science fiction was capable of.  I couldn't bear the thought of someone turning it into yet another alien invasion story.

And, to be fair to director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer, that is not what Arrival is.  In fact, by the standards of Hollywood and what it tends to make of science fiction, Arrival is a remarkably thought-provoking and meditative movie, and its message of understanding and cooperation feels particularly relevant in our present moment.  But as regards to my question, how could Villeneuve and Heisserer take the implications of Chiang's story and put them on screen, the answer is: they didn't.  And in fact, it seems quite obvious that this was a deliberate choice.

To someone familiar with the story, there is a hint early on in Arrival of its shift in priorities and premise.  The film opens with a series of flashes to the relationship between linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and her daughter Hannah, culminating in Hannah's death, in her early adulthood, from a disease.  In the story, Hannah dies in a climbing accident.  The change initially seems pointless--or perhaps yet another indication that Hollywood thinks cancer is inherently more dramatic than any other form of tragedy--and then troubling.  In the story, the point of Hannah's death being accidental is that it is easily preventable.  Someone with knowledge of the future--as Louise will eventually become--could keep it from happening by saying a few words.  The point of "Story of Your Life" is to explain why Louise doesn't do this.  Making Hannah's death something that Louise can't prevent seems, in the film's early minutes, like an odd bit of point-missing.

You very quickly get swept up in the film's present-day events, however, and in its depiction of a group of scientists and soldiers trying to communicate with aliens who have suddenly appeared on Earth.  The very fact that Arrival's point of view character is a linguist, and that the problems of dealing with the aliens (dubbed "heptapods") are phrased in the terms of that science, in questions of how modes of communication affect habits of thought and our perception of the world, make it a remarkable movie, even within the subset of the kind of prestige SF movies we get every fall.  (Compare Arrival to last year's entry in this subgenre, The Martian, whose focus was entirely on the hard sciences, and on the cold equations of supply and consumption that determine its protagonist's chances of survival.)  It's particularly rewarding that Arrival, even working within the limitations of a film that needs to be accessible to a wide audience, resists the temptation to simplify its depiction of what science is.  When Louise first meets Ian (Jeremy Renner), a physicist who will become her husband and her daughter's father, he quotes from one of her books a line about language being the foundation of civilization.  A slightly chagrined Louise responds: "that's the sort of thing you put in a preface.  You want to wow them with the basics."  In a later scene, Louise punctuates an argument with military supervisor Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) by quoting the story about how the original meaning of the word "kangaroo" is "I don't know".  Then she admits to Ian that the story is almost certainly a fabrication.  In scenes like these and throughout its run, Arrival repeatedly drives home the point that science can't be boiled down to platitudes, and that complex problems require complex solutions.

At the same time, it's also a deeply emotional movie, one that demonstrates how even for rational, cerebral people like Louise and Ian, the experience of meeting aliens and grappling with their difference from us is a profound shock to their worldview.  You can feel the influence of 2001 on the scenes in Arrival in which Louise is first confronted with the aliens, which use overpowering music and a stark, minimalist set to convey the grandeur of the experience.  The fact that Arrival manages to meld these two modes--awe and scientific rigor--is impressive.  The fact that it does this, and weaves a geopolitical crisis in the film's background, as different nations begin to view the aliens, and the technology they could offer Earth, as a threat, and continues to flash to Louise's life with her daughter, and slowly weaves in the mystery of what the aliens want and how their language is affecting Louise, makes Arrival a major accomplishment.

So it's not entirely the film's fault that Chiang got there first, and did it better.  About halfway into the film, Ian questions Louise about the hypothesis that learning a language rewires your brain, and accustoms you to the habits of thought and the worldview that shaped that language.  Arrival treats that effect as something almost magical--within a few hours of seeing her first alien logogram, Louise begins experiencing flashes of the future.  Finally she realizes that the alien language has given her a similar grasp of reality as that of the heptapods, to whom past and future are one and the same, and uses her knowledge of the future to prevent the war that is about to erupt over the aliens' technology.

It is, to be perfectly honest, a rather silly idea, and one that it takes all of Arrival's earnestness (and Adams's fine performance) to sell.  What Chiang posits is something that is both more subtle, and a great deal more mind-blowing.  The difference between humans and heptapods in "Story of Your Life" is that where humans see the universe in linear, causal terms, the heptapods' take on it is teleological, purpose-driven.  Humans perceive cause and effect.  Heptapods perceive the beginning and end-point of every action, and proceed along a course that gets them from one to the other.  In other words, it's not that heptapods see the future.  It's that they perceive all of time as a single entity, and are therefore committed to a course of action that takes them along all the points in their personal timeline, with no possibility of deviation.  Having learned the heptapod language, and rewired her brain so that she perceives time in a similar way to them, Louise is therefore similarly committed.  The reason that she can't tell her daughter not to go on the climbing trip that will result in her death is that the very fact of knowing about that death makes it impossible for her to exercise free will and deviate from the path that will lead to it.  Arrival posits that Louise can have both knowledge of the future and free will--hence her choice to have a daughter whom she knows will be taken from her at a young age.  It thus misses out on both the full implications of "Story of Your Life"'s mind-bending ideas, and the full impact of its tragedy.

It is, of course, perfectly fair at this stage to ask whether any of this matters.  I went into Arrival knowing that it would be nearly impossible to convey the central idea of "Story of Your Life" in a movie, and so the fact that it didn't shouldn't have come as a surprise.  And isn't it therefore better for Heisserer to have tried to make the movie its own entity, with its own message, even if that message is the complete opposite of the one in Chiang's story?  As many reviewers have noted, Arrival comes to us at a moment where the world seems determined to surrender itself to strongmen who believe only in violence, who use language to sow fear and hatred.  A film in which language and communication can be used to further understanding and to prevent violence, in which one determined person can sway the course of the future towards a more peaceful outcome, feels almost like a balm.  If I find Arrival's ending sentimental, I also have to admit that it offers a powerful alternative to what's happening in the real world right now.

And yet, as a science fiction reader, who has held "Story of Your Life" dear for nearly half her own life, I can't help but feel disappointed as well.  One of the things that make that story special is its commitment to the implications of its premise.  Chiang posits a weird, out-there idea, and then follows it all the way to the end, forcing the reader to ponder the kind of life that Louise now has to live.  Heisserer was clearly enchanted by some of the ideas raised in "Story of Your Life"--the notion that language changes our perception of reality, the idea that different species might see time differently--but seems to have chickened out on the most important one.  It's a choice that borders of wish-fulfillment, replacing the rigor of Chiang's ideas with rank sentimentality.

To say that, I realize, makes me seem a bit joyless.  Worse, it makes "Story of Your Life" seems bleak, like a linguistics-based "The Cold Equations."  When in truth, it's nothing of the sort.  If anything, it's Arrival that edges into "Cold Equations" territory, when, like that seminal yet highly problematic classic story, it valorizes tragedy.  "The Cold Equations" pretends to be about man's smallness before the universe and the demands of its implacable mathematics, but really it wants us to marvel at its protagonist, and his willingness to do what is necessary in order to appease the unfeeling gods of math and physics.  There's a similar grandeur to how Arrival depicts Louise and her decision to have a child whom she knows will die.  It makes her into a martyr, or even a saint, for being willing to suffer the pain of losing her daughter simply so that Hannah can exist (while at the same time flattening Hannah's personality, who in the story is willful and bold, and whom Louise has trouble understanding, into someone completely generic).  Even the breakdown of Louise and Ian's marriage is turned into something grand when we learn that he leaves her after she tells him about Hannah's impending death.  In the story, they divorce for no particular reason, simply because that's what happens to some marriages.

The message of "Story of Your Life" is something much gentler and sadder than Arrival's.  The fact that they lack free will doesn't make Louise, or the heptapods, into automatons--any more than a person who does have free will is captain of their fate and master of their soul.  The fact is, a Louise who had free will but no knowledge of the future would still have entered into a marriage fated to break down, still have borne a child fated to die an early, meaningless death.  She would still have been faced with the questions that our Louise asks herself at the end of the story, the same questions that we all, inevitably, ask ourselves--has our life been a happy or a sad one?  Did we make the right choices?  Are we a success or a failure?  The genius of "Story of Your Life" is that it manages to take a person who knows every detail of their life to come, and still convincingly argue that they are just as confused as the rest of us.  Arrival has its own genius, but I still prefer the one that so enraptured me half a lifetime ago, and showed me the full possibilities of this genre.