Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A Childhood Disillusioned


        Like pretty much every American born within the past 50-plus years, I grew up on the works of Disney, my days filled with colorful, bubblegum-sweet images of princesses, cuddly animals and gift-wrapped-with-a-bow-on-top happy endings. I remember watching The Lion King and Aladdin (and, more shamefully, their sequels) on an endless loop, and I knew all the lyrics to songs like “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?”, “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid and Mulan’s “Reflection”. I’ve visited every single Disney theme park in the world, except for the one in Paris; I’ve been to a couple of them multiple times, since I’m a spoiled, extremely lucky brat. Just thinking about Toy Story still sends a shiver of nostalgic delight up my spine.

        Yet, despite these fond feelings, I've realized that Disney isn't quite the perfect, carefree utopia we like to imagine it is as kids. Even when I was younger, I didn’t particularly care for The Jungle Book or Snow White, though for the latter, that was as much because I thought the Evil Queen was scary as any discomfort over its depiction of women. I’m well aware that, like any other company, Disney has a more cynical corporate side that’s concerned more with marketing and branding than storytelling integrity. Still, it really wasn’t until certain recent developments that my mental image of the Disney/Pixar offices as some kind of magical paradise, a veritable playground for the imagination, finally and completely shattered.

        To start with a more subjective gripe, there’s the fact that their recent output feels drained of any ingenuity, consisting almost entirely of run-of-the-mill adaptations and sequels. Pixar, not long ago so renowned for their earnest creativity that the studio’s name was enough to get people flocking to their movies, has succumbed to the lure of lucrative merchandising and lazy sequels that pander to their audiences. I still can’t believe I actually paid to see the unfortunate dreck that was Cars 2, and I say that as someone who finds the first one highly underrated. While they’re still releasing original films and apparently plan to emphasize them going forward, even those lack the freshness that Pixar works had only a few years ago, and it’s disconcerting that they feel the need to keep up the sequel trend at all, especially since they appear to have no plans for the one non-Toy Story flick that actually could be good sequel/prequel/spinoff material.

I mean, come ON! It could be totally epic, I’m telling you.

        And then came the whole Brenda Chapman fiasco. A director getting booted off a project isn’t inherently cause for concern, as it apparently happens pretty regularly for animated films, whose directors aren’t as protected by guilds and unions as their live-action colleagues; after all, Pixar itself had previously replaced Jan Pinkava with Brad Bird on Ratatouille, and it’s already kicked Bob Peterson off next year’s The Good Dinosaur. However, seeing Brenda Chapman lose control of Brave was infuriating not only because it meant Pixar had replaced its first-ever female director with a man, but also because she supposedly had such an intimate, personal connection to the story. It seems Pixar trusted a dude to make a tale of female empowerment and mother/daughter relationships, instead of the woman who dreamed up the idea in the first place. Although we’ll never know what the movie would’ve looked like if they’d allowed her to stay on board, I wish we got to see her complete vision; it’s not like the version we did get was particularly impressive or even memorable. All the change of directors did was draw attention to just how much of a boys’ club Pixar is.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Captain America 2 or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Accept That Marvel Is Evil


            This post, like many of my blog posts, was originally supposed to be a rant. As much as I hate to sound like an insufferable elitist constantly railing against the mindless unoriginality and lack of diversity in mainstream cinema, my patience has been dwindling as rapidly as the ratings for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. For the first time, I kind of understand why critics spend so much time denouncing modern blockbusters as superficial fluff pandering to some fictitious lowest-common-denominator audience. With its emphasis on CGI bombast and manufactured hype shifted into overdrive, the summer movie season has become more exhausting than fun, and this year, I found myself rejoicing when fall (aka awards season) finally arrived because even though Oscar-bait has its own problems, at least it involves something other than white dudes in colorful spandex punching one another for hours on end.

            Of course, you could pose any number of valid arguments about how all the doom-prophesizing and rose-colored yearning for the good ol’ days when artistic integrity really meant something is bullshit, which it is. In terms of financial success, the blockbuster format is as alive and well as ever; in fact, despite the widespread media coverage of bombs like The Lone Ranger and After Earth, 2013 turned out to be Hollywood’s most lucrative summer of all-time. Plus, even though studios increasingly rely on tent-poles like superhero movies to generate their profit, they still manage to produce plenty of smart, ambitious, more intimate films along with the big-budget extravaganzas. Besides, it’s not like Golden Age Hollywood was a shining beacon of innovation and daring either. The only real differences between then and now are that action flicks have surpassed musicals and westerns in popularity and movies tend to revolve around brand names rather than star power.

            My frustration has nothing to do with nostalgia. If anything, with the rise of indie cinema, I’d venture to say that cinema is overall in better condition than it was before, since it’s become easier than ever for unconventional filmmakers and previously marginalized voices to reach an audience. For example, I highly doubt that movies like Gravity and 12 Years a Slave would have gotten released fifteen or twenty years ago, let alone become frontrunners for Best Picture, and only five years ago, not a single woman had ever won an Academy Award for directing.

Still so happy for you.

In general, I like to think of myself as fairly open-minded when it comes to art, and my heart has been broken enough times by movies, from Eragon to The Lovely Bones to Prometheus, that I have more or less accepted the fact that most things won’t live up to my expectations. But for whatever reason, whether it’s because Hollywood really is undergoing some sort of creative implosion or I’ve just gotten a lot more cynical and hard-to-please lately, this summer seemed even worse than usual. The breaking point for me was Man of Steel. Sitting in the theater during the last hour or so of that movie, alternately fighting the urge to glance at my watch and stuffing my fist in my mouth to stop from bursting into inane laughter, I could actually feel my soul being crushed. It was like witnessing the apocalypse, the moment when it dawns on you that the future is doomed and hope is nothing but a fool’s dream, a cruel prank. Is this really what we have come to? Struggling to be amused by an insultingly blatant recreation of 9/11 and stilted dialogue spoken by characters with all the depth and charisma of blank paper? After the letdowns that were Iron Man 3 and Star Trek into Darkness, this was the last straw, the icing on the cake of mediocrity.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

12 Years a Slave Takes an Unflinching Look at the Ugly Side of American History


        The American movie industry has a spotty record when it comes to portraying black history. When portraying blacks or African Americans on screen, they lean toward one of two extremes: either the more overtly racist route of such notorious works as Birth of a Nation or feel-good narratives clearly designed to appeal to white audiences, like Mississippi Burning or The Help. Slavery in particular is treated as a taboo subject, a secret people have spent a century trying to bury and forget, despite how deeply and inextricably woven it is into the fabric of American history. The few times when a film does touch on the topic, it’s usually whitewashed, its most horrifying aspects glossed over. As a result, when a movie like Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave comes along, one more concerned with being honest than comforting, it feels like a precious gem that should be coddled and treasured regardless of its flaws. For these kinds of movies, merely existing seems like a triumph.

        Fortunately, 12 Years a Slave is a damn good movie even without considering any of the historical importance critics might attempt to assign it, but it has imperfections as well that can’t be overlooked. McQueen approaches the struggles and life of Solomon Northrup, the kidnapped freeman-turned-slave played by Chiwetel Ejiofor in his long-overdue first leading role, with the same meditative detachment he used for his previous films. Again relying on extended sequences without dialogue and a camera that prefers lingering on a shot to frequently moving or editing, he lets each scene simmer and evolve on its own, resulting in a movie that meanders at times but also effectively evokes the tedious drudgery and fear that filled these slaves’ everyday lives. This patience pays off in scenes like one roughly midway through the film involving Northrup dangling from a tree, a noose around his neck, as the rest of the plantation’s slaves and residents continue their daily business around him, barely even giving him a second glance. Filmed mostly in a single, immobile shot, it’s a haunting sequence that demonstrates the dehumanizing effects of slavery, showing that it was insidious not just because of its innate cruelty, but because it made moments like this so commonplace that people learned to ignore them. This was simply their life, and stripped of their families, identities and dignity, few of these slaves could afford to think or care about anything other than their own survival.

        Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, who also worked with McQueen on Hunger and Shame, conjures up mid-19th century Louisiana with its vast swampy expanses, groves of weeping willows and statuesque mansions in gorgeous 38 mm film, the landscape’s rustic yet subdued beauty only enhancing the story’s brutality. Imbued with tension by an ominous, sometimes appropriately discordant score by Hans Zimmer and enhanced by top-notch costume and set design, the movie eschews easy, stylized sensationalism for something less immediately cathartic but more honest and unsettling, treating the unfolding events with unobtrusive impartiality and trusting audiences to generate their own emotional responses. They say not this is how you should feel, but rather this is how it was. When faced with such systematic, dehumanizing cruelty, how could you not feel?