Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Apocalypse Is Now


             From the epic floods and divine battles of ancient mythology to the nuclear holocausts and alien invasions of the Cold War, humanity has been imagining its own demise since the beginning of civilization. Freud would probably attribute this obsession to the death drive, a subconscious impulse toward destruction that all people supposedly have. Apocalyptic fantasies allow us to confront our fears of mortality, time, foreigners, etc., in a safe place, distanced from the real world yet so rich with metaphorical possibilities, and especially in a visual medium like film, they provide ample opportunity to indulge audiences’ appetite for lurid spectacle.

             Recently, though, catastrophe has dominated cinema on a scale virtually unprecedented, dwarfing the ‘50s sci-fi and horror B-movie craze. In 2011, we got the art house trinity, Melancholia, The Tree of Life and, my personal favorite, Take Shelter. 2012 gave us Prometheus, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Battleship and Cloud Atlas, among others (but curiously, not the actual movie 2012, which came out way back in 2009), and 2013 had not one but two action-comedies set during the apocalypse, not to mention an avalanche of weirdly glum, monochrome-hued tent-poles. This year, there was Noah, Edge of Tomorrow, Godzilla, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Snowpiercer, The Rover and Interstellar, as well as the usual procession of superhero flicks, which are apparently required by Hollywood Law to have Armageddon-sized stakes. You can barely go a week without seeing ads for yet another movie that threatens to destroy Earth – or at least a major metropolitan area.

             In general, blockbusters nowadays tend to revel in what Stephen Colbert once described as destruction porn, deploying wave upon wave of computer-generated explosions and wreckage in hopes of distracting viewers from their flimsy, senseless or flat-out nonexistent plots. Although the bigger-is-better brand of filmmaking isn’t necessarily anything new (Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich have been blowing shit up since the mid-1990s), only in the past few years has it felt truly, oppressively ubiquitous, soul-crushing rather than just mind-numbing. Long gone are the days when something like Back to the Future, a breezy coming-of-age tale whose biggest action set-piece consists of a skateboard chase, could be a legitimate box office hit; at some point, our definition of entertainment seems to have evolved into “watching hundreds of thousands of people get casually massacred”. Hell, even How to Train Your Dragon 2, the sequel to a PG-rated kid’s movie, is about a fascist warlord on some vague quest for world domination. 

 It’s also vaguely racist, though that’s nothing new for animation.

             At least 2014 offered a handful of movies that actually bothered to acknowledge the consequences of the havoc they wrecked, instead of using 9/11 imagery for easy shock value or, worse, ignoring the darkness altogether. Edge of Tomorrow, for example, is essentially a war movie in which “the enemy” happens to be aliens. Needless to say, it’s not exactly Saving Private Ryan in terms of exposing the horrors of combat and such, but Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt’s self-assured performances convey a sense of trauma rare in action movies of this magnitude (just compare Cruise here to his work in the Mission: Impossible series). Cage and Rita seem genuinely scarred by what they’ve experienced, their interactions tinged with weary desperation.  Similarly battle-hardened characters populate Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Snowpiercer. In the former, Malcolm, played by Jason Clarke, has formed a makeshift family with his son Anthony and Keri Russell’s Ellie, who lost her daughter in the chaos that erupted after the simian flu outbreak. Like its predecessor, Dawn gives its humans thin personalities, preferring to flesh out the titular apes, but you nonetheless get the sense that there’s history between them, that they’ve been through a lot together and grown accustomed to suffering in silence. In Snowpiercer, Chris Evans’s reluctant revolutionary Curtis Everett is tormented by what he has done to survive (spoiler alert: it’s cannibalism). These films all depict personal attachments as liabilities, hindering individuals from taking the measures necessary for self-preservation and the common good; in the apocalypse, you have to sacrifice either your life or your humanity.

Monday, December 29, 2014

A Fond and (Hopefully) Final Farewell to Middle Earth


        In a way, writing a review of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, the final installment in Peter Jackson’s epic, maddening trilogy, feels like a rather pointless undertaking. If you didn’t care for either of the previous two movies, chances are you won’t find this one any more enjoyable, and it’s hard to imagine the film appealing to anyone except the most fervent devotees of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth – or, more accurately, Middle Earth as recreated by Jackson and co. Indeed, even as a diehard fan of the franchise, I entered my screening of Battle with more than a little trepidation. Given that this was the last time Middle Earth will appear on the big screen (as of now, at least), I wanted a satisfying, emotionally cathartic conclusion, but considering that neither An Unexpected Journey nor The Desolation of Smaug were exactly great, my expectations for this one were low. Moreover, as much as I try not to let other people’s opinions affect my own (or seep into my reviews), I’d already heard more of the decidedly negative critical response to the film than I would’ve liked, and it stuck in the back of my mind even when the movie began. I say all this because I can’t pretend I was coming from a place of cool objectivity when watching it and to emphasize how genuinely surprised I was at how much I liked The Battle of the Five Armies.

        To be clear, Battle suffers from a lot of the same flaws as its predecessors. It thankfully skips the usual, seemingly obligatory prologue and jumps right into the action, picking up where the previous movie left off, with the dragon Smaug preparing to attack Laketown. However, this also results in an opening that feels more like a climax and likely should’ve been relegated to the second film. Despite having the shortest running time of the three, Battle still manages to somehow feel both too thin and overstuffed, thanks to a host of subplots, many of which are underdeveloped or wholly unnecessary. Scenes centered on the human characters especially drag, a notable change from The Desolation of Smaug, where Laketown served as one of the more interesting locations, if only for the passing exploration of politics. After essentially completing his arc within the first twenty minutes or so, Luke Evans’s Bard becomes extraneous, turning into more of a plot device than an actual character. It doesn’t help that his most prominent traits as established by Desolation – his resourcefulness, stemming from his profession as a fisherman and smuggler, and his status as a champion of the common people – no longer apply in this movie, since he gets elevated into a position of power after killing Smaug.

        More egregiously, Battle bizarrely decides to expand the role of Alfrid, the sniveling, cowardly former servant of the Master played by Ryan Gage. Not only could this time have been better used to flesh out the Bard, Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel or some of the dwarves, most of whom still seem interchangeable, but Alfrid also is just flat-out obnoxious. He’s clearly meant to serve as comic relief, which I’ve always considered among The Hobbit’s weaker points, clashing too sharply with its overall foreboding tone. The toilet humor of the first movie and more absurd goofiness of the second, however, are infinitely preferable to the ill-advised, surprisingly offensive bit that concludes Alfrid’s storyline. I won’t go into any more detail, but honestly, you’re better than that, Peter Jackson.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Why Silver Linings Playbook Is the Perfect Christmas Movie


For most people, the term “Christmas movie” brings to mind It’s a Wonderful Life, Elf, A Christmas Story – movies featuring Santa Claus and sentimental speeches about childhood. For me, though, nothing captures the holiday spirit more exquisitely than Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell’s quirky 2012 romance starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.

Silver Linings Playbook is about a man struggling to manage his bipolar disorder and make amends after a violent incident involving his estranged wife’s lover. His love interest is a young widow dealing with her own depression. Needless to say, that doesn’t exactly scream hilarity, much less holiday cheer or family entertainment (for the record, it’s rated-R, mostly thanks to a healthy dose of profanity). Yet with his sharp script and naturalistic direction, Russell manages to spin the material, which seems ripe for Lifetime-style melodrama, into something genuinely fresh, heartwarming and, above all, fun.

Like The Fighter and American Hustle, the director’s other efforts since his surprising return to the spotlight, Silver Linings Playbook simmers with spontaneous, almost manic energy. Characters talk loudly and constantly, their voices often competing with each other in a barrage of noise. It should be overwhelming, like a dinner party perpetually on the verge of going sour, but instead, it makes the movie feel thrillingly, uniquely alive. The actors, from supporting players Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver to Cooper and Lawrence, slip into this atmosphere of barely contained chaos with ease, and it’s a delight to watch them interact, whether exchanging rapid-fire banter or tearful confessions. They lend welcome restraint and authenticity to characters that could have easily been reduced to exasperating caricatures.

This nuance, this sensitivity, is what made me fall in love with Silver Linings Playbook and why it feels so special, despite its rather conventional premise. Even now, I’ve seen few movies explore mental illness with such honesty and compassion. After enduring so many portrayals of the mentally ill as disposable punchlines, tortured geniuses, childlike saints and violent psychopaths, it’s reassuring to see them treated simply as people, full of complexities, hopes and anxieties. Even at its most incisive (i.e. the hilariously awkward scene when Pat and Tiffany first meet), the humor never strays into mean-spirited territory; it pokes fun without judging. Here, mental illness isn’t something to be cured or overcome. It isn’t magically “fixed” by true love. It comes with challenges, but the characters aren’t constantly miserable or suffering. Rather, it’s something they learn to live with, a fundamental aspect of their identities. As Tiffany says, “There will always be a part of me that is dirty and sloppy, but I like that, just like I like all the other parts of myself.”

But they aren’t defined by their neuroses either. As in his previous work, Russell exhibits a keen awareness of human foibles and family dynamics, expertly conveying the mixture of love, bottled-up resentment and obligation that comes with being bound inextricably to a group of people for your entire life. For all their dysfunction, there’s never any doubt that the Solatanos belong together. At the end of the day, they, like everyone else, are just trying to do the best they can to get by.

In his review, Roger Ebert described “Silver Linings Playbook” as “a terrific old classic.” Indeed, the film has a kind of wit and carefree charm rarely seen nowadays, when the word “love” is generally accompanied by a scoff and eye-roll, and smug irony represents the height of comedy. I suppose that’s really why I associate it with the holiday season: the refreshing, even bold, lack of cynicism when it comes to romance and redemption; the tone of heartfelt exuberance tinged with just enough nostalgic melancholy; the soulful cadence of Frank Sinatra’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” my absolute favorite Christmas song; the image of an empty, snow-covered street bathed in colored light.

            It feels like home.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

"Birdman" Takes Flight But Doesn’t Stick the Landing


        A fine line separates ambition from hubris, passion projects from vanity projects. Though money and the personalities involved play a role, mostly, the difference lies in an individual’s subjective perception of quality: if you like a particular work of art, then it’s a testament to the maker’s willingness to take risks and refusal to compromise their creative vision, but if you don’t, it’s a self-indulgent, bloated, even laughable mess. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman suggests that there is, in fact, no line at all, that the very desire to create art, whether it’s a multimillion dollar blockbuster or an intensely personal, stripped-down play, is evidence of humanity’s overinflated sense of self-importance. After all, only someone who thinks very highly of themselves could be so delusional as to believe their opinions, ideas and experiences are so singular and vital that they need to be shared with the entire world. If the totality of human existence can be confined to the temporal equivalent of a single square of a toilet paper roll, not even the greatest, most innovative piece of art really matters, not in the grand scheme of things. Artistry stems from both egotism and insecurity, the confidence that you’re almighty and invincible and the fear – or is it the knowledge? – that you’re not. Birdman puts these conflicting impulses on display in a romp that’s by turns admirable and aggravating, energizing and meandering, extravagant and slight.
        Like a self-deprecating actor who’s really looking for constant, external validation, Birdman simultaneously invites and inoculates itself from criticism. In one scene, our “hero” Riggin Thomson, played with “get off my lawn” gruffness by Michael Keaton, approaches a New York Times theater critic, whose review will determine the success of his play adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”, and unleashes a stream of vitriol at her, accusing her and her entire profession of lazy cowardice. He argues that reviews are nothing but strung-together labels for people’s opinions that ignore structure and technique, the two elements that are notably Birdman’s strong suit. In presumably unintentional defiance of Riggin’s lamentation, much has been made of Iñárritu’s and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s attempt to make the film appear as though it had been shot in a single long take, a feat that is either an astounding display of technical mastery or mere showboating, depending on who you ask. Though the camerawork undeniably draws attention to itself, especially early on, this approach largely works because it meshes so well with the overall tone established by the movie. It evokes an impartial observer wandering through the St. James Theater’s narrow corridors and cluttered dressing rooms, catching snatches of conversations and backstage drama. Backed by Antonio Sánchez’s off-kilter, discordant, drum-heavy score, the Steadicam transforms the film into a fever dream with the feel of a jazz routine, propelled by hectic, improvisational riffs and detours. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

Hollywood Killed God and Why That’s a Problem


        Exodus: Gods and Kings opened this past weekend, and as mean-spirited as it is, I have to admit I was disappointed to see it top the box office, beating Mockingjay: Part One and Chris Rock’s Top Five. I’d say I’m boycotting it because of the whitewashed cast, but that implies I would’ve had the slightest interest in seeing it otherwise. Racism and director Ridley Scott being a jerk about said racism aside, this movie contributes to a recent Hollywood trend that I find particularly frustrating: revisionist takes on myths that don’t have any actual mythology in them.

  You’re both so much better than this…

        Theoretically, Hollywood’s newfound obsession with reinventing myths – whether it’s fairy tales, Biblical or otherwise religious stories, historical legends or classical mythology – should be right up my alley. Though I enjoy real-world dramas as much as the next person, I have always found these kinds of stories fascinating not only for the way they blend recognizable archetypes with the fantastical, but also for how integral they are to storytelling as an art, revealing the values and deeper truths of historical moments, individual cultures and humanity as a whole. While fairy tales and such have often served a didactic function, teaching children and even adults how to lead a proper, moral life, they also speak to people and shape their understanding of the world around them on a fundamental, almost primal level. Where most stories benefit from specificity, myths feel universal. Just think of how many different ancient civilizations, ones that likely had little direct contact with each other, have similar legends about massive floods, or Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, as simplistic and patriarchal as that concept might be. My point is that these stories are designed to be reimagined and retold, boasting an inherent, abstract fluidity that has kept them alive for, in some cases, centuries on end.

        So, if myths are so open to reinterpretation, then why are Hollywood’s latest versions, with Exodus, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah and Maleficient being this year’s most prominent examples, so dull? In part, this could probably be attributed to the mainstream filmmaking industry’s general lack of inventiveness and risk-averse mindset. To an extent, that’s almost understandable in some of these cases. Considering how protective fans can be of something as comparatively trivial as Star Wars or the Marvel comics, commercial productions can only afford to be so radical when you’re dealing with material that’s literally gospel for millions of people. Judging by reviews, Exodus in particular seems to have been hampered by the creative team’s uncertainty over how faithful they should be to the original text, their attempts to mesh together a variety of approaches ultimately producing a final product that will likely satisfy no one.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Wrestling with Masculinity and Oscar Hype


             As several media commentators observed earlier this year, the blockbuster season, not too long ago confined to summer and Christmas time, has begun to swell like No-Face from Spirited Away, consuming May and April and threatening to spill over into March, November and perhaps even beyond. It’s a disconcerting trend for those of us who would like to go at least a couple months without having to hear the word “superhero”. Arguably, however, the same thing has already happened with Oscar season. Although the films themselves still usually come out sometime between October and December, thanks to festivals and a proliferating, rather dubious field of online pundits, you start seeing predictions for next year’s Oscars before this year’s ceremony even airs. This is also not a particularly good thing.

             Take Foxcatcher, Bennett Miller’s based-on-real-life story about Olympic-wrestler brothers Mark and Dave Schultz and their disturbingly wealthy benefactor, John du Pont. The movie debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in May to mostly strong reviews, and ever since then, it’s been a mainstay on award prognosticators’ lists. On one hand, taking the festival circuit route allows Foxcatcher to build up hype; voters tend to go for sure bets (i.e. what they already know they’re supposed to like), so once something cements its status as an Oscar contender, it generally remains there. But at the same time, being labeled “Oscar-worthy” comes with certain expectations. Oscar-worthy movies have prestigious actors whose roles demand some amount of yelling and/or crying. They involve more dialogue than special effects but are large enough in scope that they don’t feel “slight”. They say Important Things about Important Stuff, like slavery or the film industry, striking a comfortable balance between serious and cathartic. The earlier you put yourself out in the open, the more time people have to realize that you fail to meet those expectations and the likelier it is that the initial goodwill will fade and you’ll experience a backlash.

             It’s probably unfair to review a movie by talking about its hype and awards potential, since that says nothing about its actual quality, but I can’t deny that I went into Foxcatcher with a specific vision in my head and left feeling somewhat let down, disoriented for reasons I couldn’t quite pinpoint. The truth is, this is not an Oscar movie. Sure, it’s based on a true story and has an Oscar-nominated director at the helm, two elements that never hurt your chances. Yet despite having guided both of his previous efforts to Best Picture nominations, Bennett Miller is hardly a household name; like J.C. Chandor, another rising talent who thrives on quiet adult dramas, his style is too understated to garner the kind of devotion inspired by David Fincher and Paul Thomas Anderson. The cast is more well-liked than prestigious (of the three main actors, only Mark Ruffalo has an Oscar nomination), and although it contains not-particularly-subtle messages about the danger of American exceptionalism, this isn’t exactly Selma as far as Important Stuff goes.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Fighting the Unbearable Emptiness with Love



        You’ll probably know whether or not you’re going to like Interstellar within the first half hour. The premise: a group of scientists led by Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper has been tasked with traveling into a wormhole near Saturn and finding a planet that could replace Earth, which has been so ruined it can no longer sustain human life. You either accept this – and, not to mention, all the quirks about bending space-time, hopping dimensions and corn – or you don’t. If you can’t suspend your disbelief, you’ll likely dismiss Christopher Nolan’s latest venture as maddening, self-absorbed drivel, but if you can embrace the plot as it is, you’ll be rewarded with an immersive spectacle that blends the grand scope of 2001: A Space Odyssey with the more personal sincerity of Contact, one that recalls innumerable sci-fi flicks of the past but never seems interested in trying to be anything other than itself.

        Like last year’s Gravity, Interstellar begs to be seen on as large a screen as possible, and its basic story is secondary to the mere experience of sitting and watching it. An IMAX theater viewing especially provides a sensory explosion so enveloping that it’s almost overwhelming. Boasting visual effects that, more than being just stunning to look at, actually feel real, the film serves as a sharp and more-than-welcome contrast to the blatant CGI of something like the Thor movies or the superficial, screensaver prettiness of The Tree of Life. Assisted by Hoyte van Hoytema’s elegant cinematography, the film doesn’t just present images of wormholes, distant planets and extra dimensions – it transports you to them. Jaw-dropping shots of a spaceship passing Saturn or approaching a black hole are matched by suffocating scenes set in the dust-blown fields that apparently cover future America and an almost disturbingly visceral sequence where a spacecraft gradually disintegrates into nothingness, the you-are-there sensation enhanced by some finely tuned sound editing. Composer Hans Zimmer contributes to the movie’s delicate tonal mix of grandeur and immediacy with a marvel of a score that alternates between an operatic, organ-played theme and more staccato, tense rhythms. Smartly executed on practically every technical level, Interstellar is a dizzying dream of a movie, inspiring the kind of pure awe that so many films aim for but rarely achieve.

        Yet, for all the visual fireworks, scientific jargon and Prometheus-esque philosophizing, there’s something very elemental, almost archetypal about Interstellar. The relationship between Cooper and Murph (played by both Jessica Chastain and Mackenzie Foy, who is perhaps the movie’s biggest surprise other than the Bill Irwin-voiced robot and secret MVP T.A.R.S.) anchors the narrative, even as it traverses planets, galaxies and dimensions, and resonates with an earnestness that comes off as sweet instead of sentimental. At its core, this is a story about love – not just the love between parents and children, though that’s a central focus, but the one between lovers, siblings, people and their home, humanity and itself. Helped by all-around solid performances from a recognizable cast and uncluttered by prolonged action set pieces, Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s screenplay spends enough time with the characters to justify an emotional investment in their survival, even if some of the supporting roles could’ve been fleshed out more, a challenge for a film already approaching the three hour mark. Some of the movie’s best scenes are its simplest: a father tries in vain to comfort his distraught daughter; a heartbreaking montage of video messages; one character is so relieved to see another person, he collapses in tears. Human beings are a source of both doom and salvation in Interstellar, the latter of which proves possible only through a sense of shared community, devotion and empathy.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

How to Get Away With Business


             Lou Bloom is not your usual movie sociopath. With his mane of slightly too-long hair, wiry frame and large eyes, he lacks the subtle menace of Hannibal Lecter and the slick, shallow charisma of Patrick Bateman. If anything, his tendency to aggressively spout self-help aphorisms and hackneyed corporate jargon at a mile a minute makes him seem rather dense at first, almost childlike. He starts the film as an aimless petty thief, selling wire, watches and whatever random paraphernalia he can find for a meager income, and claims to have only a high school education. For all his go-getter gusto, he doesn’t come across as particularly magnetic, competent or intimidating – he’s more Pete Campbell than Don Draper.

             And yet, it’s impossible to take your eyes off him. Naturally, a large portion of the credit must go to star Jake Gyllenhaal, who has quietly spent the past couple years undergoing one of the weirdest, most unexpected career revivals this side of Matthew McConaughey, with turns in gritty, off-kilter indies like End of Watch and Prisoners.  Here, the transformation is complete: nearly 30 pounds lighter and affecting a deadpan, higher-pitched voice, he’s virtually unrecognizable as the fresh-faced kid of October Sky, Donnie Darko and Brokeback Mountain. Such dramatic changes in appearance tend to invite hyperbole from the media, words like “fearless” and “astonishing” tossed around with the nonchalance of a baseball between innings (or, on the flip side, they’re scorned as self-serving stunts that merit neither admiration nor awards). In this case, however, any and all praise is entirely deserved. The weight loss isn’t what makes Gyllenhaal’s performance a remarkable feat of physical acting; it’s the nuances, the way he can apparently go endless amounts of time without blinking, the smile so unnervingly wide it verges on cartoonish, the minute gestures and shifts in expression that seem simultaneously meaningful and utterly. It’s electrifying in its contradictions, by turns ostentatious and controlled, raw and aloof, and as hard to pin down as the film’s protagonist.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Affair, The Leftovers and the Death of Normal


        When Showtime’s The Affair premieres tonight, much will rightly be written about its experimental approach to structure, form and point of view. In its first episode, which is actually already available online, the show dives into a tale of temptation and (potential) infidelity that unfolds like a dream or a languid summer day, its serenity punctured every so often by moments of unsettling tension.

        It’s not just the unhurried pacing or the tone, calibrated to a tricky but riveting balance between meditative and disquieting, that reminded me of The Leftovers, another premium cable show that debuted this year. It’s the way they both bury deep into their characters’ psyches, lingering in the most secretive, troubled spaces and allowing that darkness to seep out and color the world around them. Though the similarities might not continue beyond The Affair’s first episode, from what I’ve seen, both shows seem intent on wrenching their characters out of their sedate, comfortable lives and hurtling them toward an undefined yet inevitable doom.

        The Leftover’s apocalypse is a literal one. Thrown into a collective existential crisis after the sudden, random disappearance of 2 percent of the world’s population, the residents of a suburban New York town must grapple with broken families, the rise of strange cults as old belief systems are shattered and new ones take hold, and the fact that, despite all common sense and the desires of many, life insists on moving on almost as if nothing had ever happened. By contrast, the concerns of The Affair are much more down-to-earth and mundane. Noah Solloway (played by the reliably good Dominic West) lives in a spacious New York City brownstone courtesy of his snobby but filthy rich father-in-law, is contentedly married (his wife is played by Maura Tierney, so you know she’s lovely) with four children, and has recently published his first book while still enjoying his day job as a public school teacher. As Noah himself admits, it’s an idyllic existence, one so often promised to everyone by politicians, Hollywood and advertisers but that few people could ever hope to achieve. Yet, all it takes is one chance encounter with a pretty waitress named Alison Lockhart (Ruth Wilson, a revelation) for him to consider throwing it all away. This premise has been done countless times before, and without a talented and, let’s be honest, attractive cast and such ambitious writing and direction, the prospect of spending every week watching privileged people being unhappy with their privilege would’ve sounded insufferable (counterargument: Mad Men).

Friday, October 10, 2014

Perfection, Deconstructed in Gone Girl



         This is what marriage is supposed to look like. A man and a woman in their late 20s/early 30s – whiteness and physical compatibility optional but definitely preferred – meet, fall in love, date for a couple of years and get hitched in an elegant, classy ceremony. They move into a nice, big house with a manicured, grassy lawn and quiet, pleasant neighbors and eventually a cute kid or two comes along to complete the picture. Aside from the children, this is what Nick and Amy Dunne have. Sure, they’ve run into some money problems, and a cancerous parent forced them out of their chic New York City life and into Middle-of-Nowhere, Missouri, but they’ve still got her trust fund and, more importantly, each other. Isn’t that all anyone needs, after all? They have what everyone wants, and it’s just about perfect – until it isn’t. With a script adapted by Gillian Flynn from her own gleefully twisted, blisteringly caustic novel, David Fincher’s Gone Girl methodically chips away at manufactured ideals of justice, happiness and love to reveal the toxic, inconvenient reality underneath all the everything’s great! smiles. This, the movie says, is what marriage really is.

        Though it tones down a lot of the more explicit and scathing gender politics of its source material, Fincher’s film nonetheless feeds off of the same desire to critique both the institution of heterosexual marriage and the ease with which the media shapes (and can be used to shape) the truth. In fact, here, there is no truth, at least not a singular one and certainly not one that really matters; as another recent movie that explored the materiality of fiction said, people believe what they want to believe. So, Nick continues to believe that he’s a decent person at heart, despite all evidence to the contrary, and Amy believes she’s justified in framing him for the wrongs he’s done to her and for all he represents – for his laziness, apathy, entitlement and overt and repressed misogyny. The police, media and public believe, first, in the infuriating but predictable story of a frustrated, temperamental, cheating man who killed his wife and, later, in the comforting but equally cliché story of a traumatized, victimized woman who just wants to live in peace and to repair her strained relationship with her husband.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

A Guide to Doing Wonder Woman Justice


        For someone who has barely read any comic books, I’ve spent a lot of time discussing movies based off them. If anyone were to come up to me and say that I’m not qualified to talk about comics and should therefore just stop together, I wouldn’t even put up much of an argument, but the truth is that, for anyone who’s interested in pop culture nowadays, it’s pretty much impossible to avoid talking about Marvel, DC and the like. Geek culture, whether we’re talking about comic books or Star Trek or A Song of Ice and Fire, is no longer a niche; in fact, it’s now not only mainstream, but so dominant that it has redefined the entertainment industry, shifting perceptions of what projects are capable of finding an audience and lending greater weight to pure hype and fan anticipation in marketing. While some protectiveness is understandable, given that people always feel a bit of ownership over the things they love, this expansion and diversification of audience means “original” fans need to accept that not everyone is going to approach their favorite characters and stories in the same way and that they no longer get to be the sole authorities on what works and what doesn’t. Superheroes aren’t confined to comics anymore, so why should their fans be? Frankly, if someone can’t appreciate or understand a movie without reading the source material, then the movie probably wasn’t that good to begin with.

        All of this is to say that, despite having little interest in delving into the comics they’re based on, I feel oddly fascinated by and invested in superhero films. It’s a genre exploding with exciting potential, most of which Hollywood frustratingly has yet to explore, and with characters and narratives that can reach mythological proportions,  they tap into current societal anxieties and obsessions in a way that realistic/literary drama never could. However, as cliché as the mantra has become, with great power comes great responsibility. Now that these movies have gained widespread popularity and a level of respectability, they can’t be dismissed as escapist fluff anymore, even if that attitude remains prevalent amongst both fans and critics. The stories they tell, the people they portray and the issues they’re willing to confront – and, perhaps more importantly, how they do all these things – matter.

        And that’s why, even to a comic book n00b like me, the announcement that Wonder Woman was going to be included in the upcoming Man of Steel sequel and the more recent unveilings of her casting and costume were a really big deal. It’s not just that she’s somehow never been in a live-action feature film before, despite being one of the most iconic superheroes ever. As a well-known female superhero, that rarest of entities, she has the power to singlehandedly either transform the comic book movie industry by convincing studios and creators to finally take the women in the audience seriously or indefinitely shut down any chance we have of improving female representation in blockbusters. Fairly or not, Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice will essentially sink or swim based on its portrayal of Diana.

Wonder Woman preparing to stab whoever thought of that movie title

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Leftovers and Staring into the Abyss


            The Leftovers is not feel-good television. Initial reviews described HBO’s new drama as “some of the most desolate, despairing television on air”, “like a French arthouse series, but sadder” and “a show that will make some of its viewers want to slit their wrists” – and those are the positive ones. Perhaps realizing that waxing poetic about a show’s potential to rouse thoughts of suicide isn’t the most effective strategy for convincing people to watch it, many of these critics go out of their way to point out that The Leftovers “isn’t for everyone,” a qualification that seems not only unnecessary (nothing is “for everyone”) but also counterintuitive. If you like a piece of art, why discourage others from giving it a shot? Since when were critics responsible for accommodating audience opinions rather than simply articulating and trusting their own?

            More to the point, though, framing the show’s sorrowful mood as a caveat is like saying, “Mad Men is good, but there’s so much talking”. You’re disowning something essential to the work in question, turning its greatest strength into a negative. Precisely what gives The Leftovers its power is its commitment to exploring human emotions in all their raw messiness, its refusal to settle for false uplift and easy answers. To be sure, some people may find it too unpleasant to watch, and that’s fair enough, but for me (and, judging by the reviews, many others), it’s not a ponderous, soul-crushing exercise in mental fortitude so much as a pitch-perfect falsetto, hitting that elusive sweet note with such exquisite precision it stings. In it, I found something I hadn’t known I was yearning for: a complex, heartfelt portrait of loss.

The moment I fell in love

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

It's Moments That Seize Us


            When describing something like Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s attempt to capture the experience of growing up in something resembling real-time, it’s easy to toss around hyperbolic terms like “brilliant” and “tour de force” – and even easier to get swept up in them. With something this ambitious and experimental, you walk into the theater expecting your life to be altered, your mind opened to new, profound insights into the human condition, whatever that means. To tell the truth, though, Boyhood is nothing like that. Just as Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life didn’t reveal the meaning of the universe, Boyhood doesn’t shed light on any mind-blowing secrets about coming of age in contemporary America. It is, in fact, rather ordinary.

            The boy in question, named Mason Jr. and played by neophyte actor Ellar Coltrane, is no one special. He’s white and able-bodied, gradually evolving from a fresh-faced kid into a gangly teenager with a pierced ear, possessing few exceptional qualities except a penchant for photography and moody philosophizing. The 12 years of his life covered by the film (compressed into a nearly three-hour running time, which feels surprisingly like nothing at all) contain little that could be categorized as action and follow only the ghost of a narrative structure, not rising toward a climax so much as meandering around one. Even the most ostensibly sensational events, such as Mason’s strained interactions with his two alcoholic stepfathers, are conveyed through the dispassionate gaze of a documentarian. Although it offers an intimate look at the everyday existence of its protagonist, the movie never really allows us into his head; we merely observe, never experience.

            Deprived of the visceral immediacy I had been anticipating, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat let down at first. What I thought would be a joyful celebration of youth instead turned out to be a rather depressing reminder of how boring reality is, delivered from the perspective of someone I found neither relatable nor particularly interesting (especially as an adolescent, Mason is a quintessential Linklater character: wistful, talkative, laid-back and in love with his own thoughts). Once my initial reaction faded, however, it dawned on me that I was supposed to feel that way. Boyhood isn’t about catharsis; it’s about numbing, the sinking realization that this is it, this is life, and you have no idea what to do with it.

            If that sounds like a downer, it is. Yet it’s also strangely captivating, unfurling with a dreamy, leisurely serenity that mirrors its Texas backdrop, not bowling you over with emotions so much as letting them sink into you and creep beneath your skin. Bereft of shocking revelations, turning points and anything else resembling a major plot twist, Boyhood revels in details – gestures, pop culture references, objects, places rendered with such evocative specificity it feels like you’re wandering through a memory. For example, when Mason accompanies his mother (Patricia Arquette in a performance revelatory for its quiet poignancy) to her college psychology class, he sees the professor put his hand on her back, and we instantly understand the implications of this tiny, seemingly casual act. Linklater is predominantly known for his dialogue, and to be sure, there’s plenty of it here, but he also puts on a clinic in how to impart information by showing rather than telling.

            In the hands of almost any other director, Boyhood might have ended up as little more than a curiosity, its unconventional filming style elevating a fairly conventional teen movie plot (alcohol-soaked parties? Check. Short-lived romances? Check. Heart-to-heart conversations about the future? You’re damn right check). But with his naturalistic direction and subtle script, Linklater infuses the proceedings with a sense of sincerity that most coming-of-age films lack, eschewing shallow nostalgia and familiar clichés in favor of something messier and more honest. Furthermore, anyone who dismisses the premise as a mere gimmick would be mistaken. On the contrary, it’s the entire point. Life, according to Boyhood, is basically meaningless; there’s no grand master plan, no higher purpose to the series of arbitrary benchmarks we pass on our way to death (to paraphrase Arquette in the movie’s most haunting scene). What make it all worthwhile are the little things, the fragments of time between benchmarks when you forget about the inevitability of mortality and the impermanence of things. Life is about the clear sunset that greets you after a long hike, the song you hear on the car radio, the near-infinite number of seconds that tick by as you debate whether to kiss the girl sitting next to you. It’s about the moments that are there and then, before you know it, gone.


Thursday, July 17, 2014

I, For One, Welcome Our New Ape Overlords


       Tragic blockbusters are fascinating. Since we as audiences have become so accustomed to summer popcorn flicks wrapping up with the hero defeating the monster, saving the world and getting the girl (because, let’s face it, the hero’s pretty much never a girl), the few that enter darker territory often seem to merit extra attention simply for their willingness to break from the long-held assumption that crowds can only be pleased by happy endings. What makes the Planet of the Apes franchise so peculiar, other than its shocking longevity, is that, as critic Matt Zoller Seitz asserts, it has always been inherently bleak. From the moment Charlton Heston laid eyes on that partially-buried Statue of Liberty at the end of the original 1968 film, humanity was doomed, and if any later additions or reiterations deviated from that pessimistic viewpoint, it would feel false, incompatible with the rest of the canon. It’s not just the apocalyptic, if rather ludicrous premise that makes these movies inevitably tragedies; it’s because, even in creating a universe where apes rule the world, they still paint humans as the ultimate monster, catalysts of their own downfall.

        Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the latest installment to the simian-obsessed series, continues in that despairing tradition. Set ten years after 2011’s similarly awkwardly-titled Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which showed how apes became hyper-intelligent and introduced a deadly virus that quickly spread across the globe, Dawn finds civilization in shambles as a handful of survivors hole up in San Francisco, unable to connect to any other communities that could possibly have sprung up, while the group of apes led by Caesar has thrived on land that’s been reclaimed by nature. Naturally, the two societies eventually discover each other and come into explosive conflict. Given that audiences have known the conclusion to this story for nearly half a century, it would’ve been easy for both of these movies to fall into the usual prequel trap, where the predetermined outcome prevents current events from having any real weight. While most prequels make do with lazy writing that simply goes through the motions, Rupert Wyatt’s Rise presented a coherent narrative – something that’s appallingly hard to come by in modern blockbusters (talk about setting low standards) – that was not only fun to watch unfold, but also seemed interested in telling a new story, rather than merely setting up for an old one. Despite changing directors, with Let Me In’s Matt Reeves now at the helm, Dawn seamlessly transitions from and builds off of the solid foundation established by its predecessor, taking advantage of the fairly large time jump to mine different creative ground without losing the blend of epic scope and intimate focus that made Rise successful. It offers an equally thrilling, unexpectedly contemplative look at what happens when brute force triumphs over compassion, the consequences of historical violence, and the meaning of family, community and home.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

A Year of Antiheroes and Finding Light in the Darkness


        People too often confuse cynicism for moral complexity. Challenging an audience’s capacity for empathy or their flexibility where ethics are concerned can produce some fantastic, intellectually and emotionally stimulating art, but declaring that human beings are horrible and life sucks isn’t inherently interesting, especially if everyone else is screaming the same thing. Great TV – or rather the shows that typically attract that label – still tends to be bleak and troubled; the apocalyptic HBO drama The Leftovers, which premiered June 29 with one of the most promising but soul-crushing pilots I’ve ever seen, should fit right in. However, I’d argue that what separates not only the good prestige TV from the bad, but also the new from the old is its ability to craft distinct yet nuanced and thoughtful worldviews, ones that complicate typical good/bad, optimistic/pessimistic binaries. Shows like True Detective and Fargo in particular felt like responses to the Machiavellian brutality of Breaking Bad and The Shield. They indulged in the same tropes even as they critiqued them and, by adding this layer of introspection and self-awareness, pushed TV as a whole in a different, exciting direction.

“The world needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door.”
-          Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), True Detective

        That was possibly the second most quoted line by True Detective’s idiosyncratic, existentially fraught protagonist, just behind the one about time being a flat circle, but it could easily be put in the mouths of any of the corrupt cops and destructive antiheroes who populated the past decade of TV. More than anything else, these stories revolved around the idea that evil can only be defeated if people are willing to lose – or at least temporarily discard – their humanity in the process.

        It’s not hard to understand the appeal of these disillusionment narratives. They contain ample amounts of both external and internal conflict and are pretty much obligated to focus on a complicated, unpredictable protagonist, even if too many writers mistake glowering machismo for charisma. Imbued with a sense of paranoia that forebodes an inevitably tragic conclusion, these stories reflect and speak to a world that feels constantly on the verge of exploding, a reality defined by economic crises, global conflicts and power struggles, and environmental disasters. They tell us that the institutions we rely on are broken and corrupt, that the idealized heroes we’re forever waiting on will never show up, that human beings are heartbreakingly, almost irredeemably flawed. As depressing as that sounds, there’s something comforting about art that confirms our doubts and fears, just as it can be cathartic – or, at least, beguiling – to follow characters who don’t feel bound to the same legal and ethical codes as the rest of us. It’s no coincidence that antiheroes are almost exclusively white men, not just because that demographic is by far the most represented in media in general, but because they have traditionally been accorded more power in Western societies and, therefore, are allowed more freedom to flaunt the rules. The best shows, like Mad Men with its Great Gatsby-esque deconstruction of the American Dream, interrogate the notions of strength, dominance and entitlement associated with whiteness and masculinity, instead of merely glorifying or reveling in it.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Death, Taxes and Community


            Yesterday was not a particularly good day. First, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby, essentially stating that corporations are allowed to refuse birth control coverage for female employees due to religious objections. Then, Noah Berlatsky, a writer I’d previously respected, published an article in The Atlantic arguing that Orange Is the New Black doesn’t pay enough attention to men, despite the fact that the show is set specifically in a women’s prison and therefore has no reason to represent male convicts (if anything, I wish it didn’t care so much about its male characters, but that’s another discussion entirely). And as if that wasn’t enough, Community got renewed by Yahoo! (yes, that Yahoo!) for a last-minute sixth season.

For many people, the revival of NBC’s beloved cult comedy, following its cancelation earlier this year, is a cause for celebration. But when I saw the news, I felt a jolt of irrational exasperation. Of all the acclaimed, prematurely axed shows, from Terriers to Enlightenment to this season’s Enlisted, why is this the one that gets a second chance?

            Once upon a time, I did genuinely like Community. Although many fans consider the first season the show’s weakest, I’ve always had a soft spot for its zany, idiosyncratic, relatively unassuming brand of humor interspersed with moments of surprising sweetness (I might or might not have cried during Abed’s family reconciliation video). Season two earned its hype with consistently hilarious episodes that delighted in subverting sitcom conventions, pop culture tropes and audience expectations without abandoning its characters (see: “Mixology Certification”, “Critical Film Studies”, etc.). I was as anxious as anybody waiting to see how long it would survive despite middling ratings.

            The third season started out uneven at best, though episodes like “Remedial Chaos Theory” and “Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism” were enough to keep me invested. It wasn’t until some vague point after the infamous 2012 hiatus that I realized I didn’t enjoy Community anymore; in fact, the show was actively getting on my nerves. Where the meta commentary and obscure references once felt fresh and clever, they now came across as smug, trite and self-indulgent, and where the madcap energy had once been balanced out by a commitment to emotional realism, it now veered into outright chaos, as if Greendale had been transported from a parallel dimension to a completely separate universe where the basic rules of narrative structure and logic no longer existed. I hated everything the show did with Britta, from pairing her with Troy to gradually dumbing her down. Most people approved of the change as far as I could tell, but personally, I’d rather have the intelligent, idealistic, if self-serious Britta of season one than the walking, talking blonde joke of season three. It bothered me how the other characters treated her, constantly making fun of her values and telling her to be quiet; the “fun vampire” quip was amusing until it occurred to me how closely it mirrored the way feminists and other social justice advocates are viewed in real life, dismissed as humorless extremists trying to ruin everyone else’s party.

 Don’t even get me started.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Let's Talk About the Children: War and the Loss of Innocence in Game of Thrones


            When watching Game of Thrones, HBO’s contentious, wildly popular fantasy series, it’s easy to get caught up in the Big Moments, the ones that light up social media and generate a week’s worth of think pieces: Ned Stark’s beheading; the Battle of Blackwater; the Red Wedding; so many deaths. But the show isn’t all about shock and awe. In fact, some of the best, most memorable moments this season have been the quiet ones, often involving nothing more than characters talking. There’s the circuitous beetle-crushing anecdote that Tyrion tells Jaime in “The Mountain and the Viper,” delivered with tortured intensity by Peter Dinklage, just before the climactic, explosive duel scene. Daenerys’s flirtation with Daario in “Mockingbird.” Any scene between Missandei and Grey Worm, whose tender relationship is perhaps the show’s most welcome addition to George R.R. Martin’s novels.

            There’s a reason why, even in a season teeming with game-changing, water-cooler-ready incidents, “First of His Name” remains my favorite episode. Although relatively uneventful, it contains a wealth of perfect little moments that might seem inconsequential on the surface, but actually have profound implications for the characters and their world. Take, for instance, the scene where Podrick Payne confesses to Brienne, “I killed a man.” It’s a simple, four-word line, but for a character that had previously functioned as little more than comic relief, it constitutes a miniature, heartbreaking revelation. Pod may be hopelessly earnest and awkward, but he’s far from the naïve simpleton we and Brienne thought he was; despite his lack of formal training and experience, he’s just as capable of taking a person’s life as a knight of the Kingsguard.

            At its heart, season four is a narrative of disillusionment, watching as each character is deprived of his or her innocence. In the premiere, Arya Stark, not yet a teenager, sticks her newly reclaimed Needle into Polliver’s throat to avenge her friend, Lommy Greenhands. A contemptuous smirk lingers on her face even as her victim chokes to death on his own blood, yet whatever catharsis this death brings is only temporary. Arya doesn’t hesitate to revel in her victory; instead, she simply wipes her sword clean and continues on her journey with the Hound. In an interview, Maisie Williams says that Arya is “being eaten from the inside out… She's got a hole in her heart. She fills it with all these eyes that she's going to shut forever, and she's just turning black from the inside out.” Ultimately, killing Polliver is not the act of a girl obtaining justice for her fallen friend; it’s the act of a girl who has lost – or is in the process of losing – her soul. A deliberate, cold-blooded murder, devoid of feeling, performed with matter-of-fact calmness. With this, Arya has officially been indoctrinated into the culture of violence that reigns over Westeros.

Monday, June 9, 2014

In Which Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt Try to Save Hollywood


             Unintended metaphors stick out from Edge of Tomorrow like machine guns from clunky metal exo-skeletons. On one hand, the movie mirrors the career of its aging lead, a once-formidable superstar struggling to cling to the last vestiges of his fame and hurtling through action extravaganzas as though he wasn’t now past 50 years old. One early scene shows our hero William Cage, a spokesman and officer in the United States Army Reserve, reacting with incredulity to the news that he will be sent into combat for the first time in his military career, and it’s hard not to see that moment as tongue-in-cheek, Tom Cruise poking fun at his own cushy celebrity status. After all, though tarnished, his image is still apparently enough for studios to keep shoving tent-poles at him. He still looks as handsome and bright-eyed as ever – damn near indestructible.

             The movie could also represent the precarious position of contemporary filmmaking. We’ve all read enough think-pieces lamenting the demise of cinema and rolled our eyes in jaded exasperation at the announcement of yet another superhero reboot. Yet as clichéd and overblown as the cynicism may be, going to the theater does sometimes feel like déjà vu, a never-ending cycle of carbon-copied battles and catastrophes. We’re like Cage, throwing ourselves into the turmoil again and again, hoping that this time, it will be different, only to be continually disappointed.

             On paper, Edge of Tomorrow seems like a continuation of the same pattern, just another disposable blockbuster that will be forgotten in a week. Even the title (once upon a time the endearingly ridiculous All You Need Is Kill) screams “generic”. Yet somehow, despite the name and the hackneyed premise, it works. Of course, this being a moderately budgeted science-fiction spectacle, a decent chunk of screen-time is consumed by elaborate set-pieces involving bright lights, loud noises and quick editing. But what the action lacks in ingenuity, it makes up for in efficiency; at the very least, it makes sense and helps to advance the narrative instead of stalling, overwhelming or distracting from it. Although the plot carries echoes of numerous other movies (it’s essentially Pacific Rim crossed with Source Code), director Doug Liman has such a blast playing with the central gimmick that it doesn’t feel like a simple retread; in fact, it surpasses both of the aforementioned films, buoyed with enough humor to eschew the pompous melodrama of the former and enough energy to ward off the staid repetitiveness of the latter. The whole thing is just enough cheeky, absurd fun that you can forgive its more familiar moments and logical failings, at least until the letdown of an ending.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Fault with The Fault in Our Stars


            When I set out to read John Green’s runaway bestselling YA novel The Fault in Our Stars last year, I fully expected to adore it. I wanted to adore it. Star-crossed romance? Female protagonist? Teen fiction that actually takes its audience seriously? Glowing critical reviews that included phrases like “heartbreaking”, “brutally honest” and “tough, touching valentine to the human spirit”? It sounded right up my alley, the kind of book I’d fall in love with in a heartbeat.

            For the first few pages, it seemed promising. I enjoyed narrator Hazel Grace Lancaster’s droll tone, her scathing indictment of the weekly support group she attends to appease her mother; it’s like something from J.D. Salinger or Chuck Palahnuik – wordy, clever and cynical, even malicious, but authentically so. As it turned out, though, that was the highlight of the novel. I first felt my spirits sink when Augustus Waters appeared on the scene and Hazel observed, without a hint of irony, that “He was hot.” Not “handsome” or even the slightly more-tolerable “cute”, but hot. What’s more, the description doesn’t go any more in-depth than that, so we have to just take for granted that Augustus is as breathtakingly attractive as Hazel claims. This was probably supposed to be endearing, a reminder that although she’s diagnosed with a terminal illness, Hazel is still a regular person just like you. But for me, it was off-putting and patronizing, a grown man’s lame attempt at impersonating a stereotypical teenage girl.

            Then came the cigarette “metaphor”, which I still can’t think about without rolling my eyes because it makes no freaking sense (a metaphor is a comparison; it’s basic English, dude). And Augustus’s habit of calling Hazel “Hazel Grace”. And Hazel’s favorite book, a made-up novel called An Imperial Affliction that ends in mid-sentence for vague, profound reasons. And the dialogue loaded with periodic all-caps and words like “existentially fraught free throws” that have no business being placed in consecutive order.  And the trip to Amsterdam that culminates with Hazel and Augustus kissing in the Anne Frank house to the applause of their fellow visitors, a moment that’s supposed to be romantic and triumphant but really just comes off as manipulative and insensitive. And the scene where Hazel helps vandalize the car of a girl she’s never talked to or even met because obviously, Monica must be a heartless bitch for dumping Isaac and it can’t possibly matter what her side of the story is. And the part when Peter Van Houten inexplicably shows up in Hazel’s car and we’re not supposed to find it creepy as hell because he reveals some tragic backstory that explains his asshole behavior, except it just makes him seem more pathetic than before and I don’t even care in the first place.

            All in all, it was a colossal disappointment. There were occasional moments that I found genuinely touching, like when Hazel cringes at the painfully insincere condolence messages left behind for a deceased cancer patient, or Augustus’s sweeping declaration of his love for Hazel (Titanic and Casablanca are two of my favorite movies ever, so I have nothing against grand romantic gestures), but those were far outnumbered by the times I had to resist shutting the book out of exasperation. Still, for a while, I put off writing about it. I’ve been trying my damnedest not to be one of those narrow-minded snobs who reflexively dismisses anything aimed at teenage girls, and it’s not like I consider myself superior or more discerning for defying popular opinion; if anything, I envy the novel’s fans, since there are few things as rewarding as literature that burrows into your soul and makes you feel like a somehow wiser, fuller person.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Belle Makes Gentle Case for Storytelling Diversity


        It’s easy to imagine a different version of Belle. Told through the eyes of Tom Wilkinson’s William Murray, the 1st Earl of Mansfield and great-uncle of the titular character, or the idealistic lawyer played by Sam Reid who falls in love with her, this alternate version positions Dido Belle Lindsay, the illegitimate daughter of a British Royal Navy officer and an African slave, as a prominent but still secondary character. Her nobility and courage inspires the people around her to overcome their prejudices and become more tolerant, showing them that people of color can be worthy of their respect. Like the actual film, this hypothetical one climaxes with Murray delivering his verdict for the famous Zong massacre insurance case, except here, his rousing speech demonstrates that he’s no longer racist, that he’s now so not racist that he’ll rule against the slave trade establishment that was so integral to 18th-century England’s economy. Characters weep tears of joy and pride, and audiences cheer, because look at that, people can change for the better, and haven’t we come so far from those days?

        Luckily, thanks to director Amma Asante and writer Misan Sagay (both of whom are black women, a true rarity for a semi-mainstream movie), that isn’t the Belle we got. To be sure, it has a feel-good buoyancy that puts it closer tonally to a frothy romantic comedy than the somber gravitas of Great Movies like, say, 12 Years a Slave, and it doesn’t upend the tropes of the costume dramas in whose footsteps it follows so much as it puts them in a new light. Yet, this film still illustrates just how much those in charge of a movie’s production influence the way a particular story is told and how something as deceptively simple as a point-of-view shift can make what would otherwise feel clichéd seem interesting again.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

At Last, a Superhero We Recognize


             For the sake of transparency, I’m not going to write this review under any pretense of objectivity. As I’ve made abundantly (and probably obnoxiously) evident on this blog, I have major issues with Marvel and superhero movies in general, and I had a lot of expectations riding on Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the second feature film centered on the star-spangled super-soldier. In a far-fetched way, I was in a similar position to the resurrected Steve Rogers: disillusioned and clinging to some delicate shred of hope that the future just might be brighter than the present gives us reason to believe. This movie would either restore my faith in Hollywood blockbusters or completely ruin my desire to ever pay for another superhero blockbuster.

             At first, it didn’t look promising. I could actually feel my heart sinking as Captain America and his fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, including the enigmatic ex-Soviet spy Black Widow, boarded a ship to rescue hostages from Algerian pirates for an extended action sequence with no immediate purpose in terms of the overarching narrative. It turned out that the scene wasn’t superfluous, but its function only became apparent much later in the movie; as an opening set-piece, it was less than enthralling, plunging viewers into a situation without allowing them to get thoroughly (re)acquainted with the characters beforehand or informing them of the stakes involved, of why they should care. Not helping was the awkward humor, which lacked the sardonic zip we’ve come to expect from even the more subpar entries in the Avengers mega-franchise.

             Just as I started to resign myself to yet another should’ve-been-better Marvel offering, something suddenly clicked. I can’t pinpoint the precise moment my mood shifted from disappointed to thrilled, but it must have been sometime around when Robert Redford entered the picture, sporting a stark gray suit and old-fashioned spectacles as menacing S.H.I.E.L.D. official Alexander Pierce. It’s widely agreed that villains are something of a weak point for Marvel, yet even as an outspoken critic of the studio, I think that shortcoming might be overstated. After all, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is by far the closest any other superhero antagonist has come to matching the intoxicating, compulsively watchable allure of Heath Ledger’s Joker, and even lesser baddies such as Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian have been elevated by forceful performances. Pierce belongs closer to the latter group. His motives and background are rather hazy, his diabolical scheme not quite holding up to close scrutiny, yet thanks to Redford, it hardly matters. With his weathered face and steely gaze, the veteran performer brings a welcome gravitas to the largely fanciful proceedings, unexpectedly resisting the impulse to chew scenery in favor of a restrained, almost world-weary iciness.