Recent Movie Roundup 19
Spring has sprung, and with it a whole bunch of movies I want to watch have arrived at the movie theater (as well as this bunch, see my recent review of Snowpiercer at Strange Horizons). Though I haven't exactly been suffering, there's certainly a somewhat fannish slant to my recent moviegoing that verges on the embarrassing--I need to get around to watching some grown-up films, pronto. Of course, it being the end of April these are nowhere to be seen, and by the time fall and its award-bait movies roll around I'll probably have forgotten this resolution. In the meantime, here are my thoughts on some the films I've seen recently.
- Veronica Mars - The Kickstarter-funded return to the world of the beloved TV series proves two things. One, that it was always a mistake for the show's second season to pick up immediately where the first season left off and try to recreate its "mystery in a high school" plot. And two, that while the world of Neptune, California and the character of wise-cracking, tiny, blonde private detective Veronica Mars had more life in them than just that first season, it really wasn't that much more life. The common complaint raised against Veronica Mars, the movie--in which the title character, who has abandoned detective work because of the damage it caused to her family at the end of the show's third and final season, is called back to investigate one last case when mythological ex Logan (Jason Dohring) is accused of murdering his girlfriend--is that it prioritizes servicing the fans (who after all made the film possible) over telling its own self-contained story that might attract new fans and maybe even jumpstart the franchise again. The film, accordingly, takes place at Veronica's ten-year high school reunion, and features multiple cameos from nearly all of the show's beloved recurring characters (perhaps most egregiously, this includes bringing back Chris Lowell's Piz just so that he can get his heart stomped on again as Veronica and Logan rush back into each other's arms). But to my mind, the real problem with this film is that it exposes the seams and cracks in the show's original concept.
The fact is, the high school detective premise doesn't work very well when your detective is ten years out of high school, and yet Veronica Mars behaves as if the problems that plagued Veronica as a teenager are the same ones that will dog her for the rest of her life if she returns to Neptune. Mapping the class system onto high school cliques was brilliant in the show's first season, but it becomes more and more of a stretch as Veronica and her contemporaries get older and move further away from who they were in high school, a fact that the film fails to acknowledge--which is how we end up with a scene in which Veronica's third-season sex tape is screened at the reunion to the general appreciation and bemusement of her former classmates, because this is something that a room full of 28-year-olds would find funny and appropriate. Similarly, behaving as if Veronica--who is now a lawyer--is just as powerless before Neptune's power structures as she was as a child is unconvincing, and so the film's "Forget it Jake, It's Neptune" conclusion--in which Veronica's only response to being confronted with the town's corrupt, borderline murderous sheriff's department is to go back to PI work (as opposed to launching an actual counter-offensive through the courts and the media)--feels demeaning to the character's much-lauded strength and intelligence. It's all very well to tell a noir story, but that noir tone needs to be earned, and this Veronica Mars doesn't do.
All that said, the things that kept the series going past the point where its story could carry it are back in force here. Kristen Bell and Enrico Colantoni are still brilliant as Veronica and Keith, dropping right back into their familiar rapport, which remains as powerful and compelling as it was even in the series's weakest moments. Logan clearly exists solely to satisfy shippers who can't get enough of his chemistry with Veronica--which is still palpable--and though the story the film offers for his post-series life is borderline absurd, it does provide a justification for toning Logan down, and making him Veronica's love interest and reward rather than the disruptive presence he was in the series. And though the film's worldbuilding is questionable, it's used in the service of Veronica's own journey towards understanding the kind of person she is. Though again, I don't find the choice the film offers, between being a successful lawyer away from Neptune and a hardscrabble private detective tilting at windmills in it, terribly believable, the terms in which Veronica Mars chooses to phrase this choice--as the struggle with an addiction to the PI life--are intriguing. It might have been interesting to see Veronica finally growing up, and embracing detective work from a place of power rather than helpless addiction, but if you take it as a given that Veronica Mars is, like the TV series, trapped by its core concept, what the film does with this concept has enough glimmers of originality to make it worth watching, and a worthy successor to the show's brilliant first season.
- Frozen - Six months of the internet falling over itself to crown Disney's latest the greatest thing since sliced bread probably didn't do it any favors with me once I finally sat down to watch it. Frozen is a good film, but for the most part it recapitulates the plot and structure of Tangled, and does them slightly less well. There's a bright-eyed, adventurous but sheltered heroine eager to see the world, a cynical and world-weary love interest who starts out helping her for selfish reasons but quickly finds himself won over by her infectious enthusiasm, and a time-sensitive mission they embark on together, during which they fall in love. There's a little more than this to Frozen, which might be why it's so awkwardly paced--it takes forever to set up its story, then rushes through its most important emotional beats (among them, the development of all its central relationships, including the central romance). Along the way, the jokes are less funny (though Josh Gad's talking snowman is delightfully surreal) and the songs are less good (even the famous "Let It Go," though a good song in itself, feels weirdly out of place in this movie, a pop anthem lost amid the rest of the musical-style soundtrack).
The crucial difference between Frozen and Tangled is, of course, the fact that its central relationship--its central love story--is between sisters, not lovers. Based very loosely on Andersen's "The Snow Queen," Frozen imagines the title character as Elsa (Idina Menzel), a princess born with a power over ice that she can't control, and whose parents have isolated her from the world and convinced her to completely suppress her powers. When the pressure of keeping herself under total control proves too much for Elsa, she runs away and inadvertently starts a permanent winter, and her younger sister Anna (Kristen Bell), who has spent her life hurt and confused by her sister's absence, tries to rescue her--from her own power and from the opportunistic, power-hungry nobles trying to snatch their throne. It's an intriguing premise, but one that Frozen for the most part fumbles. The most interesting thing about Tangled was its complex and often ambivalent depiction of the smothering, abusive relationship between Rapunzel and her mother, and Frozen has the opportunity to do the same thing--this is, after all, a film about a child who was mistreated by well-meaning but horribly misguided parents, and the sibling who doesn't understand her family's dysfunction but was nevertheless damaged by it. And yet Frozen repeatedly flattens what should be Elsa and Anna's complex personalities and relationship. Elsa should be angry and conflicted towards her family, but because the film kills her parents off in its prologue, there's no one to direct that anger at except "innocent" Anna, which allows the film to neatly solve what should be Elsa's complex issues through Anna's simple love. Her ambivalence about her powers is similarly very neatly solved--the exhilaration she feels at finally letting them loose in the film's middle segments, and particularly "Let It Go," is replaced by domesticated, safe applications by the film's end, with no sign that after years of confinement, Elsa might want to stretch her wings a little further than making summertime skating rinks (even the glorious castle she builds as a demonstration of her power is abandoned by the film's end). The result is a character who can only be classified as good because she doesn't feel precisely those emotions that feminism identifies as crucial to self-actualization--anger, and a desire to be powerful. While it's obviously a good thing that Disney is creating movies about (positive) female relationships, I can't help but feel that there's quite a way to go from where Frozen ends up.
- The Grand Budapest Hotel - Wes Anderson's latest bills itself, in its promotional material and closing credits, as inspired by the works of Stefan Zweig. That's certainly noticeable in the film, which shares several of Zweig's writerly tics and preoccupations--the multiple, nested framing stories, the ornate, storytelling dialogue, the tone of nostalgia for a pre-War, central European world of gentility and fading aristocracy. But for all this obvious fondness for Zweig and his writing, The Grand Budapest Hotel is ultimately its director's film, which means that the kind of story that Zweig might have told as a melodrama, it tells as a farce. As fond as I am of some of Zweig's writing, I can't deny that this is an attitude he might have benefited from himself, so I certainly don't have a problem with it in the film, which moves past the dry, absurdist humor of Anderson's previous films to become, at points, uproariously funny. Ralph Fiennes plays M. Gustave, the implacable, unfailingly considerate butler of the titular hotel, in the fictional country of Zubrowka shortly before the outbreak of something very similar to WWII. Gustave is the favorite of the hotel's spoiled, elderly, wealthy guests, attending to their every need and basking in their dependence and admiration. When one of his charges dies suddenly, leaving him an expensive bequest, her jealous family accuse him of her murder, and Gustave and his protege Zero (Tony Revolori) must escape and prove his innocence.
Fiennes is absolutely brilliant as Gustave, turning on a dime from romantic sentimentality to foul-mouthed hard-headedness and back again, but never losing Gustave's defining ability to transform the world around him into the kinder, more genteel place he wants it to be by sheer force of his belief in it. When Zero visits him in jail, Gustave explains, in his typical flowery, didactic tones, that he has "beaten the shit" out of a fellow prisoner who mistook him for an easy mark, then pauses; "he's actually become a dear friend," he adds. It's a fantastic performance, and I look forward to it being criminally ignored alongside similarly sublime turns in Anderson's previous films, such as Bill Murray in The Life Aquatic. But like the rest of those films, what contains this performance is on the effervescent side, so much so that less than a day after watching it, very little of The Grand Budapest Hotel lingers in my mind. The conversation about Anderson, and whether his films have substance to match their distinctive style, is of old standing, and this entry doesn't bring me any closer to an answer--not even the reliance on Zweig can fill the film with meaning, since nostalgia is by its nature an empty emotion. Still, if there isn't much more to this film than pretty production design and wonderfully mannered acting, it is still an extremely funny story set in wonderfully realized alternate world, and that makes it worth watching.
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier - One of the impressive things about the MCU films--besides their very existence and the megafranchise's success and overall watchability--is how each of the sub-series that make up the universe has begun developing its own tone and genre. Watching the first Captain America film in preparation for this one, I was struck by how sombre it is, when compared to the Iron Man or Thor films, suffused with its title character's melancholy, first at not being allowed to help those in need, and then at the things that those in power choose to do with his strength. Winter Soldier takes that approach to--possibly egregious--extremes. Where The First Avenger was sombre, this film is practically dour. It's also talky and a little on the long side, laying out a convoluted conspiracy within SHIELD that Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and new character Falcon (Anthony Mackie) have to unravel and then save the world from. Like Iron Man 3, The Winter Soldier is rather bold in calling out the war on terror and the security state as distractions--in this film, an actual villainous plot concealing an attempt to establish a global tyranny--but by its nature this sort of plot doesn't give a character like Captain America much room to change or grow. His purpose is to be a fixed point of goodness and integrity to which those members of SHIELD who still cherish the ideals of freedom and democracy can flock, but whereas being that sort of fixed point made Steve compelling in The First Avenger, when he still had a great deal to prove, it leaves him feeling rather inert in The Winter Soldier, in which he's so accustomed to his strength that he nonchalantly jumps out of planes without a parachute. The movie gestures in some interesting directions in its first act when it discusses the difficulties of soldiers returning from war, not just with Steve but with Black Widow, Falcon (an Afghan vet), and even the Winter Soldier itself. But as the film's plot develops this strand fades into the background, since even Steve's newfound ambivalence about following orders can't justify the mayhem he causes without an additional discovery of perfidy at SHIELD's core.
More successful are Steve's growing friendships with Black Widow and Falcon (though it's a shame that the SHIELD plot shunts the actual Winter Soldier, and the dilemma that his identity poses for Steve, to the side; this is clearly setting up the next film in the Captain America series, but if nothing else it makes the film's subtitle puzzlingly inapt), but this does nothing to alleviate the feeling that Winter Soldier is centerless--especially as the film eventually comes to seem as if it were as much Black Widow and Nick Fury's (Samuel L. Jackson) story as Steve's. This isn't necessarily a bad thing--if Marvel is trying to build the MCU as a fully integrated, multi-part story (which is a rather interesting thing to do with feature films, especially in the risk-averse blockbuster division), then The Winter Soldier shakes up the universe's status quo quite impressively and sets up situations that the next several films (and the TV series Agents of SHIELD, which might now require a name change) will be dealing with. And it does so while delivering several very good action set pieces that flow together much more smoothly than in most MCU films. I just wish the actual Captain America didn't end up getting lost in the shuffle.
- The Amazing Spider-Man 2 - Two movies in, the second Spider-Man series remains the most inessential of today's superhero franchises. Which is not to say that there's anything actually wrong with these films. In some respects, in fact, I think that the new series improves on Sam Raimi's trilogy. Andrew Garfield, though obviously too handsome to play geeky loser Peter Parker, is very good as the wisecracking, irreverent Spider-Man, both in and out of his costume, and manages to convey the frustrations of being a troubled teenager and a superhero without sinking to the kind of depths of angst that made Tobey Maguire frequently unwatchable. Garfield also has a better rapport with Emma Stone's Gwen Stacy than Maguire did with Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane, and the fact that Gwen knows Peter's secret and assists in his crimefighting helps to balance the film and take some of the weight of its storytelling off his shoulders. Perhaps most importantly, between a new director and improvements in CGI, the new Spider-Man films look a hell of a lot better than the old ones, and the exhilaration of swinging through the city with Spider-Man is far more palpable in them, even in 2D.
Still, for all that the Amazing Spider-Man films have good performances and effects, these are not so good, in themselves, as to justify the films' existence, or the time and money we spend watching them. Neither is the plot of this sequel--in which Jamie Foxx (as the first black character of any import in both Spider-Man trilogies, which makes the fact that he's a villain all the more unfortunate) runs afoul of that source of all mischief, OsCorp, and gains power over electricity, while Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan, magnetic in his few scenes but wasted by a script that can't wait to turn him into a monster) goes through the motions of his counterpart's character are in the first trilogy--terribly interesting. Which begs the question: why, apart from the fact that Sony doesn't want to lose the rights to the character, should anyone care about these films? Like its predecessor, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 makes a faint stab at charting its own path by developing the story of Peter's parents and their connection to his powers. But as in the previous film, this story is advanced only infinitesimally. From what I've read, Sony are trying to develop a megafranchise similar to the MCU by hanging it on the skeleton of this mystery, and then presumably developing it in other films not featuring Spider-Man, but this does not make this plot's halting progress here any more tolerable or compelling. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 ends with a huge (and yet heavily telegraphed, for anyone who reads the comics or who reads people who reads the comics) development, which could potentially take the Spider-Man character in interesting directions. But it's asking quite a bit for a film series to go two films--the latter of them absurdly overlong--before starting to find its own identity.