Thursday, December 1, 2016

Mourning in America: JACKIE


Jackie puts a First Lady first, letting her story be the central narrative. When it comes to a reenactment of the Kennedy assassination, an event as thoroughly picked over as any in history, it does some good to approach it from an atypical angle. Here we get not a stations-of-the-cross rehearsal of the 1963 trip to Dallas that ended with shots into a limousine ending the life of America’s president, but a tumultuous swarm of swirling memory, impression, and emotion from the woman sitting beside him. She’s trying to put her life back together, protect her late husband’s legacy, keep her children safe, and come to grips with her traumatic experience. Her personal tragedy is also the nation’s. Her private grief must be matched by a public performance thereof. The shock, the pain, the deep horrifying psychological wound torn open the instant her husband slumped forward, bloody and dead, into her lap is her only constant. Her fear of what it means for her and her family’s future – where will they live? what will she do? how will they move on? – is matched only by the eerie insecurity hanging heavily in the air during every conversation and every decision she must now have and make.

When the film begins, it has been a week since the assassination. A reporter (Billy Crudup) arrives at Jackie Kennedy’s home for an interview. She wants her feelings respectfully and accurately presented to the world, an intimate expression after the overwhelming pomp of the state funeral. This is the impetus for screenwriter Noah Oppenheim (whose day job is head producer of the Today show) to unload a stream-of-consciousness memory kaleidoscope built out of a recreated TV special and glimpses of happy times – dinners, dances, concerts in the White House – before settling into a more routine procedural recounting of the raw, ragged days of deliberations and depression immediately following JFK’s death. Taken together, it adds up to history unfolding like a dream, a nightmare, a daze. Is this really happening? The characters seem to hold this unspoken question behind their eyes. Assistants (Greta Gerwig, Richard E. Grant, Max Casella), Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), and a priest (John Hurt) circle with comforting gestures and painful to-do lists. A new President (John Carroll Lynch) and First Lady (Beth Grant) wait in the wings. Everyone is in a suspended state of shock and grief, and yet the world must continue spinning.

While the screenplay is occasionally too obvious – characters uttering expository or nakedly thematic pronouncements at each other – the filmmaking scrapes away many usual ticks and tricks of a period piece wax museum movie. Instead, Pablo Larraín, a Chilean director whose sharply entertaining political docudrama No showed his ability to find humanity in historical excitement, has filmed Jackie in such a way as to bring out the immediacy. This is an emotionally experiential film, with a hushed sound design, a haunting minimalist under-the-skin Mica Levi score, and pale funereal film stock. The camera floats and swerves behind Jackie, her impeccable wardrobe and styling holding together a public persona that’s been made instantly fragile. In tense conversations planning the funeral – it shares with Stephen Frears’ The Queen a similar sense of outsized importance on the symbolism of properly performed civic grief – she’s only just holding in her storm of emotions. For her colleagues, for her children, for her country, she must always make the next best move.

This sense of competing loyalties pervades the film. Who can imagine being forced to live the worst week of your life with the nation hanging on your every move? “Nothing’s mine to keep,” Jackie admits, heartbreakingly, discussing the furnishings of the White House, but you can feel the fresh absence of her husband in the line. In fact, the film’s best move is allowing JFK to not be a character in the film. He’s glimpsed here and there, but it is his lack of presence that becomes his presence. He is gone, and that fact hangs heavily over the film. (I was all set to praise the film for refusing to show the assassination itself, instead relying on a close-up monologue explaining the event and an evocative shot racing behind the car as it speeds away from the fateful Plaza. And then it shows it, like a poison-pill reveal near the end. That troubles me, and I remain unsure as to what extent it’s supposed to be a jolt, and how much it is meant to fulfill a sick expectation of witnessing the head ripped open in a flash.) Jackie asks the driver of the hearse, “Do you remember James Garfield?” When he says he doesn’t, she sets herself to the task of making sure her husband doesn’t suffer that fate, to be snuffed out of the history books twice over.

Tasked with holding this whole endeavor together shot by shot is Natalie Portman, who takes on the role of Jackie with all the careful seriousness and empathetic precision you could ask. It’s a calculated performance, carefully poised, a soft-touch impersonation despite the weight of every choice making itself known in each frame. Portman affects a wispy moneyed East Coast rasp, sliding each line of dialogue out of a placid countenance with pained effort and grim hoarseness. She’s playing a woman of recognizable look and sound, now rattled, but barely wanting to show it. To do so she’s exerting tremendous effort. This is one of those rare performances where the exertion and the decision-making process of the actor in question are transparently evident, but in a way that aligns with – mirroring and bolstering – the character’s struggle to play the role she wants to project to the world. It’s an interesting collaboration between director, writer, and star in evoking an imagined torment of a historical figure’s bleakest days. They, and she, aren’t hiding behind grand ceremony and symbolism, but using it to find some small sense of understandable emotion on which to cling.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Hooray for Hollywood: RULES DON'T APPLY


Rules Don’t Apply is an old-school Hollywood movie with throwback Hollywood pleasures. But it’s also unusual enough it's never quite the movie you think you’d get. It starts in the early 60s at the bottom of the business, with two fresh-faced young people ready to make a go of careers in showbiz. There’s a meek but determined chauffer for the Howard Hughes companies (Alden Ehrenreich) who hopes to one day actually meet the man and propose a real estate venture. There’s a comely chaste Christian beauty queen (Lily Collins) invited to L.A. to be under contract, put up in a fancy bungalow, and given a salary of $400 a month while awaiting a screen test. They’re each just one of many such people in the Hughes universe, drivers and ingénues kept waiting for a day he may need them, underlings getting by despite the rules and stipulations that come with their paychecks. Of course these two sweet young people start making eyes at each other, progress to light flirting, and eventually might even fall into something like unspoken love underneath their contract’s strict no-fraternization policy. The setup is there for a frothy farce, a gentle rom-com, but it keeps getting crashed into, stirred up, distracted and diverted by the mad man running the show.

That’s the movie’s appeal, a handsome period piece comedy steered by the choppy, unpredictable whims of its outsized supporting player. Hughes, the eccentric billionaire, is by this time of his life retreating into isolation and madness. He’s a figure of mystery, star-power held at first off screen, then hiding in dark rooms or barking orders over the phone. When he’s not around, his power and influence dominates nonetheless. It’s fitting, then, that Warren Beatty, one of Hollywood’s most famous leading men once upon a time, plays him. Now 79, the multi-hyphenate behind Reds and Dick Tracy hasn’t appeared on screen in 15 years, a long absence for someone of his stature, so his impeccably delayed arrival mirrors Hughes’ reclusiveness. When he finally does appear, stuttering, drifting off topic, lost in his own thoughts, giving in to his eccentricities, we can feel the sense of his fading glory by seeing Beatty play up how little cool he brings to the part. He still has charisma, but he funnels it into a figure who is losing his, and who maintains it through wealthy and mystery. He has a great Movie Star entrance, but soon commands the screen by being both more and less than you’d think.

Beatty, who also wrote and directed this passion project (his first behind-the-camera work in nearly 20 years), uses himself sparingly. He lets the picture sit squarely with the youngsters who are struggling to get ahead by using Hughes’ erratic largess and ignoring or indulging his inconsistent follow-through. This fizzy youthful possibility simmering as sublimated romantic interest powers the movie’s rushing sensation of lives out of control. Hughes is desperately trying to hang on to his business interests as investors cast doubts on his ability to manage his assets while an odd, stubborn recluse. He wants control – an idea that extends from his particular instructions about every aspect of his life, down to the behaviors of his underlings – even to the point of changing his mind simply because he can. (Or because he makes so many frivolous micromanaged decisions he can hardly keep track of them all.) It’s a tremendous part Beatty’s written for himself – simultaneously fumbling with befuddled humor and carrying a constant underlying gloom – which is all the more effective for occupying the unusual position of driving the plot while staying on the margins.

Clearly wrestled into submission, the just-over-two-hours final picture has four credited editors and a brisk pace, rocketing through scenes and developments with a quick chop-chop-chop attitude. A host of great actors (Martin Sheen, Matthew Broderick, Candice Bergen, Annette Benning, Haley Bennett, Megan Hilty, Paul Schneider, Taissa Farmiga, Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Oliver Platt, Alec Baldwin, and many more) waltzes through small roles, clearly enjoying chewing meaty material in fun scenes. None stay long, but all add immeasurably to the texture and personality of the worlds in which our leads swim. (The ensemble is so stuffed, the performers must’ve shown up at the mere call to be in Beatty movie. Or maybe they all had larger roles in earlier cuts.) The zippy speed feeds the fast pace of life lived according to an unpredictable boss, and the rushing energy of young people trying not to be in love. The pair at the film’s center do, after all, seem perfect for each other. They’re cute – Collins with young Hollywood’s most expressive eyebrows, while Ehrenreich is blessed with one of his generation’s most sympathetic half-squints – trading rat-a-tat dialogue with screwball aplomb.

As the mechanics of the plot send the young nearly-lovers together and then apart, into their own personal setbacks while chasing diverging goals and unsettled futures, there’s a tinge of melancholy that settles over Caleb Deschanel’s warm cinematography. Hughes, too, serves as a funhouse mirror reflecting and refracting (in addition to compounding) their problems. Here’s a man who turned his father’s company into a global success, and still feels empty inside, trying to fill futile days with pretty women to ogle, underlings to boss around, and technology to futz with. (There’s a pretty terrific reaction shot of a speaker, dryly funny as an emphasis of loneliness when one character’s over-the-phone revelation is met with icy silence.) Beatty knows how to get the tragicomic mixture in exactly the right proportions, and the film’s paradoxical frantic meandering settles into a lovely rhythm of dramatic and comedic incidents, big laughs that can get swiftly choked off in a poignant pause. It’s as spirited on the surface as it is sad and reflective underneath even the bubbliest moments. It’s a big glossy movie working in the spirit of a small scrappy one.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Spies Like Thus: ALLIED


It is fitting Allied, a glossy new film from Robert Zemeckis, opens on Thanksgiving weekend, because its appeal is not dissimilar from a Macy’s parade. The movie is a shiny empty spectacle in which two performers of balloon-sized star power are paraded down a straightforward, unsurprising route. Zemeckis is too skilled a technician to make it badly, but for all the sharp, clear staging and gleaming period detail, he hasn’t thought through a way to make the screenplay jump into anything resembling life. It’s beautifully inert, handsomely dull. He’s clearly out to make a grand old-fashioned entertainment, a World War II spy picture that – colorful widescreen use of the R-rating aside – could’ve been made in the forties. It starts in Casablanca – a real statement of purpose, that – with two Allied spies (Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard) meeting on sand-swept streets. They are to play husband and wife Vichy sympathizers, get invited to the German ambassador’s upcoming party, and then kill every Nazi in the place. That’s a great hook, and afterwards it’ll spin out in what should be gut-wrenching consequences, but instead dwindle to boredom.

The peculiar tension of Zemeckis’s artificial approach is highlighted in the opening shot, a slow move around Pitt parachuting into the desert as he slowly, gracefully, lands upright on two feet with a soft puff of sand. It looks as if he’s standing still with scenery composited in around him, like a promo shot for a Virtual Reality headset. But it’s also a terrifically entertaining dose of stardom as Pitt – perfectly coiffed and tailored – is met by a car in the middle of nowhere. He’s driven to town where he meets Cotillard, who is wearing a glossy dress stunningly draped over her figure. Zemickis is in full command of his dazzling technique, letting the two spies get drawn into a real romance flowering under their cover story. Asked how she can be such an effective spy, Cotillard responds that she keeps the emotions real. Indeed, the same goes from the opening hour of the film, which features elaborate camera fakery and intimate collisions of charisma, climaxing in two moments. First, they finally make love in the back of a car, the camera spinning around the vehicle while a howling digital sandstorm whirls outside. Second, they gun down Nazis at a blood-splattered party. Fun times.

After a decade spent making (underrated) animated films, Zemeckis is now three films into his return to live action. He’s clearly enjoying the full CG complement of tools at his disposal to finally create complex camera moves he’s been working towards his whole career. Think about the trickery on display in Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, and Contact and watch how much bigger, longer, and more complicated the artifice can be in Flight’s wild plane crash or The Walk’s vertigo-inducing skyscraper tightrope. He’s not doing anything so elaborate here, instead concocting with cinematographer Don Burgess’s scrubbed smooth images a sort of vintage throwback spy movie, with patiently filmed polished backlots and wardrobe, perfect and shiny, the better to complement his movie stars. There’s just nothing like putting a real person in an elaborately imagined feat of moviemaking. (Perhaps it’s worth pointing out Zemeckis’s three post-animation films contain nude scenes. I suppose that’s making use of the live in live action?) So when sharply dressed people watch the sun rise over the sand dunes, Nazis get blown apart, or London’s skies light up with enemy fire, there’s a charge to seeing the layers of phony visual interest designed for our amusement.

But for such a good-looking film, it grows tedious the instant it introduces its most gripping complication. Pitt and Cotillard return from Casablanca to England, where they promptly decide to get married. A year passes, during which they have a child, born during an air raid in one of the movie’s best hyperbolic set pieces. Then, one fateful Friday, Pitt is called into a secret meeting where his superiors (Jared Harris and Simon McBurney) tell him his wife is most likely a Nazi spy. They’ll know for sure by Monday morning. He’s to act like nothing’s out of the ordinary, but if she’s found guilty he’ll be the one pulling the trigger. If he doesn’t, he’ll face indictment for conspiracy. This should be gripping material, like Mr. and Mrs. Smith in reverse, dazzling espionage funneled into a comfortable domestic life instead of the other way around. Every minute of this weekend should be loaded with portent. And yet writer Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things) has designed a screenplay that separates the couple for large portions of this second half, sending Pitt on increasingly inane attempts at investigating that are both useless and fruitless. For such a great spy, it takes him a dreadfully long time putting the clues together.

Zemeckis has the right cast and crew to pull off a stylish WWII thriller, but the screenplay tunnel visions into its least interesting aspects. It privileges a limp mystery over a rich vein of emotional marriage metaphor lingering untapped below the surface. In sidelining Cotillard, it shoves the romantic tension and the questions of betrayal far into the background. In isolating Pitt it leaves him adrift in a plot beyond his control despite all attempts to gin up conflict to wander into. (A late breaking jaunt behind enemy lines is especially dunderheaded, adding nothing to the plot while separating him from where the entirety of the film’s dramatic interest sits.) As the movie enters its long, slow, concluding sequences, it finally succeeds in choking off personality and promise while snoozing through dull revelations and last minute attempts at shocking turns of events. After such dazzling artifice and dopey movie pleasure up front, it’s depressing to watch it all fade to nothing by the end. It’s simply a great idea – and some polished, confident filmmaking – going to waste.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Heart of the Ocean: MOANA


Disney’s latest animated spectacular is Moana, a princess musical and a rollicking fantasy adventure. This is a refreshing change of pace, for it finds the legendary animation studio back in its comfort zone, willing to reappropriate the modes which made it famous for new purposes. It’s a familiar comfort and exciting transformation in the same way The Little Mermaid gave their princesses Broadway brio, Mulan brought action-movie heroism attacking gender norms, and Frozen challenged the primacy of fairy tale romantic love with an ode to sisterly connection. (Their Zootopia from earlier this year brought similarly absorbing excitement to their other staple – the talking animal picture.) Moana delivers everything you’d want from a Disney movie – a host of terrific songs, memorable characters, sympathetic motivations, beautiful images – with the willingness to tweak the formula. It has a stirring “I want” number, and not a hint of romance. It has cute comic relief animal sidekicks, and energetic high-stakes allegorical action sequences without a standard villain. Most moving in this concoction is its tight fit with its undertow theme about respecting tradition by bravely making your own path.

Set on a lushly imagined Pacific island, the film finds a tight-knit tribe where everyone has his or her place. It’s an idyllic society, close and loving, self-sufficient, tranquil, tropical. The chief (Temuera Morrison) proudly looks back over the generations, keeping his people safe by insisting they never travel past the reef. That’s why he’s so troubled by his precocious daughter (Auli’i Cravalho) as she’s drawn to the ocean. Her wise grandmother (Rachel House) – the village crazy lady, the old woman happily admits – mischievously encourages the young girl’s curiosity and connection, especially since a magical moment found the toddler mysteriously able to commune with the waves’ spirit, bending it to her will, cooperating with the current. Alas, such magic has no place in her father’s plans, which see her more as a practical, down-to-earth successor ready to deal with the daily business of running the tribe. But even all these years later, there’s the open ocean calling to her, some essential part of her inner being that must be explored.

She’s driven to do so by encroaching ecological disaster. Centuries earlier the demigod Maui misguidedly stole the heart of the sea’s living essence, letting loose a slowly seeping poison killing off islands’ natural resources. This environmental disaster is approaching Moana’s village, and the elders would prefer to ignore the warning signs – fish vanishing, crops rotting on the vine. Motivated by her grandmother’s urging, and the discovery of her people’s forgotten tradition of exploration on sturdy long-distance sailing ships, it’s up to this teenager to act. She needs to keep her world safe by taking a risk, shaking off recent tradition to tap into an even older way of life. She finds her way to the exiled Maui on a distant island, but he’s not exactly interested in helping her. Voiced by Dwayne Johnson, he’s dripping in charming gruffness and ironic tough guy ego hiding core softness. As he joins the quest as a companion and foil for our hero, his jocular energy spun on a modern sensibility aligns him with The Genie and Mushu in the Disney Renaissance tradition of star-power-driven postmodern magic aide.

With a musical setup, Moana is off on an adventure, encountering a Harryhausen mix of creatures: a giant shiny crab who sings like Bowie, tiny wordless coconut-clad pirates on massive ships, and a towering lava monster. The action swoops around like a Kung Fu Panda, deftly weaving through clockwork clever choreography. But it’s not just manic visual noise. It’s always grounded in the emotional journey of its deeply sympathetic – and traditional wide-eyed, fresh-faced, Disney-looking – lead. There’s a good mix. She’s strong, confident, determined, stubborn, and charming, driven to help but prone to doubts. Her rascally trickster demigod helper is a fine snarky counterbalance, always wavering as to whether or not he’ll be more help than hindrance. (The dumb chicken clucking along at their feet is a nice silly grace note who never outstays her welcome.) There’s sparkling personality in the voice performances, a fine quipping banter cut with real sentiment. The earnest underpinnings are underlined with a Miyazaki-like respect for the majesty of the natural world, the movie’s supernatural sights and warm, unexpectedly quiet conclusions imbued with a genuine feeling of magic and nature, ecology and spells fluidly mingling the humane and divine.

This movie is what Disney does best: beautifully rendered crowd-pleasing all-ages entertainment. It moves quickly, dancing easily between light comedy, grand adventure, soaring music, and deeply-felt poignant turns. Songs by Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda flow with his witty rhymes and emotional clarity, their melodies forming the backbone of Mark Mancina’s score. The CG animation is as striking as the medium allows (a rare feat, when so many competitors churn out plastic-looking garbage). Sunlight dapples through waves, sand has grit, water has heft, hair drips and flows, abundant green jungles move with leafy ripples. Best of all, the characters come to life with a lively glow in their skin, lit from within by real presence, so smooth and tactile you could almost reach out and caress it. (That it’s all that, but somehow still vibrantly cartoony is the best feature. It’s unreal in a most pleasing way.) Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker (Mermaid, Hercules) with Don Hall and Chris Williams (Big Hero 6), it plays every expected beat in big-hearted Disney musical tradition, and breathes with welcome, respectful cultural specificity and fresh voices. A moving story of respecting the past while finding your own future, Moana practices what it preaches, introducing a lovable young hero in the process.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Teen Life: THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN


It’s hard being a teen. Brining in hormones transforming a person from child to adult heightens emotional stakes. Every decision seems to weigh heavily on the future, relationships feel like they have life and death consequences, urges can lead to reckless decisions. Caterpillars are lucky no one can see them inside the cocoon. For us unlucky humans, we grow into new bodies, new thoughts, and new behaviors with gangly guesswork. Part of Nadine’s problem in The Edge of Seventeen is thinking she’s the only one hit hard by teenage changes. She compares herself to her handsome older brother – popular, sporty, fit, charming – and comes up short. She’s awkward, disheveled, with bouts of acne. And she has only one friend, the same one since second grade when they bonded over – metaphor alert! – a caterpillar they plan to raise together only to suffocate a few hours later. All these years later, and Nadine is sure she’ll be like that caterpillar: snuffed out in one way or another before she can flower into the confident young adult she doubts she’ll ever be.

Hailee Steinfeld stars, and it’s her best role since her debut in the Coen’s True Grit. She has a perfect face to play this exasperated young woman coming apart at the seams. She has a sympathetic openness cutting easily into sharp edges of pain and meanness. She’s able to send her dark eyes flitting between beleaguered and bitter, humble and harried, open fumbling flirtations, deep pain, and howling rage. She always struggled with feelings of isolation and loneliness, but now, in the years following her father’s death, she’s been lost in a fog of depression as well. Snark is her primary coping mechanism, throwing up a layer of derision, eye rolling, and mean quips to protect herself from further emotional damage. She affects an attitude of carelessness, because it’d hurt more if people knew she cared. But then her only friend (Haley Lu Richardson) starts dating her brother (Blake Jenner), and she finds herself adrift, no one to turn to. Her mother (Kyra Sedgwick) is too busy, and too lost in her own problems, to connect. Even her favorite teacher (Woody Harrelson) has only deeply sarcastic rebuttals to her flawed attempts to ask for advice.

As writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig unfolds the warm and prickly comic teen drama around Nadine, she captures an authentic adolescent attitude of perpetual crisis. We’re joining the lead’s life at a moment of snowballing emotional pain, which has its roots in sadness of the past, but escalates now at the brink of adulthood. She’s all-too-aware of her struggles, and in fear that no one cares. She thinks she’s the only person with problems this bad, even though her mom’s weak advice is to remember that everyone’s as empty as she is. (“They’re all just better at pretending.”) A low-key, dead-on portrayal of high school depression and angst, the movie proceeds in funny bantering exchanges between characters as Nadine huffs and sulks through her latest dramas. She’s witty, perceptive, intelligent, but the sort that leads a teen to pull back from peers, explaining away her self-imposed exile through self-loathing masking a feeling of superiority. (In one deeply sad moment, she confesses, “I just realized I have to spend the rest of my life with me.”) This feels far more real and raw than the usual teen movie constructions, and lets the comedy fall easily into cutting spikes of sadness.

There’s a feeling of honesty permeating the film’s decisions. Craig knows how to duck and weave in the teen comedy formula, when to fulfill expectations and when to subvert them. Jokes land hard, then emotions hit harder, because it marries the sharp comic timing of a Mean Girls or Easy A with the more nuanced emotional dexterity and direct dramatic appeal of, say, a James L. Brooks film. (He was a producer here.) It starts on the level of wardrobe, with Steinfeld wearing believably haphazard adorable rumpled teen wardrobe: baggy sweatshirts, cute clashing patterns, eccentric layering. She’s an understandable relatable teenage girl, recognizable in her look and convincing in the psychology driving her. She’s clearly suffering, and there’s no easy answer to any of her problems. Some will fade with age and maturity. Others will take a little more work. And Craig’s screenplay is wise about allowing her to come to realizations on her own terms, without expecting an easy solution to end the film on an artificial happily-ever-after.

This isn’t a smartest-teen-in-the-room movie. It’s sweet and sour, candid and heartbreaking, often very funny, but true to the way real teenagers talk. And it surrounds Nadine with a whole family unhappy in their own ways, complicating what might appear at first glance to be standard stock types with smart casting and clever writing. We first see the brittle mom, cool brother, torn friend, cute crush (both the Good Guy (Hayden Szeto) and Bad Boy (Alexander Calvert) varieties), and cranky teacher as the best possible version of what you’d expect from their apparent narrative function, tangential to our lead’s world. But soon they’re complicated with compassionate, empathetic nuance. It’s a lot like Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret in that way, another movie about a girl who learns that she has an effect on others, too. They’re not just figures in her life. She’s in theirs. This new awareness is the dawning of maturity, and though it’s not easy to get there, it’s fulfilling to make even one more step in the right direction.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Monster Hunt:
FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM


A screenplay is quite a different creature than a novel, and it’s usually interesting to see an author attempt to bridge the gap. In the case of J.K. Rowling, the creative and commercial lure of her Harry Potter world has led her to trade books for scripts as she attempts to expand the fantasy in new directions. She goes back in time for a prequel (of sorts) in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which leaves behind a contemporary Hogwarts for a Roaring Twenties’ New York City. Instead of the castle in the countryside where a British boarding school narrative provided both structure and boundless whimsical visuals in which a hero’s journey could patiently develop, here she finds a bustling retro-urban America. It shares with her earlier stories a magical community hiding in plain sight, with many of the same delights: goblins and house elves and wizards and all the processes and politics thereof existing behind a magical barrier, mostly unbothered by the concerns of muggles. They’re about to find the boundaries transgressed, when well-meaning but bumbling zoologist wizard Newt Scamander arrives with a suitcase full of magical critters that get loose, threatening to wreak havoc and expose their community.

So it’s both a new world and an old one, with fresh sights and peoples and times to explore while maintaining some slight sense of comforting familiar continuity with the terrific film adaptations of Rowling’s Potters. It’s a difficult task, especially for a writer whose drive to endlessly add imaginative filigrees on her work is reflected in her books’ page counts and her years of additional hints and factoids since the series’ conclusion. I certainly don’t begrudge her desire to live in the world she created and tell us more about it. The problem is with time and space. A movie simply can’t expand and explain as much as she’s attempting here, especially when it leaves her two biggest writerly assets – overflowing incident and whimsical detail – foreshortened. The result is a story that’s at once incredibly simple and worldbuilding that’s bewilderingly complicated. Sure, it’s a spin-off. But it’s also starting over. Rowling is stuck in the in-between space. Beasts is too beholden to what came before to break out and be its own thing, but too different to drift off much affection for the Potter story.

Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, playing up a sheepish introversion as an unusually passive presence for this sort of big phantasmagoric production) arrives uncharacterized in a world we know little about. As the movie, directed by Potter alum David Yates, slowly pulls its character through a tour of magical New York we pick up bits and pieces about stateside wizard tics and troubles. Here the Ministry of Magic is the Magical Congress of the United States of America (or MACUSA) hidden Platform 9¾ style in the Woolworth Building. They’ve banned magical creatures and have a strict no-muggle-fraternizing policy, so they’re quite taken aback when Scamander not only loses his suitcase of creatures but has accidentally left it with a normal man (Dan Fogler). A low-level MACUSA agent (Katherine Waterson) tries to keep a lid on the situation, enlisting her mind-reading sister (Alison Sudol) in assisting Scamander and his new muggle pal’s fetch quest for fantastic beasts of all shapes and sizes hiding out in a gleaming digital backlot period piece metropolis.

This is the simple part of the story, with Scamander anchoring a creature feature that finds its drive in a man determined to stop the beasts by saving them and understanding them instead of merely defeating and capturing them. There’s not much in the way of momentum or urgency to the task, as Rowling’s script has an unhurried amble. We spend long sequences simply looking at a CG menagerie, disappearing into his roomy suitcase zoo to look at googly-eyed monsters and ethereal mammals, or watching a bulbous glowing rhinoceros charging or an invisible monkey scampering. My favorite was a kleptomaniac platypus – he had the most personality of these fantasy animals – but a feathery dragon snake that shrinks or expands to fill available space is a runner up for its clever Miyazaki-like design. Still, it adds up to a whole lot of footage of actors looking with all the convincing awe they can muster at computer animation, punctuated by a lackadaisical, gently amusing bantering relationship between the underwritten leads. (To the extent they have personality it’s in whatever the performers are able to squeeze in between set pieces and exposition.)

Underneath this lighthearted, simple adventure with thin characters and slight sights simmers great, evocative tension and complicated conflicts. There’s brewing anti-witch conspiracy led by a wild-eyed zealot (Samantha Morton), whose adopted son (Ezra Miller) is torn between living up to her ideology or helping an authoritarian wizard detective (Colin Farrell). This rich, gripping side story is so fascinating I wished it were the center of the movie instead of a terrific subplot. It becomes the picture’s most fascinating addition to Rowling’s lore, growing into a possession tale arising out of twisted self-loathing, and with snaky tendrils into crooked politics as a slimy tycoon (Jon Voight) casts about for a scapegoat to fuel his electoral ambitions. That all this sits side-by-side with a sightseeing jaunt through capering creature hunts makes for a struggle with striking a tone. Even as the storylines converge, it feels like too much is held back or unspoken for fear of running out of material for proposed future sequels.

For this is a movie that’s intended to be the jumping off point for a new series, and as such falls into the trap of keeping its options open. There’s charm in the lovely, unusual grace notes – expressive slow motion, subtle (to the point of nearly undetectable) emotional tremors, soft humor, delicate slapstick. It’s not the typical blockbuster. It has personality, eccentricity in its construction while still beholden to the beats expected of studio spectacle, including the now inevitable huge CG cloud of muck throbbing in the sky for a finale. Yates, with many of the same crew members who so handsomely designed and decorated the Potters, dutifully conjures Rowling’s imagination, but in this case it can’t help but feel a little hesitant, a two-hour promise of more to come. If this flowers into a fresh new franchise, it’ll look in retrospect like a passable setup. For now, it’s merely a footnote, an afterthought to a far more satisfying story.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

First Contact: ARRIVAL


Like all the best science fiction, Arrival uses heady ideas to illuminate humanity. In the movie, large black pods descend upon the Earth, hovering ominously above twelve, seemingly random, spots on the globe. We don’t know what they want. Armies mobilize. News media chatters endlessly about our anxiety. And with a grim, secret determination, small bands of researchers try to figure out a way to communicate with the extraterrestrial visitors. Their silence is scary. But science just might find a way. We follow one of those teams, a linguist (Amy Adams) and a physicist (Jeremy Renner) recruited by a colonel (Forest Whitaker) to helicopter into the base around the UFO in the wilds of Montana. The object opens every 18 hours, a passageway into which they can climb and attempt to learn the aliens’ language. The mysterious beings hide behind a clear wall, spindly, spidery grey giants in milky off-white fog, uttering their inscrutable otherworldly tones. How we react to them, how we attempt to understand them, will determine the fate of the world. Is that kind of emotional intelligence, that drive to cooperate and understand, within the powers of the human race? After all, it’s so much easier to give into the fear of the unknown, to scapegoat, to shoot first and ask questions never.

Alien visitation narratives can take many forms: the campy, the exciting, the funny, the metaphorical, the ponderous. Director Denis Villeneuve, whose films like Prisoners and Sicario are pulp procedurals told with heavy deliberateness, treats Arrival with great seriousness. Austere, carefully composed images captured by cinematographer Bradford Young tell the story with patience, watching competent people doing their jobs in extraordinary circumstances. Maybe one of the most poignant effects of watching the military and scientists quickly get over their bewilderment and get down to the business of figuring out what to do next step-by-step is its fantasy of competency when faced with unprecedented events. Remember thinking our political and intellectual leaders could withstand such a test? But the movie isn’t safe fantasy. It interrogates the impulses with which mankind would greet such a moment. Some countries send researchers of their own into the UFOs nearest them, eager to share research with colleagues at other sites. Some countries lock down, militarize, and greet news of others’ discoveries with suspicion. One wrong move could bring unknowable consequences. Will one bad faith act wreck the planet for us all?

Villeneuve, working in the shadow of 2001 and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Contact, in which scientific process is diligently portrayed until leaping into pure poetry at the point of its most beautiful conjectures, imagines the events with cautiousness and precision. If this were to happen, this might be how it’d go down. There’s a tick-tock element of professionalism to the researcher’s routines. We see them pouring over data and fitfully sleeping before it’s time to go into the UFO again, hands shaking as they attempt new techniques of communication. The progress is slow. The stakes are high. Everyone moves as if in a daze, determined to get it right, too overwhelmed to register how mind-bending and world changing their position is. Villeneuve, so good at conjuring dread and awe, uses every ounce of his ability to give these events their full weight. We stare up at the massive edifice of the object, stare in wonder at its enormity, its unusual construction. It dwarfs the actors who move up into it. Clouds roll by. Below, the humans wait for its next move, if it will ever come. It’s a beautiful and terrifying unknown.

The impeccable craftsmanship of the film gives it its unshakeable mood, and its dizzying intensity. With a story like this one, equal parts mystery and reverence for what other filmmakers could’ve easily turned silly, tone is crucial. By maintaining tight control over the soft light and somber soundtrack, the eerie alien creaking and clunking and crisp man-made tools clicking and clacking, Villeneuve keeps the proceedings compelling in their stillness, their intellectual puzzling, and slowly accumulating power. The film begins with the story of Amy Adams’ linguist losing a loved one (earning weeping faster than any film since Up), associating the earthshaking discovery with death, grief and fear mingling as one melancholy unknown. This backstory is shuffled into the background as the film gets down to business, informing the emotional terrain subtextually. But as it bubbles back up, the film reveals its full intentions, melding a massive coldness with subtle warmth, tenderness invading the foreboding.

Screenwriter Eric Heisserer’s reverent expansion of the short story by Ted Chiang – one of our greatest sci-fi authors – faithfully recreates the full, breathtaking, head-spinning melding of real emotion and speculative fact. How fulfilling it is to be confronted with big budget sci-fi spectacle that actually grows more complicated and confounding as it goes along. So often these things start with provocative questions then funnel into a routine battle or cliché confrontation. Here, it’s a what-if scenario played out with respect for its characters’ weary commitment to facts and faith in the power of process. They aren’t gilded with subplots about interpersonal conflict. Instead, they have a job to do, and the plot is studded with smart suppositions and clever obstacles: an uncooperative foreign military, a soldier quietly radicalized by right-wing conspiracy websites, the adverse effects of little sleep and lots of stress. It asks a familiar question – what is one fleeting human life in the fullness of time and space? – in a gripping intellectual thought experiment procedural, and finds in the end not a puzzle-solving solution, but beautifully poetic answers in a way only this genre could find.
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