Recent Movie Roundup 25
This bunch of movies is something of a transitional group--a few of the early blockbusters of the year, but also some of last year's art-house movies that only made it into Israeli movie theaters recently, and one movie that I wasn't expecting to see here at all. The coming summer doesn't have much that appeals to me (though I was excited to learn, just today, that both Colossal and The Big Sick have scheduled Israeli releases), so this might end up being the most intriguing group of movies I see for some time.
- Get Out - It's a bit of a shame to come to Jordan Peele's blockbusting debut film so long after its release, given that its topic, twists, and most memorable moments have been the subject of so much discussion (not to mention GIF-ing and meme-ifying) in the intervening months. I would have loved to approach Get Out knowing a lot less about it (but then, until very recently it was quite unusual for Israeli film distributors to even purchase films by or about African-Americans, so I guess even a delayed release is something to celebrate). Still, even knowing what to expect, there's a lot to enjoy and admire here, both the audacity of creating a film that melds the horror genre and the real-life horror of racism and racially motivated violence so seamlessly, and the skill with which that melding is accomplished. In its early scenes, Get Out feels like a pitch-perfect dark comedy of social awkwardness, as photographer Chris (Daniel Kaluuya, excellent) nervously accompanies his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) on a weekend visit to her family, uncertain what to expect in a white enclave where he is likely to be the only black presence. Chris's interactions with Rose's parents, Dean and Missy (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener), initially balance on the knife's edge between well-meaning cluelessness (Dean assuring Chris that he would have voted for Obama a third time if he could have) and something more sinister. The more Chris sees of the neighborhood, however, the more suspicious it seems, and particularly his interactions with the few black members of the community: Dean and Missy's servants Walter and Georgina (Marcus Henderson and Betty Gabriel), or friend of the family Logan (Lakeith Stanfield), whose behavior grows increasingly creepy and inhuman as the film draws on.
Peele has such a perfect grasp on the slowly mounting tension and wrongness in the Chris-focused parts of the film, that the ones that move away from him can feel slack in comparison (in particular, a plot strand involving Chris's friend Rod (LiRel Howery), who grows suspicious of Chris's reports, is very funny, but could have stood to be pared down significantly). When the film returns to the family home, however, it is a perfect engine of suspense, black humor, and keen social observations. The core conceit of Get Out is, of course, overturning the racist trope in which the black interloper endangers an innocent white family, by reversing the direction of danger. But even knowing that going in, I couldn't help but gasp at some of the ways Peele found to express that idea, such as the fact that Chris is literally auctioned off by his hosts (the slow revelation of what's actually going on in this scene is one of the film's most shocking and brilliantly executed directorial flourishes), or the realization, as sirens sound in the distance in the film's final moments, that Chris may be in as much danger from the cops coming to his rescue, who might automatically see him as the assailant, as he was from the people trying to kill him. But the most audacious and provocative twist Peele makes to his premise is to reveal that the danger Chris is placed in is motivated not by straightforward hatred of black people, but by the fetishization of them and their bodies. The people he ends up running from desperately want to be black, while feeling so secure in their privilege that they are unable to even imagine the danger that can sometimes pose for real black people--a danger they end up embodying. It's a rich, heady examination of the inherent contradictions and irrationality of racism, wrapped in a genuinely thrilling and engaging story.
- Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 - The second Guardians of the Galaxy film is sentimental, self-indulgent, and very heavily dependent on the twin crutches of its catchy soundtrack and jokes that seem cleverer than they actually are. It's also a lot of fun--at least while you're watching it--largely because of a still-game cast, psychedelic visuals, and some genuinely exciting action scenes. The actual plot is overstuffed, but circles mostly around manchild Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) being reunited with his father, Ego (Kurt Russell), a living planet who has taken the form of a man, and whose plans for Peter quickly turn out to be sinister. There's the hint of a genuinely interesting idea in Ego's dilemma, as an all-powerful immortal who desperately searches for meaning to his existence, and lands on something monstrous but, in its own way, understandable. But Vol. 2 is much more interested in Ego as an engine for Peter's never-ending daddy issues, to which end it also brings back Michael Rooker's Yondu, the brusque space-pirate who raised Peter, and who spends the last act of the film fighting with Ego over the titles of good and bad dad. The whole thing looks rather silly and, again, self-indulgent if you think about it for very long, but it works in the moment, largely because Pratt manages to sell Peter's vulnerability and craving for a father-figure without ever surrendering his inherent immaturity and silliness. (The same, unfortunately, can't be said of Dave Bautista's Drax, who like Peter is meant to be both clueless and deeply damaged, but whose humor in this movie mainly comes off as mean and unpleasant.)
The other Guardians get their own storylines--Gamora (Zoe Saldana) continues to fight with her adoptive sister Nebula (Karen Gillan); Rocket (Bradley Cooper) pushes people away with obnoxious behavior; and Groot (Vin Diesel) is going through the stages of tree-person development. It's good that Vol. 2 works so hard to give each member of the team their turn in the spotlight, while also introducing new member Mantis (Pom Klementieff), as well as several new locales and potentially recurring characters (certainly the film does a much better job of juggling multiple main characters and settings than either Civil War or Age of Ultron). But with each of these storylines being just as heavy-handed as the main one, the ultimate result is both overwrought, and not entirely earned. It's nice, for example, that Gamora spends most of her on-screen time with Nebula (which also means that Vol. 2 has the most meaningful Bechdel pass of probably any MCU movie), but their shared scenes, which reveal more of the horrors they endured as the adopted daughters of Thanos, only reinforce the impression created by the first film, that Gamora's well-adjusted, even slightly boring personality makes no sense--except as the film needs her to be the adult to Peter's child. And even when the film's subplots land, Vol. 2 doesn't have a strong control of its tone. Like its predecessor, it bills itself as cheeky but heartwarming, but what shows up on screen is often much darker, and all the more so for going unacknowledged. An excessively long sequence in which Yondu's men mutiny, for example, leading first to his supporters being spaced, and then to the mutineers being killed off one by one by Yondu to the sounds a jaunty tune, is weirdly graphic and brutal. And yet the film clearly means for us to find it cool, or even funny. It's a good thing that Vol. 2 is so ephemeral, slipping from your fingers even as you step out of the movie theater; thinking about it more than a little reveals some pretty disturbing stuff beneath the surface.
- To Walk Invisible - I don't know why it took me so long to get around to watching this movie, since it combines so many things I like: the writing of Sally Wainwright, of Happy Valley fame; stories about prickly women artists who keep plugging on despite the obstacles piled in their path; and the Brontë sisters. Once I sat down to watch the film itself, however, I found its structural choices a bit strange, perhaps even offputting. To Walk Invisible focuses on the period between 1846 and 1848, when Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë (Finn Atkins, Chloe Pirrie, and Charlie Murphy) decided to focus seriously on their writing as a potential career, encouraging and advising one another on their work, and sending it out to publishers under the pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. But it frames that story through the narrative of the final deterioration of the only Brontë son, Branwell (Adam Nagaitis). The film begins as he returns home, after having been dismissed from a his position as a tutor for having an affair with his employer's wife. It follows him as he sinks into depression and alcoholism, and ends with his death.
The film paints a chilling portrait of the agony of living with an addict who won't even try to get better--the queasy combination of frustration, pity, resentment, and love the sisters feel for their brother, especially since, even in his dissipation, he is considered more respectable, and more capable, than they are simply because of his gender. But because Branwell's actions--drinking and whoring and haranguing his father (Jonathan Pryce) for money--are inherently more dramatic than the sisters' writing, or their silent rage and frustration with him, he can end up taking an outsized role in a story that doesn't belong to him. Even more disturbingly, the juxtaposition between Branwell's downward spiral and the sisters' success can end up feeling rather moralistic--Branwell is a failure because he won't "get over" serious emotional problems, while his hardworking sisters triumph because they persevere in the face of profound discouragement. This isn't wrong, obviously--and the film even makes the point that part of the reason Branwell is so fragile is that he's been taught to think only of himself, while his sisters were trained to work hard without the expectation of reward and recognition--but by the end of the story there seems to be a tinge of gloating to the way the film contrasts the male and female Brontës. It feels particularly pointed that the film ends with Branwell's death, and only informs us that Emily and Anne followed him soon after in its end titles. Especially when you recall that one of the causes of Emily's death was her refusal to accept medical attention until it was too late.
All that said, there is still a great deal to enjoy in To Walk Invisible, and particularly the way that it draws each of the sisters as her own unique person, whose personality is reflected in the work she ends up producing. Charlotte is deeply ambitious, and most able to clearly articulate the frustration of being discounted because of her gender. Emily is short-tempered and hard-headed, perhaps the most purely talented of the three sisters, but also the one most afraid of exposing herself to public judgment. Anne is outwardly conciliatory, but also has the keenest social awareness, and is eager to use her writing to advance social causes. The depiction of writing as work, and of publishing as a business, are not only engaging in themselves, but set up the film's best and most moving scene, when Charlotte presents herself at her publisher's office to quash the rumors that the Bell siblings are all the same person. Watching her be met first by befuddlement, and then with total, unabashed fannishness is gratifying twice over. As someone who has been watching Charlotte struggle both professionally and personally, it's wonderful to finally see her get the recognition she deserves. And as a reader, it's marvelous to imagine how it might be for an author you deeply admire to simply walk into your workplace one day. If I remain dubious about some of To Walk Invisible's framing choices, its commitment to the idea that the Brontë sisters were remarkable artists, worthy of celebration, is certainly laudable and worth watching for.
- Paterson - For about its first half hour, it's hard not to feel a sense of slight puzzlement towards Jim Jarmusch's most recent movie. What is it about this gentle but repetitive film, about the life of a bus driver and his wife, that enraptured so many critics? Once you get into the rhythm of Paterson, though, the magic of it becomes apparent, though not very easy to explain. Set over the course of a week, Paterson follows its title character (Adam Driver) as he goes about his routine in the New Jersey town whose name he shares. He wakes up early in the morning, eats breakfast, walks to work, drives the #23 bus back and forth across town, walks home, eats dinner with his wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahni), walks their dog, and stops at his local bar for a beer. In between these mundane actions, Paterson observes the sights of his town, listens to the conversations between his passengers, and interacts with friends and strangers, all of which inspire him to write poetry, which he jots down in a notebook he carries with him. Nor is Paterson the only artist in the movie. Throughout the week he runs into other poets, from a little girl to a Japanese tourist to an aspiring rapper, all of whom take the time to observe the world, and try to put something new in it. Laura, meanwhile, is bursting with talent and creativity, experimenting with everything from fashion to music to cookery, but unable to decide on a single direction. There's an obvious risk that a movie with this premise will fall into the trap of treating its subjects like an anthropological curiosity: a bus driver who writes poetry! Working class people with dreams of being taken seriously as artists! But instead Paterson makes its premise seem not just unremarkable, but entirely inevitable. It puts us so thoroughly in its protagonist's head that we start to see the world through his eyes, and to see how the things and people he encounters can only be captured through poetry. It's a feeling that persists even after you walk out of the movie theater--the belief that even in the mundane, there is something worth creating art over.
- Wonder Woman - Plot-wise, DC's latest movie--and, amazingly, the very first superhero movie in the decade-old "expanded universe" craze to star a woman--is not much to write home about. Its opening segment on the island of Themyscira is overlong and stuffed with portentous pronouncements (though it does feature the film's most distinctive action sequence, in which a legion of Amazons on horseback battle a boatload of pistol-packing German infantry soldiers). The rest of the movie, after heroine Diana (Gal Gadot) leaves her home with crash-landed spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) in order to bring an end to WWI, feels almost like a remake of Captain America: The First Avenger, and especially because, despite some solid action scenes, Wonder Woman doesn't really have a signature moment along the lines of Winter Soldier's elevator fight. None of which is intended as a criticism of this movie, but more an observation that its strengths lie elsewhere than plot.
Near the top of any list of those strengths would be the characters. Gadot plays up the young Diana's naivete without ever losing sight of her innate heroism. Neither the audience nor the characters around her ever doubt that Diana is a born hero, but she also spends the movie in genuine dismay at the cruelty and suffering of the first modern war, and her conviction that this is all the work of the war god Ares, and that all she needs to do is kill him in order to restore peace to the world, grows thinner and less persuasive as the story progresses. One might expect Pine's Steve to be a cynical contrast to Diana's idealism, but instead his is merely a more mature, more compromised version of her belief in the need to do everything possible to save lives. (As much as I liked Steve as a character, one can't help but notice how much space Wonder Woman gives him, and how much of a role he has in moving the story and helping Diana develop into a hero, compared to female love interests. In particular, it feels as if the film ends up downplaying the romance between the two in favor of giving Steve his own story in a way that would never have happened with, say, Peggy Carter.) The band of misfits the two collect in their quest to destroy a poison gas production site, while obviously based on the Howling Commandos, is compelling for being more obviously damaged: a French-Muslim charlatan who dreamed of being an actor but couldn't make it because of his race (Saïd Taghmaoui), a shell-shocked Scottish sniper (Ewen Bremner), and a Native American smuggler who pointedly observes that he is following the lead of a man whose people exterminated his own (Eugene Brave Rock). That these unappreciated denizens of the demimonde are nevertheless willing to risk their lives for the greater good--and that Diana recognizes their heroism even when it is curtailed by their various weaknesses--is a powerful statement that hardly any other superhero movie has made.
Being willing, even eager, to accept the damaged and the flawed is, in fact, Wonder Woman's greatest strength, and the thing that most sets it apart from The First Avenger. When I first heard that the film was going to have a WWI setting, I assumed that this would be a fig leaf, and that it would nevertheless treat its German villains as cod-Nazis. Instead, Wonder Woman faces head on the senseless slaughter of the first world war, the fact that there were no right sides in this dispute, and no clear-cut villains (in fact, the actual villains of the film's superhero plot--Danny Huston as a German general who refuses the proposed armistice, and Elena Anaya as a chemist developing new poisons--barely even register compared to the impersonal evil of modern warfare). Against this much suffering, even a superhero might quail, and indeed the core question of Wonder Woman is what its heroine can (and should) do to save the world from itself--a question that it handles with more nuance and delicacy than the Captain America movies, refusing to blame the ills of the world on a single villain or an infiltration of evil, while insisting that humanity is still worth fighting for. Diana herself is simultaneously unequal to the challenges set before her, and a figure of hope and inspiration whose strength lies, in no small part, in her refusal to accept that she can't save everyone. Another way of putting it is that Wonder Woman earns the tone of bleak hopelessness that infected the previous Justice League movies--Diana's experiences actually justify the loss of faith in humanity that both Batman and Superman take as their starting position. And yet this is by no means a hopeless movie, but rather one that powers through hopelessness, the recognition that there is evil in the hearts of men that no superhero can vanquish, and nevertheless lands on the choice to continue fighting. I don't know if future DC movies will follow in Wonder Woman's ideological footsteps, but they might be wise to, as it lays out a template for setting themselves apart from the MCU while still remaining recognizably heroic.