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.