Movie review: “La La Land”

“La La Land” is like a young Labrador retriever: gorgeous to look at, eager to please, and exhausting. Writer/director Damien Chazelle has set himself a daunting task: create a movie that will rekindle Americans’ affection for both A) big, showy Busby Berkley musicals and B) live improvisational jazz. Reviving one of these flatlining patients would be a miracle; in trying for both, Chazelle stretches his movie’s energy too thin.

However, just as a flawed wedding cake is still cake, there are delights aplenty to be had, chief among them Emma Stone: any movie featuring her questioning eyebrows and lippy attitude has already made several correct decisions. Lots of attention will be justly paid to the costuming in this movie, specifically the use of a yellow dress (and Emma Stone can wear yellow) against a periwinkle sky. But even wearing a coffee-soaked uniform shirt and polyester anorak, Stone’s riveting, capable of communicating snark and humor and despair almost telepathically. Which is helpful, because her character, Mia, is an aspiring actress, and must summon up tempests from thin air in audition after audition, usually in front of bored, texting producers. (The ludicrous lines Mia must recite for these failures are a gem-like recurring bit.) Stuck in a similar position of despair, Ryan Gosling plays Sebastian, an achingly earnest young man who storms off his job when asked to play audience-friendly holiday medleys: his heart belongs to old-school, live jazz. Just as Mia is convinced that if she but writes, directs, performs and controls every aspect of her own one-woman play, audiences will respond in droves, Sebastian is convinced that if he could only own, renovate, design, name, and book his own jazz club, people will suddenly rediscover their long-dormant love of extended drum solos and piano improvisation. Both actors are charming and youthful enough to make this kind of winsome naiveté charming (as opposed to, say, incredibly grating), but you still want to see them grow up a bit—even, potentially, encounter a rogue spore or two of reality. John Legend, in an understated and excellent cameo as successful musician Keith, gently tries to talk some sense into Sebastian: “How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist? You hold onto the past, but jazz is about the future.” His point struck me as tremendous good sense, but the movie’s hell-bent on painting him as a compromising panderer, and Mia and Sebastian as True Artists—Mia produces her play, which takes place entirely in a bedroom and centers on girlhood dreams of Paris, in front of a tiny, disengaged audience, but later discovers that it touched one very important person in a very special way. If your eyes are beginning to roll, welcome to the cynic’s bench in hell, where I have saved you space. By the time Mia launches into her breathy final number, which includes the phrase “Here’s to the dreamers”, the movie has left all earthly cares, and most of its earthly audience, behind. We know that we’re supposed to be uplifted, even enchanted, but the characters’ struggles feel trite and their triumphs unlikely, and that’s the real sticking point—we can accept a world where someone might spontaneously burst into song, but running a successful bar themed on improvisational jazz?

Give us a break.

Carrie Fisher

It’s a cliché to say of any actress that “you feel like you could be friends with her”. Usually, that feeling of accessibility is formulated as carefully as Coke: add two parts recipe- and lifestyle-focused magazine articles to one part romantic comedy lead role, season with one public heartbreak or klutzy episode on a red carpet, and boom. Instant celebrity friend. Jennifer Aniston is the ultimate celebrity friend; more recently, Jennifer Lawrence has taken her crown. Others have tried and failed: Anne Hathaway by being annoyingly perfect, and Reese Witherspoon by revealing herself to be a drunk-driving, tantrum-throwing terror. There are a lot of ways to fail at being America’s celebrity friend.

But Carrie Fisher succeeded where others failed, precisely because she went about it completely wrong: by going publicly crazy. By talking about her crazy, by owning it, by picking an unpopular and misunderstood therapy and then talking about that. By owning her family drama and talking about that. By owning her drug addiction, and then talking about that, too. In general, America does not like women who talk too much about themselves (other topics, such as holiday recipe traditions, are fine). But Carrie Fisher never stopped talking about herself—she wrote several books on the topic, and a one-woman play, and as she got older she talked about that, too. She was un-shut-uppable on the topic of her personal truth: what it was like to get electroshock therapy, what it was like to get collagen, what it was like to be manic depressive, what it was like to fall in love with Harrison Ford when she was nineteen and he was married. (When she told him she was planning to talk about that, he said, “Lawyer.” She talked about it anyway.)

Carrie Fisher owned her entire life, and thus got out ahead of everyone else who could have wished to own her. Which (given that she was the privately cherished first love of an entire generation of straight men and quite a few women) was a lot of people. Even Jabba the Hutt wanted to own her, and he was a gigantic slug. But Carrie Fisher was her own person, a real human being, flawed and aging and fragile in all the ways celebrity best friends aren’t supposed to be. Which made her more than our cocktail buddy, more than our shopping pal, more than our confidante. It made her royalty.

Long live the Princess.

Movie review: “Rogue One”

Note: this review contains some spoilers. 

I have a well-aired gripe about most war movies: there are too many happy endings. This is for obvious narrative reasons: an accurate depiction of war would involve dozens of abortive attempts at resolution; both pro- and antagonists cut down at random moments in undignified manner; exhausting stints of boredom punctuated by chaos; above all, no clearly discernable message. To market such a movie would be impossible; even movies famed for their “gritty” and “realistic” portrayals of war, such as “Saving Private Ryan” or “Black Hawk Down”, still obey basic laws of narrative—someone survives to “tell” the story to the viewer. Last weekend, I was pleased to watch this rule be broken. I was astonished to watch it be broken by a Star Wars movie.

In “Rogue One: A Star Wars story”, the survivor is not a who, but a what—a tiny strip of golden film containing blueprints for the massive, planet-destroying Death Star. Everyone involved in its creation, theft, and handoff dies. The movie is the story of their sacrifice—a sacrifice made in the shadow of a mounting threat from an aggressive fascist government willing to pawn civil liberty for security. In case the critique is not yet pointed enough, “Rogue One” sharpens the stick and pokes harder: the nascent Death Star makes its weapons debut by destroying a large desert city with the vaguely Arabic-sounding name of “Jeddah”. Unfortunately, the analogy breaks down when it comes to the good guys: a scrappy group of outgunned rebels is all well and good, but whom exactly on the current world stage are they supposed to represent? An obvious answer presents itself, but one would hope “Rogue One” isn’t endorsing any fanatically violent suicide cults, no matter how scrappy. The film leaves the uncomfortable question hanging, and it’s still bothering me a full week after seeing it—which is, perhaps, exactly the point.

Movie review: “Gimme Danger”

“Gimme Danger” suffers from an unusual problem: its subject matter is far too cool. If Iggy Pop and the Stooges were the type of band to have twenty-seven eight-by-ten color glossy pictures of their every evolutionary stage, they wouldn’t have been Iggy Pop and the Stooges, or worth making a documentary about. This is the bind Jim Jarmusch finds himself in—how do you make a movie about a band that found most of its success outside the notice of anyone with a camera?

“Gimme Danger” is a vigorous, but unsuccessful, attempt to get out of the bind: using family photographs and the still surprisingly sharp memory of Iggy Pop (James Osterberg), Jarmusch constructs a detailed scale model of 1960s Detroit, where Osterberg grew up in a tiny trailer with his parents, who may be eligible for sainthood on the basis of one detail alone: while living in a tiny trailer with their teenaged son, they allowed him to take up the drums. Jarmusch goes to great lengths to recreate the formative sounds Osterberg recalls from childhood, and gives ample time to his experience at the University of Michigan—unlike most rockumentaries, “Gimme Danger” is clearly interested in the music, more than the drugs or the lifestyle or the glamour of rock. Unfortunately, this leads to a laggy second half, because (as it turns out) when you subtract drugs and glamour from the rock scene of the 1970s, there is not a hell of a lot to discuss. The band tries, and fails, to make an impression commercially; personal matters are tactfully alluded to; members come and go with little acrimony. The nearest we come to heat is when Osterberg takes a gentle, almost mannerly swipe at CSNY—the remark passes with nary a ripple. Jim Jarmusch digs around for nearly two hours, and reveals exactly one surprise about the man who wrote “I Wanna Be Your Dog”: he is, at heart, a polite Midwestern boy.

Movie Review: “Doctor Strange”

Guys, it’s funny. Did you think it was going to be funny? Did you think Benedict Cumberbatch could even be funny? Neither did I! Considering that he is being funny while A) faking an American accent and B) wearing an outfit that Nosferatu would find tacky, the list of things Benedict Cumberbatch cannot do is now narrowed down to:

  1. Interact meaningfully with a voice recognition system that asks your name. “Cumberbatch!”

“Cumberland?”

“Cum-ber-batch!”

“Cucumber?”

“CUM BER BATCH!”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that…”

  1. Play Khan.

 

(Sorry. I’m still not over it.) But “Doctor Strange” reveals a new and delightfully goofy layer to our favorite thespian onion, allowing Cumberbatch to boogie and wobble and (memorably) fight a particularly stubborn piece of clothing. His note-perfect imitation of an American surgeon includes all the tics those who must deal with surgeons will recognize—the fighter-pilot arrogance, the abysmal bedside manner, the statistics-keeping—but never strays too far into pompous windbag territory. Cumberbatch locates an appealing smartass streak and follows it through a familiar arc: the arrogant scientist brought low by an inexplicable spiritual experience. “Doctor Strange” is mining some extraordinarily impoverished narrative territory, and those who pointed out its usage of offensive tropes are correct: it’s tiresome to watch yet another white man travel to the “exotic Orient”, study at the feet of a mystic master, then leap to the head of the class of “other” students to become The Best Savior Ever. The choice of Tilda Swinton to play The Ancient One was baffling, drawing even more pointed (and warranted) criticism for whitewashing. “Doctor Strange”, as both a story and a movie, is flawed along racial lines: the story wasn’t written in a vacuum, the movie wasn’t made in a vacuum, and as my friend Billy Ockelmann Lee-Wagner astutely pointed out, a storyline based on “an arrogant white male proves things to his minority and female friends” is propping up some dangerous bullshit. But for all its deep internal flaws, the movie is neither soulless nor mean-spirited: its climax hinges upon a deeply selfless realization, one that’s all the more powerful for not being based in magic, but rather in logic and humanity. That’s the true strength of the “Marvel way” of storytelling—these are superhero stories, but they work first and foremost as stories about people, and their emotional beats hinge upon human realizations, faults, and triumphs. (I don’t know what DC movies are supposed to be about, but “people” aren’t it.) “Doctor Strange” uses CGI as liberally as any summer blockbuster, but it grasps that we can only be moved so much by pretty jets of light and kaleidoscopic arrays of color: while Strange deals in the magical manipulation of matter and time, the movie carefully defines the limitations and effects of the few spells he casts, never descending into the soulless red-light-versus-green-light battles that weakened “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” and sunk the Harry Potter franchise. And in the “death of the mentor” scene, an obligatory Station Of The Cross for every superhero story, CGI is hardly used at all—instead, the movie simply hands the scene off to Tilda Swinton and lets her talk about snow. Not a dry eye in the house.

 

So sure: get Benedict Cumberbatch for your comedy role. Cast Tilda Swinton as an ancient Asian dude. We are now through the looking glass in every way possible, and with two more months to go in this worst of all years, I’ll take my laughs where I can get them.

Movie review: “The Magnificent Seven”

Why? Why did we need this? Did anyone ask for this? Did anyone really want this? Who ordered this, and can we possibly return it to the kitchen? I would gladly trade back the two hours and thirteen minutes of my life which I spent watching this movie in favor of something more productive—say, a good scrub of my kitchen floor, or some light gum maintenance. But my dismay at having lost enough time to descale every kettle I own really can’t compare with the distress which countless caterers, riggers, setbuilders, and gaffers must be feeling at the loss of weeks of labor to “The Magnificant Seven”, a retread as uninspired as it is interminable. By casting Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Haley Bennett, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Ethan Hawke, the filmmakers have managed to bury just enough corn nuggets in the turd that, from a distance, it might resemble a Payday bar. Don’t be fooled. This movie’s a turd, a flat, insipid, formulaic slog through territory so well-trod it’s paved. Nothing exists to surprise or delight you here; for over two hours, only the weariest Western clichés are presented in mechanical, plodding order, from the arrival of the imposing out-of-towner (through swinging doors, the tavern’s piano clinking to a halt), to the final, climactic gunfight (the shot villains clutching at their bellies and falling in a variety of melodramatic poses). I’ve seen cuckoo clocks with more narrative suspense. And the presence of multiple fine actors doesn’t relieve the boredom—instead, it brings the dullness into even more agonizing relief, as we all contemplate the good times we’ve had with Washington, Pratt, D’Onofrio, and Hawke, in better movies than this. The movie further hamstrings itself by casting Peter Sarsgaard, the “Free” square on the Bingo card of cinematic mediocrity, as the villainous robber baron opposing Denzel Washington’s hired gunslinger—Washington brings his usual gravitas to the role, but without a comparable weight on the other end of the dramatic seesaw, he’s stuck trying to lift the narrative all by himself. Similarly, Chris Pratt tries his best to bring humor and fun into the building, only to be foiled at every turn by the lumbering script and ponderous score, and finally [spoiler alert] by a death scene so ludicrously prolonged it earned groans in the theater. Not content with the resolution of the conflict, the movie tacks on almost ten minutes of self-congratulatory epigraph, as townspeople stream back into their reclaimed village, hearty backpats and thanks are exchanged by all, and Haley Bennett solemnly intones a voiceover summarizing the movie’s message, ending with the straight-faced statement that “It was…. magnificent.”

No it wasn’t.

Movie review: “Sully”

It’s a general rule of storytelling that good tales aren’t created when things go right; they’re created when things go wrong, life goes sideways, and the suddenly scrambling protagonists must right themselves and struggle through. But what happens when your dramatic disaster is 288 seconds long and you need to fill a two-hour movie? You’d better hope you have a deeply flawed, complex hero—maybe even an antihero—to murk matters up and create a satisfying narrative. What if you don’t have that?

Welcome to “Sully”, Clint Eastwood’s second biopic focusing on a man who resembles an Eastwood character: Chelsea “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot who successfully landed an Airbus A320 in the Hudson River following dual engine loss from birdstrike. The “Miracle on the Hudson” is about as close to a purely good event as can be imagined; there were no evildoers responsible for the disaster (just some unfortunately located geese), and the swift, brave, and timely reactions of the airline crew and water rescuers meant that the entire disaster was resolved with no loss of life in less than half an hour. Upon media scrutiny, the pilot and co-pilot were revealed to be stolid, upstanding professionals not given to grandstanding or colorful remarks—Captain Sullenberger (here played by Tom Hanks), upon whom most of the attention landed, was particularly modest about his achievement and seemed to want all the hubbub to die down so he could get back to work. As such, while the Miracle on the Hudson made for great, uplifting news, it makes for terrible story material—there isn’t any “there” there.

Not to be dissuaded, Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki find their antagonists in the NTSB, the careful folks whose unenviable job it is to investigate plane crashes, with an eye towards avoiding future disasters and improving safety and security. What a bunch of soulless government stooges, right? What kind of blinkered bureaucratic lackey wants answers when a plane crashes? Barging forward, the film hammers home its blunt, unsophisticated message of instincts over computers, human judgement over flight simulators. We’re meant to cheer for good old-fashioned hand-on-stick flight, disregarding the obvious truth that without computers, every jet in the air would crash, and part of the reason Sullenberger was able to pull off the “Miracle” was his thousands of hours of practice logged… in flight simulators. It takes a certain resistance to the world, a moral calcification, to be inspired by this kind of obtuse rhetoric; at this rate, we can all look forward to Eastwood’s next great polemic, when he tackles pants and why the youth of America are wearing them all wrong. But I’ll go see that movie, too, because for all his limitations as a storyteller, Eastwood is a fantastic visual director, a virtuoso of tone and light and pacing and mood. He keeps the Airbus masterfully aloft for much of the movie, showing us different ways the plane could have landed—or not—in flashback and dream sequence and simulation, withholding our first glimpse at the true landing until the second act. I could have watched this movie with the sound off and been enthralled by the artful interplay of flat, reflected light, off skyscrapers and Hudson and opaque winter sky, that Eastwood uses to create a mirrored display case for the plane, a terrifying trap of cold, unforgiving surfaces. Hanks, too, deserves special commendation for working within the straight-jacket confines of Sullenberger’s character. A sort of acting Houdini, Hanks has learned to control his pupils and microexpressions so well that he can convey mortal terror and personal uncertainty even as he follows Sullenberger’s relentlessly competent decision tree, ruling out landings at LaGuardia and Teterboro until the only remaining option comes into horrifying focus. His barely banked panic until the number of survivors is revealed is humanizing, truly heroic—it’s unfortunate that the movie places so much weight on his vindication over a straw man antagonist, because Hanks doesn’t need that vindication to create a relatable, sympathetic character. More to the point, the real Captain Sullenberger didn’t need that vindication to be a hero. We all know what we saw.