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.

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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.

 

 

The Lobster

The less grand, not-so-exotic, neither Budapest nor Marigold hotel

lobsterYorgos Lanthimos is what you’d call a “visionary director” if you knew that what you saw was pretty good but didn’t know exactly what to say about it.  He’s got a cynicism akin to Lars Von Trier.  He seems to care about shots as much as Terrence Malick.  He wraps these into the microscope-lens of an Alex Garland pic.  Then again, name-dropping and saying nothing else is basically the same as leaving it at “visionary director,” so let’s dissect.

In a dystopia that is never referred to as such (I might call it an alternate universe instead), newly single people are taken to the Hotel, where they have forty-five days to find a suitable partner or else be transformed into the animal of their choice and live out the remainder of their existence in anachronistic misery in the nearby forest.  Everyone speaks in an unsettling monotone.  Masturbation is prohibited, but the Maid (Ariane Labed!) makes sure everyone is sexually frustrated 24/7.  Single-by-choice folks who have escaped the Hotel are hunted down by Hotel residents with the promise of extra days as a human.  None of the transformation technology is explained, nor is the necessity of the Hotel (for instance, is the human population at rock bottom?).  Residents are subjected to embarrassingly campy propaganda (including a painfully inaccurate simulation of rape) meant to convince them that partnership is the key to happiness.  The whole thing has been compared to a Samuel Beckett piece – sure, it’s got the quiet cynicism, the allegory, the navel-gazing, the bizarre end-of-time scenario focused on a tiny sliver of the world – but there’s an underlying anger to The Lobster that neither Endgame nor Waiting for Godot possess.

David (Collin Farrell), the only named character, chooses a lobster as his animal, due to his love for the sea and the creatures’ generally long lives (apparently grocery-store seafood departments and the state of Maine no longer exist in Lanthimos’s fiction).  This choice is ridiculed by a know-it-all with a limp (Ben Whishaw), who along with an also-unnamed lisper (John C. Reilly) constitute David’s friend base.  The issue is that not just anyone can get together and have a good time; relationships are formed based on what the Hotel staff see as compatible features.  In other words, completely arbitrary traits, such as shared physical ailments (nearsightedness, a tendency to get nosebleeds, etc.), fondness for cookies, and so on.  It’s a fairly transparent criticism of online dating culture: the speed of it, the fakeness, the images people create of themselves vs. who they actually are, the methods by which we decide so much about a person without having met them.

The story is narrated by a near-sighted woman (Rachel Weiss), who doesn’t meet David until about halfway through.  At this point, David has forsaken the Hotel after a disastrous attempt to partner with a complete sociopath (Angeliki Papoulia).  As a story in this genre must explore the perspectives of both major factions, David joins the “loners” in the woods, who are led by a ruthlessly rigid woman played by Palm d’Or-winning superstar Léa Seydoux (doing what she does best here – playing a fascinating Alpha – rather than the love-interest and femme fatale stuff she finds herself doing in American movies).  Here, the rules of the Hotel are inverted: masturbate all you want, but relationships are banned.  Even flirting is punishable by permanent disfigurement.  The viewer quickly finds that David doesn’t fit in this world either, because he quickly falls in love with Weiss’s character, and both strive to keep this relationship secret from the leader.

What I was slower to realize is that The Lobster would have worked better as a stage drama, where justification is vital only as far as character behavior, and the worlds, rich as they might be, are still confined to the room you’re in, and what you can believe is determined only by the performances (think Beckett and Pinter).  In a film, you get a look at what’s there, and you start to ask questions like, what is the rest of the world doing?  Are there other Hotels?  Why do the loners stay in the woods around the Hotel when they could get out of danger by going pretty much anywhere else?  Where are all the gay and gender non-conforming people (the Hotel allows one to register as gay or hetero, but not bisexual because of some plot-convenient Noodle Incident, yet we never see any gay people or couples on screen, and the propaganda is all aimed at hetero couples)?  Why does the loner leader have such arbitrary rules?  If everyone hates these rules, why don’t they overthrow her?  There’s more, but you get the gist: story beats and character behaviors are introduced in order for the film to make a point about something, rather than because it’s what makes sense.

It’s also a film that includes lots of interesting women, most of whom die, and all of whom exist in order to have diametrically opposed effects on the male protagonist.  It becomes frustrating, in part because characters with dramatic potential are wasted, and also because you feel like you’re supposed to cheer for it.  In the end, as David prepares to blind himself with a steak knife in order to be “equal” to his now-blind lover, do he and (by extension) the filmmakers realize that the duo are still abiding by the Hotel’s rules, this far away from the place itself?

It’s the job of a picture like this to generate discussions, not questions based on lack of clarity of intention.  As it stands, The Lobster is an awesome piece of art, but not a particularly good movie, in spite of the dedicated and deliciously weird performances by Farrell, Labed, and Seydoux. Let me know if there’s ever a stage version, yeah?

220px-the_lobsterThe Lobster (2015); written and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos; starring Colin Farrell, Rachel Weiss, Ariane Labed, and Léa Seydoux.

 

Don’t Think Twice

I’m so small

dttFinally, someone had the guts to come out and say Saturday Night Live isn’t all that funny [anymore].  But Don’t Think Twice, Mike Birbiglia’s from-the-heart comedy about the final year of an improv troupe’s time together, doesn’t just create a world of facsimiles and call it drama/hope it’s funny – that Bob-Dylan-esque title reminds us that these characters, unique and true in the face of the TV comedy machine, are real people with real lives, and there are no promises that everyone’s making it through this in one piece.  That’s what I’m talking about: a comedy with stakes.  Yes please.

Sam (Gillian Jacobs) and Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) are members of the Commune, a borderline legendary underground improv troupe of the NYC old school. Along with them are Miles (Birbiglia himself), the founder, unfulfilled and sleeping with students fifteen years his junior; Allison (Kate Micucci), a talented cartoonist; Lindsay (Tami Sagher), a comedy scribbler and pothead who comes from wealthy parents; and Bill (Chris Gethard), the group’s hard-luck Eeyore.  During one fateful show, Sam and Jack are fingered by the producers of Weekend Live, the aforementioned SNL clone run by a truly loathsome exec who surrounds himself with arm candy and gets off on threatening to fire people.  This is the life Jack has wanted, though: according to Miles, he becomes a “one-man audition tape” when TV scouts show up.  His audition goes well, and he’s immediately onto “better” things.  Sam’s audition is never shown, though it doesn’t seem to go well, and whatever actually happened becomes something of a Noodle Incident that looms over the characters until its inevitable revelation.

Don’t Think Twice not only looks at improv as an art form unto itself, but does comedy in the style of an old “last days of the Samurai” film: improv isn’t exactly dying, but the cornball, penny-candy humor of Weekend Live and other easy-to-digest TV shows have become the aspiration of comedians and artists who could be making much better work (while making less money, obviously).  Sam realizes this, and although she could spend her days listening to crappy synth-pop with Lena Dunham or getting stock compliments from Ben Stiller, she knows that very real people are counting on her to walk out onto the stage and ask whether they’ve had a particularly hard day.  And furthermore, it’s fulfilling to her – she didn’t come here for “the bigs.”  So while the film is never unsympathetic towards Jack, it rages against the culture of immediacy and the idea of selling out when so many proverbial riches are already in one’s hands.  But everyone has hills to climb, and you have to respect the realism.

Performance-wise, Jacobs/Micucci/Key play the characters we really want to see win, and Jacobs finally gets to exhibit her dexterity at silly voices and physical humor (even though Britta was my favorite Community character, she wasn’t exactly allowed to be the goofball Sam is here).

Because of that sense of realism, it isn’t a film you go into expecting every piece to fall into place and everyone to have a happy ending.  Even in a comedy, every single thing can’t work out.  Maybe Shakespeare would disagree, but nobody asked him.

220px-don27t_think_twice_28film29Don’t Think Twice (2016); written and directed by Mike Birbiglia; starring Gillian Jacobs, Keegan-Michael Key, Kate Micucci, and Mike Birbiglia.

Bastille Day

Your alligators are sewn on backwards

bastilleIn a college screenwriting class, I once wrote a script I thought was pretty good.  My professor even told me that every few semesters, one student script really stands out, and that this was the one.  I’ve since lost it, but if it had actually been produced, I assume I’d be cringing at it now.  I still think the characters were better than what you get in your standard Hollywood action fare, but instead of existing for the same reasons real people with complicated histories exist (i.e. no reason), their collected backstories served the larger narrative, one that needed them to come together to connect plot dots, a plot full of conspiracies, corrupt government officials, gunfire, and a sainted young white dude who can puzzle it all out.  I get bummed out thinking about it.  Even if I was on the right track (not with that script in particular, but moving toward something good), even if the dialogue was alright and the plot resolution reasonable and the characters okay to spend time with, the produced result probably would have turned out looking a lot like Bastille Day.  And it would deserve a crappy review.

Bastille Day pits a bunch of ex-HBO main-supporting actors against a terrorism conspiracy in Paris (sadly evoking thoughts of the recent tragedies there and in Nice): Special Agent Briar (Idris Elba), a generic cowboy cop, gets mixed into the investigation of a bombing accidentally triggered by Michael Mason (Richard Madden).  Briar is guided along by his classically beleaguered CIA superior, Tom (Anatol Yusef), and slightly more sympathetic agent Karen (Kelly Reilly) who mainly exist to emphasize how badass Briar is, and how evil the generic European bad guys are, respectively.  As straightforward as it sounds, the Island Syndrome never becomes exhausting because the actors never seem bored playing tropes straight and saying things like “I know an asshole when I see one.”

The tritagonist of the film, Zoe (Charlotte Le Bon) mostly exists as a target/ingenue/plot device, but it’s worth noting that every significant story movement is catalyzed by her: deciding at a certain moment not to trigger a bomb, bashing a corrupt cop over the head with a flashlight like someone out of a Lucia Berlin story (Google it), saving the dudes’ asses, and heroically rushing through a line of riot police in order to incite action.  The latter scene evokes great historical moments captured in photographs, including recent ones of women standing up to body-armored men with machine guns and shields, and even though I’m sure it wasn’t intended to do so, it’s one of the few moments worth taking away from the film (taking farther, at least, than your after-film chat with your filmgoing partners about what you just witnessed).

Speaking of the story, it’s pretty clear who the real bad guy is from the beginning, but the “why” continues to change, and the action doesn’t hit a low enough gear to reveal much depth.  The villains seem like stereotypical fear-mongering bombers who don’t mind creating collateral damage in order to keep citizens angry at the police (they use hashtags to guide protesters to the next significant location), which at first feels like an uncomfortable criticism of gullible internet-surfing social justice warriors who spend their days looking for stuff to protest, but it turns out that the bad guys are actually the police themselves.  Why are they doing this?  Because they’re pissed that no one appreciates them.  Wait, but they’re killing and manipulating citizens.  Why wouldn’t the people walk around chanting NWA lyrics?  Just when the layers seem to be peeled back as far as they’ll go, the filmmakers decide to settle on plain ol’ greed to justify the bad police’s actions: their endgame is to use the gigantic protesters vs. police rumble as a cover to lift mass amounts of cash from the Bank of France during the Bastille Day Parade.  It’s not that it’s lame in and of itself; it’s that it never seems like we need Stringer Bell, Robb Stark, and Meyer Lansky to take care of a bunch of cream puffs like these guys.

That said, the protest side-story does sit uncomfortably, if only because the filmmakers’ intentions with it are never made clear. It’s not half as bad as Christopher Nolan’s opportunistic and disrespectful treatment of the Occupy movement in The Dark Knight Rises, though.

BD is ultimately harmless, I think.  But it really does rely on the actors, not the writing/story/characterization – for instance, it wouldn’t have been watchable with, say, Keanu Reeves and Mark Ruffalo as the two non-buddy heroes, and it almost reaches that point in scenes that feature the tedious villains talking to each other.  Why didn’t they cast Anatol Yusef, an actor who can play deep menace with very little effort, as the evil police boss instead of Lee Van Cleef’s character from Escape from New York?  This isn’t intended to be the aforementioned “crappy review” I would have given my own movie.  But in a world where American action films come with a write-by-numbers kit, it seems to be very, very difficult to avoid making the same movie again and again.  My script didn’t come with the kit, but it also did: by the time I was twenty, I’d seen this movie a thousand times.

I get it, though.  It’s an Idris Elba vehicle, and an argument for his candidacy for the position of James Bond.  Fine.  If you have to keep making 007 movies, cast him as James Bond.  Just don’t have him sing the theme song.

220px-bastille_day_28film29Bastille Day (2016); written by Andrew Baldwin and James Watkins; directed by James Watkins; starring Idris Elba, Richard Madden, and Charlotte Le Bon.

 

Star Trek Beyond

I like the beats and shouting

jaylahI gave Into Darkness some flack for lifting imagery and design material from the Mass Effect series, and joked to myself about what they might steal this time.  Lo and behold: Star Trek Beyond‘s entire premise is taken from the opening of Mass Effect 2, wherein Commander Shepard’s ship is attacked by never-before-seen aliens who decimate her beloved Normandy (replaced with the Enterprise here), “take” members of her crew, and possess technology that converts people into gray fluid.  Is this kind of pseudo-plagiarism commonplace because video games aren’t considered an art form, so any good ideas found in the gaming realm are fair game for use in something bigger and more important?  This question is half-rhetorical.  I’ve been playing video games since I was a child, and have had some of the most meaningful emotional experiences I’ve gotten from visual media by playing certain games, but I’ve only ever played one game that I would consider a pure work of art.  Still, even though this is conventional sci-fi fare, you’re taking someone’s work.

Gear shift here.  Despite all the ways in which Beyond‘s trailer looks like the filmmakers are phoning in an obligatory threequel, this is my favorite of the three.  Beyond feels the most like an actual episode of Star Trek, makes better use of its cast of women (and let’s face it: all it had to do was stop painting Uhura and others as yelping ingenues and scolding wives, but it goes beyond that – it’s aptly titled), normalizes same-gender (and different-species) relationships, and valiantly tries to make a group of relatively bland people who have no real stake in whether they discover anything during their five-year exploration mission endearing enough to an audience that they remember why so many of these damned series (and films) were made in the first place.

Kirk (Chris Pine, still less interesting than he was in Smokin’ Aces) is three years into his five-year stint as captain of a Starfleet exploration gig, and is oddly tolerable this time. His hair is more Shatner-y, and he seems to have grown up a bit (though he’s conveniently forgotten the time his remorseless recklessness got dozens of his own crew jettisoned into space).  Still, the womanizing fratboy is gone, and he seems to genuinely want to be a good leader, even going so far as recommending Spock (Zachary Quinto) for the captain’s chair if he should be unable to fulfill the duty.

Spock himself is more fun to spend time with now as well, partly because his tumultuous relationship with Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana) happens between movies.  Interesting implications arise when he learns that Ambassador Spock (Leonard Nimoy) has died, which in turn lets Spock know when exactly he’s going to die (or does it?  It’s not made clear whether that’s a rule, but Spock’s moroseness at the news certainly points in this direction).  His trajectory involves his coming to terms with this, as well as being paired with Bones McCoy (Karl Urban) in an adventure where he must rely on the beleaguered doctor for medical help and moral support.  Banter, friendly insults, etc. (never quite hilarity) ensue.  For better and worse, the focus on Spock’s survivor’s guilt is lessened, so while he’s less of a downer, he’s not as sharply drawn, nor is he much different from anyone else wearing a blue shirt (he just acts more like Abed than the rest do).

The supporting cast gets supporting-cast stuff to do, while their collective conflict surrounds escaping a planet that has become something of a ship graveyard after the Collecto – erm, I mean, a group of hostile bipeds have wrecked ship after ship there. These villains are led by Krall (Idris Elba), a hulking goblin who sounds like he’s perpetually out of breath and whose only motivation (until the final ten minutes of the movie) seems to be For the Evulz.  Funnily enough, he’s one of the two best things about the film, particularly once he’s actually played by Idris Elba (i.e. with reduced/no makeup).  At this point, he becomes something like a space-age Stringer Bell, albeit with much more black-and-white goals (he’s a former Starfleet captain who became disillusioned after the Federation made peace with the Romulans and other enemies, making the sacrifices of his people a waste, not to mention abandoning his ship, the Franklin, on an uncharted world – it’s a pretty good twist, not something you usually hear me say).  He’s the perfect foil to a reformed Kirk, who (while also having laughably black-and-white motivations and alignments) honestly tries to understand his opponent rather than just shouting “Let’s kick ass” and having at it.

Regrettably, Krall’s ultimate goal of pushing back against Federation expansion (an allegory for indigenous people vs. colonizing) isn’t given enough time or depth, so by the time the film ends, we’re not really sure whether Kirk was “supposed” to win or not.  He claims that he would “rather die saving lives than live with taking them,” but he never apologizes for doing it before, nor do the filmmakers give Krall much opportunity to explain whether Federation expansion would obliterate the Frontier races.  Thus, Krall appears to us as the Founding Fathers portrayed our Natives to the public (and how the current media portrays every other person with a different idea): a ruthless terrorist whose extremism overwrites the validity of his grievances.

The other best part of the film is newcomer Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), a loner also confined to the uncharted world, living in the shell of the Franklin.  She’s one of a million Star Trek species who just look like humans with funny makeup, but some weight and respect is given to her character: she’s been severely wronged by Krall’s people, her family was killed by Krall’s right-hand dude (whom she conveniently gets to duel to the death in the scene immediately after she reveals this), and she’s lived a difficult life in the planet’s wastes.  The film’s crowded cast makes Jaylah seem like the protagonist of a really cool survival movie we’re not allowed to see, although her scenes with Scotty (Simon Pegg) are genuinely endearing at times (plus she gets to lead her own scenes, including tthe aforementioned fight, albeit with a lightweight Elite Mook who only exists to make the movie seem like it cares about Jaylah – points for effort).  Ultimately, Jaylah joining Starfleet serves as a way to say, “Hey, the Frontier races and the Federation can coexist without murdering each other,” but it’s a conversation that should be had onscreen.  Leaving it out makes Krall something of a tragic would-be hero.

Ripoffs of other things aside (seriously though, didn’t they have enough material they could use from, say, I don’t know, STAR TREK?), the worst I can say about Beyond is that it wastes its supporting villains, phones in some CGI, and delivers so many obligatory plot points that one begins to lose faith in how interesting the rest of the universe actually is: what’s the point of leaving Earth if every planet’s genre fiction follows the same formula?

220px-star_trek_beyond_posterStar Trek Beyond (2016); written by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung; directed by Justin Lin; starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Idris Elba, and Sofia Boutella.