Thursday, January 05, 2017

Recent Movie Roundup 23

The first few days of 2017 have been rather interesting, as some tweets of mine went unexpectedly viral and sparked an interesting conversation about how Hollywood perceives the behavior, and fantasy life, of male versus female characters (you can read the whole thing here).  But that feels like a distraction from the exciting news that there are finally films in movie theaters that I want to see.  For some reason Israeli film distributors have broken their habit of waiting until February to bring out the year's Oscar hopefuls, and of course there are the year-ending genre movies.  I didn't like all of these films, but I certainly enjoyed the experience of looking forward to them.
  • Moana - Disney's latest attempt to reinvent the princess movie takes two novel approaches: drawing on Polynesian folklore and mythology for its story, and recruiting Hamilton wunderkind Lin-Manuel Miranda to write the film's songs.  Heroine Moana (Auli'l Cravalho) is torn between her duties as the daughter of the village chief and her desire to roam the seas, but finds herself able to gratify both desires when she's tasked with restoring the heart of creation goddess Te Fiti, aided by Maui (Dwayne Johnson), the demigod who originally stole it.  The plot is thus a picaresque, in which Moana and Maui encounter various dangers and challenges on their journey to Te Fiti, during which they also bond and help each other overcome their hang-ups.  It's a similar structure to Tangled--still, to my mind, the best of the modern princess movies--but Moana lacks that film's multiple intersecting plot strands and broad cast of characters, and ends up feeling simpler and more straightforward.  What it does have is genuinely stunning animation, especially where it draws on the scenery of the Pacific islands and the iconography of Polynesian cultures, and some excellent songs by Miranda, which pay homage to both the Disney and musical theater traditions while still retaining entirely their own flavor--I'm particularly fond of a scene in which Moana and Maui encounter a giant, jewel-encrusted lobster (Jemaine Clement), who sings a David Bowie-inspired glam-rock ballad, and then complains that no one likes him as much as The Little Mermaid's Sebastian.  But pretty much every song here is excellent and memorable in its own right.

    Even more importantly, the fact that Moana is a story about its heroine rediscovering her people's heritage of exploring and ocean-voyaging feels especially significant in one of Disney's rare POC-starring vehicles, and lends a particular poignance to what is ultimately a fairly conventional follow-your-heart-and-be-true-to-yourself message.  Nevertheless, it's hard not to compare the relative simplicity of that message, and of Moana's story, to recent non-princess Disney projects like Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6, and Zootopia, and feel that Disney is aiming low by merely refreshing this template with different world cultures.  Girls--and non-white girls especially--deserve stories as inventive and complex as the ones being offered to boys, and Disney might serve them better if it put heroines like Moana (and her heritage) in those stories instead of sticking to the tried-and-true conventions of the princess movie.

  • The Lobster - Yorgos Lanthimos's Cannes-winning sensation has a delightfully out-there premise--it takes place in a world in which the single are corralled into a resort where they have 45 days to find a partner, or they will turned into a an animal--and one of the many wonderful things about it is that it plays it completely straight.  Our hero, David (Colin Farrell), checks into the resort after his wife leaves him, but when a putative romance goes horribly wrong, he runs away to join a group of singleton rebels who live out in the woods, amongst whom romance is strictly forbidden.  This becomes a problem when David falls passionately in love with one of the rebels, played by Rachel Weisz.  The Lobster is, first and foremost, an uproariously funny movie, not just because of how straight it plays its ridiculous premise, but because of how it develops it with even more absurd details.  A major criteria for romantic happiness at the resort is that partners have compatible physical abnormalities, so David, who is short-sighted, is constantly on the lookout for a woman whose vision is similarly impaired, and seems genuinely to believe that he could never be happy with anyone whose vision is better or worse than his.  The rebels, meanwhile, inform David that they only dance to techno music, so that no one can dance with each other and thus potentially commit a romantic infraction.  And though the film never discusses its central fantastic concept, throughout its events the characters are joined by various exotic animals--peacocks and dromedaries and porcupines--who are clearly transformed rejects from the resort, and whom no one comments on or pays attention to.  The sheer audacity of the film's conceit, and the fact that it is developed so well and with such imagination, carries you through most of it without stopping to wonder what the point of it all is (as does the delight of constantly finding top-tier actors in such a strange project: as well as Farrell and Weisz, the cast includes Olivia Colman, John C. Reilly, Ben Whishaw, and Léa Seydoux).  So when that point arrives, it cuts like a knife: the sudden realization that in a society that places absurd, arbitrary restrictions on what romance can look like, actual love is all but impossible.

  • Star Trek Beyond - The third in J.J. Abrams's revamped-and-not-at-all-improved Star Trek series both benefits and suffers from its connection to its two predecessors.  Benefits, because compared to the utterly lamentable Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness, the fact that Beyond is merely tedious and predictable is enough to make it seem like something resembling a good movie, especially when you consider that Abrams has been replaced in the director's seat by Justin Lin, who at least knows how to stage an action scene as if he cares, even if none of the ones here are particularly memorable or exciting.  And suffers, because Beyond, which co-writers Simon Pegg and Doug Jung clearly envisioned as an attempt to bring the new Star Trek back in line with the franchise's roots, depends for this task on the previous two movies having established certain characters and relationships to be broadly in line with what they were in the original series and movies, which means that it's relying on a foundation that hasn't been laid, and which in some cases blatantly contradicts what Beyond wants it to be.  William Shatner's Jim Kirk, for example, could (and in fact did) shoulder a storyline in which he becomes disenchanted with the Enterprise's mission of exploration and peaceful diplomacy, and considers leaving his command.  The same can't be said of Chris Pine's Kirk, who never seemed interested in Starfleet for anything beyond the gratification of being judged worthy to captain a starship, and who despite that judgment continues to be genuinely awful at all of the things that make a good Starfleet captain--as demonstrated by Beyond's opening scene, in which he hopelessly botches what should have been a straightforward diplomatic mission due to what looks like a simple lack of preparation.  The fact that Beyond constructs itself around this crisis is not, as the film clearly believes, a meaningful exploration of mid-life ennui, but yet another reminder that it has never been clear just why we should accept this Kirk as a hero--since he doesn't want to be one, and is in fact quite bad at it.

    By the same token, the scenes between Zachary Quinto's Spock and Karl Urban's McCoy seem to expect us to assume a long, rancorous-but-ultimately-respectful friendship between the two characters which this version of Star Trek, and these actors, have never actually done the work of establishing.  Beyond's screenplay makes a smart choice when it splits up the main cast into small groupings, each with their own storyline, after the Enterprise is attacked and destroyed over a mysterious planet (in yet another case of the reboot movies borrowing a major plot point from the original movies and not knowing what to do with it; it's not just that the Enterprise's destruction in Beyond lacks the resonance it had in The Search for Spock; this is a movie that can't even achieve the emotional heights of Generations).  Some of these storylines, such as Uhura and Sulu taking command of the surviving crewmembers, or Scotty bonding with a feral but plucky castaway (Sophia Boutella, in a role that would be more enjoyable if it did not feel so out of place in the Star Trek universe, original or reboot), work well enough on their own.  But when the time comes to tie them all together, it becomes impossible to ignore the fact that Beyond's story relies on us believing in the cohesion of its crew, and their faith in their captain, in a way that is simply unsupported by any of the films in the reboot universe, including this one.

    Beyond clearly has pretensions of engaging with Star Trek's core philosophy, but like its predecessors it runs aground on the fact that no one involved with the film has any idea what that philosophy is.  Characters spout words like "unity", "diplomacy", and "cooperation", but they seem bored even as they do so.  In a particularly tone-deaf scene, the film's villain, Krall (Idris Elba), explains to Uhura that its peaceful ways have made the Federation weak, and that conflict is needed for any species to thrive.  One might have expected that a Uhura, as a black woman, would be uniquely positioned to point out that the Federation's peace and harmony are hard-won treasures that humans only achieved after millennia of war, oppression, and genocide (a fact that is made all the more pressing when we learn Krall's true origin).  But that would require anyone involved with this movie to actually understand why peace and cooperation are good, desirable things, and it's clear that no one does.  Instead, the film treats Kirk's embrace of these ideals as a kind of favor he's doing to the universe, and then ends, as all the reboot films have done, with a single hero beating up on a single villain in order to save the day.  For all its pretensions of returning to its roots, Star Trek Beyond is still the same reboot Star Trek--utterly unclear on what made this franchise worthwhile, and completely incapable of staking out a claim for its own relevance.

  • Rogue One: A Star Wars Story - Disney's first standalone in the Star Wars universe is very clearly an attempt to transform that franchise into something very like the MCU--a shared universe in which it is possible to tell stories in many different registers, genres, and scopes.  Whether or not the Star Wars setting can support that kind of expansion, however, remains to be seen, even after Rogue One, because the problems of this movie have a lot more to do with the perennial sloppiness in how Hollywood (and Disney in particular) constructs its action-adventure stories, than in the specifics of this particular story.  Rogue One's first half is quite promising, giving us a glimpse of the inner workings of the Rebellion, and of its internal rifts and disputes.  We get to see the psychological toll of constantly living on the knife's edge, not knowing who to trust since anyone could be an Imperial spy, fighting amongst different factions of the Rebellion over the correct tactics, making morally compromising decisions for the greater good, and above all, living in the constant awareness that it might all be for nothing, and that the Rebellion could so easily fail in the face of an enemy as powerful and implacable as the Empire.

    All of this creates the expectation of a tense heist/espionage story, as our heroes try to outsmart a much more powerful, organized opponent in order to retrieve the Death Star plans that will jumpstart the plot of A New Hope--something along the lines of a million WWII movies.  Instead, Rogue One plumps for a generic extravaganza of explosions and special effects, as our heroes launch a frontal assault against an Imperial records facility that doesn't make a great deal of sense, and completely squanders the bleak, paranoid tone of the film's first half.  It's not the first time I've gotten the sense that Disney's live-action division is weakest in its script department, and particularly those scripts that depend on something slightly more intelligent than fights and explosions (this has also been a problem of some recent MCU movies, chiefly Ant-Man and Civil War).  And unlike The Force Awakens before it, Rogue One can't shake off its script problems by relying on charming, engaging characters.  Heroine Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is meant to be the film's beating heart, as the daughter of the scientist who designed the Death Star, and the person who convinces a rag-tag team of resistance operatives that a mission to retrieve the plans is worth the risk.  But Jones's polite, underpowered performance makes it impossible to believe that this is a woman who has been living on her own since she was sixteen, much less someone who could inspire the grizzled, morally compromised soldiers of the Rebellion to have hope in the impossible.  (It's genuinely depressing to recall that Jones's chief competitor for the part of Jyn was Tatiana Maslany, who would surely have made a meal of this dark, gender-swapped Han Solo type.)  Diego Luna, as the film's male lead, resistance spy Cassian Andor, has a great deal more presence than Jones, but his character arc is yoked to hers, requiring us to believe that she spurs a moral awakening in him, which I never did.

    Far more successful are the film's supporting characters: Riz Ahmed as the fidgety but quietly heroic Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook, looking for redemption on Jyn's mission; Forest Whitaker as the semi-deranged, paranoid leader of a breakaway group from the Rebellion; most of all, Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang as former Jedi monks and probable married couple Chirrut Îmwe and Baze Malbus, who squabble and watch each others' backs in equal measure. None of them, however, get enough space in the story to make up for Jyn's dullness, Cassian's muddled character arc, or the script's sloppiness.  Rogue One thus ends up being very promising in parts, and very disappointing in its whole.  If Disney wants to turn Star Wars into something like the MCU, it will have to stick to the more breezy, adventure-based genres, where unconvincing scripts and boring characters have less of a chance to register.

  • La La Land - The best compliment I can pay Damien Chazelle's throwback musical is that while I was watching it, I found its candy-colored world, in which characters repeatedly break out in rhapsodies to Los Angeles, Hollywood, and the dream of it making it there, a little cute and overdone.  And then when the credits rolled, I realized that I didn't want to step out of that world, with its melancholy, romantic tone, and its haunting musical refrains that I've kept on humming long after leaving the movie theater.  When I say that, though, I'm talking more about the film's background--its loving, gorgeously-lit views of LA landmarks and vistas, or the way it captures the strangeness of that city, and of its dream industry, and makes something charming out of a world that we've been trained to think of as cynical and exploitative.  I was a great deal less charmed by the film's main story, the romance that develops between aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) as they both try to get their big break.  In the films that La La Land riffs off--everything from Singin' in the Rain to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg--we accept that the lovers exist in their own world that bends itself to accommodate their love story.  But either Chazelle isn't quite able to believably create a world like that, or (more likely) the film's modern-day setting makes it impossible for me to believe in it.  So the fact that Mia and Sebastian frequently engage in obnoxious, self-absorbed behavior--everything from standing up in a movie theater while the film is running, to constantly blowing off their loved ones because they can't be bothered to remember their appointments--made it really difficult to root for their happy ending.

    I was, however, a great deal more interested in Mia and Sebastian's professional travails--she's trudging from one unsuccessful audition to another and wondering if she might simply not be good enough to make it, and he dreams of playing "pure" jazz at his own club, but is forced to take gigs at restaurants and house parties to make ends meet.  I'm a sucker for stories that depict art as work, and artists as people who are working towards the perfection of their craft--trying to find their unique voice, and then struggling to find an audience for that voice.  But the failure mode of stories like that is to depict "real" artists as people who are constantly saying no to opportunities (or who regret saying yes to them) because the work on offer isn't pure enough, and who thus spend their life waiting for the perfect opportunity to come along rather than taking any chance to develop their craft and do the work they love.  La La Land falls into that trap rather frequently, chiefly in a subplot in which Sebastian joins a band led by John Legend, who combines old-school jazz with modern hip-hop sounds, to Sebastian's obvious dismay and disapproval.  (There is also, obviously, a huge problem with a storyline in which a white man is the sole keeper of jazz's true soul, while a black man degrades it by combining it with a modern black musical style.)  But in fairness to the film, it doesn't live in that mode--Mia, for example, makes the valid point that while she likes the music that Sebastian is playing, it's not worth it if doing so makes him miserable.  In the end, it's hard to tell where La La Land falls on the selling out/doing work wherever you can find it question--perhaps because the film's fundamental romanticism means that both Mia and Sebastian end up achieving more of their dreams than actual people in their situation would probably get to.  And it is that romanticism that stays with you when the film ends, and which makes its whole worthwhile despite my problems with its parts.