(Not So) Recent Movie Roundup 22
It's pretty far down the very long list of reasons for its awfulness, but 2016 has not been a great movie year. The failures of this year's summer movies have been sufficiently enumerated, but the truth is that by the time they rolled around, I was sufficiently burned out by the disappointing spring that I didn't even bother to watch most of them. And a great deal of interesting 2016 films that I would have liked to see--such as Midnight Special, The Lobster, High Rise, and The Handmaiden--didn't even make it into theaters near me. This post, therefore, actually covers something like five months of movie-watching, and though some of it has been worthwhile or entertaining, none of it counters my impression that 2016, in its cruelty, couldn't even offer us the distraction of good movies.
- Love & Friendship - The biggest and most vexing question raised by Whit Stillman's adaptation of Jane Austen's unpublished novella Lady Susan is: why the title change? Not only is Lady Susan a perfectly good title, but Love & Friendship is actually a singularly bad one for a story that is all about selfishness, manipulation, and stupidity coming very close to ruining the lives of some perfectly inoffensive people. Actual love and friendship are in short supply, shoved off into the background while the real business of the movie focuses on the machinations of Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) as she schemes to marry off her daughter to a rich man whom she doesn't love, to arrange occasions in which to meet her own, married lover, and to entertain herself by seducing an upright young man who believes himself impervious to her charms. If there's any love and friendship on screen in this movie, they are the ones between Susan and her best friend Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny), who supports, without question or qualm, Susan's schemes and manipulations. It's here, however, that Love & Friendship fails to take advantage of its opportunities, to expand and fill in some of the gaps in the original novella--such as Alicia's lack of a personality except as Susan's supporter and confidant, or the blankness of Reginald de Courcy (Xavier Samuel), the young man whom Susan seduces, and who eventually falls in love with her daughter.
None of this is to say that Love & Friendship is anything less than delightful--Beckinsale is wonderful as a completely amoral woman, and the cast around her, which includes familiar faces such as Stephen Fry, Jemma Redgrave, and James Fleet, all on top form, are extremely entertaining as they try to grasp the truth that they can't hope to deal with a person who understands society's rules perfectly, but has no sense of the values underlying them. But despite occasional gestures towards expanding the story's world beyond what Austen made of it--characters discussing religion or poetry, and philosophizing about the meaning of life in a way that makes it clear that even these privileged aristocrats are trying to give their life more meaning than that offered by the tropes of a Regency novel--Love & Friendship never manages to feel like more than what it is, an adaptation of an imperfect but highly entertaining minor work by a great author. Which is still quite a lot, and a great deal of fun to boot, but given how few works Austen left us, and how rare it is for a skilled, appreciative artist to try to adapt them, it's a shame that Stillman didn't try to put more of his own stamp on her work.
- Ghostbusters - Before watching Paul Feig's reboot of the beloved 80s comedy series, I sat down and rewatched the two original movies, for what was probably the first time in twenty years. This, as it turned out, was doing Feig a huge favor, because time has not been terribly kind to either of these movies. The original Ghostbusters feels more like a proof of concept, whose jokes--either because I know them all so well, or because fashions in comedy have changed--just aren't very funny anymore; and the less said of Ghostbusters II, the better. The new Ghostbusters isn't a great movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it's more competently made than either of its predecessors, and has several scenes that cracked me up, which is more than I can say for the older movies. It also, however, has a lot of dead air, and in fact the film's core problem is that it feels like a bunch of skits strung together by someone who didn't have the heart to go in and trim the ones that aren't that funny.
What saves the film, even in its slower moments, are its four stars, and even more than that, the charming and engaging characters that Feig and co-writer Katie Dippold have created for them. Whether or not it's funnier than the original, the new Ghostbusters has a great deal more heart, and that's completely down to its main characters, whose friendship, rivalry, camaraderie, and mutual exasperation are all believable and instantly lovable. My only complaint here is that I was a lot less engaged with the central story of former friends Erin (Kristen Wiig) and Abby (Melissa McCarthy), who must heal their ruptured relationship over the course of the film. What I wanted was a lot more scenes with Kate McKinnon's zany mad scientist Holtzman, and Leslie Jones's MTA worker (who also has an encyclopedic knowledge of New York history) Patty. They don't have character arcs of their own, but it was always a joy to see them on screen, either on their own or interacting with each other, and I hope that the sequel, if it happens, gives them more space in the story. (Also, it is officially time to accept that Chris Hemsworth can't act. His role, that of the Ghostbusters' dumb, hunky receptionist, should have been one that Hemsworth could carry off in his sleep; but instead his scenes are consistently the most boring in the movie. Maybe it's time to reevaluate whether men can even be funny.)
- Doctor Strange - Marvel's latest standalone movie has a great opening scene, and a final battle that toys with some really interesting ideas, finally upending a lot of the conventions of this increasingly formulaic filmic universe. In between these two bookends, however, there's an origin story so tediously familiar, so derivative and by-the-numbers, that by the time I got to Doctor Strange's relatively out-there conclusion, all I wanted was for the thing to end. As noted by all of its reviewers, the film is very pretty, positing a society of sorcerers who fight by shaping the very fabric of reality, causing geography and gravity to bend in on themselves in inventive, trippy ways. The film's opening scene, in which bad guy Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) and Dumbledore-figure The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) stage such a battle in the streets of London, turning buildings and roads into a kaleidoscope image, is genuinely exciting. For a brief time, you think that Marvel might actually be trying something new.
Then the story proper starts, and a familiar ennui sets in. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is Tony Stark without the charm, the vulnerability, or the penchant for self-destruction. In other words, he's a bore, and the film's attempts to make him into yet another brilliant asshole thrust unwillingly into heroism feel perfunctory and unconvincing. The film's middle segment is essentially a protracted training montage, in which Strange, seeking a cure to an injury that ended his career as a surgeon, travels to Nepal to be healed by the Ancient One, and realizes that he'd rather learn to be a wizard instead. Once again, there isn't a single original beat in this entire part of the film, and though Swinton's performance--alongside Chiwetel Ejiofor as fellow acolyte Mordo, and Benedict Wong as kickass librarian Wong--gives these scenes a little more personality, ultimately what they amount to is an Asian-inflected Hogwarts, notable mainly for pretty set dressing and effects (and, of course, for the decision to put a white actress in the middle of it), but still rather tedious to get through.
About twenty minutes before it ends, Doctor Strange finally lands on a raft of interesting ideas, any one of which might have enlivened the film and given it a personality if it had been threaded throughout the entire story, but which, at that point, no longer has the space to be developed adequately. There is, for example, the fact that Strange suddenly remembers that he is a doctor, sworn to do no harm, and his refusal to become the kind of warrior that Tony Stark or Steve Rogers take for granted. Or Mordo's increasing disillusionment with Strange and The Ancient One's willingness to bend and even break the laws of nature in order to achieve their short-term goals. Taken together, these lead to a genuinely format-breaking final battle, in which Strange, instead of causing the devastation of a major city, works to undo it (the fact that this city is an Asian one feels particularly significant, given the way that previous Marvel movies have trampled cities in non-white countries as a way of establishing stakes, before gathering their heroes to defend New York or the fictional but still white Sokovia), and defeats his enemy by outsmarting rather than outfighting him. If these themes had been present throughout Doctor Strange instead of just showing up shortly before it ends, it might have been something to see. As it is, it feels as if director Scott Derrickson and writer Jon Spaihts had a few interesting ideas, and no clue how to tie them together into a worthwhile story.
(I wrote the above on the weekend of Doctor Strange's release, when the world seemed headed towards a Hillary Clinton US presidency. A week later, in a world that is about to be ruled by the bigot and rapist Donald Trump, the priorities and preconceptions of this movie suddenly seem much darker. Only a few days after white men (and women) overwhelmingly decided that eight years under the leadership of an intelligent, compassionate, visionary black man was more than they could bear, and that a highly qualified and competent woman could never compete with a lazy, fraudulent, perpetually dishonest man, the very concept of a story in which we all--women and POCs included--are saved by a privileged white man, while the black man who criticizes the white heroes for their abuse of power is revealed as a psychotic villain, feels like a cruel joke. Along with the rest of Hollywood, Marvel buys into--and indeed, helps to perpetuate--the mentality that if there isn't a white man in the middle of the story, there must be something wrong with the story. We have just seen how that mentality plays out in the real world, and we will all spend years paying the price for it.)
- Manchester by the Sea - Kenneth Lonergan's Oscar-hopeful feels like an object lesson in the arbitrariness of Hollywood's prestige ladder. The film's premise has been, and will continue to be, the stuff of millions of weepies and made-for-TV movies: protagonist Lee (Casey Affleck) receives word that his beloved older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died of an illness, and that Lee is now unexpectedly the guardian of Joe's teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). This forces Lee to return to his home, the titular fishing town, where he is haunted by memories of a terrible trauma, and by lingering resentment from some of his neighbors. Obviously, it's the execution that differentiates between shlock and drama, and Manchester by the Sea is indeed a well-made, closely-observed and deliberately low key variation on its extremely familiar story. But I can't help but rankle at the fact that that very avoidance of melodrama is being hailed as proof of the film's seriousness, of its being an exceptional and especially worthy example of its type. It feels telling that a male writer and director has taken a genre typically associated with women, told a story within it that concentrates almost exclusively on men, focused on "hard", violent emotions such as Lee's still-simmering anger and guilt, and gotten effusive praise for it. Take, for example, the way that flashbacks spread throughout the movie reveal Joe's role as the strong, supportive center of his family, someone whose loss, by the end of the movie, feels genuinely devastating. Now try to remember the last time that a movie--much less one as prestigious as this one--made its dead wife or mother as real or as human, anything more than something for its male heroes to get over.
The ultimate effect of this was that I found it hard to appreciate Manchester by the Sea for the thing that it has been most commonly lauded for, Affleck's performance. He is, of course, very good as a man struggling, and ultimately failing, to overcome terrible loss, but I found myself resenting the way the film valorizes Lee's anger and inability to move on--there is, for example, something almost ridiculous about the eventual revelation of his inciting trauma, as if Lonergan couldn't stop himself from piling on yet another detail that would make Lee's loss more horrific. What does work, however, is everything around Lee, and particularly Patrick, whose depiction as someone who, on one hand, is a great deal more together and connected to the world than his uncle, and on the other hand, is still a child, is one of the most realistic filmed portraits of a teenager I've ever seen. The relationship between Patrick and Lee feels real and lived-in, full of unspoken but clearly felt history. So, too, is the portrait the film paints of the close-knit working class community of Manchester, which supports the struggling family but also makes it impossible for Lee to escape his past. And the film's ending, which avoids an easy solution to Lee and Patrick's problems while still offering hope for the future, is perhaps the greatest rebuttal Lonergan can offer to his story's melodramatic roots. It's not entirely Manchester by the Sea's fault that I wasn't blown away by it--a lot of it comes down to the industry around it and the way that it prioritizes men's stories over women's, even when they're the same story--but I still found myself appreciating the film more for its background details than for the figure in its foreground.