Thursday, March 27, 2014

Love: Muppets Most Wanted

I've tried to convince myself otherwise, but I was definitely disappointed by that last Muppets film.  As thrilled as I'd been to support the reentry of all those pigs and frogs and bears and chickens and things into franchised-pop cultural relevancy, I didn't care about Walter the "new" Muppet, or Jason Segel, or Amy Adams, or anything that detracted from the pure enjoyment of muppets being muppets doing metafictional muppet things.  So, I'd hoped for another sequel, but didn't let myself get too excited for Muppets Most Wanted.  As Dr. Honeydew notes on screen during an ebullient song and dance called "We're Doing a Sequel" minutes into the movie, Most Wanted is actually the seventh sequel to follow the original Muppet Movie, and of the contemporary Muppet outings, it's something of a return to comedic form.  If the last film wore its heart on its sleeve or felt too broadly slapstick, this sequel is far more interested in putting on a real show.  Segel and Adams are cast out and replaced with Tina Fey and Ricky Gervais, and with those two as human support the humor finds a stronger balance between the kid-friendly gags and pointed adult wit.
Of course, the difference between this sequel and the last is something of the difference between the Muppet clan themselves.  If you've floated around the internet long enough, you've perhaps stumbled into a  particular way of talking about personality types via the straight-line division of our puppeted friends. All Muppets are either chaos or order Muppets.  Order Muppets, like Kermit and Scooter, have to keep the show together and tend to be a bit neurotic and reflective.  Chaos Muppets, like Animal or Gonzo, keep things out of control, absurd, and shake up the contents of any given situation.  Jason Segel's The Muppets was an Order Muppet movie centered on necessary deadlines, feel good nostalgia, and belonging.  Muppets Most Wanted is a Chaos Muppet movie: it runs where it wants, when it wants, will take a train across an ocean (as one does), throw Kermit in a Siberian gulag, and allow things to spiral out of control for the sake of a good punchline.  The jokes start from minute one and continue through an endless stream of references and puns and slapstick and subtle innuendo until the credits roll (and then some).  The songs are clever, upbeat, not hellbent on self-reflection, and the story itself is a mash-up of old school, golden age material.  It's Muppets Take Manhattan mixed with The Great Muppet Caper plus a dash of the original Muppet Show.  Most importantly, though, the Muppet screentime hierarchy has been restored: Walter has been shoved to the back as a milquetoast voice of reason (a lesser Scooter), and the rest of the gang had me in fits of actual, stupid-sounding giggles. Yeah. Like. Giggles. I know.  
Though it's certainly not classifiable as a great work of cinema, or even particularly unique (considering how much it cribs from and comments on its own history), Muppets Most Wanted is a delightful little film that Muppet fans should find themselves falling in love with.  As the gang sets off on a European tour at the behest of the their obviously no-good new manager Dominic Badguy (Gervais), we're whisked off on a whirlwind adventure that find good-old Kermit organizing prison musical numbers in a Gulag while his dead ringer, Constantine: the "most dangerous frog in the world" feigns his accent, pulls off museum heists, and leads the Muppet crew quickly into disorder.  Constantine is a solid addition, a great villain, and the source of a tremendous amount of the film's humor.  If one Kermit is great, a second one with a squishy face and an inability to master Kermit's speech pattern is even better. Granted, Constantine's presence is one that forces the Muppets to move in a mad-cap zig-zag away from some of the more heartfelt qualities of the last film, and for many that means Most Wanted won't resonate in quite the same way.  Fans of the more chaotic Muppet adventures, though, should find this eminently watchable.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Like: Divergent

Divergent's biggest critical problem is that it's yet another teen-oriented dystopian franchise. This is, of course, also its greatest marketable strength and the reason why the series will succeed.  If you read a lot, I suppose, the critical problem seems all the more weighted.  The young adult market is flooded with like-minded adventure trilogies all boasting an easily adaptable prose style and near-future dystopian plots. There's little variation here, though some accomplish their goals more convincingly than others.  Usually, though, there's a brave girl tasked facing societal oppression in the form of one of the following: extreme poverty, governmental brainwashing, no access to education, the inability to be with the one she loves.  Our heroine fights the system, loved ones are lost, but the greater goal is freedom.  I'm all for the dystopian novel as a trend, and the shift from Twilight's passive Bella to strong female characters like Katniss Everdeen certainly can't be written off as a bad thing by any means.  Dystopias are always allegorical, and the YA-slanted material dealing with the subject allows for an escapist entertainment that feels richer, smarter, and more important than so many event films.  Yet, when you add that weight to a repeated form, the results can tip an avid pop cultural consumer towards exhaustion. On the heels of a dystopia-heavy couple of years, Divergent feels like the start of a downward trajectory.  No matter how good the results are, the story is starting to feel repeated and tiresome.  
When I read Divergent a couple years back I did so in part out of curiosity. I wanted to see what a dystopian-version of my city looked like and, more so, I wanted to judge the chops of the Northwestern student (Veronica Roth) responsible for writing the series. As the trilogy unfolded, I didn't keep reading.  Perhaps one day I will, but at the time it didn't seem necessary. I'd seen step one, and I could imagine exactly how the process would need to play out. I suspect those watching the movie will feel a similar creeping familiarity.  The names have been changed, the organizational structure has been re-shuffled, but the goals remain the same.  In Divergent we follow Tris (Shailene Woodley) in the moments leading to her induction into a faction.  In her world, civilization is rooted in a post-apocalyptic Chicago surrounded, on all sides, by a large fence.  The people within the city limits have been divided into five factions based, essentially, on their predisposition: abnegation, candor, erudite, dauntless, and amity.  If you know your SAT words, you know the basic gist of each faction.  Abnegation, as they practice a staunch self-denial, have taken up the role of governmental civil servants within their society, and this is where Tris's family has its roots.  Tris, though, desperately wants to join the brave, rollicking Dauntless faction.  When her aptitude tests results yield uncommon, dangerous results, she finds herself separated from her family and striving to prove herself as a Dauntless initiate.  If she doesn't toughen up fast, she could wind up among the factionless; not a good place to be.  Much of the first film pivots around her initial training, and it's through this lens that we begin to understand some of the larger conflicts within the novel/film's politics.  Tris is understood to be 'divergent', a label that suggests she's capable of multiple types of intelligences and therefore a risk to the faction system.
Though the film seems to want to say something about the basic components of being effectively and truly human (that we should be many things and understand many things instead of pigeon-holing ourselves), in its structure there are a few confusing messages being sent.  Intelligence is associated too closely with manipulation where something like reckless athleticism, for example, is often held up for admiration.  More to the point, though, are the ways the cinematic form highlights the way it may be impossible for anyone not to be cast out as divergent in this social structure.  When everyone starts to seem as complicated as the heroine, you have to start to wonder how a system based on dominant predisposition works in the first place.  I write this even as I know that that's over-thinking the story as a whole.  The book, the film, both are best enjoyed with a giant bucket of popcorn and a suspension of disbelief.  In that context, Divergent gets its fair share of things perfectly right.  Shailene Woodley excels at playing "real" girls, and though the world Tris exists in is anything but, Woodley allows us to imagine something like normalcy.  Her fellow Dauntless recruits, too, are refreshingly normal by Hollywood standards, and there's a chemistry that comes through even in their bantering that reads as relatively authentic to a group of kids under this sort of extreme pressure.  Though none of them quite stand out in the way Jennifer Lawrence does as Katniss, everything in Divergent contributes to a sense of solidity and purpose. It builds and builds and goes through the right motions in the right order.  In that respect, it's a decent work of teen sci-fi and worth the watch.  The question is, though, not whether or not the movie is good, but really whether or not you're up for another story of its kind.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Love: The Grand Budapest Hotel

What do we talk about when we talk about Wes Anderson?  We talk about the construction of elaborate dollhouses. We talk about intricately designed spaces, heavy stylization, and the symmetry and repetition of shots.  We talk about typography. We talk about what it means to call something twee.  We talk about indulgence. We talk about how we figure nostalgia or what constitutes whimsy. We talk about Bill Murray.  We talk about dialogue made natural only by its placement.  Often times, we talk about how Wes Anderson's world intersects with our own.  We are told that we should love him or we are told that we should grow out of him.  That the thing he does is a thing that's over. That it's reached the point of self-parody. At least...this is my experience of talking about Wes Anderson.  With each passing film the crowds seem to separate further.  There are the Wes Anderson fans and the Wes Anderson detractors. There are very few, it seems, in the realm of the cinephiliacs who can let their opinions go unspoken.  I am firmly in the fan camp.

Wes Anderson, for me, has become a stylistic signifier. He's a man, yes.  He's a human, it's true. Perhaps, though, you know what I mean when I say that some people, some artists, exist more as ideas in our individual consciousness than as flesh.  When I think of Wes Anderson I think of a world that is our world, but remapped according to a precise set specifications. It's not a better world, it's just a more organized one.  What I'm saying here can be translated like so: when I go to watch a new Wes Anderson movie, there are frameworks and devices that I not only expect, but actively hope to see.  Part of the marvel of what Wes Anderson does come from the way his stories stem from a seemingly self-imposed set of constraints.  The question is not how different he can make the world or reinvent it, but instead how many stories he can pull from it, how many mediums or genres it allows for, and how the world can be formally manipulated without shattering the illusion of that world.  With The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson is testing the limits of that created world. He's seeing how much he can bring in from the outside, from the worlds of others, while still maintaining the delicate balance.    
Consequently, the questions in Grand Budapest seem different. If Moonrise Kingdom was a live-action storybook in the way that Fantastic Mr. Fox was not, Grand Budapest is a live-action version of a cartoon Wes Anderson never bothered to make.  There's something madcap about it, something zany, too fun, and disinterested in following the usual laws of the universe.  It wants to know how much violence it can get away with without disrupting the humor.  It wants to know how many characters it can introduce before the narrative dissolves.  It wants to create a protagonist, de-center the protagonist, tell you the protagonist is someone else, and then construct a new world around them.  On that same thread, it wants to know how many temporal frames it can create and get away with.  This is the most curious aspect of The Grand Budapest Hotel.  The film opens with the introduction of a girl leaving a hotel key on a statue, then, it jumps to a video recorded by the figure the statue honors, then it jumps further back in his own history to a moment he was told a story, then, it jumps to the story itself. 

It's in the final framework that we find what we would conventionally refer to as the film's "plot":  Zero (Tony Revolori), a young lobby boy, finds himself being trained by the hotel's curiously charismatic concierge, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes).  Gustave is beloved by the guests, including a large population of elderly divorcees he tends to, let's say, quite attentively.  When one of those guests leaves a priceless painting to Gustave, he finds himself embroiled in a particularly explosive family drama.  The widow's devilish son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody), swears revenge on Gustave and a miniature battle breaks out against the backdrop of a fictional country on the brink of all-out war.  This time, Anderson's dollhouse constructing has extended beyond families or small islands, it involves the creation of an entire country, of armies, of mountain ranges, funiculars, airy old resorts and long histories of storytelling.  He sets the story against a backdrop at once immediately recognizable and yet completely foreign. The conflicts leading up to what would be WWII and occupation are miniaturized and transformed.  There are fascists at the gates, fascists in the newspapers, fascists occupying the hotel. They are called Zig-Zags (with ZZs on their uniforms) and clearly a childlike approximation of Nazis, but they go largely unused in any way that could be considered conventional.  Instead, the enemies at the gate seem present as necessary components of a grand adventure.  Though the soldiers do little to aggravate the situation themselves, their presence contextualizes the film's mood swings.  There's a tension lurking just beneath the surface of every joke. It's a tension spawned from posturing, from negative potential, and, from the constant possibility of sudden, terrible violence.  When we know what could happen, the loss of a few fingers or the finding of a head in a basket can, in context, stand as a macabre punchline.  
Grand Budapest makes moves like this, and, what's more impressive is that it manages to land them.  The reason for this stems from something like a palpable confidence in the filmmaking.  Though the steps the film takes are consistently risky from a narratological standpoint as well as, occasionally, from a stylistic one, the movie never falters.  We glide effortlessly between the timelines and frames, we run from place to place, from adventure to adventure, from improbability to improbability, from sight gag, from quip.  Throughout, the film is curiously effortless. It adjusts to make room for the inconsistencies in a way that's delightfully irreverent, and there are moments in which Wes Anderson seems to be raising a big fat middle finger to any critics who claim you can't make a film that's all style and no substance.  As exemplified by the "Nazi" presence, Anderson seems to be setting up substantive potentials left and right and then careening around them (or knocking them down) as if to say, look: those things aren't what a story has to be, those things aren't even what an important story has to be.  Some may call the result a type of candy or rich dessert, and it certainly lends itself to those readings.  Grand Budapest wants to be fun, clearly, and succeeds on all counts.  Letting it off there, though, is too easy.
This is a step in the idea of Wes Anderson, and one that embraces the things we talk about when we talk about the director as much as it complicates them.  It's the first of his films in a long while that seems to be dabbling quite excessively outside of his own milieu and drawing outside materials into the world. There are moments, for example, when scenes will feel like an addendum to what Inglorious Basterds could have been if it never left the play-acted moments of the basement bar. There are other moments, too, when we run through scenes like we're on a Buster Keaton tear. More than either of those things, though, it's gloriously screwball.  The influence of Lubitsch and Sturges (to some extent, Renoir) are palpable, and the film is shot as if in collaboration with Powell and Pressburger.  The constructed vistas offer a new kind of dollhouse for the director, and the tight full-screen framing creates a picture window through the film and to an imagined past. The film is engaged in constant acts of creation and destruction. It gives us the things we want from a Wes Anderson film at the same time as it subverts our expectations, questions how we tell a story (or, more particularly: how we tell a Wes Anderson story), and exploits our Andersonian desire for order.  It's wickedly smart even when at its most broadly comedic, and that is what's sneakiest about the whole damn thing.  Just when you think you've got it figured out, when you think you're just there to enjoy another in a line of Wes Anderson films, when you think it's not trying to start a revolution, it goes and does the thing that throws that comfort into question. But, you know, pleasantly. And with a hearty dousing of panache.  

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Oscar 2014 Liveblog

In a last minute decision, we decide to do this again.  We open up Photoshop, we use the royal we, we quickly piece together a deeply corporate looking signifier for such a momentous occasion.  We realize that we have expressed very few opinions on this year's awards season, that we have been largely silent.  We are here to change that.  We have too much work we should be doing to do this, but we're doing it anyway.  Because it is tradition now. Because we must engage.  If you care enough to follow, updates will come here and Twitter (you should be following @LoveSqualorBlog).  The royal we will crawl all over social media with everyone else. This is our Superbowl. We are ready for some football...

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