Movie review: “The Legend of Tarzan”

“The Legend of Tarzan” presents a curious spectacle—a movie that erases itself from memory nearly as quickly as it is viewed. I watched it today; I no longer remember the names of any characters beyond Tarzan and Jane, and I knew those before I went into the theater. King Leopold of Belgium doesn’t count—he is name-checked countless times, but we never make his acquaintance, and thus one of the bloodiest genocidal maniacs ever to draw breath is squandered. Instead, we meet Christoph Waltz, performing a familiar trick: a fictional baddie dropped into real history, freeing the filmmakers up to reroute events to a more satisfying, if ahistorical, conclusion.

Unfortunately, this is not “Inglourious Basterds”, nor any other movie by Quentin Tarantino; “The Legend of Tarzan” was directed by David Yates, whom alert viewers won’t remember at all, because he directed the last four Harry Potter movies, three of which cannot be viewed before operating heavy machinery. Perhaps the studio wanted the audience drowsy, lest they notice that once again, our protagonist is a white man out-nativing the natives, becoming their leader, and repelling the invading forces of less enlightened whites (see: “Dances With Wolves”, “The Last Samurai”, “Avatar”, “Lawrence of Arabia”, etc., etc.).

But this movie is too muddled even to be effective racist propaganda: it begins with a business proposal so convoluted that Samuel L. Jackson, lurking in a corner, must interrupt and translate it to the bewildered Lord Greystoke (Alexander Skarsgård), who promptly refuses it. Jackson’s character must then chase down Greystoke’s carriage and re-explain the proposal with the additional twist that his motives are precisely the opposite of the proposal’s intended effect, because reasons. I was completely adrift, which is not what usually happens when Samuel L. Jackson speaks. Time does not improve matters: Jackson’s character exists only to provide historical exposition and questionable comic relief. One cringe-inducing scene centers on gorilla testes—the joke’s deeply unfunny the first time, yet is mystifyingly called back to in the final scene. On the evil side of the equation, Waltz’s goals are similarly vague: he is first a treasure hunter, then a mercenary, then an intermediary between slaveholders, and he wants to capture Tarzan for reasons that remain unclear until they no longer matter. (Accountants may thrill to a plot hanging upon the question of when mercenary soldiers will be paid, but ordinary humans can be forgiven for not giving a damn.)

Stuck between them is Tarzan himself: Skarsgård is certainly fit enough, but he brings none of the predatory self-confidence to the role that made him such a memorable vampire in “True Blood”, and his inert chemistry with Margot Robbie neutralizes a romance that, in its best iterations, can be relied upon to provide a pulpy thrill. When Tarzan meets Jane, he investigates her by touching her hair, jawline, and neck—then dropping to his knees to sniff her through her skirts. She leaps away, what should be a jarringly carnal moment is played off as a douche-commercial joke, and the embarrassed audience suffers through an extended soliloquy about the mating calls of various animals before being put out of its misery by a climax as unsatisfying as the romance. (Spoiler alert: the mercenaries are not paid on time.) Analyzing why all this hoopla is disrespectful to the Congolese dead would be pointless, because the filmmakers probably couldn’t find the relevant area on a map—the historical window dressing falls away the instant it’s inconvenient, and we’re left watching a CGI herd of wildebeest reclaim a city from the Belgians as Tarzan and Jane kiss on a dock. “Now, isn’t that a sight,” remarks Samuel L. Jackson. I will have to take his word for it. I can’t remember a thing.

Movie review: “Finding Dory”

“Finding Dory” has a problem. It’s called “Finding Nemo”. When your origin story is the focus of misty childhood sentiment for millions, how do you solve a problem like a sequel? You may as well set out to write a song called “Revenge of the Son of ‘Yesterday’”.

But write it they have, and good for them—“Finding Dory” is terrific, a masterful retread of the original movie’s blood-simple stakes (a missing fish must reunite with their family) with an added twist (the fish in question cannot remember anything for more than about thirteen seconds). It would be easy to play Dory’s memory problem off for laughs, but Pixar never goes for a laugh when it’s possible to get a cry, as the still-traumatized audience of “Inside Out” can attest. (Survivor’s meetings can be found weekly in church basements across America.) Dory’s amnesia isn’t just flightiness, it’s a terrifying void that swallows friendships and family members whole, leaving Dory stranded in a literal ocean of loneliness. Her awareness of her illness only adds a cruel dimension to her isolation: Dory remembers just enough to know that she has forgotten something important. Adults watching this movie who have witnessed Alzheimer’s will gulp in recognition. And in short order, we get a tour of all the hallmarks of mental illness: coping strategies, frightened families, shame, stress, and guilt. Welcome to Pixar. By the second act, your tear ducts will be starting to throb: when comic relief appears in the form of two fat sea lions, it feels like the appearance of a life vest on the Titanic. An inventive octopus and slightly tatty-looking loon are charming; less effective additions include two whale characters, one nearsighted and one who has either lost his echolocation, or his confidence in his echolocation—the movie’s unclear on his damage, and the attempt to portray everyone as “a little bit broken” feels disingenuous and reductive, especially because the nearsighted whale’s biggest problem is an occasional bump on the nose, while Dory’s amnesia is an ongoing disaster that dogs her life and will never be fixed. But it can be lived with, and lived around, and Dory’s journey ends on a note of cautious optimism: two fish together, looking out into the endless blue void. If you need a moment to collect yourself as the credits roll, no one will blame you—and in fact, a tiny comic scene awaits you after the credits to help you recover your dignity. Pixar is only getting stronger. God help us if Marlin ever goes missing.

Movie review: “Captain America: Civil War”

Has anyone checked the roof at DC/Warner Brothers today? Is there a line? Have there been any large purchase orders for rope and rat poison? Because guys, I think someone oughta go check on them. This was a bad beatdown. Marvel, already playing chess to DC movies’ checkers, went full Deep Blue and revealed a gambit years in the making: show the boring parts in the trailer. Marvel can get away with this—clips of fights in deserted parking lots—because their cinematic universe is now such a self-sustaining juggernaut that it barely requires publicity. The brand alone sells the movie, and this is completely correct and just, because even the worst Marvel movies are still entertaining as hell. This is one of the best.

It nearly defies summation, because at this point we’re dealing with a medieval tapestry’s worth of characters and history and alliances and connection points, but Marvel never hangs the full weight of a movie on background knowledge: there is always a clear and immediate character-based conflict, simple and relatable stakes, an access point for those who haven’t been keeping box score since Iron Man 1 dropped in 2008. Here’s an elegant, gut-wrenching flashback to Tony Stark’s relationship with his father; it’s doing stealthy work on behalf of the third act, but you’d never notice because some wizard with a control panel has dialed Robert Downey, Jr. back to age twenty, and you’ll be busy wondering how he looks more like himself than he did in “Weird Science”, when he was actually twenty. Here’s a fight that almost gets started before lurching to a halt: Iron Man and Captain America size each other up, admit the other might have a point, then set off together in search of the puppetmaster pulling their strings. They’re both behaving so intelligently that when they actually do come to blows, it genuinely hurts—we’ve seen them do their best to stay friends. Compare this to DC’s pointless and irrational Batman v Superman fight (comparisons are inevitable; we just saw BvS a month ago, and the trauma’s still fresh), where Batman and Superman were both portrayed as beefy, manipulable dimwits—because to write them otherwise would have made their misunderstanding-based conflict a non-starter, and their tissue-thin reason for reconciliation (“Martha!!”) even more laughable. Marvel doesn’t have to play this game, because they’ve invested time and effort in creating deeply nuanced, historied characters whose behavior we can reliably predict: they can have an argument all on their own.

Which makes it weird to notice that a lot of Civil War hinges on some of the same beats that BvS did: an important political gathering gone horribly awry. The death of a mother. The machinations of a behind-the-scenes baddie who wants to sow conflict. But where every single one of these beats fell flat in BvS, here they form a neat, syncopated rhythym, the freight-train heartbeat of a story moving forward. It’s the difference between a three-year-old smacking a xylophone, and Charlie Watts. It’s the difference between a tunnel that Roadrunner dashes through, and a painted illusion on a cliff that Wile E. Coyote rams his face into. DC can try and try, just like the coyote can try and try, but they’re playing a fundamentally different game than Marvel is. The losing kind.

Movie review: “The Jungle Book”

“The Wolves are a free people,” said Father Wolf. “They take orders from the Head of the Pack, and not from any striped cattle-killer. The man’s cub is ours—to kill if we choose.”
“Ye choose and ye do not choose! What talk is this of choosing? By the bull that I killed, am I to stand nosing into your dog’s den for my fair dues? It is I, Shere Khan, who speak!”
The tiger’s roar filled the cave with thunder. Mother Wolf shook herself clear of the cubs and sprang forward, her eyes, like two green moons in the darkness, facing the blazing eyes of Shere Khan.
“And it is I, Raksha [The Demon], who answers. […]”

Yeah. Let that wash around in your brain-pan for a bit. Listen to the music of that, the gorgeous rhythym. Notice all the beautifully paired sounds, the internal clickity-clack rhythym of “cattle-killer” and “clear of the cubs” coaxing you to recite, rather than read. Go ahead, speak Mother Wolf’s line out loud and see if your spine doesn’t straighten out. The Demon. What a nickname for a mother to have.

This passage, taken from the opening of the first Jungle Book, is a perfect example of Rudyard Kipling’s heavyweight power, his astoundingly distinctive voice, his ability to summon a musical thunderstorm. That ability is precisely why he’s such a problem. Kipling was a racist and a colonialist and wrote, prolifically, in support of both systems. He can’t be separated from his era because he helped shape it: it was precisely his extraordinary skill that made “The White Man’s Burden” such a handy conceptual excuse for all the many personifications of scum who ruthlessly thieved, raped and murdered their way across the rest of the earth. When you create peerless art in defense of the indefensible, what should your legacy be?

Enter Walt Disney. Never one to pass up the chance to make racism kid-friendly, Uncle Walt gave us an animated “Jungle Book” that on surface inspection seems more innocent than Kipling’s text (there is no discussion, for example, of the rules governing carcass ownership), but in reality is almost infinitely nastier, a fact never clearer than during the musical number “I Wan’na Be Like You”, which is a song sung to a boy by an anthropomorphized ape named King Louie, a literal pretender to the throne of manhood. It is a wincingly painful scene, not least because the story provides camouflage that the more overt “Song of the South” did not: you will still find people today who claim not to understand the problem with the 1967 “The Jungle Book”. I’m surprised that Jon Favreau is among them, but here comes “The Jungle Book” again, freshly decked out in gorgeous CGI and featuring a star-studded cast of voice actors: Ben Kingsley as Bagheera, Idris Elba as Shere Khan, Scarlett Johnanson as Kaa, Bill Murray as Baloo—and Christopher Walken as King Louie. The character is still here, hardly a jot changed: the song is the same, the joke still “Look. He thinks he’s people.” Why would Disney double down on this old, bad joke? Do they really think our cultural amnesia is so strong that we won’t remember any of the racial underpinnings that made this scene unacceptable in 1967?

Here’s the problem: they’re right. This movie has a 94% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes right now, and while there are some honorable exceptions and notice-takers (Anthony Lane over at The New Yorker among them), most critics don’t seem to have a problem with this scene, focusing their few critical jabs instead at Neel Sethi’s unmemorable performance as Mowgli (fair) and the strange hollowness at the movie’s core, a hollowness most of them are pinning on the CGI used to create every detail of the world, from the mudslides to the leaves to the animals. But the problem isn’t the CGI, it’s the story: by shifting the emotional center away from Mowgli and onto the adult animals who raise him, the writers have robbed the character of agency and the audience of reasons to care about him. This Mowgli is cute, but he’s constantly passing out, being knocked or hypnotized unconscious, falling asleep and waking up elsewhere as the stronger animal characters quarrel over how he should be dealt with. Ironically, a closer adherence to Kipling would have actually helped with this problem—in the books, Mowgli is a moody and reactive teen, whose pride goads him to reject his wolf pack, even as leaving home breaks his heart. The moment when he seizes “man’s red flower” (fire) and beats his old family into cowering, doglike submission is an unparalleled moment in literature: it shows that for all Kipling’s willful blindness when it came to who was and wasn’t human, he still understood what it was to be human, and had a much firmer grasp on the intense sorrows and passions of that experience than anyone working on this film, most especially the cynical bean-counters who looked at a choice between a story about growing up, and a minor Disney trifle from the worst era of Disney, and chose wrong. Look at these sad, blinkered, corporate fucks, carefully calibrating just how racist they can be in 2016 without cutting into their profit margins. They think they’re people.

Movie review: “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”

Guys, it’s not Ben Affleck’s fault. In fact, he did everything he could to save us from the hot mess that is “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”, turning in a masterfully calibrated, workmanlike performance that manages to—I’m gonna swallow hard, because I’m eating about six months’ worth of words right now—humanize Bruce Wayne, creating a likeable, cohesive, verging-on-interesting Batman. I can’t believe I just typed that. Hang on, I need to go smack myself in the face hard while staring at a mirror.

OK, I’m back. As I was saying, we all need to lay off Affleck because Jesus Christ, he tried. In a few years, when the toxic radiation has died down and wolves and deer are returning to graze amongst the twisted remnants of this trainwreck, Affleck will be remembered as the last man shoveling when the tidal wave of shit rolled in. And oh, what a wave it is: at once towering and completely featureless, both ponderous and pointless. There’s no message here: Batman and Superman are fighting, until they aren’t. The world is frightened of Superman, until they aren’t. Civilian casualties are a concern, until they’re not because it’s inconvenient. The movie lumbers on, until it is over—presumably, because the popcorn needs to be swept up, and Zack Snyder has run out of coke. And coke is almost certainly the fuel that stoked this nightmare’s engine: no other drug comes close to explaining the unchecked hubris on display here, the total lack of anything approaching a point. Characters in “Batman v Superman” are endlessly intoning strange, garbled aphorisms about gods and mortals and Prometheus and democracy, as stone-faced as if the lines were carved in marble and carried off a mountaintop—but they’ve missed something crucial in the translation, and the result is gibberish. “God is good… as dead.”
“Be their angel, be their monument, be anything they need you to be… or be none of it.”
“Do you know what the greatest lie ever told in America is? That power can be innocent.” (I must have missed that day in civics, because it’s not ringing a bell.)

As thuddingly awful as the dialogue is, it looks snappy compared to the visual storytelling. Dreams and flashbacks and symbolism are used, sometimes all at the same time—not because they are necessary, or explanatory, or illuminating, but because someone apparently told Snyder that Important and Serious Films used dreams, and flashbacks, and symbolism. The murder of the Wayne parents (replete with a faceclutching shot of Martha Wayne’s pearl necklace scattering on the pavement) is shown not once but twice, as if sheer repetition could imbue a hamfisted sequence with deep significance. Dream sequences occur with such regularity that we come to disbelieve even the things that are really happening (since the things that are “really happening” include the digestion of General Zod’s body by a squid, the confusion is understandable). Slow-motion is used, again and again and again, to signify profundity—even when all that is happening is a shot of Lex Luthor’s sneakers walking across a ramp. “Look at this,” the movie insists, zooming in on a painting of hell. “This is important,” it screams, repeating for the third time a shot of the Wayne family mausoleum. “Are you watching?” it blares, slowing down a shot of an empty rifle cartridge, used in a ceremonial salute, kicking up a plume of black dirt. “WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?” it howls, showing us a jar of pee. If “Batman v Superman” had any kind of a point, all this navel-gazing indulgence might be forgivable—as it is, this is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Movie review: “Zootopia”

I’ll admit it: I didn’t get “Frozen”. Sure, the soundtrack was charming, but if you’d cornered me on the way out of the theater and challenged me to summarize the plot in a brief sentence, I couldn’t have done it. Try it yourself at home sometime. “Well, see, there’s this girl named Elsa, and due to a childhood accident she feels unable to control her ice powers, and so she self-isolates from her warmer sister Anna, who therefore grows up without a strong female role model and falls in love with the first prince she meets, while meanwhile there’s this in-denial talking snowman who helps usher her up a mountain to meet a reindeer herder who casts doubt on her engagement, and they have to find her sister who at this point has isolated herself in a hermitlike ice castle—and that’s just the first half!” You get the idea. I was sure it was going to flop.

 

Of course, it was a monster hit, and now every Halloween I see little Annas and Elsas everywhere. (Shows you how much I know.) And for a while, I griped about this—a lot. It bothered me that a movie with a plot no four-year-old could coherently relate was apparently every four-year-old’s new favorite movie. “What the hell happened to ‘Bambi’?” I griped to anyone who would listen. “Deer is born, makes friends, loses mother, grows up! That’s it! ‘Cinderella’! Girl wants to go to the ball, gets locked in a tower, her mice friends help her escape!” Even the Disney movies of my own childhood weren’t much more complicated: The Little Mermaid wants to live above the ocean surface and must bargain with a duplicitous witch. Aladdin wishes himself rich and successful. Belle enters into a hostage situation with a Beast. To be clear: all these movies (“Bambi” being the honorable exception) were sexist, misogynist nightmares (“Aladdin” managed to be racist as well as sexist) but the one criticism you could not level at them was a lack of tight storyboarding. When Disney released their trilogy of “new princess” movies—“Tangled”, “Brave”, and “Frozen”—I was equally surprised by the right-on feminist messaging and the comparatively extreme complexity of the plots. Instead of long, meditative washes of nature and color (remember the waterfall-and-fireflies scene from “Robin Hood”? Remember Snow White leisurely hanging out by a wishing well? Remember “Fantasia”, for God’s sake?), we now had secondary, tertiary, even quaternary plotlines. Every character had a backstory; the scripts were dense, quippy, mile-a-minute; the plots wouldn’t fit on a tablecloth, much less a cocktail napkin. I was glad to see girls finally getting the heroines they deserved, but I worried that they were losing something else important: the chance to marvel at simple entertainment, on an uncrowded screen, at a Mister-Rogers’s-Neighborhood pace that didn’t much care if the parents in the audience were bored. David Denby over at “The New Yorker” said it best in his review of “Shrek”: “children [are] being entertained by derision before they’ve been ravished by awe.”

 

Well, now I get what Disney was aiming at. “Zootopia” is a staggering achievement, a movie that manages to summon up all the old-Disney awe and wonder—the urge to stand still and gape—while serving up a new-Disney story as dense and multilayered as any ostensibly grownup movie playing alongside it in the theater. Oh, and it’s about a bunny who must team up with a fox to solve a mystery. There. Cocktail napkin.

 

Of course, “Zootopia” isn’t just about that: it’s also about racism, and stereotyping, and all the ways well-intentioned, frightened, ill-informed people can do incredible amounts of evil. It’s about the way the powerful benefit most from racial inequity; it’s about drugs being used to manipulate the powerless; it’s about the glass ceiling and intersectionality. And it is managing to be all of these things at the moment when a dumpy, goggle-wearing sheep, gusseted into a dingy yellow Hazmat suit, looks up from his meth-lab-like setup because someone has knocked on the door. “Oh, Walter and Jesse are here,” he says, and the theater explodes. Forget double- or triple-entendres: this is entendre baklava, a referential delight of such density that I was ready to turn around, march right back into the theater, and plop myself down again the moment the credits rolled. It’s not just the dialogue I want to experience again, either—it’s the environment, a kaleidoscopic natural world that feels as enchanted as any of the hand-painted forests that Snow White or Robin Hood wandered through. Surfaces—the raindrop-squiggled glass of a bullet train, the bubbling lacquer on an aging wooden door, the t-shirt stretched over a rhino’s belly—are palpably rendered, in such tactile detail that it no longer even registers as animation, but rather film that someone has managed to hook up directly to their imagination. The fact that this is not the work of a single-minded genius but of three directors, four producers and ten (ten!!!) writers, points to a near-fanatical devotion to an idea of storytelling, a school of storytelling. It’s the new Disney way. It’s not my parents’ Disney. It’s not even my Disney.

 

It’s better.

 

I can admit that now.

Movie review: “Spotlight”

In keeping with my family’s longstanding tradition of guiltily dragging ourselves to see Oscar winners several months after their actual release, I saw “Spotlight” last night. And I’m placed in the odd position of having no idea what to say about it, because for long stretches of the movie, I forgot that I was not watching a documentary. “Spotlight” is the kind of movie where your forebrain dimly recognizes Stanley Tucci when he first appears onscreen (“Oh yeah… that guy…”) then immediately discards the knowledge that this is an actor until the credits roll, at which point you turn to your companion and say, “Did you realize that was Stanley Tucci?” Which, for a movie also starring Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber and John Slattery (“Hey, there’s Roger Sterling,” the brain pipes up before being promptly shushed), is particularly impressive. Part of this actor-amnesia is due to the movie’s deliberately downtrodden aesthetic, all dingy sets, horrible costumes, glamour-repellent hair and makeup—I’ve never seen Michael Keaton’s neck-skin look quite so pebbly, or Mark Ruffalo’s hair look quite so bad. And part of it is that when you are watching a movie about the Catholic Church’s deliberate, systematic, decades-long and ongoing concealment of a massive epidemic of child molestation, you’ll just be too goddamn mad to notice you’re watching famous actors in a movie.

And that rage is a problem, because righteous, impotent anger both robs critics of objectivity (“Spotlight”, while very good, had no business being awarded Best Picture in a year with “Mad Max” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”) and also repels all but the most socially responsible viewers, the kind of sober, NPR-listening souls who can be counted on to obediently file into “Blackfish” and “Super Size Me” and “An Inconvenient Truth”. And this is the kind of movie that people beyond the Birkenstock crowd should see, because it’s well-acted and gripping, and because in this, the Year of Our Lord 2016, we could all use a reminder that the only appropriate attitude towards unquestioned authority is deep, baleful suspicion. The movie ends with a simple coda, white print on a black screen, telling viewers that since the Globe’s story broke, similar scandals have been unveiled in the following cities… In the pause between that frame and the next, I mentally braced myself for a scrolling list. Would it be ten? Twelve? Twenty-five cities?

It was a lot more than that.