Wonder Woman

Exactly what it says on the tin

wonderwomanPatty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman joins the very short list of superhero movies whose existence is justified.  It’s a landmark for the genre, but also a refresher course on how to make a decent blockbuster: characters are well-defined despite the focus on plot and action, everyone’s motivations make sense (to a reasonable degree, anyway), the supporting cast is likeable (even lovable), the villains are worthy opponents, and despite the its length, the film is never bloated with unnecessary side material. Best of all, the protagonist is a layered, thinking person who despite her superhuman abilities and “chosen one” status must adapt, learn, doubt, fear, and overcome. Not that the audience ever doubts that she’ll kick the enemies’ asses in the end, but it’s how she gets there that makes the CG-slathered action watchable.

The film centers around Diana (Gal Gadot), child of Amazon Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), who has been raised on a strangely Christian-ified version of Greek Mythology in which God of War Ares takes on a Lucifer role and seeks to eradicate his father’s creations (humans) by manipulating them into killing one another.  In the world outside Themyscira, World War I is raging, so when Diana rescues American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and learns about the years-long conflict with countless millions of casualties, the story seems to check out.  Although she can never return if she leaves, Diana sets out to kill Ares (whom she assumes is the cause of the war, and whose death will instantly end it).  Along the way, she learns to integrate herself into human society (to varying degrees of success) and becomes sharply aware of something she was never taught by the Amazons: nuance.

The film is part action epic, part formula comic-book fare, part period romance, and part fish-out-of-water comedy.  Unlike Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy 2, whose tone doesn’t work because 1) the humor isn’t funny and 2) only some of the characters take the story seriously, Wonder Woman balances its parts rather masterfully, and it’s clear that a lot of care went into its pacing and characterization.  We go from ancient immortal god-women on horses (including Robin Wright as Antiope, the greatest warrior in history) to the gritty, crapsack WWI era, where women are secretaries (or “slaves,” as Diana would argue), and the transition is seamless.  Pine’s character is likeable, and although he seems to consider himself special, he’s not arrogant enough to think he, rather than Diana, should be the hero simply based on gender. On top of that, even though the romantic connection between the duo is an inevitable part of the formula, it’s not all that bad because Pine plays Trevor as a nuanced person (not just a super-spy) who actually respects Diana in addition to being physically attracted to her, and is more than willing to follow her into battle when she takes the lead.

The supporting cast is well-utilized and genuinely worth spending time with. The classic ragtag band of good-hearted scoundrels includes Saïd Taghmaoui as secret agent Sameer, Ewan Bremner as Charlie, a Scottish sniper with PTSD, and Eugene Brave Rock as “Chief,” a Native trader who is none too shy about giving Diana an education about what hostile takeovers by one people over another actually look like.  On the enemy side, Danny Huston takes mostly-center-stage as a fictionalized version of real-life German general Erich Ludendorff, a sort of wannabe supervillain who obviously isn’t Ares. He and Doctor Isabel Maru (Elena Anaya), aka “Doctor Poison” (now there’s a supervillain name) form the Big Bad Duumvirate that the good guys must content with until the true nature of Ares is revealed, and despite its predictability, it pays off well. Admirably, none of the characters, hero or villain, are wasted or dismissively killed off for a laugh.  In fact, Diana’s decision to spare a certain character shows a real maturity on the part of the filmmakers (and by extent, the character).

Spoilers in this part. Gal Gadot’s performance is really something, because she’s not relying on audience expectation in order to sell herself as a hero. Here’s an actress who understands Diana in and out, put real effort (read: nearly twenty pounds of muscle) into transforming into the character, and whose real-life combat expertise (Israeli military) lends the fight scenes a realism and urgency that most other superhero movies cannot boast (although we do get some of the DBZ-style “characters shooting colored beams at each other from a distance” stuff when Diana’s badass final adversary is revealed).  Diana, in sum, is a rare and incredible find in a genre that throws the word “hero” around way too loosely, and while I wasn’t paying attention to Gadot’s work before this, I now can’t think of anyone else more worthy of the role.

Among the film’s pitfalls are the erasing of Diana’s bisexuality (though her intimate scene with Trevor more than implies that this isn’t her “first” anything), and the film as a whole could certainly be more intersectional (where are all of the Black soldiers and American/European citizens?), but it’s a decent rough draft of what is (hopefully) to come.

wonder_woman_282017_film29Wonder Woman (2017); written by Allan Heinberg; directed by Patty Jenkins; starring Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, David Thewlis, and Robin Wright.

 

 

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

A woman has never handled my Herschel

pirates-5-carinaPirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is sort of like dessert at a busy restaurant on Valentine’s Day: it feels like it took way too long to get here, and no matter how excited you were about it, it just couldn’t be that good.  As a person obsessed with maritime history, folk music from the sea, and pirate stories (having even made my own pirate movie since the last PotC was released), I got myself pretty worked up about this film.  Sure, I thought, it’s going to be silly, full of anachronisms and unnecessary supernatural stuff, and diluted beyond recognition by the legioned Disney mooks working on it, but hell if that Johnny Cash trailer didn’t get me pumped.

The film takes place more than a decade after the much better end of the series, At World’s End (at which point the series already felt exhausted), with new protagonist Henry Turner (Brendon Thwaites), son of Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), attempting to break his father’s curse (the thing that requires him to sail the depths of the ocean and do…something). The deuteragonist is Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), an astronomer who is accused of being a “witch” (because she’s a woman who knows things and doesn’t conform to the standards of – wait, where are we? 1700s still?  Early 18?).  Carina is a more interesting character than Henry, in part because her personal story is honest about the institutionalized sexism of the period, which only the original film really touched on, and even then, only in terms of corset jokes, rather than showing a woman about to be executed for being a scientist.

As they must, the two meet with Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), who is back to his regular pirating ways after saving the world (something I always liked about the end of the third one: after everything’s back to normal, no one really cares much about Jack).  The duo are both looking for a McGuffin called the Trident of Poseidon, which Henry thinks can break Will’s curse, and which Carina realizes she’s being led to by a constellation map on an old diary that was left to her by her father (who dumped her at an orphanage after she was born).  Jack realizes that the Trident could also be useful to him after realizing he’s being pursued by his archnemesis, Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), an undead Spanish privateer tricked by a young Jack into sailing into the Devil’s Triangle (the Bermuda Triangle), where he and his crew were cursed and trapped.  Meanwhile, Carina and Henry are hunted by Lieutenant Scarfield (David Wenham), a British Navy officer who’s actually a little scarier than Salazar.

The whole setup is pretty good.  It’s great to see the return of Jack’s crew , including Gibbs (Kevin McNally), Scrum (Stephen Graham), and Marty (Martin Klebba), although still missing AnaMaria (Zoe Saldana), which I guess I need to just get over at this point.  On top of that, much of the Jack Sparrow humor (read: lines of dialogue, not crazy antics) is actually funny in this one, including a conversation between he, Carina, and Scrum in which they each think “Horologist” means something different. (Carina: “Was your mother also academically inclined?”  Jack: “More like…horizontally reclined.”)  It’s just fun to spend time with these weirdos, no matter what they’re doing.  We even get a badass sea-witch played by Golshifteh Farahani, and more Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), who is now the most feared pirate on the seas (no word on what happened to the Brethren Court), and is even more Long-John-Silvery than usual.

The film’s issues are rooted in a staggering lack of character development, which is expected in a Disney blockbuster, but becomes more egregious (see what I did there?) when you notice how many great opportunities this one misses.  Wenham’s character could be an awesome secondary villain, but he’s utterly wasted.  Carina could be a powerful addition to pirate stories, but she spends most of the film tied up and/or being accessory to the film’s men (and for all the emphasis on her intelligence, the filmmakers ensure that her hair, makeup, and lip gloss are always perfectly in place).  The romance between her and Henry is inevitable and phoned-in.  Why do they need to end up together?  Just because they’re both young and good-looking?  But wasn’t Carina supposed to be subverting old assumptions about women?  Why do they even like each other?  The only time any attraction is mentioned is when Carina partially strips in order to be able to swim to shore, and Henry excitedly mentions to Jack, “I saw her ankles!” Sure, she’s got great ankles, I guess, but that’s enough for a marriage proposal?  (A note here: Jack’s response is actually pretty funny: “We’d have seen a lot more if you’d kept your cake-hole shut.”)

There are important revelations about Jack Sparrow’s past, including how he got the name and why anyone would ever follow him, and the scenes from the past involving Salazar are more than worthy of something that is meant to be the “final adventure” in the series (though I’m not really trusting in that at this point).  The problem is that we never really know how Jack feels about anything.  He’s always just waltzing through the plot and making jokey comments about stuff.  At least in the first movie, he was somewhat surprised that his old crew was now an undead retinue of bloodthirsty ghosts.  Now, not only has it become routine, but he doesn’t even remember Salazar (“Yes,” he says, “I remember an old Spanish sailor named…something in Spanish.”), which makes their day of reckoning ring a bit hollow.  So when it seems like the film is digging at the essence of Jack’s character and what made him, all they come up with is that Jack was apparently always just an asshole.

To top it all off, you’ve got a movie that features Jack Sparrow, Will Turner, and Elizabeth Swann (finally played again by Keira Knightley), and…you don’t put them in a scene together?  Elizabeth is only seen at the very end, rushing out like a faithful wife awaiting her sailor man, and she has no lines.  It’s a nice little reunion for the family and a good way to close the series, but a short decade ago, Elizabeth was the Pirate King, for crying out loud.  She plays no part in breaking the curse?  And she was fine with Henry being gone for so long?  And furthermore, Jack doesn’t care about seeing them?  Also, what happened to Penelope Cruz and that voodoo doll?  I mean, I prefer to forget about On Stranger Tides as well, but you had a long time to figure out continuity.

No matter how “big” the series gets, the proper ending was still Jack on that tiny little dinghy after the adventure was over, rowing out to sea to find out what came next.  As far as what comes next for the series, hopefully it’s nothing.  This is enough.

A good way to get people to remember this movie as being better than it is: show the Star Wars: The Last Jedi trailer before it.  I was in tears by the time the movie began (and on another note, this film really makes you appreciate how good the new Star Wars series is, and how awful it could be if Disney stuck their hands in it the way they are with Pirates).

pirates_of_the_caribbean2c_dead_men_tell_no_talesPirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017); written by Jeff Nathanson; directed by Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg; starring Johnny Depp, Kaya Scodelario, Brendon Thwaites, and Javier Bardem.

A Quiet Passion

Because I could not stop for depth

a-quiet-passionTerence Davies’s take on Emily Dickinson’s life is a quiet film that addresses important conflicts of puritanical 1800s New England, particularly the lot of women in well-to-do religious families.  It’s carried along by a juggernaut of a performance by Cynthia Nixon, who captures Emily’s titular “quiet passion” in truly astounding fashion.  But as it stands, the film is a bit too focused – something I never thought I’d say – in that it seems intent on saying something, rather than shedding light on Emily and creating a complete, definitive piece of art about her life and legacy.

The film begins with Emily played by Emma Bell in a scene that could have been taken from Jane Eyre (and means to remind us of that story), spelling out her conflict with the religious traditions that women of her station were meant to unquestioningly embrace.  Otherwise, much of the film takes place at the Dickinson estate in Amherst, where Emily embroiders poems in her room, has meaningful talks with her family members (mostly her younger sister Lavinia, played by period-piece veteran Jennifer Ehle), and confronts the ugliness of the time period, slowly growing into the reclusive woman in white that romanticized versions of history tell us she was. We see her eagerly scribbling on paper while Nixon’s voice speaks the poems she’s producing.  What we don’t see is the struggle.  Sure, we witness Emily worrying about stuff, but not thinking things through, see.  In this way, the film sort of glosses over the writing process and just says, “Here’s this woman in this repressive time period who happened to be a genius; here’s some of her work.”  Not that everyone wants two hours of a character thinking about line breaks, but this kind of structure somewhat perpetuates the (incorrect) idea that the great writers all just got it right the first time.

A Quiet Passion zeroes in on one major theme: the struggles of women as a result of religious oppression.  In Emily’s world, women do, as her father (Keith Carradine) so sternly puts it, what is demanded by the station that God chose to saddle them with.  As such, Emily and her peers are taught nothing about what “married life” entails (including sex), and if you are not heterosexual, like poor Susan Gilbert (played sympathetically and masterfully by Jodhi May), you don’t even know what it means, much less can you express it in a meaningful way. One of the film’s most powerful scenes involves a conversation between Susan and Emily, in which the former describes her intimate life with Emily’s brother, Austin (Duncan Duff), in this way: “The thought of men in that respect turns me to stone.” On top of Susan’s struggle, we bear witness to the lack of life that other women of the time are afforded, most notably Emily’s mother (Joanna Bacon), who suffers from postpartum depression in a time when depression isn’t treated, much less in women.  Emily Sr.’s explanation for the fact that her crippling depression keeps her confined to her room and mostly ignored by her family? “I lead a quiet life.”

Succeed as the film might in discussing this subject, it does so at the expense of Emily Dickinson herself.  Besides glossing over her writing life, the film also omits her relationship with Susan, which (while possibly not physical) has been well-documented through incredible love letters between the two, and is a vital facet of Emily’s life (not to mention ideas about love in her poems).  Instead, we just get the one scene between them, the takeaway of which seems to be that Susan is yet another woman in an unfair situation, and that Emily wishes everyone could just be happy.  Also skipped are Emily’s penchant for baking (and sharing her baked creations with local children) and the eventual publishing of Emily’s cache of poems, found in her room after her death by Lavinia (which you’d think would be an important detail to include in a story about a writer who monologues about what her reputation will be when she’s gone).  Every publisher she meets (or who writes about her) is condescending and/or changes the poet’s work without her permission.  While these were certainly real experiences for her, the film is selective about these details: the real Emily met with plenty of men who respected her as an artist, and the altering of her work to suit the styles of the time, while a perverse act, was mostly done after her death, and by Mabel Loomis Todd, who appears in the movie not in that role, but in a relatively dead-end side plot with Austin.  There’s also a needless amount of time devoted to the Civil War, how many people died there, and how Austin’s “honor” is damaged because his dad won’t let him test his mettle.  So while Emily appears in every scene, she is sometimes relegated to the background, listening to dudes talk about their pride.  It would all be fine if we could see her thinking about her poems while these self-important chest-pounders go on and on, having no clue which person in the room will actually be remembered by history.

Some of the film’s most impressively acted (yet difficult to watch) scenes come after Emily contracts Bright’s disease, which attacks her kidneys and causes seizures, which we see in their entirety.  When all is said and done, and Emily’s siblings have witnessed her agonizing final days, the film leaves us having seen more of a biographical overview and a feminist critique of said biography rather than an intimate study of a character or the mind of a writer.  And the whole time, we just know that Emily will narrate her own funeral with “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” I don’t mean to diminish its impact; it’s powerfully executed and left me feeling appropriately drained.  But when you consider how many theatrically-released movies have been made (or are likely to be made) about Emily, perhaps we owe her a little more.

a_quiet_passionA Quiet Passion (2017); written and directed by Terence Davies; starring Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Jodhi May, and Keith Carradine.

Rogue One

Jynglorious Basterds

jynersoI became worried about Rogue One when it was reported that George Lucas loved it.  That the creator of the Star Wars prequels, writer of the infamous “I don’t like sand” monologue, father of Jar Jar Binks, who apparently found zero value in last year’s powerful The Force Awakens, would love this one, concerned me more than any amount of reshoot reports.  On top of that, I keep hearing that Rogue One is “brutal,” a “war film,” and “a Star Wars movie for grown-ups.”  But wait a minute.  There’s not even any blood in this movie.  The Force Awakens had blood, both rubbed on a stormtrooper’s helmet and leaking out of Adam Driver’s body as he punched himself in his own gunshot wound.  That movie was also full of psychological terror and contained the telepathic version of sexual assault.  I’m starting to think that a certain number of people either don’t remember what they saw last year, are still sore about Han Solo, or Disney simply told them to fall in line on this one (they did).

A note here: Rogue One is better than a good percentage of blockbuster fare, but as the studio has at least four more Star Wars films coming up (and a responsibility to make them good), I think it’s more important to discuss what sucks about this one.

The film follows a ragtag group of misfits who find themselves involved in a mission to steal the plans to the Death Star, leading up to the moments before A New Hope.  The mission is led by Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), who has had enough of the squabbling and doom-saying of the Rebel Alliance’s brass. She is joined by Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a Fulcrum operative who plays like a darker Han Solo; Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), a pilot who defects from the Empire; Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), a warrior monk from Jedha (essentially a Mecca for Force-believers); Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), Chirrut’s bodyguard/apparent life partner; and K2-S0 (Alan Tudyk), a wise-cracking droid who works as Cassian’s copilot and comic relief (because let’s face it: Cassian is a bit of a downer).

On the other side of things, ambitious bureaucrat Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), who has been invested in the Death Star project for over a decade, continues to try to impress the Emperor and become the station’s commanding officer.  As we all know, that role eventually goes to Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing, recreated here with terrifying CGI).  Mendelsohn plays a great villain and Krennic is even sympathetic at times, but if you haven’t read the tie-in novel, James Luceno’s Catalyst, Krennic comes off as a bit of a hollow shell with no motivation but to be a badder bad guy, and he’s upstaged by the combo of Tarkin and the returning Darth Vader.

In fact, none of the characters are greatly developed; their depths as people and reasons for sacrificing themselves to the cause are thrown aside in favor of exhaustive battle scenes involving mooks in different shades of black/white/gray armor.  The entire third act is like playing chess with one of those special boards where the pieces actually look like people: it’s a bummer when you lose one, but it’s not a real person, so what are you really losing?

The haphazard treatment of characters is even more infuriating if you’ve read the novel.  Lyra Erso (Valene Kane), Jyn’s mother, whose perspective you’ve spent hundreds of pages on, is predictably and unceremoniously killed in the first five minutes of the film (and in a way her novel counterpart could have easily escaped from, given that she dealt with much worse).  The other returning characters, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) and Saw Gererra (who also appeared on the Clone Wars series and in Catalyst, played here by Forest Whitaker), are given only slightly more to do before they’re dismissively brushed off the board.  It’s all in an effort to showcase the “Wars” part of the series title, which mostly works, but you have to be willing to pretend you don’t see each cliche coming.

But the most egregious disservice goes to the main characters themselves.  Yen’s limited screentime causes his character to have no real reason to be in the final battle, unless you headcanon the idea that the Guardians of the Whills allow the Force to use them as a tool, and that he sees a purpose for himself (none of this is addressed directly though).  Chirrut and Baze have a close and seemingly very old relationship, but we don’t get to be part of it.  Bodhi’s redemptive arc and ordeal at the hands of Gererra are all for nothing, as he magically recovers from the supposedly irreversible torture, and is sloppily eliminated from the film just as he becomes one of its best characters.  Gererra, so important to Jyn’s upbringing, simply allows himself to die after he gives her some vital info, as if he’s fully aware that the plot no longer needs him.  What happened to his Che Guevara rebelliousness?  How/why did he end up with a breathing apparatus and golf clubs for legs?

Speaking of Jyn, the newest in a line of incredible Star Wars heroines with their own stories (Leia, Rey, Ahsoka, Asajj Ventress, etc.), the part is played with such confidence and skill by Felicity Jones that it’s a shame this character will never get more room to expand and breathe.  Despite her motivations for launching a suicide mission being a bit murky, she’s ultimately the film’s sun and moon, and I would have traded any amount of fanservice for more time with her.

The biggest delights in Rogue One are references and easter eggs planted there for superfans and the generally observant: unused footage of Red Leader and Gold Leader from A New Hope; the inclusion of Hera Syndulla from Rebels; a run-in with the ill-fated Dr. Evazan and Ponda Baba; a mention of the Whills; the line “May the Force of Others be with you” (the original “May the Force be with you” before Lucas revised it), to name the most notable ones.  A cameo by C-3p0 (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2, which felt jarring to many, was a relief for me.  “Hey,” I thought.  “At least those guys make it out of this.”

The original ending of this film had the characters surviving, but last minute changes led to a “darker” ending where the characters achieve a Pyrrhic victory by sacrificing themselves to get the plans to Princess Leia.  This change supposedly came late in the process, with director Gareth Edwards not knowing that Disney would be fine with him killing everybody off. I’m not sure I buy the idea that two ships run as tightly as Lucasfilm and Disney didn’t communicate about this before production even began, but whatever happened, the real sacrifice was that triumphant shot of Jyn and co. storming the beach, Death Star disk in hand, living to see the fruits of their labor.  I’m not saying everyone needed to survive, but the deaths of all seven characters aren’t earned by the time they happen.  And Edwards/Kennedy’s justification for this?  “Well, they’re not in A New Hope.”  Do I need to mention that the Rebels were battling the Empire all across the galaxy?  That Luke/Han/Leia just happened to be at the center of the group that fought Imperial leadership, and thus are the ones we follow in the original trilogy?  That there were thousands of Rebel ships at the battle of the Second Death Star, with unnumbered pilots and solders we don’t see?  That characters in the Aftermath novels (canon stories approved by Lucasfilm) fought on Endor, but weren’t in the movies?  There were plenty of ways to end this without a contrived bloodbath.  The ending isn’t the worst this film could have had, but it’s rushed and out of order.

One thing I do appreciate is the diversity of the cast.  However, it’s a diverse cast of people destined to be cannon fodder and who are never remembered by the main characters of the trilogy.  Now we know why the original Star Wars is all white people: everyone else died in this fucking movie.

220px-rogue_one2c_a_star_wars_story_posterRogue One (2016); written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy; directed by Gareth Edwards; starring Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, and Donnie Yen.

Miss Sloane

Nothing but a wall of granite

miss_sloaneMiss Sloane comes at both the perfect time and too late.  It’s realistic, sharply written, and full of speeches we need right now – in fact, I suspect if everyone took to heart the words of Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) during a live-TV debate with arch-nemesis Pat Connors (Michael Stuhlbarg) in the center of the film, I mean really took them to heart, maybe the conversation about gun legislation (and whom it’s for) would be different.  But it’s also worth mentioning that the character herself might not mean all of it, that it’s all part of a carefully engineered campaign to pass a bill, the very passing of which is ultimately for the satisfaction of the lobbyists pushing for it.  And while the film peels back some curtains about political games and machinations, it’s more of a character study than a movie about guns.

The film is a frame story that begins in the present with Liz Sloane on trial for something we’re not yet privy to, judged by overzealous senator Ron Sperling (a very impressive John Lithgow). Liz’s beleaguered attorney advises her to plead the fifth on every question, but once Sperling starts nitpicking Liz’s personal business (specifically prescription drug habits) and deliberately mixing up facts about a certain deal with Indonesia, Liz explodes, and is now obligated to answer the remainder of the tribunal’s questions lest she perjure herself.  Cut to a few months earlier.  Liz, a highly successful and sought-after lobbyist in D.C., is given a rather insulting directive by the Gun Lobby: use sophomoric fear tactics to get more women to buy firearms.  Smug, superior Liz shrieks with laughter.  Not only does she fully understand how irresponsible this approach would be, given the progressed crime rate, but she adores a good challenge.  She quits working for Connors, taking a skeleton crew of her best subordinates along with her, but leaving her protege, Jane (Allison Pill), who refuses to jeopardize her own career for Liz’s idealism.  Liz is soon hired by Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong) in support of a bill that would require universal background checks, and the battle begins.

As has been said about Jessica Chastain more than once, she carries this film.  Much of the script’s indulgent, snappy, Gilmore-Girls-esque dialogue is given to her, and she never wastes a word of it.  Gone, though, is the charm that many of Chastain’s characters are required to exude; Liz is ruthless, manipulative, and unapologetic.  She’s self-possessed, but not infallible, which is what makes studying her so fascinating.  Small fissures are visible when she’s alone.  Bits of her background come out in conversations with male escort Forde (Jake Lacy).  When one of her two long cons in the film – an ingeniously devious exploitation of gun-violence survivor Esme Manucharian (the amazing Gugu Mbatha-Raw) – becomes more personal than expected, we get a very real look at what happens when trust is violated.  This is a world where the protagonist can be one step ahead of everyone, hit rock bottom and still win, but not where people magically become friends again.

The grandest manipulation of all involves the film’s ace-in-the-hole, Jane, who is far more than an ambitious would-be grad student who looks up to Liz.  Allison Pill plays her with an inscrutability that we aren’t even aware matters until the final minutes of the film.  Stuhlbarg once again plays an antagonistic bureaucrat, and accomplishes that amazing feat of performance that allows you to steadfastly root against a character whose actor you love (maybe that’s my own compartmentalization issues talking, but it is what it is).  Mbatha-Raw’s Esme is probably the only character in the film fighting for what she actually believes in for a pure and good reason, and she becomes the most important character when she causes Liz to realize that people actually do things for reasons other than their own ego, and that self-sacrifices are sometimes necessary (and let’s face it: Liz is far overdue for one).  Lacy’s character, the escort, helps catalyze the “defrosting” process, as it were, and Liz gets some surprisingly meaningful moments out of him.  Besides Lacy’s superb performance, it’s pretty cool to see a man finally play the Hooker with a Heart of Gold role.

Liz is asked, “Were you ever normal?”  It’s difficult not to wonder how she ended up the way she is.  But the film is less about that (and not at all about guns), and more about whether this kind of character can be anything else, whether one can untangle themselves from the moral web of the political system and the toxicity that comes with power.  And Jessica Chastain is the only actress who could answer these questions in such meaningful ways.

Literally the only thing that doesn’t make sense about this film is a certain photo of George W. Bush.

220px-miss_sloaneMiss Sloane (2016); written by Jonathan Perera; directed by John Madden; starring Jessica Chastain.

Arrival

I don’t know’s on third

arrivalDenis Villeneuve’s Arrival is probably the best first contact movie I’ve ever seen.  There’s no abduction, no galactic civil war, no silly “grays,” and no sainted white man who has to save the Earth.  In fact, there’s only one real character: Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist who is summoned to translate the language of an alien race that has recently landed spacecraft in disparate locations across the globe.  Despite the fact that the militaries of every nation have more or less quarantined the “shells” from the public, conflict doesn’t seem imminent; everyone still thinks it would be a good idea to see what the aliens want first.

Louise’s present narrative, in which she teams with physicist Ian Donnelly  (Jeremy Renner), straightforward military grunt Weber (Forest Whitaker), and antagonistic CIA stooge David Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg) to communicate with the aliens before the rest of the world – particularly China and their de facto leader, hair-trigger General Shang (Tzi Ma) – decides that it would be less trouble to open fire, is percussed by intermittent visions of her daughter’s life.  The flashbacks (or are they?) begin with a joyous birth, meaningful moments, and all the stuff you expect from movies-apologizing-for-reality montages, but then it becomes clear that Louise’s daughter, Hannah, died in adolescence from an inoperable cancer.  The past seems to weigh heavily on Louise, who struggles for the freedom to work in the quarantined shell zone, which is kept air-tight by the army.

The aliens themselves, called “heptapods” for their seven limbs, are one of the film’s greatest achievements, visually and in terms of originality.  Absent are the expected bipedal war-monger aliens who either possess convenient translators or just want to rip into us instead of talking.  The heptapods, who are so alien I can barely describe them (maybe picture a benevolent, organic version of Mass Effect‘s “Reapers”) speak in some kind of starfish language, but actually communicate via their writing system, which is more or less a magical ink that hangs in the air for a moment, and then vanishes.  Louise, chosen for a reason, slowly begins to break down this system and learns to introduce herself to the aliens, then to ask them simple questions, deciding to hold off on the “big one,” which is of course “Why are you here?”

I call Louise the only character because the others, while competently performed, exist to provide assorted foils to her.  She’s the one whose thoughts matter, whose struggle is real, and whose painful memories we have access to.  Whitaker’s character just wants to get this job finished and go home, preferably without getting court-marshaled for letting Louise go too far (though it is a bit convenient that she ended up supervised by someone so understanding, rather than Petraeus or Major Paine or some shit).  Stuhlbarg’s character is there because there needs to be an asshole government employee who reaches his boiling point before anyone else (and if Boardwalk Empire taught us anything, it’s that Michael Stuhlbarg is good at being reserved for a long time and then exploding).  Jeremy Renner isn’t actually in the film too much, which isn’t a bad thing, as his character isn’t important (honestly, for all Donnelly is good for, he could have been played by an extra whose face you never see – he serves the same purpose as Topher Grace’s character in Interstellar, although that movie seems extraordinarily silly compared to this one).

The titular “arrival” really has nothing to do with aliens.  Consider the fact that the source material is a novella called “Story of Your Life.” As it turns out (spoilers ahead), the heptapods do not even experience time the same way we do.  Instead, they experience all time periods at once, knowing from the time they are born exactly how and when they will die.  They’ve come to Earth because they have foreseen an undisclosed cataclysm that will impact them in three thousand years, and already know that they will need the help of humans to deal with it (sidenote: I’m not sure they should bank on humans being around for that long).  Therefore, they’ve come to Earth to gain our trust now.  In order to communicate this to the rest of the world, however, Louise needs to absorb this ability from the heptapods, and essentially travel to the future to stop Shang from obliterating China’s heptapod shell.  The kicker: that’s what we’ve been experiencing the whole time.  The visions of Hannah haven’t happened yet.

While the film is saying something about free will, it isn’t just asking whether you’d take the same path if you knew what was going to happen to you in the future (although it asks Louise to make that choice).  In a film like Another Earth, where a mirror planet’s versions of all of us have followed the same narrative right up until becoming aware of one another (essentially saying that we were all slaves to our destiny until that moment) Arrival (and its source story) assert that free will means not changing the timeline when tempted to.  In the original story, these ideas are conveyed via tenses – future tense for the daughter visions, past tense for the heptapod interactions – but you don’t have to study Fermat’s Principle to get it: Louise’s choice to conceive Hannah despite knowing how the girl’s life will end confirms the existence of choice itself, and that such a thing can seem monumental in the face of an inevitable future space war is amazing. Would we call it a “pro-choice” film, then?

arrival2c_movie_posterArrival (2016); based on the story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang; screenplay by Eric Heisserer; directed by Denis Villeneuve; starring Amy Adams.

 

 

Macbeth

No country for off-screen deaths

macbethI sometimes wonder what William Shakespeare would think of modern adaptations of his tragedies.  Patrick Stewart in a random Soviet dystopia, Ed Harris running a leather-clad biker gang for some reason, etc.  But then I remember that Shakespeare would probably be far more interested in seeing Bad Santa 2 or Office Christmas Party than a grimdark battle epic or a Michael Fassbender vehicle.  Seriously.  I dare you to find one work of Shakespeare that doesn’t contain a crude sexual innuendo.

Justin Kurzel’s version of the Scottish Play actually takes place in Scotland, which means OP out the window and inconsistent accents all over the place, but it strips away the self-awareness that so much of “filmed Shakespeare” has, and never do the characters wink at you, or otherwise seem like they know they’re in an adaptation.  On the other hand, the filmmakers know that you know, so if you’re not thoroughly familiar with the story, expect to feel like an alienated party guest.

Macbeth (Fassbender), supporting King Duncan (David Thewlis) in the civil war, receives a prophecy before returning home: he is the Thane of Cawdor and the true king, while the sons of Banquo (Paddy Considine) are future kings.  For context here: in the original text, the prophecy is spoken by three witches.  In Shakespeare’s time and place, witches would have been considered the most evil, antagonistic characters imaginable, maybe next to the Devil himself, thanks to general ignorance and superstition.  However, centuries later, when we can look at history more objectively (including the knowledge that “witches” were in fact healers, medicine women, and benevolent mediums), adaptation can serve old stories in intriguing ways.  Here, the women Macbeth sees are never called witches, and the “Double, double, toil and trouble” scene, in which they reveal that they’re interfering only to cause mischief, is cut.  So is Macbeth hallucinating, then?  Has this toxic ambition been inside him all along?  Later, Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) sees the women as she wanders to an inevitable conclusion, muttering “to bed, to bed, to bed.”  Do the women represent the spirits L.M. prays to once she is aware of the prophecy?  Do they represent exactly the kind of power, albeit impartial, ambitious people call upon to achieve violent ends?  Something to consider.  It’s not every day a new Shakespeare film brings new questions with it.

Fassbender’s Macbeth is one of the most authentic on film.  He’s used to playing complex characters full of internal conflict and despair, and isn’t afraid to embrace the side of Macbeth that isn’t the badass warrior we’re introduced to at the beginning.  The character first becomes a cartoon of himself, his kingly clothing too large for his body, creating deceptions that only he thinks are clever, and in the end, he transforms further into a wretched, confused shell of a person, left with nothing but his instinct for fighting, and even that melts away in his final moments.  You can see why it doesn’t take MacDuff (Sean Harris) and Malcolm (Jack Reynor) long to puzzle out what exactly happened to Duncan.  And when the dust clears, no one’s sad that this mad dog didn’t get a chance to explain himself.

Marion Cotillard, while slightly underused, is the film’s foundation.  Rather than portraying Lady Macbeth as “crazy,” which is easy, Cotillard’s scheming queen is instead increasingly plagued by depression (after losing a baby, which is hinted at in the original text), which later transmogrifies into guilt.  It’s an incredibly layered performance that not only sets an interesting bar for this kind of character, but allows us to believe Lady Macbeth and her husband as a couple.  The film gives us a look into their private relationship, and it becomes easy to believe that Macbeth would take her plan seriously.  Subsequently seeing her with a “What have I done?” look on her face creates a portrait of a real person experiencing a staggering shift in control, rather than the borderline sexist caricature we often get.

The rest of the cast is appropriately unremarkable – not in their performances, of course, but part of the idea is that the rest of these people are just trying to live their lives and do their jobs, for the most part.  Sean Harris’s MacDuff is notable for being the one who looks the most like a person from 5th-century Scotland might actually look, but my dark horse favorite is Elizabeth Debicki as Lady MacDuff.  She doesn’t get much screen time, but the tear-and-mucus-filled mini-monologue she gives in the face of the rawest form of Macbeth’s madness is enough to make anyone step back and realize how unspeakably wrong this all is.

Due to the length of individual moments and monologues, combined with the film’s relatively short runtime (under two hours), the story feels a bit truncated.  But it’s the power of those individual moments that keeps it afloat.  The play’s most famous speeches – “Out, damned spot,” “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” and others – are captivating and meaningful even when you know they’re coming, because Kurzel’s characters weave them into moments that already exist, rather than creating moments around them.  Cotillard and Fassbender practically whisper words that in other versions are expressed as booming, profound pontifications.  No room for that here.  Despite the film’s emphasis on battle scenes and violence (in a play where most, if not all, of the deaths take place offstage), everything feels intensely personal.

Maybe that’s the key going forward with Shakespeare adaptations on film: not trying to make them cool and different (i.e. looking at the macro, the outward, the exterior), but to turn inward and examine what we can get from these characters now.

220px-macbeth_2015_posterMacbeth (2015); directed by Justin Kurzel; starring Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Sean Harris, and Elizabeth Debicki.