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.

 

Movie review: “Suicide Squad”

Someone at Warner Brothers—not everyone; not even everyone involved in the making of this movie—is listening. “Suicide Squad” is a wobbly, uneven, half-baked step in the right direction. It features a howlingly awful “Method” performance by Jared Leto; a script that exhaustingly, pedantically informs us what we’re seeing; characters that pop in and out of the script with as little reason as quarks.  It gives inexplicable acres of screen time to Scott Eastwood, the blandly handsome and be-cheekbone’d son of Clint, yet gives him nothing to say. It fails, again and again, to convincingly establish stakes, build tension, make us care. The ending is an anticlimax; deaths don’t mean anything; did I mention how much the Joker sucked ass?

Still better than Batman v Superman.

I take that back; that’s unfair. Many things are better than “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”, including basement flooding, doing your own taxes, and the semi-pleasant lightheadedness you get after three days of stomach flu. Which is a feeling you might recognize after long enough in David Ayer’s world—a colorful and not unpleasant collision of Tim Burton’s Wonderland and Zac Snyder’s Gotham. In tone and feel, “Suicide Squad” comes closest to “The Watchmen”, another messy movie half-redeemed by a bright soundtrack and committed performances from actors whose best efforts were buried under an avalanche of incoherent story fragments. There are glimmers of hope in “Suicide Squad”, just as there were in “The Watchmen”. Let’s enumerate a few:

First: Will Smith as Deadshot. One of the movie’s most glaring flaws is the feeling that it was stitched together, Frankenstein-style, out of multiple scripts—each character authored by a different writer. The upshot (heh) is that Smith drew one of the good scripts, and delivers an even-better, deeper, more multi-dimensional version of the wiseass character that he’d already honed to perfection twenty years ago.

Second: Viola Davis as Amanda Waller. Every moment Ms. Davis is on screen is like a moment spent in a refrigerator box with a cobra; while Leto swans and spits and swoons like a seventh-grade summerstock Iago, attempting to summon scariness and eliciting only snickers, Ms. Davis just exists, and rivets your attention with a life-or-death force. She approaches her character at a weary, workmanlike angle; but just when we are set to see Waller as a pragmatic functionary, she turns the corner and becomes something much more frightening. When another character admits that they didn’t see Waller coming, she responds, “No one else does, either.” The line lands, resonates, and chills. The idea that this woman, this genius, was stuck working on a movie set with the infantile and repugnant Leto (who mailed some of his costars dead animals and used condoms, using Method acting as an excuse for criminal harassment and sexual assault), is well beyond infuriating—it should be punishable by public stoning of every casting director, producer, lawyer, and handler involved. It is impossible to imagine a movie production treating Meryl Streep (the only living actress whose talent compares with Davis’s) with such cavalier disregard for her dignity or safety, and I invite you all to consider the reasons why that’s so.

Finally, Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn. I’m working hard to articulate precisely why I liked her so goddamn much, because I want to get this right; because it’s important; because this character, for me, redeemed the whole unholy mess of this movie. Here goes: Harley is the heroine I think a lot of us have been waiting for, a female character whose heroism is rooted, 100%, in the experience of having a bad boyfriend. Think hard before you push back. How many women do you know whose experience with a boyfriend has drastically derailed their lives? How many do you know who have had to flee—move—seek therapy—talk to their friends for hours—regain their career confidence and self-esteem for years—because of their boyfriends? How many do you know who are in that relationship right now?  I can think of a lot. I have friends who barely survived. I have friends whose entire personalities changed. I have friends I don’t speak to anymore, because they disappeared with those bad boyfriends and no one knows where they are. And Harley isn’t free or clear of her bad boyfriend yet, or even at all—she’s embroiled in him, entangled, still drowning, but miraculously, stubbornly, fiercely fucking alive. That’s the most real-world, relatable heroism I’ve seen all year. The fact that it’s delivered in candy-colored short shorts is for your benefit.

Let me be clear: this Harley is not a badass because she beats people up with a baseball bat. She is not a badass because she kills people. She is not a badass because she’s hot, or fuckable, or flexible, or a “crazy bitch”. Harley is all of those things, but those factors are camouflage. Put another way: a woman “kicking ass” is only considered kickass, in 2016 America, when she’s doing so violently—if she’s kicking ass in the boardroom, she’s a cold, robotic bitch who needs to be brought down a notch and “taught how to love”. If she’s kicking ass in space or the military, ditto. If she’s kicking ass in high school or a rock band, she’s cripplingly shy or awkward in her dating life and needs to loosen up and again, be “taught how to love”. And if she’s kicking ass at mothering a child, she’ll be regarded as a model not of feminism, but its opposite. Violence—done sexily—is still the only surefire avenue, for female characters in 2016, to the unqualified respect of male characters and a male audience. So violence, along with a fetchingly displayed ass, is Harley’s ticket onto the squad. But that’s not what makes her so cool. Surviving the emotional violence of a terrible, toxic love affair is Harley’s superpower, and if that’s a superpower you just don’t see the point of, look again. You may realize that you’ve been surrounded by heroines all along, and just didn’t realize it.

That’s alright. No one else does, either.

 

 

 

Movie review: “Star Trek: Beyond”

The newest installment in Star Trek’s canon rolls off the assembly line this weekend, christened with a focus-grouped and forgettable title (“Star Trek: Beyond”). Like most of what rolls off the assembly lines these days, the third installment in the rebooted “alternate original series” is serviceable enough, even pretty from certain angles; it offers a polished and effortless ride, depositing you outside the theater two hours later and ten dollars lighter, wreathed in a thin cloud of distraction. It does not, however, possess much of a soul, and if it seems churlish to complain about the lack of “soul” in a multimillion-dollar spectacle featuring the wholesale destruction of a USS Enterprise (complete with the startling phrase “Detach the saucer”), I can only plead affection for simpler fare. Isn’t the concept of hull breach terrifying enough, without seeing the Enterprise literally drawn and quartered in space, then dropped in several large chunks onto the planet below? In a quest to outdo the previous installments’ many and varied crash landings, “Beyond” goes, well, beyond, turning the beloved ship into a piñata and multiplying her attackers until they become a terrifying CGI swarm of… well, what were they, exactly? A character calls the evil army “bees” at one point, but bees have purpose—the antagonists’ motivation remains unclear until the very end, in which the chief baddie (Idris Elba, encased in mysteriously shifting prostheses) explains his Evil Philosophy, which nudges the audience from mere uncertainty into complete confusion. We never truly understand who he is, why he’s become a murderous fanatic, and why he has near-unlimited numbers of kamikaze-style followers willing to die for him. Say what you will about Eric Baña’s scenery-chewing Nero in the first installment, at least he had a motive (I lost my planet—let’s see how you like it).

 

Motive is sorely lacking on the protagonists’ side, too: in a too-neat voiceover at the beginning, Kirk expresses a desire for meaning in a life become rote. This would work better if the movie hadn’t opened with a “never a dull moment” scene from Kirk’s challenging life as a diplomat, or if the movie had meaning to offer besides “Keep the bad guy from getting the MacGuffin to the place before it’s too late to reverse the things.” Spock, too, is having doubts—his alternate-universe-counterpart, the sheared-off version of himself played by Leonard Nimoy, has died, causing him to once again question his relationship with Uhura: while the tributes to Nimoy are effective (and, in one scene, startlingly beautiful), the threat to Spock and Uhura’s relationship is less so, because we’ve seen these stakes before. We’ve also seen “bombardment from the skies/civilians in peril” quite a few times recently—this trope looked cool in “The Avengers”, tolerable in “Guardians of the Galaxy”, tired in “The Avengers: Age of Ultron”, and exhausted in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”; now, the sight of a citywide evacuation reads as pure visual filler.

 

What the movie lacks in forward impetus, however, it makes up for in color: the characters are lovingly unpacked and given time to mingle, which is precisely as it should be—Star Trek at its best is a character drama, not an action franchise. McCoy and Spock are given an especially generous amount of development time, and even Scottie gets a bit of dimension beyond his comic relief role. Watching these classic characters interact is pleasure enough to balance out the dull bits, and the climax strikes the perfect note of giddy nostalgia: it’s common enough to note that actors “look like they’re having fun”, but how often do they visibly bounce with excitement? This is a summer blockbuster as indistinguishable from other blockbusters as one Honda from another, but there’s cheesy fun aplenty for those willing to turn up the music and put the pedal down.

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.