Sunday, July 23, 2017

Recent Movie Roundup 26

I haven't seen a lot of people take note of this--and what with everything else going on, that's hardly surprising--but 2017 is shaping up to be a really good movie year.  Specifically, the genre/action/adventure movies this year has served up have been genuinely strong and enjoyable, from envelope-pushing fare like Logan, Get Out, and Colossal, to well-made, thoughtful variations on familiar formulas like Wonder Woman.  (This is especially noticeable in comparison to 2016, which in terms of its movie offerings pretty much peaked with Deadpool.)  I didn't love all of the movies discussed in this post, but I enjoyed all of them, and more than that, I admired their attempts to do something different, even if in some cases those attempts didn't quite work for me.  In a movie scene that seems increasingly governed by formula and last year's successes, it's heartening to see so many idiosyncratic efforts, and hopefully their success bodes well for the future.
  • Baby Driver - For months, reviewers and filmmakers have been priming us have our socks knocked off by Baby Driver, Edgar Wright's victory lap after being unceremoniously dumped from Ant-Man.  The praise for the film was as unanimous and rapturous as it was strangely unspecific--everyone seemed to love Baby Driver, but no one seemed able to say why, beyond some vague gestures towards its soundtrack (and you know, the last film I saw where the soundtrack was a major selling point was the second Guardians of the Galaxy movie, which is hardly an encouraging comparison).  So when I went to see Baby Driver, it was less in the spirit of enthusiasm and more out of curiosity--what was it about this movie that made people go so gaga over it?  I'm sorry to say that my questions have not been answered.  Baby Driver is enjoyable and well-made.  There are some extremely fun action and car chase scenes (though on that last front the film peaks in its first ten minutes, and never quite recaptures the same high).  But none of this is quite enough to elevate the film past its thoroughly generic story and characters.

    The premise of Baby Driver is so familiar that it practically follows from the film's description as a heist movie.  A demon-behind-the-wheel getaway driver agrees to do One Last Job for some shady characters in order to protect the lives of his loved ones, including his angelic girlfriend, and then things get complicated.  The one twist that Wright offers is that Baby (Ansel Elgort, in a brilliant physical performance that nevertheless feels like little more than a support beam for the film's plot) is obsessed with, constantly listening to, and filtering the world through, music, which he pipes in through the earbuds he hardly ever takes off, ostensibly to ward off the tinnitus that has plagued him since childhood, though like so much else about the film this is a plot element that is introduced and then quickly left by the wayside.  This turns Baby Driver into essentially a long sequence of music videos, an approach that is at first exhilarating, but quickly loses its flavor when it turns out that Wright doesn't have a second gear for it.  For a little while, it feels as if Baby Driver is trying to be the portrait of slightly different person (perhaps even neuroatypical), who needs a soundtrack to his life to function, and who can only truly express his humanity through movement--whether behind the wheel of a car, or walking down the street, or dancing in his apartment.  But as the plot of Baby Driver progresses, this obsession comes to feel less like a character trait and more like a gimmick, a way of establishing the film's coolness credentials--to which end it also gathers actors such as Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, and Jamie Foxx to play the over-the-top criminal types whom Baby squares against.  By the film's final act, in which Baby must save his girlfriend Debora (Lily James) while also retrieving the tape containing the last recording of his mother's singing, he comes off as a less engaging version of Guardians's Starlord, and the film's use of music feels just as calculated.  (This is also a good place to note how few and uninteresting Baby Driver's female characters are, all of them defined by the love, protectiveness, and vengefulness of men.)

    The most obvious point of comparison for Baby Driver is Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, and the difference between how these two movies handle their protagonist feels extremely telling.  Drive's most brilliant touch is the third-act revelation that beneath its angel-faced protagonist's placid exterior, there is a great big nothing.  That his coolness is merely a thin veneer for genuine psychopathy, which eventually tarnishes, and sometimes destroys, the lives of everyone he gets close to.  Baby Driver feels like the movie for people who found that conclusion too depressing, who wanted to be able to keep rooting for the Driver with no moral qualms or complications.  The contortions the film goes through in order to assure us that Baby is a good person, even an innocent--at the same time as he willingly participates in horrific violence--are ultimately more alienating than Drive's condemnation of its hero.  The film's ending feels almost like a parody of the way the American justice system bends over backwards to avoid "destroying the life" of photogenic white criminals.  This is a problem less from an ethical standpoint (though the film's approach to race is troubling, and deserves a lot more attention from reviewers than it's gotten) than from a storytelling one.  If Baby Driver won't give its title character a personality, and won't admit that the absence of a personality is an indication that there is something wrong with him, then all that's left is the film's obsession with coolness, which--for me at least--is not nearly enough to carry it over the finish line.

  • Spider-Man: Homecoming - If the rapturous reception for Baby Driver left me feeling warily curious, the only reaction I had to similarly positive reviews for the latest Spider-Man film was resigned fatigue.  As the sixth (!) Spider-Man movie in fifteen years, Homecoming seemed more like a chore than a pleasure, and the fact that Marvel was clearly only making the movie so that the web-crawler could appear in Infinity War and then become the lynchpin of phase four of the MCU certainly didn't help.  For all that Homecoming turned out to be a smart, charming movie, I'm still not convinced that this character needed to be rebooted for the third time.  But I am impressed with how Marvel has handled the significant challenges of doing so, with a great deal more wit and care than comparable franchise launches (much less re-launches) from other studios have managed.

    It's not surprising that Homecoming steers clear of the over-familiar tropes of the Spider-Man story (in fact some of them, like the burden of guilt Peter carries for the death of Uncle Ben, feel weirdly absent from this story, in which he is far too insouciant and carefree than your standard Peter Parker).  What I didn't expect was for the film to face head-on some of the growing problems with the more recent MCU movies, and to swiftly disarm them.  Homecoming strikes a compelling middle ground between the overheated bombast of MCU team-up movies, and the by-the-numbers plotting of recent standalones.  It tells a story with relatively modest stakes and scope, with a hero who is frequently out of his depth, and villains who are just trying to get paid.  But by giving its setting and characters room to breathe, it paradoxically ends up the most involving MCU movie in some time.  Tom Holland plays Peter as something between Tobey Maguire's soulful nerd and Andrew Garfield's dimwitted jokester, but most of all he plays the character as young.  His Peter is fundamentally decent and heroic, whether he's giving an old lady directions or thoughtlessly stepping up to take a bullet for a street criminal caught in over his head.  But he's also immature, playful, unclear on how this whole superhero business works, and star-struck by his recent adventures with Iron Man in Civil War.  That looseness in his characterization extends to the rest of the cast.  The kids in Peter's school--best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), popular nice girl Liz (Laura Harrier), too-cool-for-school Michelle (Zendaya), asshole Flash (Tony Revolori), and even some of the background players--all get space to be their own, idiosyncratic versions of these types, each a little bit weird in their own way.  As a result, Homecoming ends up feeling more grounded than most films in this genre, like a teen movie about a superhero, not a superhero movie just waiting to shake off its teenage hero's ordinary life.

    There's a similar heft and humanity in the film's handling of its villains, whether it's a small-time crook played by Donald Glover, or the main bad guys.  All feel like people first and plot tokens second, with lives that exist outside of Peter's drama, and limits to their villainy informed by their being part of a community and a family (when Peter convinces Glover's character to give him information, he does it by pointing out that the bad guys have blown up a popular local sandwich shop).  The film's villain, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), breaks the MCU films' villain curse, ending up simultaneously terrifying and sympathetic.  He makes the largely convincing argument that people like Tony Stark cause tremendous damage that they never look down and notice, much less face consequences for.  Peter's heroism is expressed by recognizing the rightness of this criticism, but also the evil of Toomes's reaction to it--he steals and modifies alien technology, and sells it to criminals.  Even then, the true measure of Toomes's villainy comes not when he dons a terrifying flying suit, but through the mundane details of his double life--the hurt that he causes his family, and the damage he does to his community.

    Much has been made of Tony Stark's presence in Homecoming, with some critics even calling it half an Iron Man movie.  I was actually surprised by how little space Tony takes up in the movie, and more than that, by how Homecoming feels free to subtly criticize him.  If, like myself, you thought Tony's decision to recruit Peter in Civil War was reckless and irresponsible, then Homecoming will be the film for you, as it delves into the unintended consequences of that decision--such as Peter retreating from his life in the belief that he will soon be called to join the Avengers.  When Tony tries to repair the damage he's caused, he repeatedly overcompensates, either ghosting Peter completely or micro-managing him, in both cases expecting him to follow orders without considering that he is still a child.  A major component of Peter's growth into heroism and maturity is the fact that he outgrows Tony, rejecting his worldview and choosing to a be a street-level hero, someone who can address the damage that Tony and the Avengers don't see.  (The film also gets in a few jabs at Captain America, who appears as the star of some breathtakingly clueless PSAs screened at Peter's school, even as the teachers admit that he is currently a war criminal.)  It's an ending that also brings Homecoming full circle, back in conversation with the previous Spider-Man movies.  Whereas those films were driven by Peter's tragic inability to balance his life as a person and a hero, Homecoming concludes that it is essential to Peter's heroism that he maintain his humanity, and not ignore his life for the sake of the excitement of being a hero.  It's a little surprising for a Spider-Man movie to end up concluding that its hero should stay "close to the ground" (many of the film's jokes even rely on Peter's inability to find tall buildings and structures to swing from), but for this moment, in both the MCU and this much-rebooted character's existence, that feels like the right decision.

  • Okja - Bong Joon Ho's follow-up to Snowpiercer (produced by Netflix and available to stream on it) is, like its predecessor, a film that veers somewhat haphazardly between dark social satire and earnest social commentary.  Also like Snowpiercer, Okja is a collection of set pieces that vary wildly in tone and even genre, but without the organizing principle of a journey along a train, the result feels even more bitty.  That's not necessarily a complaint.  Some of Okja's set-pieces--chiefly a truck-heist/prison-break scene in the streets of Seoul that gives Baby Driver a run for its money--are worth the price of admission in their own right.  But especially for a film so driven by its message, it can be hard to get a grip on the story Okja is trying to tell.

    The title character is a genetically engineered pig hybrid the size of an elephant, bred as a new, environmentally-friendly food alternative.  Ten years ago, sample piglets were handed out to farmers all over the world, as a publicity stunt meant to normalize the new protein source.  Now, with Korean-raised Okja deemed the "best super-pig" and carted off to the US to be fêted (and then slaughtered), Mija (An Seo Hyun), the granddaughter of the farmer who raised Okja, sets off on a journey to rescue her friend.  It's a fairly basic animal-in-peril story, and yet Okja veers into some extremely weird tangents that never quite coalesce into a coherent whole, whether it's the animal rights group that helps Mija (led by a pacifist Paul Dano and a slightly shady Steven Yeun), or the dissipated former animal show host who has been coopted by the corporation to put a smiley face on Okja's looming fate (Jake Gyllenhaal, in what is easily the most deranged performance of his career).  Some of these bits work very well--the fact that the corporation's CEOs are twins both played by Tilda Swinton, one a money-obsessed monster, the other an airy wannabe-celebrity desperate to remake her company's image, ends up making a subtly cutting statement--it doesn't matter which of these women takes over the running of the company, because the end result of animal abuse will be the same, whether or not it's sugarcoated with good PR.  And even when the film's weirdness doesn't work, it's so expertly done as to be fun to watch.  But the constant shift between absurdism and utterly serious animal rights rhetoric--chiefly a long sojourn in a super-pig slaughterhouse that has definite concentration camp associations--can make it hard to know how to react.

    Perhaps the most significant way in which Okja holds back from its audience is the title character itself.  The CGI for Okja can get a little ropey in the film's action scenes, but it works where it counts, in convincing us that this is a feeling creature whom Mija loves and who is capable of returning that affection, and in making us root for her survival.  And yet Okja, as a character, feels curiously absent from the movie that bears her name.  In most animal in peril stories, the animal is in many ways in the main character (think, for example, of the way Dawn of the Planet of the Apes spends its middle segment focused almost entire on Caesar).  But in Okja, even in scenes in which she is alone (or alone with her abusers), the focus is almost always on the human characters, not on Okja's feelings.  (This is particularly strange because there's a strong implication in the film that Okja and the other super-pigs are a lot smarter than suspected, perhaps even self-aware, and yet ultimately nothing is made of this.)  Okja only really comes to life when she's paired with Mija, and though that pairing, and the love and devotion the two have for one another, are never less than entirely convincing, it's yet another way in which Okja feels confused about what it wants to be.  It's a film that I'm glad exists (not least for how it pushes forward Netflix's willingness to take a shot on strange material and creators from outside of Hollywood) but it's worth watching more for its pieces than its whole.

  • Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets - On paper, Luc Besson's latest movie (based on the comic by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières) should be an unmitigated disaster.  The plot is predictable and frequently relies on the characters being stupid, or worse, following stupid rules and regulations.  The characters are flat, with informed personality traits that never manage to emerge from the actors' performances.  In particular, Dane DeHaan is woefully miscast as the title character, a rougeish adventurer with no time for rules (except right at the end of the film, when he suddenly decides that abiding by the rules defines him).  It's a role that ends up wearing him, rather than allowing him to make it his own.  The film's decision to hang its emotional arc on a putative romance between him and his partner, Laureline (Cara Delevingne), is almost comically misguided--not only is DeHaan completely unconvincing as a lothario whom Laureline desires but can't trust, but the film never gives us any reason, any romantic or sexual spark, to make us root for Valerian and Laureline as a couple.  And despite aiming at a message of inclusivity and tolerance, Valerian's character work frequently plumps for thoughtless stereotypes, particularly in an ill-advised sojourn in a red light district, where Valerian befriends a shape-changing prostitute (Rihanna) who can't get away from her hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold type, or the racially insensitive guises her clients favor.

    And yet for all these flaws, I found Valerian utterly delightful, for the simple reason that the film's world is so broad, so varied, and so much fun, that it's possible to tune out the leaden dialogue, the annoying characters, and the idiot plotting, and simply enjoy the ride.  This isn't simply a matter of visuals--though these are spectacular and constantly evolving throughout the film's run--but of worldbuilding.  Valerian mostly takes place on a travelling space station, Alpha, where humans and other species have for centuries mingled freely and peacefully, adding modules and segments as each species joins the journey.  The film's opening scene, which shows us Alpha's origins as an international space station orbiting Earth, establishes a theme of tolerance and mutual respect, and though, as noted above, that's something Valerian honors as much in the breach as in the observance, it's still a powerful message that informs how Besson builds his world, and how Valerian and Laureline move through it.  This isn't a Guardians of the Galaxy-esque setting, where entire space-faring civilizations exist solely for our heroes to punch their way through.  It's a living, functional world, whose rules and values are worth preserving because they allow its inhabitants to live in (relative) peace and prosperity.  It's no surprise that the villain of the piece turns out to be someone who thought he had the right to tear through another civilization for his own goals, and that our heroes triumph not just by defeating him, but by bringing him to justice.

    All of this is to make Valerian sound a great deal more high-minded than it actually is (not least because, as noted, for all the film's lofty intentions its actual execution is at best awkward, at worst actively working against its message).  But the belief that the world he's constructed is interesting and worth exploring informs how Besson constructs his action plot, and as a result Valerian never stops moving, and never stops showing us new corners of its world.  The film is made up of several gargantuan, and incredibly fun, set pieces, from a chase through an intergalactic market that exists in several dimensions, to Valerian pursuing aliens who have kidnapped his commander by jumping from one environ in Alpha to another, to an underwater quest for a jellyfish that will help Laureline find a missing Valerian.  Perhaps most importantly, the aliens whose dispossession is the film's inciting incident have a society that feels, if not exactly realistic, then sympathetic and interesting.  You find yourself rooting for them to have a happy ending, and it almost makes Valerian and Laureline bearable that they clearly see this as a more important goal than obeying orders.  None of this is enough to make Valerian into a good movie, but it's one that left me feeling a great deal more hopeful and exuberant than any other recent example of this genre, and that's worth celebrating.