Monday, December 28, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

(J. J. Abrams, USA, 2015)

A good point of comparison would be the lumbering, over-produced Jurassic World, this year's other ultra-hyped pop cultural "event."  Abrams is both trusted and experienced enough to shepherd the film without too much interference from the conglomerate people, and he clearly has the credentials as a nerd.  So he pulled it off.  My own nostalgia was awakened by the film, somewhat unexpectedly, as I had anticipated much more eye-rolling than I actually wound up performing.  Yes, it's front-loaded with a slew of impossible and self-contradictory expectations: please the hardcore nerds, win brand new fans who couldn't care less about the originals, make a perfect holiday outing but also a real movie, with a genuine sense of danger; pay fealty to the original, and resurrect some of its characters, but also create new characters, a new mythology, that can sustain the inevitable deluge of sequels and spinoffs and reboots to come.  And in successfully doing so, Abrams all but guaranteed that the film was going to be a kind of fine-tuned simulation, utterly in thrall to the social and monetary forces that gave it rise, but lacking a soul of its own.

These are all givens, but, perhaps surprisingly, and in what we can now recognize as being essential, necessary: Abrams is happy to deliver.  He is not concerned about his movie having soul; the soul is external to the film, a collective essence made up of the excitement and great hope of the legions of fans, old and new, a kind of pervasive, all-encompassing field of energy, a force, if you will, and you see where I'm going with this so I'll just stop there.  Abrams's reverence for the originals is manifest everywhere, in practically every frame of the film.  The acrobatics the action sequences, which are unflaggingly thrilling and exquisitely choreographed (the initial chase of the resurrected Millennium Falcon through and around the ruins of a Star Destroyer is a masterpiece) signify the advances in movie magic since the original Star Wars, and also the increased budget, but otherwise, everything is kept scrupulously lo-tech, in harmony with the scrappiness and ingenuity of the older films.  There are moments when it all feels too faithful, almost sedulous, and the air drains from the film.  But mostly, it is great, indulgent fun, brisk and clean-cut and deliciously plotted.  Abrams doesn't lose sight of his own instincts, and particularly in his casting of the major roles, does a marvelous job.  The newcomers are excellent, and their being almost unknown is a big part of the appeal.

It's handsome, wholesome, all-American entertainment, the kind that might even restore a glimmer of faith to the hard-hearted among us, who have all but written off entertainment on such a scale.  If you think for too long about The Force Awakens, and the insane amount of anticipation and discussion it has prompted in the culture - this unsettlingly eager, almost desperate embrace of nostalgia and bald sentimentality - you might easily find yourself tilting dangerously close to the dark side.  Better to take it as what it is at it's best - a well-crafted adventure movie - and then go back home and have some more leftovers. 

Monday, December 21, 2015

Mistress America

(Noah Baumbach, USA, 2015)

Baumbach, continuing his collaboration with Greta Gerwig, is on a roll.  After the stuffed and somewhat disheveled While We're Young, we now have this zesty dish of a film, compact but unexpectedly resonant.  Mistress America contains Baumbach's signature wit, but also the leavening agent of Gerwig, who provides, paradoxically, both a goofy levity and a certain gravity.  The film is concerned with the travails of trying to succeed as a creative person in the contemporary world.  Not long ago, in writing about While We're Young, I chided Baumbach for what I perceived as a certain naivete about the down-and-dirty world of  New York in the age of late-capitalist decadence.  This film comes off as a kind of corrective; looking forward rather than back, Baumbach sees both the possibilities and pitfalls in the world of self-obsessed, neurotic young people in the big bad City.

As expected, Mistress is very funny, and probably the most screwball iteration yet of Baumbach's comedy.  There's a touch of Hawks about the film, in its featuring of witty, fast-talking characters thrown into odd situations.  But unlike Hawks, the subject isn't sex.  Instead, the film focuses on the intersection of friendship and careerist ambition.  Gerwig's character Brooke perfectly captures the paradox of the aspirational millennial; she is seeking authenticity (her quest to open an uber-chic and yet homey restaurant, called, perfectly, Mom's) but must be always performing.  It's impossible to see where Brooke ends and the performance begins, but that's the point.  The most telling scene occurs around the midpoint of the film, where Brooke expresses for the first time the sadness that underlies her striving.  She tells Tracey (expertly portrayed by Lola Kirke) that people don't really know what they want until they turn 30, because it's at that point that they start to feel like they are losing time; adulthood is now a permanent condition, and they must work to achieve more while simultaneously ensuring that they don't lose what they already have.  It's a bracing moment, almost chilling in its starkly existential terms.  Brooke's urgency and effervescent flakiness are also tied, somewhat schematically, to the death of her mother, an event that Brooke treats more as an eccentricity in her personal narrative than as the trauma it undoubtedly was.

Tracy, being younger than Brooke, is both relatively inexperienced and also more straightforward in her desires.  She wants to be a writer, and over the course of the movie, her abilities and her ambition grow.  She isn't interested in the kind of impresario lifestyle that Brooke is chasing; Tracy wants to be admired from afar.  She craves experience but also feels in some distinct sense separate from it, always on some level observing; in other words, she's an artist.  She will never have the magnetism that Brooke has, but she might be able to reconfigure it, to use it for her own ends.

Of course, this all falls apart, and the scene in which the story peaks, set at a suburban mansion in Greenwich, Connecticut, is a masterpiece of good, old-fashioned farce.  It's the crux of the film, the bringing together of all the strands of story, and of the disparate personality types that we have carefully been following since the beginning.  The fundamental clash between money and art, a principal theme of the film, is highlighted: Wealth is interested in art as a marker of status and prestige.  Wealthy people can help sustain art, but this puts artists at their mercy.  Brooke gets the money she needs for her restaurant, but with the condition that she abandon it.  She doesn't see that her natural charisma - which includes, for her sudden patron (and former fiancĂ©) a certain sex appeal - is her best asset, but also her chief liability.  In all of her endeavors, she runs the risk of personally eclipsing anything she attempts to illuminate; people want her, not necessarily anything she makes. 

Baumbach doesn't have this problem, and neither does Tracey.  They are both artists whose involvement with their work is partially hidden.  Gerwig is another matter, and makes for an interesting case, which Mistress America stops just short of fully exploring.  Gerwig's naturally fluent energy and intelligence are liberated by the role of Brooke, who has a level of naivete in lieu of Gerwig's self-consciousness.  It'll be interesting to see how Gerwig plays this out; she's already shown interest and skill behind the camera (in addition to her co-writing with Baumbach, she also co-wrote and co-directed Joe Swanberg's Nights and Weekends).  My guess is that she'll do much more in projects to come. 

Monday, December 14, 2015

Jurassic World

(Colin Trevorrow, USA, 2015)

I remain something of an agnostic on the subject of Steven Spielberg.  There's a lot to say about his work, for and against, and about the effect of his movies on the culture of cinema at large.  Such is a subject for another day, but while watching Jurassic World I found myself
unexpectedly wistful for his knack with the action/adventure blockbuster, a genre that he helped invent.  Given how far this film falls short, I couldn't help but wonder: is it really that difficult to make an even mildly diverting action/adventure film?  To go by the evidence on display, the answer is yes, and our man Steve is one of the very few who can reliably pull it off.  Given the hoopla - by which I suppose I really mean money - I was expecting something, oh, I don't know, fun.  But Jurassic World is a big, lumbering snooze.  The script is that conspicuous combination of ample zingers and utter banality, the unmistakable mark of having been re-written to death, micromanaged and fretted over by a committee of suits.  Trevorrow's direction fairly screams "competence!"; like the characters, he's just hoping to get out of the park alive.  Given the aforementioned piles of cash money that the film made, I'm sure he'll do fine.  I can only imagine the kind of soul-sucking, nerve-singeing task it must've been to midwife a film like this through its undoubtedly brutal delivery into the world, but the job, going by what ended up on screen, was essentially managerial.   The theme of genetic modification, sedulously faithful to the original,  makes for an apt metaphor: the experience is lab-designed, impressive technically but undoubtedly artificial.

Back to Spielberg: it's clear that the mission here was to bottle and sell the winning combination of childlike wonder, science geek-out, and genuine thrills that made the original such a gas.  Jurassic Park is no masterpiece, but it remains a sterling example of a film that can be both smart and pretty dumb, fun and also scary, technically brilliant but not cold and impersonal.   Trevorrow tries to follow Spielberg's example, foregrounding the story of a family in crisis, adopting a fluid, relatively clear visual style, and trying to imbue the proceedings with a clever sense of humor.  Very little of it works.  You can see the blueprint behind the images, and the film becomes a kind of pastiche of well-intentioned entertainment.  Chris Pratt, a focused and able performer, is wasted in a cartoon role, and Bryce Dallas Howard doesn't fare much better.  I'll admit to wondering what the big deal was.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Top Five

(Chris Rock, USA, 2014)
Chris Rock's film about celebrity and culture (and celebrity culture) feels like a grab-bag, but it makes the most of its looseness. At it's best, the film vibrates with energy and comedic wit, and Rock's observations on a range of subjects, from sexual politics to celebrity to race to commerce, are typically smart and often hilarious.  At its worst, it relies on warmed-over tropes of the Rom-Com, setting up the conditions for a romance with all the subtlety of teenagers at a High School social.  The strongest moments come with the instant authenticity of actions and reactions captured in real time; sudden bursts of veritĂ©-style improvisation, as Rock and his talented co-performers riff on all manner of subjects.  The film's title derives from a listing of one's favorite five hip hop artists, an activity that becomes a kind of social ritual, an exchange of ideas that serves as a basis for an ad-hoc bull session, argument as communion.  Rock's view, which is not entirely novel, is that success in the entertainment world - particularly in one as celebrity-worshipping as our own - means a certain failure of authenticity.  The bigger one gets, the harder it is to "keep it real" - a locution originating in the African American community that has come, like so many others, to prominence in the larger cultural lexicon.  Rock's innovation is to tie this broader failure to a more local one; for black celebrities, authenticity is a doubly important.  They don't suffer from only from the erosion of their personal integrity brought on by fame, but also from a sense that they are also being disloyal to their community - their sense of belonging to a group that is, for all of the social progress of the past fifty years, still on the margins in certain crucial ways. 

The dual-cultural dilemma is Rock's most compelling idea, but it doesn't fully animate the movie.  Much of the narrative is devoted to the obviously-fated romance of his character, a successful comedian who has become a movie star, and Rosario Dawson's character, a hustling journalist who also happens to be in recovery, like Rock's Andre Allen.  While Rock deserves credit for navigating these familiar tropes with verve and wit, they are the weakest aspects of the film.  It's clear that Rock gets the most energy for his comedy (and his pathos, which is real and which isn't fully explored by the film) from the high-wire energy of stand-up.  And there are some delightful scenes, including one of an actual stand-up routine, that fix and transmit this energy, charged with creative risk and self-revealing pain.  But they are outweighed by the more conventional super-structure of the film, which seeks to smooth over the rough edges that Rock's comedic imagination reveals in everyday life.  I'm curious to see what Rock does next, and I hope he follows his instincts further, and more daringly, into his development as a filmmaker.