Tuesday, January 13, 2015
There's a beautiful simplicity at work in the narrative of Boyhood, a mature, confident sense of storytelling, though the story being told is hardly simple. The narrative moves through twelve years fluidly, seamlessly. And it's honest, so honest that it understands the way sons and fathers and mothers and daughters often communicate peripherally with each other, both hearing and not hearing. When Mason Jr. remarks to his father that a little more patience on his mother's part might have saved him from a parade of drunks, the moment is both great and small, so great it holds the key to understanding everything Mason Jr. yearned for as a boy, so small Mason Sr. misses it in a swig of beer. This is just one of the marvelous contradictions that the narrative embraces about people's lives. Olivia wants to make a family, but she cannot pick good men (she doesn't need them, a lesson she fails to learn until after husband two; she is a teacher who lectures on conditioned responses, yet her own responses are as conditioned by society's short-sighted notions about the typical family structure as anyone else's). Mason Jr. wants to be in the moment, to experience life apart from the parameters that society sets (there's a funny scene where the absurdity of Facebook and our Pavlovian responses to it feels less like a lecture than another of the movie's marvelous, simple, and honest contradictions). Mason Sr. is the wayward boy who finds his way late in life, a musician who ultimately takes a job with an insurance company; yet this is not a sacrifice, as he finds expression for his music through his family. Family saves us and condemns us, the narrative affirms, time and time again. A mother rescues her children from a drunk. A mother marries another drunk. A father takes his children to the park. A father cannot be a grown-up. Central to the narrative, also, is the notion of life as a cyclical force, one that wheels forward through time and always comes back round upon itself. At the movie's end, Mason Jr. has come to the sunset of one such cycle and stands upon the precipice of another, and all around him are the desert, the rocks, the river worn and moved by time. And present in this moment that has surely seized them: a boy and a girl, who seem poised to start the cycle anew. Smiling at each other peripherally. Communicating the way we do, in a moment both great and small. And honest.
Written and directed by Richard Linklater
Sunday, September 21, 2014
Some movies hit at just the right moment. Tim Burton's Batman came along the summer I turned eleven. That's the age, I'd argue, for girls or boys, when the heart's a-yearning for a grand fantasy. Some of us were lucky enough to be eleven when the world was offering just such a fantasy. For me, Batman was the catalyst that awoke a movie-lover's soul. It also introduced me to the world of fandom (which I would now say is more or less a clever disguise for a marketing demographic): I bought lobby cards, comic books, a novelization of the script, posters, action figures, rubber masks, rubber gauntlets. I had the breakfast cereal. The Batwing. The Batmobile. I asked Mom to order a copy of the Warner Bros. catalogue and checked off three pages of merchandise for Christmas that year. Pins. Playing cards. Even a laugh-box. She made me a homemade costume out of a gray sweatsuit, black fabric, and cardboard (for the ears). Like every other eleven-year-old boy in America, I was swept along by the rising tide of "Batmania," and, in many ways, this would be the beginning of the rest of my life.
Sunday, June 15, 2014
In addition to being terribly written at almost every turn, Maleficent is an ill-conceived project. Re-imaginings don't have free reign to violate the ground rules established by the source material; Disney's 1959 film, Sleeping Beauty, establishes that Maleficent is evil. It begs no question as to why she's evil, but if we assume that the leaping-off point for Linda Woolverton's 2014 script is that question, we're still on solid enough footing. The trailers seemed to suggest a story along those lines, i.e. an origin tale. But it seems Angelina Jolie and Linda Woolverton want us to walk out thinking their Maleficent is a big spectacle movie about regaining one's femininity after horrible abuse. It is certainly that (if you accept the film's definition of "feminine"), but that's not the story at the heart of an iconic character like Maleficent. She is, like it or not, folks, a Disney villain, and villains have certain reputations to uphold in Disney properties, namely being villainous. And so Maleficent, not at all that villainous or frightening (whoops), is, first and foremost, a miscalculated re-imagining. Its aims are smaller than tragedy, which might have been the best, grandest, and most sympathetic re-imagining of the character.
The movie's worst offense, by far, is its misguided attempt to make some kind of post-feminist statement about maternity and femininity; unfortunately, it ultimately suggests that the only valid woman is a woman adept at handling babies. In this, it's flat-out anti-feminist and reductive, though it thinks it's something else entirely. The proof of this is in its treatment of the three fairies who take Aurora into the woods to raise her. Their depiction here is deplorable; each is a terrible caricature of the big three sins a woman can commit: being old, being dumb, and being pretty. If the screenwriter actually subverted these stereotypes and made them effective characters, that would be something, but she doesn't. As written, they're stupid and offensive. What purpose their mistreatment by the writer serves I can't fathom. In Sleeping Beauty, these three are, arguably, the heroines of the tale, saving the princess from Maleficent's designs. Here, they're responsible for nothing but cheap laughs (and they're not the least bit funny, as they're not the least bit true to any portrait of real women; if Maleficent deserves our respect as a woman-fairy, why don't they?).
The men in the film are almost all just as offensively monstrous or stupid, even more so when you consider that the king, Stefan, was known as "Good King Stefan" in the source material. In his character, perhaps, the screenwriter's offense is greatest: the "rape" of Maleficent is handled with such fetishistic nastiness (a chain!) that it feels horribly out of place in a Disney film. It's jarring, and while jarring is sometimes a prized effect, it only serves to remind us, here, in the most inelegant fashion, that men are selfish bastards. Only the crow, Diaval, Maleficent's servant, seems to have a conscience, to know the right thing to do, and what is his reward, as a man? He spends the entire movie enslaved by the title character (an act for which she is never called to account). In the end, Maleficent forces him to assume the form of a dragon in order to save herself, using him as a kind of male shield against the soldiers' spears and chains. This is how she treats the one male character who's been more than generous to her throughout the film. Is this suggesting that it's perfectly acceptable to manipulate men, if one's motives are selfish enough? What, also, is the death of King Stefan meant to satisfy? Maleficent, at least, doesn't kill him, but she doesn't save him either. So men deserve what they get? And Aurora's just okay with this?
Do you know the term "misandrist"? I had to look it up. My Google search went something like this: "opposite of chauvinist." Of course, we all know what a chauvinist is: it's when a man hates and mistreats women because he's a stupid male asshole. But what do we call it when women hate men? It's not a term very many of us are familiar with, and for good reason: men have, traditionally, been the ones in power, and it's not a common conversation that starts with, "Boy, men are so oppressed!" Still, this doesn't mean all men are natural impediments to women, but I think, ultimately, this is the narrow-minded point of view of Maleficent.
Bringing it back to the idea of this as a re-imagining of the source material: who is this movie for? If you're a fan of the original animated Sleeping Beauty, it's going to disappoint you profoundly. If you're a young boy, you're going to have a hard time finding any character you can identify with, unless you're a burgeoning psychopath. If you're a young girl, well, you may wonder why this feels nothing like any other Disney movie you've ever seen, and I do hope, sincerely, that someone makes a strong argument on the film's behalf and delineates, very clearly, just what's happening with that chain and potion. Or maybe you get that on every level it's meant to be gotten. But what I'm trying to say here is that Maleficent is far too clunky, as written, too unwieldy, to shoulder such heavy burdens as these. Its ambition exceeds its grasp, and its grasp is painfully weak. It eschews beauty and timelessness for complexity and timeliness, and in doing so collapses under its own dismal weight.
Written by Linda Woolverton
Directed by Robert Stromberg
Sunday, March 23, 2014
Lars Von Trier's last two movies have been humorless affairs, but in Nymphomaniac he seems to have discovered a more playful side of himself, a way to grapple with Serious Ideas while, occasionally, smiling or even laughing. Americans tend to accept graphic violence in films without much protest (sometimes even get all feverish for it, a la Passion of the Christ), but graphic sex? That's a no-no (and a whole other conversation). Which is why it amuses me that Nymphomaniac is populated with famous American actors (some used to great effect, others to less effect). This is, in other words, the movie's best joke. And, of course, there's Von Trier's
Written and directed by Lars Von Trier
Monday, March 17, 2014
Despite what 99% of fans may think, Veronica Mars (2004-2007) had the perfect ending. Thomas crafted a nice noir finish by having Veronica walk away in the rain, having cast her vote for a compromised father. It ended with the heart of the show intact, the relationship between father and daughter. For this, the show's assertion that fathers can be good, as well as bad, I always thought Veronica Mars was top-notch. Because sometimes girls deserve a better hero than Buffy Summers, and Rob Thomas gave her to them. That said, the 2014 movie is a disappointment. It recycles the Logan-is-a-killer plot from season 2, tacks on a clumsy opening prologue to explain who Veronica is (as if anyone who doesn't know would actually wander into one of the 272 theaters screening it; there were Kickstarters present in the showing we went to on a Saturday afternoon in Morrow, Georgia), and it forgets the heart of the series by sidelining Keith Mars to a hospital bed and then creating no dramatic tension from this. Add to these sins a mystery that involves little jeopardy for its heroine and a minimal amount of sleuthing before the villain spills all in an overlong monologue, and the script adds up to lazy and poorly thought out. Of course, all the old faces are here, and yeah, they make us smile and feel nostalgic, but nostalgia is a lie, and that's the movie's ultimate failing: it doesn't seem to realize this. It's an odd misfire. I hate to say it, but maybe it's the price you pay for Kickstarting movies with fan money; you end up bowing to the lesser, more soapish elements (Team Logan or Team Piz?) and forget to tell the story that really matters. Also, as much as I love Kristen Bell, the Kristen Bell I see here is only Veronica Mars in fits and starts. The movie's greatest misstep, it turns out, is failing to understand what happens when you move on from high school, when you grow up. You don't go back. Veronica makes wrong choices in this film. She did that in the series, too, but the series understood those choices were wrong, even when she didn't. Her ultimate choice here, to remain in Neptune as Logan's sometimes squeeze, I don't think Thomas realizes how unsatisfying that really is.
Written by Rob Thomas and Dianne Ruggiero
Directed by Rob Thomas
Sunday, February 09, 2014
Every now and then, a movie comes along that critics and the American movie-going public seem to agree upon. Everyone likes it, everyone thinks it's swell, and no one's too quick to offer much in the way of a thoughtful opinion about the ideas at work. I don't want to be the nay-sayer on this one, as I, admittedly, loved about 80% of what I saw. The humor is spot-on, the performances fantastic, and the animation is beyond belief.
That said, I have to point out two tiny, teensy, itty-bitty, minor, insignificant little tenants of good storytelling: 1) stories have to operate according to the internal logic they establish, and 2) stories must be honest in order to ring true. (And before I get started, don't say, hey, monkey, wait a minute, aren't you forgetting, it's a kids' movie! The target audience may be children, but it wasn't made by children − though, if you believe later plot developments, an eleven-year-old would make a great Hollywood director of tentpole feature animation projects; besides, who says kids' movies get a pass on good storytelling?).
Regarding logic, a story's internal logic must be established, generally, from the outset and followed in order for the story to be effective and coherent. Take Toy Story, for example. In that movie, we know, right away, that toys can walk and talk − but only when humans are absent. This basic rule, once established in the first five minutes of the movie, is obeyed throughout by the storytellers, and the result is a series of escalating crises that keep us, the audience, emotionally involved in the story. Now, this doesn't mean a movie can't break its own rules, but the rule-breakage has to be earned and honest. Again, in Toy Story, when the toys finally do reveal their agency to a human, it's to scare the bejeezus out of him, which, let's face it, is what would really happen if your toys started talking (see item 2 above: honesty).
Near the end of The Lego Movie's second act, we learn that "The Man Upstairs" is actually a disappointing dad, a live-action Will Ferrell obsessed with ordering his world, gluing it together, and daring anyone − including his son − to touch it. Until this point, of course, we've simply bought into the premise that our favorite Lego pieces are walking and talking and living in a fully established Lego world that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with reality. I was on board for that, but the odd attempt at merging the Lego World and the real world is jarring. Why? Because the movie did not, from the very beginning, establish any basic internal logic about the co-existence of these two worlds. And, regarding the honesty of this sub-plot, well, it's pap. I don't believe the resolution for a second. Because any man weird enough to super-glue his Legos together wouldn't see the error of his ways so quickly and hug his boy and say he's sorry. No, he'd probably yell at the kid and then crack the kid upside the head, and then the boy's mother would take her son and go to her mother's and call a lawyer and file for divorce. This, weirdly, would have been a more honest route for the storytellers to take; they were the ones, after all, who decided to introduce the notion of a disappointing, overbearing father but then didn't take it seriously. Judging from what I've read in praise of the film from critics and movie-goers alike, not very many people did.
All that said, let me reiterate my praise from above: humor was awesome, voice-cast was awesome, animation was awesome, but everything? Everything, unfortunately, was not.
Written and directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
Monday, January 27, 2014
It's not uncommon these days for a series to be extended past eight seasons, but The Office, despite its longevity and its British roots, is, in fact, an uncommon series. My initial dislike of the show's first season stemmed from the fact that it was weirdly slavish to the UK series, which was and still is, I believe, a touchstone in the history of television. About a year or so ago, I watched a few episodes of Season 2 of the US version on Netflix, and while the parallels to what Gervais and Merchant had done remained, I was hooked. Characters were becoming their own people, far removed from Tim and Dawn and the Brent-Meister General. Crystal joined the fun around episode 4. We kept going and found we had a new favorite thing. The show is funny on the order of Arrested Development, which is very funny, but unlike the Bluths, its characters are you and me and every other person in America who's ever held a job they can't quite find joy in. Joy, the show seems to suggest, is something we find in our connections to other people: spouses, coworkers, friends, family. The work we do is, in many ways, incidental. As the series progresses, year after year, it manages to stay fresh and interesting, to weather even the hardest of knocks; when Steve Carrell leaves the show, the characters that sweep in to take Michael's place are large and memorable. And Dwight Schrute, for my money, is one of the great characters in the history of American television, idiotic but never dumb, big-hearted and wise (eventually), his own man by the end, not a lackey. And then there's Pam and Jim. Their love is the great love some of us are lucky enough to see play out in our own lives, but the writers never take that love for granted; they trouble it constantly. In the end, what makes the show great is the accumulated wisdom of near ten years. Andy Bernard, of all people, says it best, in what for me is one of the show's most touching moments: I wish, he says, you could know you were living in the good old days, so you'd know to cherish them that much more.