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Film Review: Eros, the Bittersweet–“La La Land (2016)” and the Melancholy of What-Might-Have-Been

Warning: Spoilers follow.

In her remarkable book Eros: The Bittersweet, the classicist and poet Anne Carson eloquently argues that eros is fundamentally built on the power of lack, of the sweetness of being denied the very thing that we so desperately desire to possess. While this may seem antithetical to some–isn’t the whole point of erotic desire fulfillment?–I’ve always found this to be an extraordinarily apt way of describing the process by which we experience the ache of romantic desire, an ache that is all the more pleasurable and painful for its inability to ever truly be fulfilled.

The sense of love being something that is always tainted with the tang of bitterness is what, to me, makes La La Land, one of 2016’s most lauded films, such an extraordinary, and very timely, film. On the surface, it appears just another Hollywood product, something that is full of joy and exuberance and romance. Further, it is also one of those films that Hollywood loves to make, i.e. a film that is about (or at least seems to refer to) the history of Hollywood itself. Beneath the veneer of seeming happiness and saccharine satisfaction, however, there is something more profound at work, however, a painfully pleasurable awareness of the poignancy of thwarted love.

And indeed there is a great deal of exuberance and joy to be found in this film. Produced in CinemaScope–that venerable widescreen process that was such a godsend to the film industry in the 1950s–and shot in truly eye-popping colour, one gets the sense that this film expresses in a profound way the great pleasures that can be found in the transparent expression of feeling. Further, it appears to be a film that is in love with the practice of filmmaking. I don’t mean this to be dismissive, but instead to say that it recognizes both the rich and varied history of Hollywood filmmaking as well as the power of film to call to us and allow us to experience the world in all of its conflicted, contradictory joy and pleasure.

Yet it doesn’t take long for the reality of the world to begin to intrude into the utopian love story that burgeons between the two leads, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone). Each of them has their own career aspirations, he to be a successful jazz musician and to open his own club in order to revitalize the dying genre (this opens up a white savior storyline that is, to put it mildly, problematic). She, on the other hand, wants to become an actress. Gradually, they both move toward the fulfillment of their desires, but it sets them on a collision course so that, despite how much they love one another, they know that they cannot be together.

It’s rather hard for me to explain in words how heartrending this realization can be in real life. There’s something…sweetly, terribly pleasant about that moment when you recognize that no matter how much you love someone, you know that the external forces of your life–your career aspirations, your desire to be yourself–preclude you being able to fulfill a future with them. This is something that the film brings to the fore in an intensely visceral way, precisely because it flies in the face of everything we’ve been led to expect from the Hollywood ending.

Indeed, the film ultimately reveals that both characters have attained their professional goals. Sebastian has finally opened his club, and Mia has become a successful actress with a husband and small daughter. Yet, despite the fact that they both have attained everything they want, the film remains haunted by a sweet sense of melancholy, of a love that is true yet unfulfilled. It is precisely because the moments of joy and innocence have been so exuberantly conveyed and expressed that this final moment of renunciation is all the more poignant.

The final montage of the film is one of the most exquisitely, beautifully orchestrated pieces of sound design that I have ever seen. As Seb plays, the camera treats us to a vision of a world that might-have-been, if only things had turned out somewhat differently, if only they each of them had been able to do pursue their dreams while also allowing their love to flourish, if only…If only this were the world as we would like it to be rather than the world as it is. We see Sebastian make one crucially different decision, and we see what their lives would have been like together. We are invited to experience two alternative ideas of time, the what-might-have-been and the what-is, the latter always tinging and limning the former with a despairing awareness that we know, we know, that this joyful life can never be.

While we have come to associate the genres of the musical and the romantic comedy with the sort of happy endings so common in romantic films produced in Hollywood, La La Land denies that element of closure that we have come to expect. They part ways, sharing just one glance, a look far more meaningful than any words could ever be. Yet despite the fact that the two leads do not end up together–and despite the fact that Mia is seemingly happy married and has quietly settled down into her life of fame, fortune, and family, something doesn’t ring quite right. We wonder if she is really as happy as she appears, or whether she will always remain haunted by the question: what if? And for Sebastian, the question is even more acute, as we are led to believe that he is romantically unattached, his heart no doubt still yearning for a woman he cannot have.

If ever there were a film that spoke to the tortured and pained zeitgeist of 2016–a year that saw so many beloved figures and dreams fall into oblivion–a year that saw an eminently qualified woman and a progressive future go down in flames and in its place rise up a terrifying regime seemingly intent on rolling back the last 8 years as if they had never been. Though this is of course a romance, it is also a distillation of the political and cultural milieu in which it was released, a reminder that, though we would like to believe the world is a uncomplicated place where loves are fulfilled and the world becomes a better place, the truth is very much the opposite.

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Film Review: “Moana (2016),” a Fable for the Trump Era

Sometimes, you want a movie that helps you to see that it’s not all hopeless, that there is still some glimmer of hope in the world for those of us who think for a living. It’s really hard to find that these days, as the true consequences of a Trump Presidency loom ever larger in our collective imaginations. While I saw Disney’s Moana before Trump’s inauguration, since then its message, its aesthetics, and its emotional impact have come to be even more significant in hindsight. Since then, I’ve come to see it as essentially a product of its time, yet another entry in my ever-growing archive of works of art produced in the fledgeling Trump Era.

Its hard not to read this film in light of the world that we are currently inhabiting, in which a small cadre of politicians continues to insist that man-made climate change is a myth (or at least that it isn’t as imminently catastrophic as most predictions suggest it is). Moana’s father, admirable and powerful though he clearly is meant to be, cannot quite bring himself to believe that the world they have been so happy living in is coming to an end and, just as importantly, that there is something that they can do to stop it. Theirs is a society turned resolutely inward, refusing to admit the reality of what is transpiring, even as they can feel and see its effects, from the coconuts that have begun to shrivel to the encroaching emptiness of the fisheries.

There is also something profoundly moving about the sequence that restores the world to its basic balance, in which Moana encourages Te Fiti (transfigured into the vengeful lava demon Te Kā) to remember who she really is and returns her heart to her. While it is easy to dismiss this as just another example of reducing women to nothing more than stand-ins for nature, to me it was a proud moment of reclamation on the part of both Moana and the goddess herself. Given that Disney has historically been prone to relying far too heavily on the romantic plot to resolve its narrative dilemmas, it was actually rather nice to see it rely instead on the affective bonds between two women). And, considering the fact that we now live in a world where a man who bragged about assaulting women was still elected to the Presidency, it’s heartening to see the validation of women in the context of a Disney film.

Indeed, so many of the film’s most important relationships are built on the bonds among women. It’s hard not to feel the intensity of the bond between Moana and her grandmother, whose spirit (in the delightful guise of a manta ray) continues to guide her as she attempts to make sense of the world and her quest to restore the disrupted balance of nature. Or the fact that it is her mother who, in a gesture of rebellion against her husband, enables her to escape from the island to undertake her quest. In this world, men are not driven by a ruthless patriarchal drive to oppress women but instead by a slightly misguided belief in the rightness of their own actions. It may be a slight distinction to some, but to my eyes it is an important layer of nuance to the ways in which the film engages with questions of gender.

Thus, the film also has something important to say about masculinity. It is no accident that Dwayne Johnson is the one providing the voice of the film’s primary male character, Maui. “The Rock” has long straddled that line between hyper-masculinity the gender-bending that seems to always accompany the culture and physique of bodybuilders.  And indeed his animated doppleganger also has a similar problem with his own masculine persona, precisely because he is so often too masculine. It is only when he embraces Moana’s wisdom and, just as importantly, joints with her, that they are able to restore the world to its rightful balance.

Moana, like so man other recent films, TV series, and novels, is a product of its time. We are, scientists almost unanimously agree, living in the midst of a truly terrifying climate event, the scope of which many of us cannot begin to appreciate in its totality. And we are, many cultural critics and social scientists would argue, living in a world where men continue to indulge and valourize a particularly toxic and destructive model (see also:  President Donald Trump).

There is, ultimately, an aesthetic of profound and unbridled joy at work in this film, one that helps us to deal with the bleak world that we currently inhabit. The colour palette is rich and helps portray both the exquisite, lush beauty of Moana’s island home as well as the dark, ashy future that awaits it if they continue to turn their faces away from their mutual responsibility. In moments like this, it’s a balm to turn to (of all things!) a Disney film to find at the very least a feeling that all will be well, even if our material reality suggests exactly the opposite.

All in all, Moana is a film very much for as much as it is of our troubled times. While the narrative provides the closure and resolution that we always seek when we watch these types of films, given the rather depressing state of our world–a world in which, after all, the Doomsday Clock has moved closer to midnight–that doesn’t mitigate its potential. Rather than allowing ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of complacency by the conclusiveness of the end of the film, we should instead take the film as a whole as a call to action. Though it might seem that our world is draped and overwhelmed in an impenetrable shroud of doom, this film reminds us that it is never too late, that we must always be the change that we want to see in the world.

That, in the end, it is never too late.

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Queer Classics: “Moonlight” (2016)

After waiting impatiently for several weeks for Moonlight to make its way to Syracuse, it finally arrived, and I have to say:  this is one hell of a film. Though it was not what I expected, that does not mean that I didn’t enjoy it. Indeed, it’s probably the best film that I’ve seen this year (as cliché as that sounds).

A meditative and aesthetically sophisticated film such as this one is notoriously difficult to summarize in terms of plot, but in broad strokes it is a coming-of-age story told in three parts. Each segment of the film opens with a simple word:  Little, Chiron, Black, each representing a stage in the main character’s evolution. Throughout, he has to contend with the broken relationships that characterize his life, from his drug-addled mother Paula to his love interest and childhood companion Kevin. Throughout, he seems to struggle with a profound sense of alienation and isolation from the world around him, though he does experience brief moments of genuine human warmth, particularly when he meets Teresa and Juan (Janelle Monáe and the inimitable Mahershala Ali, respectively), who provide him some measure of stability and genuine human caring.

This is a profoundly intimate film, both in terms of its narrative–which remains wedded to Chiron’s perspective throughout–but also in terms of its cinematography. The camera remains sometimes perilously close to its principals, wedding us to their perspective in a sometimes physically unsettling intimacy. It’s not so much that the spectator necessarily feels that they are necessarily there; instead, it’s a feeling of being physically connected to the characters.

Thus, it is precisely this visceral closeness that allows us as viewers to get a sense of how important touch is to Chiron’s sense of himself. It is through his body that Chiron manages to escape his profound sense of loneliness and alienation. The film also pays particular attention to fluid, and there are two scenes in which semen plays a prominent role, and each time the camera pays attention to the contact between the body and the fluid, a surprisingly sensuous (and not prurient) attention to the powerfully erotic pleasures of the flesh.

It is through his body that Chiron–chronically silent and taciturn–manages to express himself. Indeed, it is precisely touch that gives him his one truly meaningful and intense connection with another person, when he and Kevin share an erotic experience on the beach. Unfortunately, the flip side of that dynamic is that Kevin is later manipulated by schoolyard bullies into beating up his erstwhile friend, a bitter experience that deeply scars both young men. However, there is no question that it is Chiron who bears the deepest psychological wounds, scarred both by his friend’s betrayal and by his mother’s obvious homophobia.

As Black, he appears muscle-bound and gruff, and the film makes it clear that this emphasis on increasing his bodily mass and strength are his responses to his troubling youth and to the impotence he felt throughout those formative years. Tormented by those around him for his perceived queerness, he has turned to using his body as a shield against a world that seems determined to crush and beat the “softness” out of him. The camera lingers on his musculature and on his mannerisms, demonstrating again and again that the formerly shy and meek youth who finally broke when betrayed by his friend has transformed into a hardscrabble drug dealer on the streets of Atlanta. Beneath that, though, one can still see glimmers of Little and of Chiron, a yearning for the intimate human connection that he has all-too-infrequently found in his life.

Though the film is, for the most part, deliberately paced, it is punctuated by moments of emotional release and satisfaction, as when Chiron takes a chair and brutally attacks the bully who incited Kevin’s act of violence. It is an intensely satisfying moment (as evidenced by the woman beside me in the theater, who cheered quite loudly at that particular moment). These moments, like their more tender counterparts, enable a feeling of bodily empathy with Chiron, allowing us to experience a similar moment of embodied empowerment, a reclamation of agency that has been consistently denied him.

The performances, of course, are the emotional heart of the film. As any good student of film knows, casting can either make or break even the most well-written of films, and in this case the actors are uniformly excellent. Though it is easy to despise Chiron’s mother Paula for her by turns brutal and manipulative treatment of her only child, Naomie Harris brings a certain tragic pathos to the role, imbuing the character with alternately frantic energy and depthless despair. While she is not the main focus of the narrative, she does nevertheless show her own development as a character, moving from an absent-minded if loving mother to a gradually more abusive and manipulative drug addict. However, even she is not beyond redemption, and the scene in which Black finally has the chance to offer his mother forgiveness is one of the most wrenching in the film.

The three actors who portray Chiron each deserve accolades, for each brings something distinct to the table, allowing us to see the shifts in his perspective as he grows up. Alex Hibbert, who plays Little, is that oh-so-rare gem, a child actor who has genuine depth and complexity. For his part, Ashton Sanders (who plays Chiron’s teenaged self) brings a certain tortured reserve to a youth plagued by his own personal demons, his fledgling desires, and the aimlessly malevolent taunts of many of his classmates.

It is Trevante Rhodes, however, who really steals the show as Black, Chiron’s final iteration. This is, in many ways, the most inscrutable and mysterious of the character’s iterations and for that reason it is the most compelling. All of Chiron’s past traumas seem to roil beneath the surface of clenched exterior. As we learn during his reunion and rapprochement with Kevin (played as an adult by André Holland, who brings a certain frantic, almost desperate, energy to the character), no man (nor anyone else) has touched him since their erotic encounter on the beach. Black is a man who has struggled, and never quite succeeded, in finding a place in an unfeeling world. His eventual physical reunion with Kevin, in which he at last finds physical connection, is a powerful affirmation of his journey to fulfillment.

Moonlight remains a haunting film precisely because it is so piercing in its glimpse into Chiron’s psyche. Growing up a queer of color in America remains a struggle for many, and it is especially acute for men, for whom the burdens of traditional masculinity are sometimes almost too much to bear. Indeed, the screenwriter, Tarell Alvin McCraney has spoken eloquently on those burdens, and his acute sensibilities for the particular struggles faced by black men have found their way into the script and the characters that inhabit this world.

What strikes me the most about the queerness of this film, however, is how unspoken it remains. It writhes beneath the surface of the narrative, a key component of Chiron’s identity, yet one which he rarely explicitly expresses. It emerges in some of the most unlikely moments, as when he has his erotic encounter with Kevin, and when he later dreams about him before their fateful reunion that concludes the film. It is a poignant reminder of how queerness–tender, beautiful, sensuous–can provide meaningful connection and intimacy in even the bleakest and most unfriendly of worlds.

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Film Review: “Captain Fantastic” (2016)

These days, it somtimes feels like it’s impossible to find a film that doesn’t try to drown you in special effects and just focuses on telling a genuinely good story. If you’re lucky enough to live in a city with a decent film scene, it is still possible to find that endangered species known as a semi-original film. Fortunately for me, the Syracuse International Film Festival was running this past weekend, and I had the pleasure of seeing Captain Fantastic.

Viggo Mortensen delivers a truly (wait for it) fantastic performance as Ben, a radical who has raised his children in the wild, teaching them how to be self-sufficient and politically radical. However, he soon learns that his wife, who has been suffering from bioplar disorder, has committed suicide and that his in-laws are refusing to honor her wish to be cremated. This precipitates a journey of father and family to civilization, where they have to decide whether to continue on with their way of life or make the switch back to the consumerist world they have left.

Certainly, the dominant strand of the film’s narrative asks us to sympathize with Ben, at least up to a point. All of the points that he makes about the essential corruption and emptiness of contemporary American culture are made manifest when father and company pay a visit to his thoroughly middle-class sister Harper (Kathryn Hahn) and her equally doofy husband Dave (Steve Zahn). They, and their incredibly ignorant and obnoxious sons, are the epitome of everything that the family has steadfastly rejected. Thoroughly immersed in their consumerist world, the sons know nothing of (to take just one example), the Bill of Rights, while Harper and Dave can’t even bring themselves to be honest with their teenage sons about the real cause of their aunt’s death. Their lives are as empty and fatuous as Ben claims, and it’s hard not to see the life he has created for his children as infinitely preferable.

However, Ben is no saint. He can be stubbornly unwilling to budge, and the film contains hints that it is this intrasigence, this inability to see beyond the limits of his own experience and beliefs that may have contributed (however indirectly) to his wife’s death. His father-in-law Jack represents the stolid, traditionally wealthy masculinity, a stifling and demanding atmosphere that, we are led to believe, may have contributed to his daughter’s flight from civilization, while Harper and Dave stand in for the bankrupt emptiness of modern parenting.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective on these things), the film ultimately seems to come down somewhere in the middle. The final sequence shows the family has finally settled down on a peaceful farm, where the children have both the stability they need yet also continue to practice the arts of self-reliance. The last frame may be held just a fraction of a second too long, but it is precisely this protracted stillness that gives it its resonance, allowing us to see that they have at last managed to attain a measure of balance between the competing impulses of their lives. To this viewer, it felt like something of an extended allegory of the abrupt uprising of the American Left during the 2016 election, which has ultimately had to settle for a thoroughly moderate candidate who, all things considered, probably preferable to the alternative(s).

While Mortensen deserves a great deal of the credit for the success of the film, no small amount is also due to the supporting cast, both the adults (Frank Langella is particularly unpleasant as Jack), as well as all of the children, each whom brings something unique to the mix. Their responses to their father’s way of life range from celebratory to condemnatory, and each of the young cast brings something unique to the mix. Captain Fantastic is one of those rare (VERY rare, IMO) films that actually manages to make the younger members of the cast as essential as the older ones.

All in all, Captain Fantastic is a true gem of a film, in large part because it doesn’t have grand aspirations. It wants to tell a strong, compelling story, and that’s what it does. In today’s blockbuster world, that is no small accomplishment.

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Film Review: “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” (1970)

Since I watched Planet of the Apes in theaters recently, I’ve felt the familiar urge to revisit the other entries in the original film series. So, of course, I began with the sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, in which another astronaut, Brent (the absolutely delicious James Franciscus) crash-lands on the titular planet, only to discover (as Taylor did) that he is on Earth. In the process, he finds himself caught in the middle of a war between the apes and a race of telepathic mutants inhabiting the ruins of New York City.

While many critics find this one of the weakest entries in the series, I actually think it’s the strongest next to the original. This is due to three factors. One, the continued intractability of Dr. Zaius, who cannot see beyond his own understanding of the world and who thus inadvertently brings about its destruction. Zaius, brought to nuanced live by the late, great Maurice Evans, will always be one of my absolute favourite Apes characters. Two, General Ursus, showcasing the wonderful talents of James Gregory (and who could ever forget the incredible line, “The only good human, is a dead human!) In many ways, he represents the darker strain of ape society, the (dare I say it) almost human drive to conquer and destroy those that are different.  Three, the terrifying vision of the future of humanity amid the radioactive ruins of New York City. While they have some power, they also recognize their own fragility in the face of the brute force that the apes possess.

I always feel a pleasurable thrill of terror when I first see the ruins of New York City, as Brent wanders through its underground remains. There is something, I think, sublime about seeing the remains not only of one of the world’s greatest cities, but specifically of the bastions of man’s economic and enlightened achievements (hence the appearance of both the Stock Exchange and the NYPL). Similarly, it’s hard not to feel a mixture of horror and utter captivation when you realize that the telepaths have taken over St. Patrick’s Cathedral in order to offer their adulation to the bomb that could, literally, bring all life on Earth to an end. The fact that they have so thoroughly interwoven the most destructive weapon known to man into their religious life is one of the film’s more brilliant inventions, as is the fact that they only reveal their “inmost selves” to their “god” (though they normally wear masks and wigs to make themselves appear normally human, they reveal their mutated selves during worship).

Of course, it’s rather easy to read the telepaths as being more than slightly ridiculous in their worship of the Alpha/Omega bomb, but I personally find those scenes to be intensely, viscerally disturbing. I suspect this has to do with the fact that in this world the bomb has become indissolubly wedded to the divine, man’s ability to co-opt God’s destructive capabilities is indeed terrifying to contemplate. This is hardly surprising, especially if (as I have) you have studied the period and know that, indeed, there were many who saw in the bomb the incarnation of a divine power. The film tempers this somewhat by allowing Taylor the final triggering of the bomb, though to my eye it remains unclear whether he does it as a final thrust of revenge toward the intractable Zaius or whether it just happens to be where he falls after his fatal shooting (to my eye, it remains ambiguous).

In many ways, the vision of the world offered by Beneath is even more terrifying than its predecessor. In this world, humans occupy two equally unpalatable positions in this world:  either utterly devoid of the basic patterns of civilization or reduced to dwelling in a ruined city whose wreaked visage matches their own. There is really no hope for redemption, except for the perilous, ultimately fatal one offered by the detonation of the bomb.

Even the ending is, in its own way, bleaker than the original film. While there was at least hope that civilization and the future, even if ruled by apes, would continue (such was Dr. Zaius’ hope when he had the signs of man’s former dominance destroyed) in the first, at the end of this one we know that the entire planet has been effectively rendered a dead wasteland by the Bomb. The dreary intonation at the end, pithy and matter-of-fact, suggests that, in the end, the Earth is but an unimportant part of the universe.

Truly, a terrifying proposition.

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Film Review: “Star Trek Beyond” (2016) and the Political Power of Compassion

I am not, as they say, a Trekkie. I have only passing familiarity with the original series, though I did enjoy The Next Generation in my youth. However, I’ve been keeping abreast of the most recent cinematic incarnation of the property and, I have to say, I was very impressed with the most recent installment, Star Trek Beyond.

The film follows the crew of the Enterprise as they enter an unmapped nebula in an attempt to rescue a group of stranded researchers. Unbeknownst to them, this is a ruse by the sinister alien warlord Krall, who is determined to unleash a terrible biological weapon on the Federation and bring about its destruction.

Part of what makes this such a compelling film is that it really showcases the acting talents of its cast in a way that the previous films did not. Chris Pine continues to grow into the role of Captain Kirk, and in this film he struggles with his own sense of self and identity. He wonders, as we all do, whether being the captain of the Enterprise is everything that he had wanted it to be.

The other characters face similar struggles, including Spock, who believes that he may be better suited continuing the work of Ambassador Spock on New Vulcan and has parted ways with Uhura. The emphasis on the personal and the bonds among the characters and their loved ones is, I think, one of the things that grants this film its sense of pleasantness. Extraordinary in this regard is the revelation that Sulu is married to a man, a move which I (unlike George Takei) found touching and a fulfillment of the inclusive, compassionate ethos that has long been a hallmark of the Star Trek brand.

For his part, Krall is a compelling villain, both because of the way in which Idris Elba (who is, in my opinion, one of the finest actors of his generation), portrays him but also because he is the distillation of the bellicose spirit that seems to animate so much of contemporary American political and social life. As reprehensible as his acts are, he is understandable precisely because he was a product of a worldview that seems eerily and uncomfortably close to our own. What can or does a person do when all they have been trained to do is kill? The Federation ethos (with which we are meant to identify) suggests that compassion and cooperation are the bulwarks against chaos and relentless aggression; Krall believes that the world should be returned to that Hobbesian state of primordial anarchy, so that only the strongest will prevail. Ultimately, of course, compassion wins out in terms of the narrative struggle, and that is an important facet of the film’s political project.

This compassionate ethic plays out at both the macro and micro levels of the film’s narrative. On the micro level, such compassion ranges from Bones’ caring for Spock’s injuries to Scotty’s willingness to help out a complete stranger. On the macro, of course, it is the entire Federation that stands opposed to Krall’s vengeful wish to bring about the dismantling of this era of peace and prosperity. The fact that the film satisfactorily resolves these narrative threads and reveals the newly-constructed Enterprise helps us, as viewers, feel similarly sanguine about the political future.

All in all, I found this the strongest of the rebooted Star Trek franchise, in no small part because it manages to deftly handle the various emotional registers that it puts into play. The spirits of both Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin seem to hover over this film, adding a wistful and rather sad note to the proceedings. Yet they also remind us of the power and the joy of life and of the promise that this particular universe continues to hold out to us.

While it would certainly be going too far to say that Star Trek is an allegory of our contemporary political moment (one can assume it was in production and the script written before it became clear Donald Trump, a real-world Krull if I’ve ever seen one, would become the GOP nominee for president), I do think it would be fair to say that the film can serve as a sort of collective conscience for all of us. At this point, we can either give in to our baser impulses and become the destructive, chaotic forces that Krull represents, or we can surrender to the better angels of our natures and work toward a brighter, more justice, more verdant future for all of us.

And I’ve got to say that I’m with the film on this one. A brighter future for everyone looks mighty fine to me.

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Film Review: “Zootopia” and the Triumph of Good Storytelling

As readers of this blog know, I’ve long been a fan of Disney. Admittedly, I rather fell off the wagon with Tarzan and some of the ill-conceived efforts that followed, but I’ve been largely on board since The Princess and the Frog.

Fortunately, Zootopia has reinforced my belief that we are living in a second Disney Renaissance.

The film follows Judy Hopps, an optimistic and ambitious young rabbit who yearns to move away from her small hometown and take up life as a member of the police force in the bustling metropolis of Zootopia. Once there, her fate becomes entangled with that of a huckster fox named Nick and the two of them, in turn, quickly become embroiled in a massive conspiracy designed to upend the precarious peace between predators and prey.

Disney has always had a knack for choosing voice actors who have a magical chemistry, and that is certainly the case with this film. Ginnifer Goodwin (Snow White from Once Upon a Time) brings her own particular brand of bubbly optimism to the character of Judy Hopps, while Jason Bateman lends an ironic (almost but not quite hopelessly bitter) twist to Nick. Their obvious chemistry (whether or not they actually recorded in the studio together), makes their relationship utterly compelling and believable.

Speaking of that relationship…I can’t tell you how relieved I was that they didn’t try to force some sort of romance subplot into a film in which it really did not have a place. Judy and Nick function quite well as friends, and it is actually rather nice that they remain friends at the end of the film. It would seem that Disney has finally figured out that the rigorous focus on hetero courtship that was the go-to narrative for so many years isn’t the only thing that kids and parents will go to see, and hopefully this bodes well for the future and for the kinds of films that the studio will be releasing in the coming years.

The humour in this film is both razor-sharp and surprisingly nuanced. While there are many parts of the film that will certainly appeal to children (the scene with the sloth in the DMV is one of those), I would hazard to say that most of the jokes are designed to appeal to people old enough to remember the first Disney Renaissance. In that sense, the film harks back not just to that earlier era of animated greatness but also to a deeper genealogy, one that includes such other

This being a Disney film of the old style, there is of course a moral at the end of the film:  not to judge by the species but instead by the person, er, animal. While this may appear trite to the more jaded among us, in an era in which Trumpist xenophobia and rampant racism seem to be the order of the day, it’s rather pleasant, even exciting, to see a mainstream film send such a positive message of acceptance and good-spiritedness, a film that shows that we are indeed stronger when we band together than when we constantly tear one another down. Further, it’s also nice to see a film in which the heroine doesn’t need a man to help her succeed but instead does so on her own terms.

In the end, though, it is not the technical dexterity of the film that really wowed me (though it does feature some truly magnificent animation). Instead, it is the power–simple and unalloyed–of a good story well-told. In this age of dazzling, eye-popping special effects magic and threadbare storytelling and endless franchises, it’s rather refreshing to see a film that simply stands on its own a storyZootopia doesn’t rewrite any of the things that we know about how narrative and plot should work, but then again it doesn’t have to. Instead, what it wants to do, and what it succeeds at doing, is showing us how pleasurable story-telling can be when it is done capably.

We can only hope–as I certainly do–that Disney will keep up with this trend and continue to wow us with the stories that made us fall in love with the studio in the first place.

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Review: “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (2014) and the Disappointment of Nostalgia

Okay, I have a confession to make. Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, I had a small (which is to say, enormous) obsession with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I saw all of the films, and I even went to the third one in theaters and enjoyed it (and if you’ve ever seen that film, you know how big of a deal that is). I watched the cartoon series religiously on Saturday mornings, and I spent enormous amounts of my Parents’ money on collecting the plethora of action figures that glutted the market. Then, sometime around 1995, I sort of fell out of love with them. I didn’t move into hatred or active dislike; I just didn’t watch them anymore.

Since then, I’ve seen several iterations of everyone’s favourite mutants make the rounds of popular culture. Up until now, I’ve managed to not see any of them, but I finally gave in and decided to watch the first film of the newly-rebooted series. The series is basically an origin story and includes all of the requisite characters:  Splinter, the four turtles named after Renaissance, April, and of course the Shredder. I’ll spare you the plot, mostly because it falls pretty squarely into many of the other origin stories laid out in earlier iterations.

The first half of the film is, perhaps unsurprisingly, utterly ridiculous in both conception and execution. Somehow, April manages to forget that she was intimately involved in the creation of the turtles, as she was always at her father’s lab during their creation. And, of course, somehow Eric Sachs, one of the film’s two villains, has been corrupted and led astray by the Shredder. So many things happen in the first half, but so few of them make any sense, and while this can be overlooked in some films, here it is definitely a significant flaw (among many others).

Fortunately, the latter half of the film largely dispenses with the narrative and just gives in to the spectacle and the action. Now, I know that this is not every critic’s cup of tea, but if you accept that part of the purpose of the action cinema is to inspire in the spectator a feeling of bodily control and power (Richard Dyer has a fascinating essay on this subject), it becomes much easier to give in and have fun along with the characters. Whatever the film’s other significant flaws, its cinematography in the action sequences is fluid and delightful.

The greatest tragedy of the film, however, is that the characters that should be its center are annoying (Michelangelo) or largely forgettable (Leonardo and Donatello). The exception is Raphael, who actually gets a bit of character development; indeed, I think the film would have succeeded more had it focused on his own journey from disaffected and alienated brother to part of a team. The film gestures toward this, but it really doesn’t have the narrative complexity or skill to be able to pull off this particular storyline with any grace or thoroughness.

On a larger level, I’m not entirely sure that the spirit that originally motivated the films and TV series of an earlier decade can really be translated into the present. Given that one of the producers of this film was Michael Bay, it’s no surprise that subtlety went right out the window, but even I was a little blown away by the too-muchness of Shredder’s mechanized armour and the hulking muscularity of the superheroes (to say nothing of the truly bizarre and not-very-good CGIed Splinter). Of course, the Turtles were never known for their subtlety or their nuance, but at least there was something joyous about their antics and their humour. This film, however, gives in to all of the basest impulses of its presumed adolescent audiences (including the obligatory flatulence joke), though these always seem to fall flat.

My final evaluation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? A complete and thorough….eh. It’s okay, I guess. Or, as I would put it to my students, it’s thoroughly okay. I’m still up in the air about seeing the sequel, though luckily I believe it will be coming to the local dollar theater. I’ll also admit that the fact that Bebop and Rocksteady, along with Krang, will be putting in appearances makes it somewhat more appealing.

I guess the most frustrating thing about the film is that I really wanted to love it, and I just didn’t. Part of that, certainly, is my own nostalgia for the original. An equal part, however, is the failure of the film to succeed either on its own terms or as a throwback to an earlier time. Who knows, maybe the sequel is better.

But I’m not holding my breath.

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Film Review: “The Boss” and the Triumph of Neoliberal Postfeminism

I went into The Boss expecting to be hugely entertained by two of my favourite contemporary actresses, Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Bell, and I wasn’t disappointed in that aspect (for the most part, anyway). However, the film as a whole failed to hold together in an effective way, due in no small part to a rather cobbled-together script, and the more I thought about it afterward, the more unintentionally absurd the narrative came to seem. Even more importantly, I began to realize that beneath its surface message of female empowerment lurked an unfortunate reliance upon the neoliberal/postfeminist myth that the key to women gaining equality is through buying into the capitalist system.

The film centers around Michelle Darnell (McCarthy), a powerful executive whose financial success belies her troubled personal past, in which she was shuffled from foster home to foster home. When she is arrested for insider trading, she loses her fortune while her long-suffering assistant Claire (Bell) must find a new job in order to support herself and her daughter, Rachel (Ella Anderson). However, Michelle is not content with her lower station, and so she schemes with Rachel and a reluctant Claire to rebuild her fortune on the back of the latter’s phenomenal brownie recipe.

Even this cursory plot summary reveals the extent to which the film indulges in (and encourages us to indulge in) the neoliberal/postfeminist fantasy that the key to empowerment is not through challenging, much less overturning, the current capitalist system. Instead, women can gain empowerment if they are willing to  learn the rules of the system and play by them. This not a feminist utopian tale, but a postfeminist one, for the film suggests that it is important for a woman to claw one’s way to the top of the system. Even more bewilderingly, it only cursorily acknowledges the fact that women remain vastly unrepresented within the realms of business, and while it could certainly have attempted to address that in a meaningful way, it refuses to do so. (And let’s not even get started on the idea that we are being led to identify and root for a member of the 1%, in 2016, the year of Trump and Sanders).

And it is also worth pointing out that the fortune they manage to raise stems from baking. It certainly feels like the film wants us to see their claiming of the kitchen space as a site of female monetary empowerment as a good thing, but for me it just feels slightly regressive. Could they really not have thought of another way for the women in this film to make money?

All of which is not to say that the film isn’t funny (which is, after all, one of the primary goals of a comedy film). McCarthy, as always, delivers her own particular brand of physical comedy, though it is notably toned down from many of her earlier performances. I have always found McCarthy to be a tremendous and genuinely good actress, someone whose range is far greater than her material typically grants her (Bridesmaids, Spy, and The Heat being notable exceptions). Here, she actually gets something of a compelling backstory, as the introductory sequence makes it clear that she never had the family that she so clearly desired. Further, she brings a genuine emotional depth to this seemingly very shallow and unthinking character.

There is also an undeniable chemistry between Bell and McCarthy, and it is this relationship more than anything that provides something of an antidote to the film’s otherwise regressive postfeminist politics. The characters come to deeply care for one another, and it is their extraordinary bond that provides what little narrative coherence the film has to offer. Indeed, I’m not sure that, had it not been Bell and McCarthy in the lead roles, the film would succeed even as much as it does.

The film does have some other very notable flaws. While Peter Dinklage is undeniably one of today’s finest actors, he is criminally misused in this film, relegated to a frankly pretty absurd and not at all compelling caricature of his usual roles. To my mind, it’s actually almost criminal how much his talent is wasted in this film, proof that, until better film scripts come his way, he should stick with Game of Thrones or risk having his (well-deserved) reputation as a genuinely good actor tarnished.

The greatest failing of The Boss, however, is its script. There are parts of that simply do not make sense, and the film attempts to paper over them with thin threads of narrative causality. Again, McCarthy can largely keep this train rolling along on her own, but there are even aspects of her character and her decisions that don’t entirely make sense. And the final “action” sequence in which the heroines manage to recapture a contract is absurd (and not in the good, clever way) right down to its roots. One wonders whether the screenwriters had ever read even the most basic guide on plot and narrative coherence (the answer is clearly no).

The Boss is an incredibly flawed film, both in its plot and in its politics. Nevertheless, it is amusing, so if you can bring yourself to ignore the negative parts of the film, it is worth watching. Hopefully, though, McCarthy, Bell, et al will be able to find a stronger film for their considerable talents on their next outing.

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Queer Classics: “The Boys in the Band”

Today in “Queer Classics,” we’re reaching back in time a bit, to what is considered to be one of the key films in the history of queer cinema, William Friedkin’s The Boys in the Band. Based on the play of the same name, the film depicts a birthday party thrown by Michael (Kenneth Nelson) for his frienemy Harold (Leonard Fray). The invitees include:  the flamboyant and campy Emory (Cliff Gorman); Michael’s one-time lover Donald (Frederick Combs); tortured Bernard (Reuben Greene); vexed couple Hank and Larry (Laurence Luckinbill and Keith Prentice); toyboy Cowboy Tex (Robert La Tourneaux); and, rather inadvertently, allegedly straight Alan (Peter White). When Michael initiates a phone game in which each player must earn points by calling and confessing feelings of love to someone whom they truly loved, the result is a bubbling up of long-repressed tensions and hatreds.

One can see in this film a glimpse of a gay identity in flux. Released the year after Stonewall, one can see in these young gay men a great deal of the self-hatred that was part and parcel of that identity (and, unfortunately, still is in many places). References to psychologists and therapists abound, and the rampant consumption of drugs (both recreational and prescription), suggests the bleakness with which these characters view their lives. Furthermore, the frictions between Hank and Larry–the former of whom wants monogamy and commitment, the latter of whom wants commitment without the monogamy–highlights the deeply troubled history of same-sex coupledom. While monogamy is taken as the standard by which all queer relationships are evaluated today, this film shows that it is possible, and even desirable, to look outside that model and that it is possible, just possible, that two people can find fulfillment with one another without its strict binds.

The biting humour is as stinging now as it was way back in those bad ole days, precisely because so many of us queer men still feel a bit distant from the mainstream culture of which we are a part. Those of us who still relish the revolutionary potential of an explicitly queer politics still take a bit of an ironic look at the homonormative world around us. While those in this film do the same, their caustic venom is turned inward as much as it is outward.

The most difficult question to ask, and to answer, is whether any of the characters are truly likable. There is something tragically comic about Michael, who has clearly internalized the homophobia of the surrounding culture to such an extent that he begins to lash out at the people that he no doubt loves the most (but isn’t that what we all do, after all?) For his part, Harold is Michael’s double, and he may be even better at the bitterness game than his friend, a fact of which he is well aware. Neither of them may be likable in the traditional sense, but the film does seem to want us to understand them in the context of the culture that produced them.

There is something both profoundly moving and bleakly nihilistic about Michael’s final statement. When he says that, like his father who died in his arms, “I don’t understand any of it. I never did,” one gets the distinct sense that he is speaking not just of the mystery over what Allan was crying about, but also about the entire nature of their queer existence. How do you cope with a world that either denies your existence or ruthlessly pathologizes you? How do you live with yourself or with others? It’s a bleak and terrifying question, and the films ending ultimately fails to answer it with anything other than a certain nihilistic despair.

Beyond the acidic, biting dialogue there are so many other wonderful flourishes that truly call to a gay audience. There is, for example, the book on the films of Joan Crawford that Harold reads while the telephone game proceeds. If ever there were a sign of abjection, it would be Crawford, and her inclusion, however oblique, is one of the film’s defter touches.

Does the film, as so many have stated, trade in stereotypes about gay men? Certainly, but that doesn’t mean that such stereotypes don’t often have at least a slight ring of truth. For that reason, I found the film echoed many of the experiences I still have today, calling to that part of myself that still, strangely, yearns for those things that make gay culture, well, gay (or queer). I’ve often felt that I was born a generation or two too late, and that the things that I take pleasure in are the things treasured by the generations that preceded me. For that reason, I loved this film, and would definitely recommend it to all those seeking to gain an understanding of queer history.