Sunday, March 05, 2017

Recent Movie Roundup 24

The deluge of 2016 Oscar films continues, which means that I'm still catching up with what this year's awards were about even though they've already been handed out (for the record, I am thrilled with this year's winner, especially since I, like everyone else including the people announcing it, thought that the best picture trophy would go to the pleasant but comparatively shallow La La Land).  At the same time, we're starting to see the first inklings of 2017's blockbuster movies, which normally would mean a roundup made up of a whole bunch of highbrow films and one or two lowbrow ones.  This year, the lowbrow films are aspiring to cultural significance--in fact, there's not much between Logan and Oscar nominee Hell or High Water, except that I think Logan is better.  We'll have to see how that plays out in the rest of the year.
  • Moonlight - It's hard to know how to begin writing about a work that left me feeling as excited and exhilarated as Barry Jenkins's second film, a three-part meditation on identity, masculinity, and connection that checks in on the life of Chiron, a gay black man from a poor Miami neighborhood, as a child (Alex Hibbert), a teenager (Ashton Sanders), and a young man (Trevante Rhodes).  At each of these points, Chiron is taciturn and emotionally withheld, but also clearly yearning for love, and trying to work out how to be a person--and a man--in a world that doesn't seem to have a place for him.  He finds mentors and supportive figures, in the form of the local drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his warm-hearted girlfriend Teresa (Jannelle Monáe), and develops feelings for his best friend Kevin (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and André Holland).  And he struggles with his mingled love and hate for his drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris).  Underpinning this all is the question of what kind of man Chiron wants (and is capable of) becoming, and whether his environment's demands that he toughen up (especially in response to his sexuality, which is identified by almost everyone around him long before Chiron is ready to acknowledge it) are something that he can accommodate, or must give in to.

    Moonlight is a remarkably specific movie--Jenkins, who co-wrote the screenplay, and Tarrell Alvin McCraney, upon whose play the film is based, are both natives of Liberty City, the neighborhood where most of the story takes place, and their mingled affection and clear-sighted view of its flaws help to create a powerful sense of place that grounds the film despite the fact that its storytelling shows us only snapshots of Chiron's life.  And Chiron himself is very clearly the product of a particular situation and set of circumstances.  He's not just gay, but also black and poor, and his identity is bound up in all of those labels and how they affect one another, as well as his family history and home town.  (In that sense, and several others, Moonlight reminded me a great deal of Donald Glover's Atlanta, another story about a young black man trying to make his way despite not answering to a particular, prescriptive form of masculinity, which repeatedly draws on the details of the neighborhood Glover grew up in.)  It's that specificity that gives the movie life, but it is also the quality that helps it feel so universal.  The heart of the film are conversations that Chiron has with Juan, Kevin, Teresa, and his mother, about the kind of life he wants to lead, how he sees the world, and his fears that it might be too late for him to change.  It's so unusual in pop culture to see depictions of men talking (and especially to one another) about their feelings, hopes, and fears, and especially with the honesty, vulnerability, and openness that they do in Moonlight, that the film becomes a template for what so much filmmaking should aspire to.

    It's perhaps because of this openness that Moonlight, despite its difficult subject matter, ends up being a remarkably hopeful, even joyful film.  Where other films about marginal characters in bad neighborhoods might try to shock us with those characters' humanity--this guy may be a drug dealer, but he's also kind to small children!--Moonlight starts from the assumption that that humanity exists.  The drug dealers, addicts, and criminals in this movie are full human beings, who have made bad choices (sometimes for understandable reasons, and sometimes less so), but whose lives are not encompassed in those choices.  They are also parents, children, friends, neighbors, and lovers, and the film holds out the hope that those relationships can help the characters make better lives for themselves (some of them do, and some don't).  The film's final act, which sees Chiron and Kevin reuniting as adults after a decade's separation, is a small but perfectly formed love story, in which the most miraculous thing that can happen to a person is to be seen and accepted for who they are.  That this miracle is handed to someone like Chiron, who in other movies might have been treated as beyond hope, is a huge part of what makes Moonlight so moving, and so important.

  • Hidden Figures - There is scarcely a single sports movie cliché that is not hit on with gusto in this movie about the black women whose calculations enabled the American space program to succeed.  Its beats are entirely predictable, right down to the minute, and if anything the film leans into its familiar structure and character arcs.  But Hidden Figures is nevertheless entirely winning and engaging, in no small part because of the trio of winning and engaging actresses at its heart--Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson, the mathematician whose launch and landing calculations enabled the Mercury and Apollo missions to succeed, Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan, one of NASA's first computer programmers, and Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson, an aspiring engineer.  Another big reason for the film's success is how different and fascinating its subject matter is--this is not just a film about space, but about the mathematics of getting into space, and about the black women who were doing that mathematics.  Beyond how exciting it is to learn about this overlooked chapter of the history of the space program, it's genuinely infuriating that it wasn't more widely known until now.  (The biggest compliment I can pay to Hidden Figures, in fact, is that it inspired me to read the Margot Lee Shetterly book on which it was based, and learn more about these women and their work.  On my twitter feed, I had some more thoughts about the differences between the book and the movie, and storified them here.)

    One of the ways in which Hidden Figures bucks its sports movie structure, which ends up being its smartest and most rewarding choice, is in not choosing to focus on a single, remarkable individual.  Though the three heroines all grapple with similar obstacles of racism and sexism, each of their journeys is different, and informed by their different personalities--Katherine is geeky and slow to stand up for herself, Dorothy prefers to ask forgiveness than permission, and Mary openly defies authority and unfair regulations.  Hidden Figures also stresses the support that the three women give to each other, and the fact that they are part of a group of black female mathematicians, and of a community, whose pride in them and support of them are essential to their success (it's particularly fun to see the film treat Katherine and Mary's romances--with, respectively, Mahershala Ali and Aldis Hodge--in the same way that most movies like this treat female love interests; Ali and Hodge's job is to be charming and supportive, which they do incredibly well).  More mixed is the film's handling of its white characters.  It does a good job of depicting the complicated relationship between black and white women at NASA, which encompasses both hostility and support.  Kirsten Dunst plays Dorothy's supervisor, who clearly derives some satisfaction from having someone below her on the totem pole, and Kimberly Quinn plays the administrative assistant in the space group Katherine is assigned to, who quietly helps her navigate her new environment.  In both cases, this behavior is underplayed--Dunst isn't the villain of the piece, and Quinn isn't a hero; neither one of them goes through life thinking about black women, and both their nastiness and kindness are minor notes in the heroines' journeys.

    The white men that Katherine works with, however, are allowed to be major notes in the movie, whether it's Jim Parsons as an engineer who resents being shown up by Katherine, or Kevin Costner as a supervisor who recognizes her talent, and the absurdity of ignoring it because of her race.  Both of them are allowed to take up too much space in a story that should never have been about them, and particularly Costner, whose "good white guy" character was invented for the movie and feels more and more out of place as its story progresses.  Hidden Figures juxtaposes the journey into space with the struggle towards full opportunity and acceptance of African-Americans, making the dual point that, on the one hand, a society that aspires to go into space can't afford to hold on to backwards prejudices, and on the other hand, that the only way to achieve the impossible is to make use of everyone's talents, regardless of race or gender.  It's a shame, therefore, that it chooses to make this point by putting it in the mouth of a white man who never even existed, and whose character was clearly created in order to appease the kind of white audience who can't stand not seeing themselves at the center of a story.

  • Hell or High Water - Looking back at the dismal selection of movies delivered by the summer of 2016, it's easy to understand how David Mackenzie's spare crime drama, about two down-on-their-luck brothers who decide to rob banks in order to pay off the mortgage on their mother's farm, and the Texas Ranger who pursues them, ended up seeming like a breath of fresh air and a credible awards contender.  But one might have hoped that by the time January and Oscar nominating season had rolled around, cooler heads would have prevailed.  Hell or High Water is well made, and features strong performances from Chris Pine and Ben Foster as the two robbers, and Jeff Bridges as the Ranger.  But it's also a thoroughly conventional and even slightly underwritten piece of filmmaking, not really any better or worse than several other crime stories set in the economically depressed American south from the last few years.  The story proceeds with very few surprises--indeed, with an almost depressing predictability; about ten minutes into the film, one identifies the character who is going to die tragically, who shuffles off precisely at the moment you think they will--and a lot of empty space that is not adequately filled by either the performances or the nicely-shot landscapes of open fields and dying towns.

    There are some grace notes--a brief scene in which Bridges and his partner (Gil Birmingham) are stopped in their pursuit by a herd of cattle fleeing a brush fire has a certain elegiac quality, and there's some wit in Birmingham's character, who is part Native American, observing that the white people who dispossessed his ancestors are now being driven off that same land by capitalism.  But like so much else about Hell or High Water, this economic message is watered-down and barely followed through.  The film never makes us feel sufficiently invested in the brothers' plight, but neither are they so foolish or short-sighted as to be interesting as a cautionary tale.  By the time the bodies start dropping because of their choices, it's hard not to simply check out of their story.  And while Bridges's turn as a soon-to-be-retired Ranger, well-versed in the wide variety of human folly, is very well done (the one case where I feel the film's Oscar nomination was deserved), it is also, like so much else about Hell or High Water, a pale imitation of better work--in this case, Tommy Lee Jones's very similar character in No Country for Old Men, whose ending is far bolder and more resonant than what Bridges gets.  Though entertaining, Hell or High Water feels patched together from pieces of better movies, and this makes its continuing presence in this year's awards races rather baffling.

  • Jackie - Pablo Larrain's film is a stunning achievement, at once a biopic and a meditation on politics, public image, celebrity, and legacy.  Natalie Portman is magnificent as the recently-widowed Jackie Kennedy, in a performance that could easily have come off as a cheap imitation but instead uses Jackie's antiquated accent and mannerisms to get at a deeper truth--that this was a woman who was, herself, constantly putting on a performance.  The film rests completely on Portman's shoulders, with the camera often trained closely on her face as she struggles to suppress an emotion, find the right tone to strike to get what she wants, or hold her own against the men who see her as an ornament, or an impediment to their plans.  The narratives switches back and forth, framed by three interviews--with a reporter (Billy Crudup) who comes to Jackie shortly after the assassination to discuss the lavish funeral she orchestrated for her husband; with a priest (John Hurt), some time after Kennedy's death; and with a news crew, during her 1962 televised tour of the white house.  Interspersed with all these are depictions of the minutes, hours, and days immediately after the assassination, as Jackie makes her way back from Dallas with Kennedy's body, plans her husband's funeral, and leaves the white house.  Through it all, the central question of the movie is: who is this woman, and what does she want?  What is the purpose of the grand display of grief she's planning for her husband?  Is she a vain fame-hound just looking for a few more moments in the public eye?  Is she a grieving widow trying to keep her husband alive for just a little longer, if only in the edifice she erects to mourn him?  Or is she a canny politician, who realizes that the funeral is her last chance to cement her husband's image in the public consciousness?  In one of the film's best scenes, Bobby Kennedy (a criminally overlooked Peter Sarsgaard) rails against the injustice of cutting short his brother's life before he could accomplish all he wanted.  But Jackie, listening silently, seems to realize that Kennedy's legacy is what she is at that moment creating: the image of hope, vigor, and promise which she is teaching the nation to mourn.

    It's easy to draw lines between Jackie and our current political moment.  On the one hand, the innate sense of service that permeates so many of the characters seems enviable, from our present situation.  Everyone in the movie recognizes the need to sublimate their own needs, and even their own grief, to the needs of the nation, and the fact that Kennedy's death does not belong solely to his family is accepted by all.  But at the same time, it's hard not to look at Jackie's projects as first lady--not just the funeral or the white house renovation, but making the presidency a sort of royal court, inviting artists to perform for the president and having grand parties in the residence--as the first steps towards the celebritization of the presidency.  One of the arguments the film makes is that a lot of the things we take for granted about how American presidents are treated, in life and death, were being invented in the Kennedy white house, and especially after the assassination.  That before Kennedy, the president was a public servant, and after him, he was something akin to a king.  The film is deeply ambivalent about the value of that--was the grand state funeral, as the reporter suggests to Jackie, a "spectacle", or was it, as he concedes later on, a necessary component of the nation's healing?  What this, as well as the scenes with Bobby, leave us to chew over is the question of what politics actually is--is it image, or action?  And is there really a difference between the two, given that so much work has to be put into projecting just the right image?

    For a film as smart and well-made as Jackie to have been locked out of this year's best picture race (not to mention Portman's loss in the best actress category to Emma Stone, whose performance in La La Land is perfectly fine but nowhere near the difficulty of what Portman accomplishes here), would be infuriating, if the film itself were not crafted, at least in part, as an explanation of why that sort of thing keeps happening.  Ultimately, Jackie's difficulties come down to the fact that we're not socialized to consume women's stories.  We either take it as a given that women don't have stories worth telling, or we see them as monstrous for trying to be at the center of a story--too ambitious, too vain, too flighty, too chilly, too emotional, too something.  The fact that none of the men around her can understand Jackie, that they keep trying to put labels on her that clearly don't fit, is directly linked to their inability to see her as their equal, as someone operating within the same sphere as them.  Jackie herself is alternately frustrated by this failure, and very savvy about using it to her advantage.  That audiences and critics similarly failed to grasp this film's importance and versatility, the way that, like its heroine, it uses our inability to put just one label on her as a way of disarming our expectations and prejudices, is equally frustrating and to be expected.  Nevertheless, even if the Academy failed to recognize Jackie's genius, there's no excuse for viewers doing the same.

  • Logan - It's been a little frustrating, watching the rapturous critical reactions to Logan pour in, all calling the film a great leap forward in superhero storytelling.  Not because Logan isn't a good film--it undeniably is.  But because the things that make it good have nothing to with revolutionizing superhero movies, but are rather (obviously deliberate) throwbacks to the Westerns of the 50s and the crime dramas of the 70s.  Logan is good because it takes a very simple, very straightforward story--in a near-future in which mutants are all but extinct, a physically-shattered Wolverine tends to a senile Charles Xavier, but is forced out of retirement by Laura (Dafne Keen), a young girl who possesses the same powers as him and is being hunted down by the sinister corporation who created her--and tells it well, with careful attention to its characters, and some very bloody, vicious fight scenes that suit the bleakness of the film's premise and the desperation of its situation.  That this represents a revolutionary approach to superhero films is not actually untrue.  Superhero films have, for some time, been characterized by a "more is more" approach, piling on countless characters and relentless CGI to make up for slack, underwritten scripts; so Logan's relatively spare, and yet well-crafted, storytelling makes for a refreshing change.  But it is a little depressing to think that Logan breaks new ground simply by trying to be a good movie, and what's more, it gets in the way of appreciating Logan as a work of filmmaking in its own right.

    On that level, Logan is actually strongest in the moments where it embraces its inner X-Men movie.  For all its ups and downs, one of the most consistent strong points of this film series is its grasp on the relationships between its characters, in knowing which of them would like or dislike each other, and how they'd interact (compare that to the MCU's blithe insistence that all its good guys would get along famously, except for when the script requires them to fight).  Logan's bleak, nearly-hopeless tone could easily have come to seem like a gimmick--the equivalent of the 90s comics craze for "gritty" storytelling, which confused an emotional tone with a path towards some deeper philosophical truth (especially since we know that, right around the corner, there's another ensemble X-Men film coming that will no doubt return to the series's standard, more upbeat tone, and to the prevailing assumption of this genre that no story is worth telling if it doesn't hang the fate of the world in the balance).  That it doesn't is entirely down to the relationship between Logan and Charles, and the ad hoc family they form with Laura, a violent, taciturn ball of rage whose pure-id behavior clashes amusingly with the two older men's more experienced, damaged personalities.  Stewart, in particular, is excellent and heartbreaking as a once-great man made querulous and childish in his old age.  His relationship with Logan shifts back and forth between their old teacher-student bond, and a more intimate parent-child relationship, in which it's Logan who must realize that Charles's judgment can no longer be trusted, and that he needs to take on the parent role.  Logan's own character arc is less engaging, largely because it hasn't changed much in seventeen years, but these familiar character beats are revitalized by pitting him against Laura, in many ways his younger mirror.

    The one thing that Logan does bring to the superhero table is the film's background setting.  Logan is set in a near-future in which draconian restrictions on immigration, and the hostility towards immigrants that they promote, have become the norm.  In which American corporations set up sites in Mexico where they conduct unethical experiments, creating new mutants to be used as soldiers, because they can bully the local nurses and surrogate mothers into silence, and kill them if they refuse.  In which the working class is increasingly squeezed out of what little they've managed to carve out for themselves by giant corporations and their violent cronies.  None of these are the point of the movie, but the fact that the world has gotten crueler and more prone to exploiting the weak is what allows its story to happen, and it contributes to its characters' despair, their sense that they've failed as heroes and activists.  This is finally an X-Men movie that recognizes that there are more axes of oppression than anti-mutant prejudice, and that white, middle-to-upper class men like Logan and Charles can't be expected to stand in for all of them--which makes it all the more important that Laura, and the other young mutants she eventually joins forces with, are almost all POCs.  Because Logan tells such a small story, in which victory consists of saving just one girl, it can acknowledge that the world's ills are too great for any one person to solve, even if they have mutant powers, and this allows the movie to be a lot more honest about what those ills are than most works in this genre.  I'd like to believe that at least one of the lessons Hollywood will learn from Logan is to take a more realistic view of the world's problems, but I suspect what we're actually going to get is a slew of R-rated superhero movies starring pre-pubescent, barely-verbal action heroines.


seamus said...

Watching Logan I was reminded of the film American Honey for two reasons - both involve people travelling through the midwest, with Texas, Oklomaha and North Dakota being common and movies feature a song by the artist Raury which are a companions pieces - Logan had Devils's whipser while American Honey had God's whisper.

You're spot on saying Hell or High Water is thoroughly conventional which most of the time would be a turn off for me but it's saving grace is it's a movie set in rural Texas and that is place that I am always happy to spend time reading about/ watching even if the vehicle for doing so is pretty derivative.

Chris said...

Agree entirely with your last paragraph. I can't remember if this is the first superhero movie released since Trump, but everything about the movie is *perfect* in terms of a "Trump's America" setting. In lots of ways, but the simplest way to put it is, it's a movie about saving a Mexican child born to exploitation by getting her to the Canadian border.

This especially - "its characters' despair, their sense that they've failed as heroes and activists" - is actually very effective. Whether they realize it or not, the X-Men movies are rooted in the post civil rights "arc of history is long but it bends towards justice" narrative. The X-Men/mutantkind going extinct, and especially going extinct not in an apocalyptic way but in a "the world just did away with them and moved on" way, makes a nice metaphor for the number of people currently wondering if all the progress of the last fifty years will ultimately end up being just a blip on the radar screen.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I'd be surprised if Logan was written with a Trump presidency in mind - shooting on the film was surely concluded by the time of the election. But to me that only makes it more resonant, because Trump didn't create, or even really intensify, the forces the film depicts. Xenophobia, austerity, the strong resenting and villifying the weak, and the disenfranchised putting violent, inarticulate strongmen in power - these are all forces that have been intensifying for a while now. Trump isn't the cause of them, but the outcome.

It's probably unworkable, but I'd actually like a lot more superhero stories in which superpowers have either failed or are useless to solve the problem at hand. What does Supergirl do, for example, in a world in which Donald Trump is the legally-elected president? Even in Logan, though there is a villain, he's basically a corporate functionary, and killing him is satisfying but doesn't really solve the underlying problem. It's darkly satisfying to me to see a superhero story in which the enemy isn't a single villain, but the society that put that person in power and whose members approve of their bigotry and cruelty - even if the end result of that approach is for the genre to devour itself.

As for the arc of history, one thing that occurred to me while watching Logan is that previous X-Men movies, though claiming a mantle of social justice, tended to concentrate the effect of their "mutant metaphor" on groups to whom whiteness and the middle class were accessible - Ashkenazi Jews, or cisgender gay people. Logan is one of the first X-Men films in which the majority of the mutants are, in addition to being mutants, black and brown - and these are both traits that are essentially inescapable, no matter where you run to.

Chris said...

I doubt if it was written with a Trump *presidency* in mind. But I suspect it was very much written with the Trump *candidacy* in mind. As it turned out, what they probably thought would end up having a bad future/cautionary tale vibe to it, ended up being much more on the nose than intended.

The POC thing... I appreciate it very much, but I think I'd be more impressed with it if the POC-mutants in question weren't all children that we barely spend ten minutes with and whose names we don't even learn (other than the one). I remember thinking at the end of the movie that I'd enjoy it if somebody picked up where the movie left off and gave us a New Mutants/X-23 story about that group. I really doubt it'll happen, though, or that this signals a new direction in the franchise.

And yeah, I agree completely that I'd love to see more supes confronted with problems they can't solve with their superpowers. Alas, I wouldn't count on that either.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Yeah, if Dafne Meek were a little older, I'd wonder if the plan was to position her as the lead in future movies, but that seems unlikely. Especially since, as I say, Logan is merely an offshoot of the main X-Men series, where most of the characters who get screentime are white.

Of course, that series is now apparently headed towards the Logan future and mutant extinction, something that I've seen surprisingly little discussion of.

Chris said...

Yeah, I was especially surprised that the death of Xavier didn't generate more discussion. I suppose prequel-X-Men is where all the action is now, but I didn't expect that character, with that actor, to be simply killed off in a spin-off like that. I suppose they can bring him back in an alternate timeline or by saying this was the alternate timeline, but still.

Kate said...

I was disappointed to see you write this:

"It's a shame, therefore, that it chooses to make this point by putting it in the mouth of a white man who never even existed, and whose character was clearly created in order to appease the kind of white audience who can't stand not seeing themselves at the center of a story."

Are you suggesting that the filmmakers of a 60's era historical drama could use anyone other than a white man as the project lead? How does a screenwriter consolidate the breadth of this story in a two hour time frame without using an amalgam character who speaks for our better angels? Perhaps you find this writing shorthand too cheap, too easy, but to blame it on some alt-right mindset is, well, too cheap and easy.

The main white characters in this movie (Dunst, Costner and Parsons) are all amalgams. If Hollywood truly wanted to appease the alt-right (instead of just taking the easiest, laziest storytelling choice) they'd have written a white character based on an actual person. At NASA in the 60s the options would've been plenty.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

How does a screenwriter consolidate the breadth of this story in a two hour time frame without using an amalgam character who speaks for our better angels?

Off the top of my head, by following the actual historical truth?

Costner's character is not an amalgam (except in the sense that there were white male project leaders in the space groups that Katherine Johnson and the other West Computers worked in). He's an invention, and many of the things he does are also inventions - most notably, the person who desegregated the bathrooms (actually, the cafeteria) was a black woman. Some of the white characters in Hidden Figures are based in reality - the engineer who encourages Mary Jackson, for example (though even there, there have been liberties taken) - but Costner and other characters like him were clearly created in order to turn this story into one that is moved by white characters, who have the power to grant or stymie the heroines' wishes.

But when you read Shetterly's book, it becomes clear that not only is this not her project - there are barely any white people of note in her telling of the story, and whether or not a particular white person was "good" or "bad" is of no importance to her and her subjects - but isn't even true. Most of the work done to advance black women (and men) in NASA was done by black women. Mary Jackson, for example, spent the latter half of her career as an administrator, where she saw it as her role to recruit black mathematicians and engineers, help them acclimate at NASA and in Virginia, and advise them on the advancement on their careers.

And look, you can certainly argue that such an approach doesn't work in a mainstream Hollywood product, and that characters like Costner's are the spoonful of sugar required to get white audiences engaged in this story. But how is that not a bad thing? When the first reports on Costner's character came out, I kept comparing the muted, not to say nonexistent reaction from mainstream venues to the furor that greeted Ava DuVernay's choice to downplay the role of Lyndon Johnson in passing the voting rights act in Selma - a controversy that probably cost DuVernay and Selma their Oscar nominations. I liked Hidden Figures a lot, and I think that on the whole it is an important and valuable film. But it's hard to look at its awards success and not feel that it is being rewarded for pandering to white audiences' need for every story to be, in some way, about them.

Kate said...

The Heroic White Guy trope represented by Costner is countered by the Horrible White Person trope represented by Dunst. If pandering is the intent, then so is shaming, because two White invented characters are bigoted jerks. This isn't how I first understood your comment about appeasement, but you may be right. Hollywood wants Whites to feel good about themselves -- unrealistically so -- as long as they feel guilty, too. The sugar and the medicine.

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