Recent Movie Roundup 20
In the previous installment of this series, I noted that I was looking forward to watching some more grown-up fare at the movie theater. Eight months later, I seem to have failed spectacularly at that task. There are a whole bunch of movies for adults, like Boyhood and Whiplash, that I meant to see and never got around to, and here I am again reporting on the more shlocky end of the scale. So let's make this a resolution for 2015--watch some more challenging stuff at the movie theater, and if I can't manage that, try to catch up with it at home. In the meantime, though, here are my thoughts on the movies I have seen.
- Gone Girl - David Fincher's artful, tense direction can't obscure the fact that this is one of those novel adaptations that are completely inessential if you've read the book (in fact, much like this summer's The Fault in Our Stars, Gone Girl is a case in which watching the movie and reading the book would probably take about the same amount of time--though in Gone Girl's case that's largely because the film is overlong, taking far too long to wrap up its story). With the exception of Rosamund Pike's Amy--a wonderfully chilly, scary performance that can't quite get around how hollow the character, as written and conceived, is--there's nothing that Gone Girl the movie adds to the book, and nothing that it does with a story that is, let's face it, pretty schlocky and ridiculous if you think about it for a moment, to make it its own. If you're coming to that story for the first time--like my brother, who watched the film with me and loved it--that should be more than enough, even if you know the major twist (as I did when I read the book). On a second viewing, when you already know the story beats, there's not much here to watch for. Despite Fincher's reputation as an auteur, Gone Girl is clearly a commercial creation first and foremost, designed to feed on and multiply the book's popularity. That means that it can't afford to alienate fans or potential fans by failing to deliver exactly what they expect. I found myself, while watching the film, thinking again of We Need to Talk About Kevin, a book that has more than a few similarities with Gone Girl and whose success in the mid-00s meant that it, too, was briefly intended as a cash-in product for some major film studio. Somehow, miraculously, Lynne Ramsay got her hands on the project and was able to make something living and vibrant out of it, filing away the book's problems and making something resonant out of a rather silly story. Gone Girl hasn't been so lucky.
Perhaps inevitably, author Gillian Flynn's screenplay strips out most of the novel's social commentary, and on the whole this is for the best--Gone Girl's biggest problem was that it tried to make a statement about marriage through a story about a marriage in which one partner was a raging psychopath. But it's also a choice that lays bare the absurdities of the story's twists and turns, and leaves the leftovers of this theme feeling particularly unconvincing--the Cool Girl speech, already out of place in the book (it's a darling that should have been killed, except that its cultural currency is already greater than the novel that contains it) sticks out like a sore thumb in the movie. When I read Gone Girl it seemed to me that the only way to resolve its inherent inconsistencies and problems (chief among them, the choice to indulge in so many pernicious stereotypes where the rape-faking, sperm-stealing Amy is concerned) was to take it as a very dark comedy, and I think that a director who was less beholden to a studio determined to monetize the book could have made a great movie along those lines. That's not what happened, and so Gone Girl is roughly as good as the book--compulsive and extremely well made, but prone to falling apart if you think about it too much.
- The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 - This movie has been catching a lot of flak for being half a story, and for a split that quite clearly happened purely as a cash-in measure. But though Mockingjay.1 has its moments of padding--there was no need for Katniss to make two trips back to the bombed and destroyed District 12, and the action scene that concludes the films is ridiculously drawn out in a way that makes it less tense and more comedic--on the whole it benefits from the extra breathing space, which leaves us room to appreciate the film's remarkably un-heroic subject matter, and a stellar central performance by Jennifer Lawrence that brings it to life. I went into Mockingjay feeling very jaded about the Hunger Games series, which seemed to go into a holding pattern with the utterly unnecessary Catching Fire, repeating the beats of the first film with only minor variations. Mockingjay, thankfully, moves the story forward, with Katniss spirited off to District 13 to become the symbol of the revolution. Where the two previous films struggled with the realization that Katniss's heroism in the arena was merely a tool that ultimately served the Capitol, Mockingjay faces that truth head-on. It does this by effectively removing Katniss from the hero role--where the film's trailers make it seem that she is fighting the Capitol, in truth she's making propaganda films (and in a clever touch, the logos and films produced by this propaganda machine look remarkably like the film's own promotional materials). Meanwhile, Katniss is struggling with PTSD and with her growing inability to protect the people she loves--chiefly Peeta, who was left behind in the arena at the end of Catching Fire and has been forced into becoming the Capitol's spokesperson.
Mockingjay can assign Katniss this passive, reactive role because it gives more space to other characters, such as Philip Seymour Hoffman's Plutarch Heavensbee, a PR maven who doesn't quite realize what a revolution actually entails, Julianne Moore's Alma Coin, the soft-spoken but slightly sinister leader of District 13, and the reliably delightful Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks). (Even Liam Hemsworth's perpetually underserved Gale finally gets the chance to seem a little more like an actual person, after two films in which his character seemed to have no point.) Since worldbuilding has always been the Hunger Games films' strongest point, this chance to see more of the series's world and its workings is all to the good, even if the revolution that Mockingjay depicts doesn't really make sense--the scale of the revolutionaries' willingness to commit violence, often at the cost of their own and their families' lives, requires a great deal more explanation than the film gives, probably because it isn't willing to face up to its implications. Nevertheless, the sense that we are finally getting to see the bigger story playing out around Katniss is a relief after being stuck in her limited point of view in Catching Fire, and though I don't doubt that Mockingjay.2 will place her back in a more central, heroic role, the bleakness of the first part is both necessary and extremely effective.
- Big Hero 6 - Marvel's first foray into the realm of animated kids' entertainment, though not officially part of the MCU, feels both inflected by it and different from it in significant ways. There's a great deal of Iron Man in the way that lead character Hiro (Ryan Potter), a juvenile genius in the futuristic city "San Fransokyo," designs and manufactures robots, armored suits, and a myriad other fantastical devices that help to turn him into a superhero. But despite the team name in the title, Big Hero 6 is only really interested in two of that team's members--Hiro, and the medical robot Baymax (Scott Adsit), who allows himself to be transformed into a fighting, flying machine in the belief that this will enable Hiro to come to terms with the recent death of his older brother. Big Hero 6's story thus has a lot more in common with The Iron Giant or Up, though those comparisons are perhaps a little unkind, since it lacks either of those films' emotional power and fleet-footed plotting (like Up, the film starts with a preamble that establishes Hiro's life, his close relationship with his brother, and the sudden trauma of his loss, but what Up achieves in ten heart-wrenching, wordless minutes takes Big Hero 6 twice as long, with nowhere near the same effect). What makes Big Hero 6 its own creation is its stunning animation, and the world that it brings to life, a vibrant, truly multicultural city whose citizens are a genuinely diverse bunch (starting with the film's protagonist, of course, but hardly stopping there--at least three of the human members of the Big Hero 6 are people of color). The result is enjoyable and often quite funny--especially when the other members of the team are on screen, though none of them ever emerge as fully-fleshed characters--but adult viewers intrigued by the Marvel imprimatur could just as easily wait for the DVD.
- The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies - It's disappointing to me how disappointing I found this film. Despite recognizing that neither one was particularly good, I enjoyed the two previous installments in Peter Jackson's bloated, aimless "adaptation" of The Hobbit, finding enough bits, scenes, and character moments in each one to tide me over their absurd running time and complete incomprehension of what made the original novel lovely and engaging. There's little of that in The Battle of the Five Armies, probably because with this movie, Jackson and his fellow writers Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh have hit their lowest ratio yet of original material to running time--the film is based on only a few chapters of The Hobbit, none of which actually describe the titular battle, since Bilbo is unconscious for most of it. What that translates to on screen is essentially a single, two-and-a-half-hour battle scene, with little ingenuity or directorial flair to enliven it--it's hard to believe that this is the same writer and director who made the final battle scenes of The Return of the King so tense and engaging. While some of the emotional beats of the movie still land--basically anything involving Martin Freeman's Bilbo is golden, with Freeman effortlessly conveying Bilbo's fundamental decency, and how his matter-of-fact Hobbit nature shines through the disreputable burglar-hero that he has become--others, such as the strained relationship between Legolas and his father Thranduil, never rise above boilerplate (though on his own Lee Pace's Thranduil remains one of the secret successes of these films, a character who is, at one and the same time, absurdly camp and genuinely powerful and scary; the fact that he ends the film as neither a villainous figure nor a fully "redeemed" one is one of the most subtle touches in it).
And then, of course, there's Thorin, a character who has had a dozen different motivations, tragic flaws, and fast-approaching dooms since this series began, none of which were well-realized or very convincing. The Battle of the Five Armies swaps out his One Ring-like lust for the Arkenstone from The Desolation of Smaug (itself a replacement for his desire for vengeance from An Unexpected Journey) for "dragon-sickness," the lingering curse of Smaug which causes paranoid greed (and does not affect anyone except Thorin, and is shaken off with a crude, unintentionally hilarious CGI montage). All of this is because Jackson, Boyens and Walsh can't face up to the fact that in the original book, Thorin is an ornery, greedy, unheroic businessman, not the Byronic figure that they and Richard Armitage keep trying to cut. But what makes The Battle of the Five Armies such a failure is that, in the end, it's really not clear why Jackson and Co. chose to make that swap. We've been saying for years that the core flaw of the Hobbit films is trying to recreate the sweeping, elegiac tone of the Lord of the Rings movies, telling an epic story where the original book was a more mundane, small-scale story about people who just wanted to get paid. But just at the point where you'd expect The Battle of the Five Armies to hit that heroic tone hardest it seems to forget that it ever meant to do so. The titular battle--and its tragic outcome for Thorin and his line--turns out to have been about nothing more than petty disputes over gold, conveniently forgotten when a common enemy emerges in the form of the orc army, but no less petty for all that. This is, of course, the point that Tolkien made in the original novel, but Jackson and Co. have so obscured it with their constant references to the future war with Sauron, and with their reimagination of Thorin as a great-but-angsty warrior, that the full tragedy of it--the unnecessary waste of life--fails to land. The movie ends up being neither one thing nor the other, and perhaps mainly concerned with making sure that certain plot elements, such as Bilbo's mithril coat, end up where they need to be for the story of The Lord of the Rings. This is pure prequel-itis, and far less than The Hobbit deserved.
- Ascension - Not actually a movie but a Syfy channel "special event" miniseries. But of course that's not true either, because once you've watched Ascension, it's clear that what you're seeing is a pilot and four episodes of an ongoing series, recut into three parts after Syfy declined to order the show to series--and thus without anything like a proper conclusion to the story. (The series's creators have raised the possibility that Syfy will order more episodes, like it did after the Battlestar Galactica miniseries aired, but it's hard to watch the existing material and believe that this was the original plan.) Which is actually a shame, because for all its flaws--and there are many--Ascension might be one of the more ambitious genre efforts of the last few years, a show with a chunky premise and lots of moving parts that might have been a lot of fun to follow. That premise is that in the early 60s, mankind launched a generation starship on a hundred-year journey to a new world. In the present day, the descendants of the original crew are struggling with the stratified society that has emerged on the ship, and with the realization that their life's work is merely to act as a bridge for the generation that will get to see and live on a new world. So when a murder is committed on the ship for the first time, the small, fragile society is rocked, and the officer charged with investigating the crime finds himself out of his depth. There's a twist to all this that is pretty easy to guess about halfway into the pilot but whose revelation is handled very well, so I won't spell it out here (though if you're a genre fan you've probably worked out what it is simply by being told that it exists), but in the later episodes of the series the currents of power and influence on Ascension are joined by forces on Earth, who reveal a very different goal for the mission than the one imagined by the crew.
It should be said that despite this intriguing premise, the execution, and particularly the worldbuilding, on Ascension are nothing short of ridiculous. The point is made that the ship was launched before most of the social justice movements of the last half-century came to fruition, and yet Ascension's crew appears to be fully integrated. On the other hand, this is also a spaceship on which dozens of young women (and not a single man) have no greater call on their time and skills than to be prostitutes (this plot strand is also where the series criminally wastes the talents of Tricia Helfer, who could play the politically hungry madam role she's been given in her sleep, and only comes to life in the final episode when her character is finally handed some real responsibility). The series repeatedly stresses the rigid class system that has emerged on Ascension, but with every reference to the "lower decks" it only becomes clearer that this system is unworkable--the right to have children, for example, is reserved for higher caste crewmembers, but if that's the case then where did all the lower deck people come from? Despite this, I found myself enjoying the show and buying into its world, ridiculous as it is, largely because there are so many components to it, and the plot of the miniseries moves so fast that it was easy to ignore these obvious flaws. I don't know if Ascension could work as an open-ended series--the last few years have proven that barreling through your plot at a breakneck pace to distract from how empty and silly your story is can only work for so long, and especially for a series whose premise touches on so many meaty subjects, I'm not sure it's possible to simply coast on the audience's desire to know what happens next. Nevertheless, I'd be happy to learn that Ascension will given the chance to fail or succeed. There are so few genre series with genuinely odd, SFnal premises out there right now, that even a flawed, ridiculous one could be a lot of fun to watch.