This year I was determined not to be overcome by these challenges, and it even felt like a good year to make an extra effort, because so many of the Oscar nominees seemed a little unconventional and off the beaten path. Instead, the first batch of these movies--there are still several more to come--has reminded me why I tend to steer clear of what Hollywood terms prestigious. While there are good performances and ideas here, so far the 2016 Oscar race has mostly left me feeling rather bored--and still rooting for my favorite film of 2015, Mad Max: Fury Road.
- Carol - I've seen some reviewers compare Todd Haynes's mannered, intimate lesbian romance to Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain. Aside from the fact that they're both prestigious historical movies about same-sex romance with gorgeous visuals and music (and let's face it, how many of those have there been?), I don't see that the comparison makes sense at all, and in fact it might lead prospective viewers to expect very different things from Carol than what it actually delivers. Brokeback Mountain was a sweeping romantic melodrama, but Carol is a character study and coming of age story, in which the romance often feels more like the means to an end than the point of the exercise. Set in the early 50s, the small-scale story begins when wealthy suburban wife Carol (Cate Blanchett), who is in the middle of an ugly divorce, meets shopgirl Therese (Rooney Mara) and is immediately smitten. The two quickly develop an intense friendship, which only turns romantic fairly late in the story, but which is nevertheless all-consuming, with Carol acting as a mentor to the unformed, uncertain Therese, and Therese functioning almost as a surrogate daughter for Carol, whose own daughter has been removed from her care by her husband.
The late point at which the romance between Carol and Therese develops is only one of the ways in which Carol defies the expectations of the genre it leads us to expect. This isn't a story about two repressed women discovering their sexuality. Carol knows exactly what she is, and isn't particularly bothered about it--she's even slightly frustrated by the fuss that everyone, especially her husband, makes over it. Therese, meanwhile, is on a journey of self-discovery, but her sexuality is only a small component of it. Over the course of the movie she finds herself as an artist and an adult who knows what she wants from life, not just what gender she's attracted to. It's perhaps for this reason that the romance between the two women never feels entirely convincing. While we never doubt the intensity and importance of their connection, there isn't much sexual heat between them, and I never found myself longing for them to fall into each other's arms. By the end of the movie, I was fairly sanguine about whether Therese and Carol would even end up together--they were, it seemed to me, at such different points in their lives, and Therese in particular was still figuring out what she wanted, that to tie themselves together might actually do more harm than good. Both characters are fascinating as people--especially Carol, who knows herself more fully than most fictional characters; who is, as she says, not a martyr and thus not willing to give up her own happiness for the sake of propriety, but who also recognizes that just because her brand of happiness is forbidden doesn't make it OK for her to trample over other people's lives. The romance often feels more like a way of illustrating them than something worthwhile in its own right.
Haynes's painterly direction, the sweeping score by Carter Burwell, and most of all, the two lead performances, are what carry Carol and make it special (though it is an obvious crock that Mara has been allowed to submit herself as a supporting actress in a movie in which she is the main character; I might even argue that it is Carol who is a supporting character, since she so often functions as the object of Therese's fascination and curiosity). They can't do quite enough, however, to conceal that the film's script is sloppy and a little misshapen, with a first act that dragged and left me rather bored, and not enough attention paid to any of the supporting characters, no matter how important. In one scene, Carol tells her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) that he shouldn't drag their divorce through an ugly dispute in the courts, because "we're not ugly people." This is plainly true of Carol, but Harge, who has functioned solely as an antagonist who stands in the way of his wife's happiness, has been nothing but ugly, no matter how much we might want to sympathize with his confusion and hurt feelings. The lack of a tighter script around the two central characters means that Carol ends up feeling small and a little ephemeral. There's enough here to watch for, but the movie as a whole is not entirely successful.
- Spotlight - A short way into Tom McCarthy's dramatization of the investigation by journalists at the Boston Globe into the decades-long conspiracy to conceal and enable the actions of pedophile priests, I found myself wondering what I go to the movie theater for. As I said in the opening of this post, I often forget to get my recommended allowance of grown-up films, so a lot of the movies I see in theaters are extravaganzas of special effects and explosions, and it's obvious what the added value of an evening out is in their case. But there are also some more mature movies, like Birdman or Upstream Color, that benefit from the immersive experience you get in a movie theater. Spotlight, on the other hand, could just as easily have been a TV movie on HBO, for all its interest in the visual or cinematic--and given how much more prestigious television has become in the last few decades, it could probably have done so without losing any of the A-list actors it features. What, for example, is the difference between Spotlight and The Normal Heart, an HBO movie about the early days of the AIDS epidemic and the struggle to get homophobic authorities to take it seriously, which, incidentally, also happens to feature a stellar performance by Mark Ruffalo as a crusader for justice who allows his righteous anger over the indifference of those in power to take over his life?
None of this should be taken as saying that Spotlight is not an excellent movie. The story it tells is fascinating, and it tells it in a clear, compelling, and exciting way, without sensationalizing it. The actors are all excellent--as well as Ruffalo, Michael Keaton is very good as the more seasoned reporter who leads the investigative team that breaks the story, and Stanley Tucci nearly steals the show as a cagey but determined lawyer representing some of the victims. Perhaps most importantly, Spotlight avoids what must have been a powerful temptation to tell a story in which the protagonists are stalwart crusaders for justice battling an evil foe. The film makes it very clear that it's not just the Catholic Church that is to blame for enabling and turning a blind eye to abuse, but an entire system that takes it for granted that some people get to abuse with impunity, while others don't get to complain when they are abused. What's more, the reporters of the Globe are part of that system--in one of the most powerful scenes in the movie, the oily lawyer whom our heroes have been castigating for helping to conceal the abuse reminds them that he tried to blow the whistle years ago by sending information to the Globe, which ignored it. What Spotlight is saying is that abuse is the product of an entire community, and that we're all trained from a young age to accept and ignore it. That standing up and shining a light on these violations can often be an act of redemption for people who have been complicit for too long. That feels like a powerful, important statement, in any medium.
- 45 Years - The end credits of Andrew Haigh's film note that it is based on a short story, by David Constantine. This does not come as a surprise, since even at a rather short (90 minutes) running time, 45 Years is, like a lot of literary short stories, all premise and no development. Days before the celebration of their 45th wedding anniversary, the marriage of Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) is rocked by a letter informing Tom of the discovery of the body of his girlfriend Katya, who died suddenly in a fall while they were hiking in Switzerland fifty years ago. While it's never made entirely clear what Tom has told Kate about Katya, it's obvious that the depth of his emotional response to the news is shocking to her, and as the week draws on she begins to suspect that she--and her marriage to Tom--have only ever been a replacement for the great love he lost with Katya's death. But the thing is, that's all that 45 Years does with its premise. Rampling is great at conveying Kate's growing grief and anger, but the story around her never gives her another note to play. And as much as 45 Years tries to present itself as a mystery, with Kate slowly working out just how much Katya meant to Geoff, it's hard not to conclude that the problems in their marriage actually come from someplace much more mundane--that Geoff is selfish, and happy to let Kate take care of him and shoulder the burden of maintaining their marriage, while he stews over his own preoccupations (and that he most likely would have been just as emotionally absent if he'd married Katya instead of Kate). 45 Years is one of those movies that you know everything about once you've heard their premise, and despite great performances from Rampling and Courtenay, it never delivers more than what that premise implies.
- The Big Short - From the moment I first saw a trailer for this movie, I had only one question: how in god's name could director Adam McKay manage to make sympathetic heroes out of people who were trying to get rich off the 2008 financial crisis? And the answer is, he can't. Which on one level is reassuring--it means we haven't got another Wolf of Wall Street situation, where a movie ends up making its reprehensible main character a lot more charismatic than it wants him to be. But on the other hand, this is also a huge problem for The Big Short, which does want us to see its protagonists--a group of Wall Street bankers and hedge fund brokers who realize, a few years ahead of the pack, that the US housing market is built on a foundation of quicksand, and go about making bets against the market that stand to net them billions of dollars--as heroes. The movie's argument is that the banks, mortgage peddlers, and credit rating agencies who created the financial crisis are so much more odious than our heroes that taking their money is laudable even if it happens with the pesky collateral damage of the destruction of millions of lives all over the world. And there are indeed moments where it managed to get me to feel the outrage it was aiming for--mostly scenes involving Steve Carell's cynical, world-weary fund manager, who rails against the injustices of the system before finally realizing, to his own disgust, that he is part of it. But in the end, The Big Short is still constructed like a heist movie, a Robin Hood story in which the rich steal from the even more rich, who pass along the cost of their mistakes to the poor. The entire final act of the movie revolves around the protagonists' indignation that the banks with whom they placed bets against the housing market are refusing to downgrade mortgage-backed securities even as the number of defaults rise, and somehow the movie doesn't realize how whiny this makes them look. If you go into business with a corrupt system--with the intention of profiting off that corruption, no less--you don't get to complain when it behaves in a corrupt way. You certainly don't get to do so with the self-righteousness that The Big Short's heroes do, selfishly complaining that the economy isn't collapsing fast enough for their get-rich-quick schemes to pay out. The Big Short wants to be a movie dripping with anger and righteous indignation, but its focus on its dudebro heroes, and obvious desire for them to come out ahead, means that its anger is inescapably undermined.
There's a very obvious comparison to be made between The Big Short and Spotlight, another movie about a real-world travesty being exposed by a group of plucky crusaders. The two movies' styles couldn't be any more different. Spotlight is dry as a bone, a dramatized newspaper article. The Big Short is consciously stylized, comedic in tone, and deliberately artificial--characters occasionally address the camera to explain that the scene we just watched didn't actually happen in real life, and was merely included in order to make the real events seem more dramatic, and when complex financial concepts are explained, the film brings in various celebrities, who play themselves, to speak to the camera and explain them. It's all very entertaining, but in the end I found myself less engaged by The Big Short than by Spotlight, which has an honesty and a sense of integrity that The Big Short never comes near. The Big Short lacks Spotlight's sober acknowledgement that its characters were complicit in the horrors they uncovered, instead trying to sugarcoat that realization by making them seem like unsung geniuses (though there's even some question about that argument). Maybe that's inevitable, since unlike Spotlight, The Big Short can't claim to have put the scandal it exposes to bed--as the film's conclusion points out, hardly any of the people responsible for the crisis suffered legal or even financial consequences, and the banking system continues to try to play the same games, getting rich by selling garbage bonds to ordinary people. In light of that, it's perhaps understandable that The Big Short wants to wring some sense of triumph out of its characters' success, but to me that's just adding insult to injury.
- Deadpool - In a slight break from this post's theme of consuming grown-up, mature fare, if you sympathized with my recently expressed frustrations with superhero stories and their reductive, reactionary politics, Deadpool might very well be the movie for you. Which is not to say that it's a movie you should see if you're looking for progressive politics--on the contrary, it shares the common Hollywood flaws of being mostly white and treating the naked bodies of women like wallpaper, and adds to them a truly dizzying number of rape jokes. But in a pop culture landscape still trying to seriously ponder the question of how one maintains a civil society in a world that has superheroes in it, Deadpool is refreshing for admitting that this is basically impossible. That all superheroes, be they heroes or villains, are effectively thugs who inject chaos and mayhem into any situation they find themselves in. I'm sufficiently fed up with this genre that simply owning up to this felt like a tonic.
As for the movie itself, Deadpool has the advantage of an R rating, which means that unlike, say, Guardians of the Galaxy, when it claims to be outrageous and rude, it actually backs up those claims (up to a point, that is; this is still a movie looking for major box-office success, which means that it knows where the line is; and, as is unfortunately typical for such movies, when it chooses to skirt near that line it's usually with misogynistic comments, because that's the most "acceptable" kind of over-the-top humor). At the same time, though, Deadpool is more often outrageous than it is funny--in fact, its best joke might come in the opening credits, which replace the actors' names with catch-all descriptions like "hot chick" or "gratuitous cameo"--and that outrageousness has a short half-life that doesn't last until the end of the movie. (This is especially true of the film's fourth-wall-breaking humor, which constantly comments on the conventions of superhero movies; it only takes a few dips into this well to realize that Deadpool doesn't really have anything to say on this subject, beyond pointing out things we all already noticed.) The film works largely because it takes the by-now-familiar, Apatovian approach of using its rude exterior to only lightly conceal a soft, gooey center, in this case the undying love between mercenary-turned-mutant Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) and prostitute-slash-stripper Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), the only person in the universe to match his filthy sense of humor and even filthier sexual proclivities. The romance between them is rather sweet (the Valentine's Day release date turns out to have been on the nose), and a nice reminder that people don't have to be squeaky clean and vanilla to have a good, successful relationship. The actual details of the superhero plot turn out to be ancillary to this love story--Wade, who has been disfigured by the same treatment that gave him his powers, wants the bad guy who created him (Ed Skrein) to return him to his previous appearance because he fears that Vanessa won't love him with his current face. Along the way the X-Men get involved, but in a way that only reinforces the film's distrust of the very notion of superheroes as saviors of humanity--these are just a couple of street gangs raring for a brawl, which once again strikes me as a lot more honest and realistic than nearly any other movie in this genre.
The central romance and refreshingly dubious approach to superheroes keep Deadpool afloat long after the jokes (or rather, "jokes") start falling flat, and on the whole I found the movie enjoyable--albeit in a way that left me utterly uninterested in seeing any more of the character. In that sense, Deadpool is both a massive success and a complete failure. It's clearly trying to sell the idea of a fourth-wall-breaking, irreverent, potty-mouthed, decidedly unheroic hero, but though Reynolds is very good in the part, the script simply isn't tight or clever enough to make that character seem like anything more than a one-trick pony. The movie is at its best when Reynolds and Baccarin deliver precisely the kind of earnestness that is supposedly Deadpool's anathema, and at its worst when it keeps trying to convince us how bad, how outrageous, and how groundbreaking it is.