Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Catch Up: Hail, Caesar!, Zootopia, Batman vs. Superman

Let the catch-up commence with the first of a couple minibursts of loose, overdue thoughts on the movies of months past.  Here we go, fast and furious and all of that stuff:

Hail, Caesar!
In the Coen Brothers' filmography, Hail, Caesar! is a relatively minor work, but one custom made for cinephiles harboring a deep love of Golden Age Hollywood history.  We follow studio fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) through studio backlots, shady deals, and houses in the Hollywood Hills as he works to cover up an ever-mounting pile of would-be scandals and fiscal blows.  Eddie's biggest problem is that the studio's biggest star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) has gone missing - kidnapped? Drunk? - from the set of an over-financed epic.  Along the way, though, we're shown a world of communists, tainted starlets, hired beards, arranged couples, and misplaced actors. Everyone is in their own little closet, everyone has something they're struggling to hide from the gossip columnists pounding at their doors.   The Coens have the skill to compress a decade of Blacklist tensions into one neat little dark comedy, and Hail, Caesar! sparkles with lovingly crafted send-ups of dead American genres and old school superstars.  Channing Tatum's Gene Kelly-esque dance number is a highlight, as is an appropriately star making performance from (soon to be young Han Solo) Alden Ehrenreich.

We shouldn't have been surprised when Zootopia turned out to be one of the rare talking-animals-wearing-clothes-and-cracking-wise movies to actually be good. After all, Disney's animation studio have been in close quarters with Pixar for years now, and have slowly been working towards beating their sister-studio at its own game.  Still, it's surprising just how good this film is.  There's something effortless about the visual inventiveness of the all-animal dystopia crafted here, and the film guides us through a world where we learn just enough to believe the system and never think to question the underlying logic of the social hierarchy established.  We follow a lovable, tiny rabbit named Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) on her quest to become the first-ever bunny cop.  Though it sounds silly on paper, Judy's struggle to establish herself in a field traditionally unfriendly to her kind winds up being the perfect vehicle for a film to tackle - deftly, cleverly, and hilariously -  real world issues of race and gender inequality.  Zootopia is brilliant in every sense of the word: it's inventive, playful, and - don't misjudge it -  bound to be one of the smartest films this year in any genre, for any age group.

Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice
Maybe it's because my expectations were toilet bowl low on this one, but I can't claim to hate Batman vs. Superman as so many seem to.  After the total exhaustion that was Man of Steel's near endless second half, Zack Snyder's return to Metropolis (and arrival in Gotham) felt significantly more balanced and clear-eyed in its vision of how best to put a modernized Superman on the screen.  The overwrought world-saving is noticeably less, and there are gestures towards making the DC Universe both a little more open to the absurdity of its characters and just a little more fun (see: dumb monster, attempts at jokes, Wonder Woman's theme music).  Unfortunately, many of these gestures fall flat in this run and the film feels bloated, unnecessarily grim, and poorly -- particularly in an era dominated by Disney/Marvel's friendly, human heroes.  Too much of the effort here has gone into set pieces and heavy handed world building, not enough attention has gone to making us care about the characters. Snyder and DC are doubling down on weaving origin stories we already know by heart and forcing conflict where we know better.  It's a lot of set-up without much to make us care about the next act, and it's time for Warner Brothers to rethink their approach to this material.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Witch

In some ways,  The Witch suffers from problems similar to those that crippled the box office on Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak last year.  Though touted as the scariest thing to come out of Sundance and hyped – steadily – in cinema circles for the better part of a year, Robert Eggers’ debut feature is less horror film than academic exploration of the formal devices surrounding the idea of what horror is.  I wrote previously about Crimson Peak as a fever dream for anyone with a cultivated interest in the literary gothic. While not pedantic in its approach, that film buried itself into set of tropes and conceits that ran the risk of boring a contemporary audience. It was almost too specific. Glossy and visually appealing, yes, but in a way that seemed to almost demand its viewer follow-up with some extra credit reading.  

The Witch offers a similar kind of specificity, but shirks the Romantic trappings of the Gothic for the plain-clothed Puritans.  It has roots both in dark American literary traditions as well as in historical reenactment.  It’s telling that some of the buzz around Eggers’ film centers not on the horrors of its story, but on the time and energy spent constructing accurate representations of the time period. Eggers had a real working farm built for his characters to reside on, for example, and part of the budget went to hiring a roof thatcher specializing in a specific New England of tradition. Trivial facts like these point to a commitment to something beyond simple visual storytelling.  The Witch is deeper than that, possessed of a real desire to try to make sense of the cultural illogic and fear that gripped the people of that mid-seventeenth century historical moment.  Eggers wants to try to understand, to get to the root of how something could seem plausible or scary instead of simply presenting us with the object itself.  In telling the story of a family slowly torn apart, The Witch tries to recreate the conditions that would allow for irrational fear to trump all else.  In doing so, the film becomes a very smart study of a past moment that allows us to see the way obvious built-in problems, prejudices, and religious restrictions fostered the most hostile of environments.  

Sunday, February 28, 2016

45 Years

45 Years is the story of a marriage in crisis, a film that burns to a final moment of quiet devastation. It is a a domestic drama about secrets and realizations in which revelations arrive as subtly as they tend to in real life, and a creeping dread sets in that never quite comes to a Hollywood fever pitch. Director Andrew Haigh understands that what is happening in this relationship is not something that can be satisfied by an event or by true confrontation.  There are no moments of histrionic overacting, only a kind of stillness that pushes us just to the brink of narrative climax before breaking away, pausing, and leaving the audience haunted by the very ghosts inserting themselves into every scene.  

Thursday, February 25, 2016


While watching Deadpool I was reminded of the scathing one-star review Roger Ebert wrote on Kick-Ass. In it, he decided to shirk "being cool" to call the film "morally reprehensible" -- for him, Kick-Ass was not successful satire. Instead, it was an uncomfortable nightmare in which a bunch of cursing, psychopathic kids engaged in brutal violence played for laughs. I didn't really agree with Ebert's view on that film, but I kinda felt something similar during Deadpool and have to wonder what Ebert would've made of this "other" costumed mercenary's brand of snark and gore.

As comments on the superhero genre repetitions, both Kick-Ass and Deadpool function in relatively similar ways: they up the ante on familiar plots, go for the hard-R, and get shamelessly brutal.  They are positioned differently: these "heroes" don't save the world, they just battle other, possibly bigger assholes. Sure, Deadpool stars adults, but it's hard to watch it without knowing it's paying special fan service to loudmouthed teenage boys. This is an aggressive comedy made up of all spattered brains, dick jokes, shit jokes, and a collage of metafictional, pop culture-driven one-liners designed to make semi-aware dude-bros feel smart when they "get" the reference (see also: Family Guy).

Deadpool is clever about what it does, and in certain ways it might even be brilliant.  Yet, I have to admit that when it comes to crass, violent comic books, I think I found the game more interesting when the point was to see what would happen if real world fan-kids tried to fill the roles of masked vigilantes, disturbing results and all.
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