Thursday, January 05, 2017

Recent Movie Roundup 23

The first few days of 2017 have been rather interesting, as some tweets of mine went unexpectedly viral and sparked an interesting conversation about how Hollywood perceives the behavior, and fantasy life, of male versus female characters (you can read the whole thing here).  But that feels like a distraction from the exciting news that there are finally films in movie theaters that I want to see.  For some reason Israeli film distributors have broken their habit of waiting until February to bring out the year's Oscar hopefuls, and of course there are the year-ending genre movies.  I didn't like all of these films, but I certainly enjoyed the experience of looking forward to them.
  • Moana - Disney's latest attempt to reinvent the princess movie takes two novel approaches: drawing on Polynesian folklore and mythology for its story, and recruiting Hamilton wunderkind Lin-Manuel Miranda to write the film's songs.  Heroine Moana (Auli'l Cravalho) is torn between her duties as the daughter of the village chief and her desire to roam the seas, but finds herself able to gratify both desires when she's tasked with restoring the heart of creation goddess Te Fiti, aided by Maui (Dwayne Johnson), the demigod who originally stole it.  The plot is thus a picaresque, in which Moana and Maui encounter various dangers and challenges on their journey to Te Fiti, during which they also bond and help each other overcome their hang-ups.  It's a similar structure to Tangled--still, to my mind, the best of the modern princess movies--but Moana lacks that film's multiple intersecting plot strands and broad cast of characters, and ends up feeling simpler and more straightforward.  What it does have is genuinely stunning animation, especially where it draws on the scenery of the Pacific islands and the iconography of Polynesian cultures, and some excellent songs by Miranda, which pay homage to both the Disney and musical theater traditions while still retaining entirely their own flavor--I'm particularly fond of a scene in which Moana and Maui encounter a giant, jewel-encrusted lobster (Jemaine Clement), who sings a David Bowie-inspired glam-rock ballad, and then complains that no one likes him as much as The Little Mermaid's Sebastian.  But pretty much every song here is excellent and memorable in its own right.

    Even more importantly, the fact that Moana is a story about its heroine rediscovering her people's heritage of exploring and ocean-voyaging feels especially significant in one of Disney's rare POC-starring vehicles, and lends a particular poignance to what is ultimately a fairly conventional follow-your-heart-and-be-true-to-yourself message.  Nevertheless, it's hard not to compare the relative simplicity of that message, and of Moana's story, to recent non-princess Disney projects like Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6, and Zootopia, and feel that Disney is aiming low by merely refreshing this template with different world cultures.  Girls--and non-white girls especially--deserve stories as inventive and complex as the ones being offered to boys, and Disney might serve them better if it put heroines like Moana (and her heritage) in those stories instead of sticking to the tried-and-true conventions of the princess movie.

  • The Lobster - Yorgos Lanthimos's Cannes-winning sensation has a delightfully out-there premise--it takes place in a world in which the single are corralled into a resort where they have 45 days to find a partner, or they will turned into a an animal--and one of the many wonderful things about it is that it plays it completely straight.  Our hero, David (Colin Farrell), checks into the resort after his wife leaves him, but when a putative romance goes horribly wrong, he runs away to join a group of singleton rebels who live out in the woods, amongst whom romance is strictly forbidden.  This becomes a problem when David falls passionately in love with one of the rebels, played by Rachel Weisz.  The Lobster is, first and foremost, an uproariously funny movie, not just because of how straight it plays its ridiculous premise, but because of how it develops it with even more absurd details.  A major criteria for romantic happiness at the resort is that partners have compatible physical abnormalities, so David, who is short-sighted, is constantly on the lookout for a woman whose vision is similarly impaired, and seems genuinely to believe that he could never be happy with anyone whose vision is better or worse than his.  The rebels, meanwhile, inform David that they only dance to techno music, so that no one can dance with each other and thus potentially commit a romantic infraction.  And though the film never discusses its central fantastic concept, throughout its events the characters are joined by various exotic animals--peacocks and dromedaries and porcupines--who are clearly transformed rejects from the resort, and whom no one comments on or pays attention to.  The sheer audacity of the film's conceit, and the fact that it is developed so well and with such imagination, carries you through most of it without stopping to wonder what the point of it all is (as does the delight of constantly finding top-tier actors in such a strange project: as well as Farrell and Weisz, the cast includes Olivia Colman, John C. Reilly, Ben Whishaw, and Léa Seydoux).  So when that point arrives, it cuts like a knife: the sudden realization that in a society that places absurd, arbitrary restrictions on what romance can look like, actual love is all but impossible.

  • Star Trek Beyond - The third in J.J. Abrams's revamped-and-not-at-all-improved Star Trek series both benefits and suffers from its connection to its two predecessors.  Benefits, because compared to the utterly lamentable Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness, the fact that Beyond is merely tedious and predictable is enough to make it seem like something resembling a good movie, especially when you consider that Abrams has been replaced in the director's seat by Justin Lin, who at least knows how to stage an action scene as if he cares, even if none of the ones here are particularly memorable or exciting.  And suffers, because Beyond, which co-writers Simon Pegg and Doug Jung clearly envisioned as an attempt to bring the new Star Trek back in line with the franchise's roots, depends for this task on the previous two movies having established certain characters and relationships to be broadly in line with what they were in the original series and movies, which means that it's relying on a foundation that hasn't been laid, and which in some cases blatantly contradicts what Beyond wants it to be.  William Shatner's Jim Kirk, for example, could (and in fact did) shoulder a storyline in which he becomes disenchanted with the Enterprise's mission of exploration and peaceful diplomacy, and considers leaving his command.  The same can't be said of Chris Pine's Kirk, who never seemed interested in Starfleet for anything beyond the gratification of being judged worthy to captain a starship, and who despite that judgment continues to be genuinely awful at all of the things that make a good Starfleet captain--as demonstrated by Beyond's opening scene, in which he hopelessly botches what should have been a straightforward diplomatic mission due to what looks like a simple lack of preparation.  The fact that Beyond constructs itself around this crisis is not, as the film clearly believes, a meaningful exploration of mid-life ennui, but yet another reminder that it has never been clear just why we should accept this Kirk as a hero--since he doesn't want to be one, and is in fact quite bad at it.

    By the same token, the scenes between Zachary Quinto's Spock and Karl Urban's McCoy seem to expect us to assume a long, rancorous-but-ultimately-respectful friendship between the two characters which this version of Star Trek, and these actors, have never actually done the work of establishing.  Beyond's screenplay makes a smart choice when it splits up the main cast into small groupings, each with their own storyline, after the Enterprise is attacked and destroyed over a mysterious planet (in yet another case of the reboot movies borrowing a major plot point from the original movies and not knowing what to do with it; it's not just that the Enterprise's destruction in Beyond lacks the resonance it had in The Search for Spock; this is a movie that can't even achieve the emotional heights of Generations).  Some of these storylines, such as Uhura and Sulu taking command of the surviving crewmembers, or Scotty bonding with a feral but plucky castaway (Sophia Boutella, in a role that would be more enjoyable if it did not feel so out of place in the Star Trek universe, original or reboot), work well enough on their own.  But when the time comes to tie them all together, it becomes impossible to ignore the fact that Beyond's story relies on us believing in the cohesion of its crew, and their faith in their captain, in a way that is simply unsupported by any of the films in the reboot universe, including this one.

    Beyond clearly has pretensions of engaging with Star Trek's core philosophy, but like its predecessors it runs aground on the fact that no one involved with the film has any idea what that philosophy is.  Characters spout words like "unity", "diplomacy", and "cooperation", but they seem bored even as they do so.  In a particularly tone-deaf scene, the film's villain, Krall (Idris Elba), explains to Uhura that its peaceful ways have made the Federation weak, and that conflict is needed for any species to thrive.  One might have expected that a Uhura, as a black woman, would be uniquely positioned to point out that the Federation's peace and harmony are hard-won treasures that humans only achieved after millennia of war, oppression, and genocide (a fact that is made all the more pressing when we learn Krall's true origin).  But that would require anyone involved with this movie to actually understand why peace and cooperation are good, desirable things, and it's clear that no one does.  Instead, the film treats Kirk's embrace of these ideals as a kind of favor he's doing to the universe, and then ends, as all the reboot films have done, with a single hero beating up on a single villain in order to save the day.  For all its pretensions of returning to its roots, Star Trek Beyond is still the same reboot Star Trek--utterly unclear on what made this franchise worthwhile, and completely incapable of staking out a claim for its own relevance.

  • Rogue One: A Star Wars Story - Disney's first standalone in the Star Wars universe is very clearly an attempt to transform that franchise into something very like the MCU--a shared universe in which it is possible to tell stories in many different registers, genres, and scopes.  Whether or not the Star Wars setting can support that kind of expansion, however, remains to be seen, even after Rogue One, because the problems of this movie have a lot more to do with the perennial sloppiness in how Hollywood (and Disney in particular) constructs its action-adventure stories, than in the specifics of this particular story.  Rogue One's first half is quite promising, giving us a glimpse of the inner workings of the Rebellion, and of its internal rifts and disputes.  We get to see the psychological toll of constantly living on the knife's edge, not knowing who to trust since anyone could be an Imperial spy, fighting amongst different factions of the Rebellion over the correct tactics, making morally compromising decisions for the greater good, and above all, living in the constant awareness that it might all be for nothing, and that the Rebellion could so easily fail in the face of an enemy as powerful and implacable as the Empire.

    All of this creates the expectation of a tense heist/espionage story, as our heroes try to outsmart a much more powerful, organized opponent in order to retrieve the Death Star plans that will jumpstart the plot of A New Hope--something along the lines of a million WWII movies.  Instead, Rogue One plumps for a generic extravaganza of explosions and special effects, as our heroes launch a frontal assault against an Imperial records facility that doesn't make a great deal of sense, and completely squanders the bleak, paranoid tone of the film's first half.  It's not the first time I've gotten the sense that Disney's live-action division is weakest in its script department, and particularly those scripts that depend on something slightly more intelligent than fights and explosions (this has also been a problem of some recent MCU movies, chiefly Ant-Man and Civil War).  And unlike The Force Awakens before it, Rogue One can't shake off its script problems by relying on charming, engaging characters.  Heroine Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is meant to be the film's beating heart, as the daughter of the scientist who designed the Death Star, and the person who convinces a rag-tag team of resistance operatives that a mission to retrieve the plans is worth the risk.  But Jones's polite, underpowered performance makes it impossible to believe that this is a woman who has been living on her own since she was sixteen, much less someone who could inspire the grizzled, morally compromised soldiers of the Rebellion to have hope in the impossible.  (It's genuinely depressing to recall that Jones's chief competitor for the part of Jyn was Tatiana Maslany, who would surely have made a meal of this dark, gender-swapped Han Solo type.)  Diego Luna, as the film's male lead, resistance spy Cassian Andor, has a great deal more presence than Jones, but his character arc is yoked to hers, requiring us to believe that she spurs a moral awakening in him, which I never did.

    Far more successful are the film's supporting characters: Riz Ahmed as the fidgety but quietly heroic Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook, looking for redemption on Jyn's mission; Forest Whitaker as the semi-deranged, paranoid leader of a breakaway group from the Rebellion; most of all, Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang as former Jedi monks and probable married couple Chirrut Îmwe and Baze Malbus, who squabble and watch each others' backs in equal measure. None of them, however, get enough space in the story to make up for Jyn's dullness, Cassian's muddled character arc, or the script's sloppiness.  Rogue One thus ends up being very promising in parts, and very disappointing in its whole.  If Disney wants to turn Star Wars into something like the MCU, it will have to stick to the more breezy, adventure-based genres, where unconvincing scripts and boring characters have less of a chance to register.

  • La La Land - The best compliment I can pay Damien Chazelle's throwback musical is that while I was watching it, I found its candy-colored world, in which characters repeatedly break out in rhapsodies to Los Angeles, Hollywood, and the dream of it making it there, a little cute and overdone.  And then when the credits rolled, I realized that I didn't want to step out of that world, with its melancholy, romantic tone, and its haunting musical refrains that I've kept on humming long after leaving the movie theater.  When I say that, though, I'm talking more about the film's background--its loving, gorgeously-lit views of LA landmarks and vistas, or the way it captures the strangeness of that city, and of its dream industry, and makes something charming out of a world that we've been trained to think of as cynical and exploitative.  I was a great deal less charmed by the film's main story, the romance that develops between aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) as they both try to get their big break.  In the films that La La Land riffs off--everything from Singin' in the Rain to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg--we accept that the lovers exist in their own world that bends itself to accommodate their love story.  But either Chazelle isn't quite able to believably create a world like that, or (more likely) the film's modern-day setting makes it impossible for me to believe in it.  So the fact that Mia and Sebastian frequently engage in obnoxious, self-absorbed behavior--everything from standing up in a movie theater while the film is running, to constantly blowing off their loved ones because they can't be bothered to remember their appointments--made it really difficult to root for their happy ending.

    I was, however, a great deal more interested in Mia and Sebastian's professional travails--she's trudging from one unsuccessful audition to another and wondering if she might simply not be good enough to make it, and he dreams of playing "pure" jazz at his own club, but is forced to take gigs at restaurants and house parties to make ends meet.  I'm a sucker for stories that depict art as work, and artists as people who are working towards the perfection of their craft--trying to find their unique voice, and then struggling to find an audience for that voice.  But the failure mode of stories like that is to depict "real" artists as people who are constantly saying no to opportunities (or who regret saying yes to them) because the work on offer isn't pure enough, and who thus spend their life waiting for the perfect opportunity to come along rather than taking any chance to develop their craft and do the work they love.  La La Land falls into that trap rather frequently, chiefly in a subplot in which Sebastian joins a band led by John Legend, who combines old-school jazz with modern hip-hop sounds, to Sebastian's obvious dismay and disapproval.  (There is also, obviously, a huge problem with a storyline in which a white man is the sole keeper of jazz's true soul, while a black man degrades it by combining it with a modern black musical style.)  But in fairness to the film, it doesn't live in that mode--Mia, for example, makes the valid point that while she likes the music that Sebastian is playing, it's not worth it if doing so makes him miserable.  In the end, it's hard to tell where La La Land falls on the selling out/doing work wherever you can find it question--perhaps because the film's fundamental romanticism means that both Mia and Sebastian end up achieving more of their dreams than actual people in their situation would probably get to.  And it is that romanticism that stays with you when the film ends, and which makes its whole worthwhile despite my problems with its parts.

30 comments:

gareth-wilson said...

Since Passengers takes a dilemma in ethics and turns it into very problematic romance, I think we all know what the sequel will be.
"This Valentine's day, go off the rails. Kendall Jenner. Chris Pine. The Trolley Problem."

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Well, except that the premise of Passengers does not represent an ethical dilemma. I mean, technically neither does the trolley problem - the purpose of the thought experiment isn't to decide which choice is correct, but to articulate the different possible definitions of morality. If you define morality as "minimizing harm" then you'll pull the level, and redirect the trolley where it will kill fewer people. If you define it as "minimizing bad acts" then you'll stand aside, because pulling the level is murder, whereas the deaths of the people the trolley is headed towards aren't the result of anyone's actions. What you think the right answer is says more about how you define right and wrong than anything else.

But again, that's not what's happening in Passengers, where there is absolutely no doubt what the right and wrong choices are. There is no moral framework under which Jim's decision to steal someone's life because he's lonely and unhappy can be described as a right or justifiable action. Now, obviously, there's a lot of drama to be wrung out of the story of a person who does something they know to be wrong because they're so miserable they can't help it, but that is not what Passengers has done, and therein lies the problem.

Brett said...

Beyond just seemed to grow weaker, worse-paced, and less cohesive as a movie the longer it ran (and it didn't help that the villain was underwhelming). Into Darkness was a bad movie, but for me it's at least watchably bad compared to Beyond - Abrams might not know how to actually write a coherent Star Trek plot, but he can least cut it so the pacing is solid and the action flashy (aside from the last 10 minutes).

I think you're giving too much credit to Rogue One in the character department. All of them except the droid were forgettable - Jyn's boring as you pointed out, Cassian is not much better, and the rest of the characters felt one-note. Aside from possibly being a gay couple on screen, is there anything else particularly memorable about the blind samurai archetype and his loyal assistant?

Brett said...

Sorry, "blind samurai/monk", not just "blind samurai".

Kate Nepveu said...

Note to self: Abigail and I have wildly incompatible ideas of what's funny on screen. (I found _The Lobster_ grindingly, horrifyingly unpleasant.)

Chris said...

I picked up the same thing about ST:B's "pretensions of engaging with philosophy," because there were a couple things in there that looked like they *might* have been attempts at social commentary. But I was never sure if they actually were trying to say something, or if they'd just accidentally stumbled onto (probably by ripping off older ideas) something that a more talented writer *could* have made into social commentary.

The most obvious is what you said, the way Krall dismisses peace and unity as the luxuries of the weak and decadent and worships conflict and strife... which is topical as hell, especially in 2016. Is there anything wrong with modern U.S. culture that *doesn't* come down to this, in some form or other? The social darwinist mad science experiment that the economy's been turned into, the NRA's utopia of a land where everyone goes everywhere armed and resolves their differences by Standing Their Ground, the idealization of lost golden ages before infrastructure or bureaucracy or all the other boring and dreary things that make life safe? You could even use the fact that Krall is masquerading as a stereotypical alien invader from the wilderness past the "frontier" to make some point about how, far from being the patriots they claim to be, what people like this want is to take your relatively healthy and functioning society and turn it into exactly the kind of failed states we regularly go to war with.

All of the above is just me trying to find meaning in the movie, though. There's not much in it that convinces me that this was meant as a commentary on our current problems, and it's at least as likely that they were simply throwing out random feel-good and feel-bad words ("peace" and "unity" as opposed to "war" and "conflict") which they kinda-sorta remembered from old Star Trek and old after-school-specials. And that Krall's identity was just concealed for most of the movie for the sake of a Twist (apparently the holy grail of modern movies).

Alternatively, the story of a professional warrior who can't transition to life in the Federation might make for an interesting point about the inherent tension between the martial virtues and the values of a liberal democratic society. Not new or original, but certainly refreshing in an age when soldiers and cops are hagiographied everywhere as the ultimate avatars of patriotism while limp-wristed bureaucrats with their "rules of engagement" and "civil liberties" are portrayed as traitors and backstabbers. But that suffers from the fact that 1) they just did that story in the last movie and 2) it was done terribly then, too, and it's not any better here.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Brett:

Well, first, having a gay couple (or at least one that is very plausibly read as a gay couple) on screen in a Star Wars movie is a pretty big deal, as is the fact that pretty much all the main good guys in this movie were POCs. But I did think that there was some solid character work for the supporting characters - none of them have character arcs, but they all have character beats that hit home a lot harder than you tend to see in this franchise. I'd argue, for example, that Bodhi's scenes had a lot more emotional heft than anything The Force Awakens gave Finn. And Chirrut's unwavering faith in the Force even as he can't quite seem to access it is genuinely moving. As I say in my review, I would have liked the film to spend a lot more time with these characters (and certainly I could have stood to sacrifice all the Darth Vader fanservice in order to achieve that) but I think between the actors and some good character concepts, they achieved quite a lot.

Chris:

The impression I got from Beyond's failure to engage with its central ideas - and this is, frankly, the same impression I got from Star Trek and Into Darkness - is that it was written by incredibly privileged people who have never been able to extend themselves to imagine what life is like for people who don't share their privilege. Hence the ability to think of peace and prosperity as something that might be holding you back. And the fact that the film puts that view in the mouth of a black man - and has a black woman hear it without being able to articulate the obvious comeback - feels like yet another extension of that privilege, the sort of thing that happens when POC characters are written by people who have never bothered to imagine their point of view.

As you say, there's potentially more to it than that - the idea of a soldier who can't adjust to life in the Federation is actually something that Star Trek grappled with more than once. But that's not at all what Beyond is trying to do. And ultimately, it comes down on the side of those couch-warriors you talk about, because the film's ending does conclude that the world can only be saved by a sufficiently manly man who punches someone.

Rav said...

The strangest thing about Rogue One was the incredible disparity between the trailers and the finished project. I don't think I've ever seen a trailer before that was cut almost entirely from scenes that didn't make it to the big screen, and I suspect many of the gaps in Jyn's characterization are to be found on the cutting room floor. Her trailer line "this is a rebellion, isn't it - I rebel" was terribly hokey, but it also gave me a sharper impression of who she was than anything that was in the actual film. Though Felicity Jones's performance was also an issue (at least in the first half - I warmed up to her by the final act).

GeoX's Nemesis, the Mysterious XoeG said...

I'll tell you what: given the rise of white supremacism in the US, I was happy to see the first Disney movie with an all-black cast. Also, I thought Rogue One was boring and dumb. That is all.

Fangz said...

I would have thought the distinction between 50 Shades and Passengers is who the protagonist is? Like, Grey is very arguably abusive, but we inhabit the female lead, and thus our consent to see the film leads to an implied consent on behalf of the main character? Whereas in Passengers we inhabit the Pratt character, and perpetrate monstrosities.

I understand that there are books retelling the 50 Shades stories from the perspective of Grey, which makes me wonder how those would be received.

I guess gender flipped Passengers is basically Misery, right?

Fangz said...

Also! On Rogue One, I think there's a interesting and not-very-examined divide in critical opinion between people like you and I who preferred the first half, and critics who said the film was uneven or merely okay but came together in the final third. I would certainly have favoured an expanded version of the first half of the tale, culminating in meeting with the father.

I somewhat liked the characters more than you did. For example, in my reading, I do not think it is necessary to actually believe that Jyn produced a moral awakening in Cassian. I think there's an inherent ambiguity in his actions - did he for lack of a better word, just become good? Or was he swayed by irrational attachment to Jyn? Or did he simply calculate at the end of the day that Jyn's plan was the most logical one for the good of the Rebellion and killed/died as a good soldier? There's a more cynical reading where Jyn does not inspire anyone very much - rather she convinces *herself* that Cassian's "rebellions are built on hope" is not just a platitude, that the robot serving them is heroic and not just carrying out its programming, that she's leading the rebellion - not just more fodder for a war that she wasn't interested in. It's interesting IMO to think that this is the nature of the 'hope' that is inherited by the original trilogy.

Aonghus Fallon said...

Sounds to me as if the creators of 'Passengers' forgot the original context when they decided to do their riff on 'Sleeping Beauty' - in the original story, the castle's inhabitants fall under an evil spell. In 'Passengers' they voluntarily submit to being put in a state of suspended animation. That context dictates whether the hero's actions are good or bad.

A better angle would be to have Pratt as a roving space archeologist who finds the ship, which has been adrift for centuries with all its occupants still in a state of suspended animation due to a computer glitch. (Not that I actually saw the film, or intend to).

Fangz said...

I feel the original Sleeping Beauty story has the benefit of ending pretty much the moment the Beauty wakes up.

Aonghus Fallon said...

Maybe that was the problem? No second act, hence the re-jig?

Thing is, it would have been pretty easy to fix without overly affecting the existing structure - for example, the mc is drawn to the girl in the casket. He knows it's wrong to wake her, but ends up accidentally doing so anyway. In the interests of cause-and-effect, this is due to an act of clumsiness on his part, which in turn is due to his infatuation. This way you get to keep audience sympathy and have the same outcome.

I guess the real issue is that the producers didn't see it as a problem.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Fangz:

I think the version of Rogue One you're imagining is basically the one where the film carries the tone of its first half all the way to the end, and remains relatively cynical about its characters and their mission to the end. To be clear, I don't actually mind the shift away from pure cynicism - as I've said in other comments, I was very moved by some of the minor characters' stories, and by their attempts to be heroic in a world in which they do not have the kind of main character shielding that protects someone like Luke Skywalker or Rey. So though I definitely wanted the film's plot to be more small-scale, I also would have liked for it to sell me on Cassian's moral awakening, or Jyn's ability to inspire it, because that's what I think the story it's trying to tell is - how to live well and make a difference in a world that is fundamentally broken, and which doesn't really care about you.

Aonghus:

Surely the crucial difference between Passengers and Sleeping Beauty is that in the fairy tale, waking the princess saves her, whereas in the movie, it dooms her?

If you read interviews with the scriptwriter, it sounds like there was a version of the script where the hero changes his mind about waking Lawrence's character, but at that point it's too late. To his (very minor) credit, he seems to have realized that that would be nothing but a copout, and more importantly, would undermine the point he was trying to make. Passengers is a story about a person who makes an unforgivable choice. It tells that story very badly, and ultimately can't overcome the fact that it does want us to forgive this character. But undermining his culpability was surely not a fix for its problems.

Aonghus Fallon said...

Absolutely, Abigail (re passengers) - at least, that would be my reading of it - ie, that he saves her in the original fairytale, but dooms her in the reboot, and that most of us are wondering (legitimately) how the film-makers ever thought their version was a good idea.

Retlawyen said...

@Moana: I really felt like they made the Maui redemption arc work. Too often movies fall into one trap or the other.

The first is where the character was never believably bad, but Maui is introduced to us as someone who doomed the world by stealing the heart, spends his first scene stealing the princess's boat and does his very best to ditch her. Finally, when the going gets tough and his hook is in danger, he bails. I bought him as a cad.

The second peril is when the redemption seems equally bogus. That is, when you buy that the other character is bad, but you don't think that the moral awakening makes sense. In this movie I thought that Moana did a good job of shoving Maui's face into the fact that she is the spiritual heir to the hero that he once was, and I can buy him regaining his heroic nature with that kind of spur.

Rogue One: I can't help but think that the main problem of this movie can be summed up in the exchange that Jyn has with the director at the end.

"Who are you?"
"You know who I am!"

But does he? Do we? Like, the movie cuts Jyn off at the knees.

She is active basically twice in terms of fight scenes. Her attempt to escape the jail when they are rescuing her and her fight scene in Jedah city. The first ends when the droid slaps her down. The second is overshadowed when more troopers showed up and she has to be rescued.

So her fighting technique isn't the point of her, that's fine, but then what is? She is an indifferent rebel, but we never see the free life that appeals to her. She is angry with Saw, but he is already narratively a spent force by the time they confront one another. When does Jyn win?

Everything special about her is based on something that someone puts on her. She is Galen's daughter, Cassian's muse, whatever, but at the heart of that there is nothing. If she just told a random rebel trooper that her father's pet name for her was stardust the finale would have been exactly the same if she just chilled out on Yavvin.

Most unforgivably, there is that finale. She comes face to face with the man who killed her father and mother...and she is helpless at his hands. Someone else shoots him.

Chris said...

From Abigail:

"As you say, there's potentially more to it than that - the idea of a soldier who can't adjust to life in the Federation is actually something that Star Trek grappled with more than once. But that's not at all what Beyond is trying to do. And ultimately, it comes down on the side of those couch-warriors you talk about, because the film's ending does conclude that the world can only be saved by a sufficiently manly man who punches someone."

Yeah, and after the heavily-signposted "unity is not your strength. It is your weakness" villainspeak in the rest of the movie, I was half-expecting a cheesy Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-ish ending with all the heroes holding hands to defeat Krall, thus making the point that his philosophy is wrong. But they never do. It's jarring that they give the movie that kind of Treklosophy arc, but don't even bother to give it a payoff.

"The impression I got from Beyond's failure to engage with its central ideas - and this is, frankly, the same impression I got from Star Trek and Into Darkness - is that it was written by incredibly privileged people who have never been able to extend themselves to imagine what life is like for people who don't share their privilege. Hence the ability to think of peace and prosperity as something that might be holding you back."

I think the privilege is at least partly about time - on the one hand the U.S. moving farther and farther away from the times where there was no safety net and on the other hand the national ideology increasingly trying to erase all memories of that time. Or to put it another way, that even white men sixty years ago would've been able to relate to this better than we do now. I'll occasionally stumble onto an old movie that takes the same theme of civilization vs. the law of the jungle and actually takes it seriously, and think "this could never get made in the modern day. The writers wouldn't know what to do with a theme like this and the entire audience they're aiming for is unable to relate."

(This is separate from, but related to, the various LGM posts about Steve Rogers in his original context, versus the many modern readers who find it shocking and outrageous that he doesn't conform to post-Reaganite mythology, even though that would make no sense).

Chris said...

Fangz:

"On Rogue One, I think there's a interesting and not-very-examined divide in critical opinion between people like you and I who preferred the first half, and critics who said the film was uneven or merely okay but came together in the final third."

There are any number of *ideas* in the first half of the movie that I thought were great, and would've loved to see more of. The quasi-Rebel warlord who's now on the outs with the Alliance proper and all the politics that must've gone into that, the collaborator-scientist working for the Empire but trying to monkey-wrench his own work behind their back, Jyn's own transition from lone outlaw to Rebel, the whole black ops side of the Alliance that wasn't there in the first movies. The execution just ends up feeling rushed, with lots of things jammed together, and lots of things left on the cutting room floor.

The second half of the movie, on the other hand, aims lower with what's basically a standard Star Wars battle with lots of special effects, but it delivers that pretty well, and let's face it, the SFX light show was always a big part of the draw of Star Wars. It helps too that TFA didn't have any battles in it that matched up to this one, making it a welcome return to form at least to me.

Unknown said...

I liked the Rogue One battle. It depicted a combat as confusing, frightening and unpleasant for both sides. Really got the whole 'everything goes to hell as soon as the shots start being fired' feeling down. As opposed the other Star Wars movies, where the battle scenes are generally whacky hijinks.

That said, it was far too long and probably in the wrong movie. But taken on it's own, I thought it was good.

Chris said...

Regarding Moana I think it's more than a tiny incremental improvement that there wasn't even the hint of romance throughout - not even brief eye-contact with a non-speaking background islander, just to reassure us that yes, Moana will have children once they get to the next island, obviously. And if the bare trappings of a princess movie are what marketing needs to get this film made, with all that is in it and not in any other films out there, well, maybe let the baby have its bottle. Especially if you subvert it by making the Designated Animal Companion dumber than a sackful of rocks.

I also thought - although this is probably reaching - that Maui was interesting as an example of how a certain type of masculinity doesn't have to be 100% negative. He could have turned out to be a liar, as well as conceited and boastful and prone to showing off just for attention (not that girls can't do those things as well, but at the age of the intended audience it's definitely more associated with boys). That there can be positive things about his approach to the world, that he does and knows amazing things, is a lesson I feel you don't normally get in Disney princess films, or most action-comedies (for some reason, Madmartigan keeps popping into my head) where it's more about the boy learning to just be less like a boy and more like someone who can sit down and shut up for more than two seconds. Whether that's a lesson more for the girls or boys watching I don't know, but it probably wouldn't hurt the boys watching to learn that just because they listen to a girl and help her doesn't mean they will be symbolically castrated. See? Reaching.

Plus, I'm a sucker for any story in which there's no real bad guy (the crab's just being himself as well), just a confused entity who needs to be talked, or sung, down by the hero. Instead of an old woman being mercy-killed by the Designated Animal Companion.

Chris said...

Hey! You're not me. What's going on here?

But I couldn't possibly agree more about the welcome absence of romance. I tend to cheer whenever Hollywood accomplishes the unusual and writes a completely platonic relationship between male and female characters, not because I hate the romance but just because the other kind of relationship is harder to find.

Hadn't thought at all about the "masculinity" thing. That'll probably require a rewatch for an opinion to form.

Chris said...

^ = (Harder to find in movies, not in real life, that is).

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Chris(es?):

It's worth pointing out that there's been some significant pushback against the notion that Moana's absence of a love interest is a good thing, particularly from POC commentators. They make the point that pop culture frequently treats WOC as inherently unlovable - they might be sexy (or, more accurately, sexualized), but they're rarely treated as objects of romance. In that context, the absence of a love interest isn't necessarily empowering.

I'm personally agnostic about this argument - which is to say, I recognize that WOC characters are often treated as unworthy of romance, but I don't necessarily feel that Moana needed a romantic subplot to work or be empowering. But I have to say that the vehemence with which some reviewers and commentators have stated that the film's refusal to supply such a subplot is obviously a good thing and a sign of progress has been a little dismaying. There is, it seems to me, a significant gulf between "we shouldn't corral female protagonists into stories in which the only action is romantic, and their only achievement is to land a husband" and "no love interest = feminism!", which seems to be the prevailing mindset in a lot of reviews of Moana. I can't help but feel that the latter is rooted more in the way that our culture encourages us to devalue the experiences and desires of women - including romantic fiction.

That's not to say that we should swing back to having romantic storylines in all princess movies, but more that we should talk about what makes sense in each context. I would, for example, have liked for there to have been a cute boy (or, why not, a girl) in Moana's village whom she likes but doesn't quite know what to do about, and who disappears for most of the film while Moana goes off adventuring, and returns at the end of the movie when she's gained enough confidence to make the next step. If only because I've seen that story with a male protagonist so often that it would have been nice to see the gender-swapped version.

order65 said...

Abigail on Rogue One:
"So though I definitely wanted the film's plot to be more small-scale, I also would have liked for it to sell me on Cassian's moral awakening, or Jyn's ability to inspire it, because that's what I think the story it's trying to tell is - how to live well and make a difference in a world that is fundamentally broken, and which doesn't really care about you."

Although I agree with this sentiment, I'm sorry it still colours your overall view of the film, because I can't say I share this view. I personally found the movie very enjoyable and I wasn't looking at the deeper interactions and motivations of these characters.

But one almost-too-subtle transformation in Jyn's outlook on the Empire, Rebellion, and her role in the conflict was found in the scene where Saw played her father's holo-message to her - that was the beginning of change for Jyn, and set the tone for the rest of the film to follow, even if the second half may not have executed it particularly well.

And to echo another commenter's remark - the black ops and military sci-fi aspect/emphasis of the movie did it justice.

Chris said...

Chris the Second here: I'm afraid that was not something I was aware of with Moana. I'm not going to argue against that obviously since I don't have that experience - I can certainly see, given the history, how lack of romance for this film might not just be annoying but devastating depending on who you are. And I will happily agree with the idea that in general lack of romance != feminism.

In the context of Disney princess films, however, I do think it's an improvement (although it just occurred to me to check Brave, since I have not seen that, and it looks like it's not a first). When you've got 10 films in a row where the princess falls in love and marries basically the first man who sings a song with her, and then one where the first man turns out to be a villain, and it's the second man instead, and also there's a second princess who doesn't get a love interest at all, then you've got expectations that are beyond those of general society. Sometimes people need to see things deconstructed before they can be reconstructed.

And in the case of the story Moana tells, I think adding even background romance makes it a worse film. The last three, Brave, Frozen and now this, seem to be making an effort to be about a young woman's relationship with someone other than their suitor. Mother (which I suppose is also a large part of Tangled, which also has a more standard romantic plot), sister, and now boastful male (brother? in spirit at least?). I can see how you write the island romance. But I think then even if you don't have to write the bit where Maui assumes romantic interest in him because you've made it obvious that this would be skeevy then the core of their relationship is still him teaching her about confidence so she can ask a boy out instead of teaching her about navigation so she can travel thousands of miles across the ocean and end up where she wants to be and you end up with Zootopian levels of confusion about what the actual message is. But I don't know - a lot of my context for this is seeing it with my daughters, and the eldest is especially at the age (10) in which she is beginning to be annoyed and upset and shut out by boys showing off and hogging attention. If I'm pleased that she might learn that they don't have to be the enemy because of that and that a bit of pride in your skills and knowledge, if not bragging, is a good thing I hope it's not because I don't want her to have romance and/or desire in her life. (The youngest spent the next week singing I AM... MOAAANAAA! and didn't think she was anything other than pure awesomesauce.) In any case, I'll try to be more careful about assuming anything is an unalloyed good in future.

Fangz said...

FWIW, I expect Moana's lack of romance to be 'corrected' in a future TV series or Straight-to-Video moviesode.

Arresi said...

"(This is separate from, but related to, the various LGM posts about Steve Rogers in his original context, versus the many modern readers who find it shocking and outrageous that he doesn't conform to post-Reaganite mythology, even though that would make no sense)."

Can someone tell where I can find these LGM posts? They sound pretty cool. (One of my annoyances with the MCU is the way it ducked out of the implications of their choices re: Steve Rogers.)

gareth-wilson said...

The most relevant post is here: http://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2013/10/steven-attewell-steve-rogers-isnt-just-any-hero. I personally think that if Cap doesn't come off as reactionary in some sense, he may as well come from Magic Sparkle Unicorn Land rather than 1945. But I see Attewell's point that he's not supposed to be The Comedian. Of course in the movies we know how Cap is reactionary - he supports hooded, masked vigilantes using lethal force without public oversight.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Also worth reading is Attewell's A People's History of the Marvel Universe (currently on hiatus, but hopefully not a permanent one), which I think emerged from that post. It discusses the often-progressive politics in which Marvel superheroes were rooted, and the ways in which politics shaped their development. This includes Cap but also touches on Magneto and the entire X-Men concept.

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