Sunday, January 14, 2018

Winter Catch Up #2: The Post and Molly's Game

Steven Spielberg's The Post is a "process" film, the third in a loose and unofficial trilogy about American systems and the people who work within them. Where Lincoln followed the Congressional machinations around the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment and Bridge of Spies was the story of legal and diplomatic institutions being tested, The Post turns its attention to the press and more specifically how much remove that journalists need from the people they cover. Liz Hannah and Josh Singer's brisk script is the story of how The Washington Post fought the Nixon Administration to publish the "Pentagon Papers" in 1971. The Papers, leaked initially to the New York Times by disaffected analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), were really a massive government study that revealed both that multiple administrations had been duplicitous with Americans about the scale and scope of the Vietnam War and that the U.S. government knew that a "victory" in Vietnam was unlikely at best.

We find The Washington Post as a business at a turning point when The Post begins. Publisher Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) is about to take the paper public, and she hopes that an infusion of cash will both improve reporting and allow the Graham family to maintain control. Meryl Streep wisely plays Graham as a woman with the assumptions and self-awareness of someone from an earlier era. Graham became publisher only because her husband committed suicide, and Post board members like Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford) maintain a barely muted skepticism about her ability to move the paper forward. Streep's is a thoughtful performance that accumulates power as the film goes on. She never plays Graham as convinced of her own righteousness, but by the time Graham overrides legal advice on the question of whether to publish the Papers it is clear that she has come into her authority. The most dynamic moments of The Post are course in the paper's newsroom, where editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) sees the Pentagon Papers first as a missed scoop and then as a chance to strike a blow for a free press. Hanks has great gusto as Bradlee, and Spielberg has given him actors like Bob Odenkirk (as reporter Ben Bagdikian) and Carrie Coon (as columnist Meg Greenfield) to bounce off of, but the journalists' scenes are both the film's primary source of energy and its main weakness. The Papers must be explained to the audience, and so at various points all the cast can do is just read from what they're holding in their hands about rigged elections and troop movements. The Post never really drags, but neither does it fully convey the scope of the betrayal that the Papers represent. There is more fertile ground in Graham's friendship with Washington D.C. power players like former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), the man who had the government's study commissioned in the first place. Graham and McNamara are old friends, but Graham comes to realize - without it being explained to her - that true journalism and friendship can't mix.

The Post is good fun and as skillfully made as one would expect from Spielberg, but the extent to which it works as a film about the role of newspapers as opposed to their actual work takes away some tension. There are lawyers (Tracy Letts and Jesse Plemons) on hand to explain why Graham shouldn't publish the Papers, but of course The Washington Post was on the right side of history. There is value in connecting The Post to the present moment in media, especially the way that certain conservative narratives have caused some to overcorrect in the name of a false "balance", but on its own terms The Post is a film that delivers its message a bit too loudly.

Molly's Game is not about poker, but rather the execution of a particular kind of poker. Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), upon whose memoir the new film is based, runs high-end games in hotel suites where the choice to call or fold must be made between sips of expensive liquor. The crux of the film is Bloom's indictment on gambling charges; the Federal government thinks Bloom's game is tangentially connected to organized crime, and Bloom's assets are seized as leverage for her cooperation. The only lawyer who'll take Bloom's case on credit is Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), whose precocious daughter likes to hang out in Dad's lobby and read The Crucible. Precocious daughters are a signature of writer Aaron Sorkin, who here adapts Bloom's book and makes his feature directorial debut. Other Sorkin motifs abound, including the trademark dense dialogue that Chastain and Elba trade in their numerous arguments. There is also a tendency to have men explain things to Molly, not only her lawyer but also her demanding father (Kevin Costner) and the sleazy L.A. promoter (Jeremy Strong) who introduces Molly to poker. (Michael Cera provides a bit of menace as "Player X", based on one of Bloom's celebrity players.) When Molly isn't listening to men she is explaining to us - in expository voice over - how an injury ruined her skiing career and that poker is something she didn't know she wanted to be good at. Molly's Game really sinks under the weight of all of this explaining. We get plenty of detail about how Bloom recruited players, but amidst all the talking there's very little sense of either the fun of Bloom's lifestyle or the increasing stress that pushed her into drug addiction. Sorkin's surprising inability to wrestle with exposition gives Molly's Game the feel of a lecture and wastes Chastain, who got to show more vulnerability in the generic political thriller Miss Sloane. Molly's Game is a hand with too many cards.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

All the Money in the World/The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

Ridley Scott's All the Money in the World gained a certain notoriety in the fall of 2017, when just weeks before the release date Scott reshot a significant portion of the film with Christopher Plummer stepping into the role of J. Paul Getty in place of the disgraced Kevin Spacey. All the Money in the World is the story of the 1973 kidnapping of Getty's grandson Paul (Charlie Plummer, no relation) and of Getty's initial refusal to pay the ransom. The early scenes are a quick primer on how J. Paul Getty made his fortune in oil, and these early shots are really the only part of the film where digital sleight of hand is evident both in Christopher Plummer's insertion into shots and in making him look younger. (Christopher Plummer is 88 years old, and J. Paul Getty was 83 when he died.) Young Paul Getty is in Rome because his father John Paul Getty II (Andrew Buchan) has been given a job in the Getty Oil empire that he doesn't want and isn't prepared for, but the dominant presence in Paul's life is that of his mother Gail Harris (Michelle Williams). By the time of the kidnapping Gail and Getty II were divorced, and it is Harris - who describes herself as "not a real Getty" - who must prevail upon her former father-in-law for help.

The kidnapping of Paul Getty takes place against the background of 1970's European political terrorism and kidnapping for profit. David Scarpa's screenplay (based on a book by John Pearson) doesn't go into much detail about the kidnappers' non-financial motivation, but these kidnappers are a fairly haphazard group. Paul forms a tentative bond with Cinquanta (Romain Duris), who is the just the first of the group to accidentally let Paul see his face. It's just such an error that leads the police to raid the spot where Paul is being held, but by that point he has been sold to a businessman (Marco Leonardi) who wants to use Paul as a way to his grandfather's fortune. The procedural parts of All the Money in the World are well-executed but feel familiar: there are scenes of Gail confronting the Italian police and arguing with Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), the ex-CIA operative hired by J. Paul Getty to find his grandson. The details of the case and of Paul's captivity - save for a frightening scene of mutilation - could be drawn from any number of movies, and the phone calls between Gail and Cinquanta function as exposition more than as a way to build character or tension. The film works much better as a study of privilege, with Christopher Plummer excellent as a man who views people as assets and a historically unequaled fortune as a perilous financial situation. It would have been very easy given the time constraints of the reshoots for J. Paul Getty to have come off as a cartoon, but Plummer achieves so much more by doing less. Michelle Williams is equally good as Gail, a woman of nominal privilege - no one believes she can't get the ransom money - who in fact is almost powerless to help her son. It is Gail who first pushes her husband to appeal to J. Paul Getty for a job and she is delighted when one comes through, but after the divorce Gail must play a different game with the Getty family and Williams gives her a scrappiness that makes the second half of the movie hang together emotionally. She also isn't afraid to make Gail unsympathetic, and pulls off a scene where Gail complains that people don't believe she isn't rich. Ridley Scott doesn't skimp on the irony of where Gail finds herself in the end, when she appears to get something that she thought she wanted all along.

All the Money in the World is a strongly acted film that doesn't quite transcend its crime-movie frame, but in telling Gail's story it does have something to say about money both as a means of access and of control. While the film will get outsized attention because of scandal, it works as a smart entertainment that deserves to be seen.

Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman) is a sculptor, but not as well-known as his friend L.J. (Judd Hirsch). He's also a father, but not as naturally as his sons Matthew (Ben Stiller) and Danny (Adam Sandler) are to their children. Noah Baumbach's The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)is the story of what happens when Matthew, Danny, and their sister Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) must confront their aging father with all of their ambivalence and love. Baumbach has always been interested in self-centered, irascible fathers and their emotionally stunted children, but in Meyerowitz he tempers the angst with a humor that feels closer to recent work like Mistress America. Arguments and awkward encounters are cut away from abruptly, and while Stiller and Sandler are playing fully realized characters they also get to indulge their talents for physical comedy. A medical crisis brings the family together in the film's second half, including Danny's daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten) and Harold's wife Maureen (Emma Thompson). If The Squid and the Whale is a touchstone film on living through one's parents divorcing, then here Baumbach is equally good on how divorce affects adult children. (I can't recall a film so specific about what it means to have a half-sibling.) Old resentments return and traumas are recalled, but Meyerowitz isn't a film about not being able to outrun the past. There is a life ahead for the Meyerowitz children, and it begins with something as simple as Jean's new haircut or Danny's attraction to a woman (Rebecca Miller) he knew as a child. By the end both Harold and his work are in a sense filed away, and the Meyerowitz kids are racing towards the middle of their lives.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Winter catch-up: The Last Jedi and The Disaster Artist (mild spoilers)

As we come to the end of 2017, my joy in one particular strand of cultural conversation remains unabated. Whenever people - for the sake of argument we'll call them "White men" - collectively freak out on social media because a new film doesn't look enough like they think it should, I am delighted. When I was in elementary school I took great pleasure in coming home in the afternoons and watching reruns of the Adam West Batman television show. The Batman series was art-directed within an inch of its life, used animated words ("Pow!") on the screen during fight scenes, and featured a rotating cast of villains including Julie Newmar as Catwoman and Otto Preminger as one of three actors to play "Mr. Freeze". I loved the show, but in time the reruns were taken away and my interests changed; if memory serves there was a Diff'rent Strokes phase. When the first Tim Burton Batman film came out, I was 15. The color scheme was different, Bruce Wayne had a girlfriend, Prince did the music, and there was an appealing idea ("Bruce Wayne is weird, right?") unspoken in the film that the series wouldn't have recognized. Had Twitter or Reddit been available, it is hard to imagine that I would have run to social media to start petitions or claim that my childhood had been violated. Instead I marked the Batman film as something I enjoyed but was slightly too old for and moved on.

One of my first (pre-Batman) memories is the opening of the original Star Wars. Rian Johnson's Star Wars: The Last Jedi is the pinnacle of childhood-ruining media, at least until someone doubles down and gender-swaps Stranger Things. In continuing the story of Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, excellent), Johnson exhibits a refreshing disdain for the Jedi/Dark Side binary that has roiled social media but that actually signifies a turn towards a darker and more adult Star Wars universe. Johnson also doesn't care much about the fan theories that animated discussion in the two years since The Force Awakens. The questions of Rey's parentage and of the agenda and identity of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) are summarily answered, but they don't function as engines to move the story forward. I'd argue that - on a thematic level at least- the most important part of The Last Jedi involves the thief played by Benicio Del Toro and the moment that he reveals to Finn (John Boyega) and Rose (winning newcomer Kelly Marie Tran) that the ship they've stolen belonged to an arms dealer who serviced both the First Order and The Resistance. We've already heard from Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) that the Jedi order needs to die, but it's in the scene on the ship where Johnson does away with the idea of "good" and "bad" characters in this universe that we've all grown up with. A film that I didn't expect The Last Jedi to evoke for me was Bong Joon-Ho's Snowpiercer, a much more tightly constructed work in which heroes and villains matter far less than the facts that we all live in the same moral universe and must relate to structures of power in our own ways. The entire question of the Jedi Order and whether they accomplished anything at all could serve as the basis for a film that will never be made, but the conceit that their teachings are an unquestioned path towards goodness is shoved aside in the "training" scenes between Luke and Rey and more importantly in the multiple flashbacks to Luke's fateful encounter with Kylo Ren. Depending on which version you believe, the Jedi and their ways are either too easily turned away from or simply outmoded. These are daring stances for a Star Wars director to take, but Johnson doesn't compromise.

The Last Jedi is the most visually beautiful Star Wars film. There is a shot late in the film of Leia (the late Carrie Fisher, given much to do) looking out over a desolate planet that sums up the last forty years of life in this world. Two separate acts of heroism by Resistance fighters are called out, one at the end of a thrilling action scene and the other as a stylized moment of frozen horror. The climax occurs on a planet where the red dust that the battle sweeps up is a symbol of the human cost of war. Rian Johnson won't - and shouldn't - direct every future Star Wars film, but The Last Jedi serves notice that franchise films can be heightened, and do (or not do) fan service, and still look great with the right director. The next installment of the "Skywalker" Star Wars films will, it is said, be the last. It will answer questions and tie up stories, but the series is already moving on into a rich world of complication and human conflict that will also, you know, determine the future of the galaxy. There is already a much larger discussion being had about how social media can amplify the toxic nature of fandom, but if a certain backward-looking segment of the Star Wars audience isn't along for the ride then so be it. Enjoy that "Young Han Solo" movie, guys.

Shout out to the guy sitting in front of us at The Disaster Artist. He quoted lines and guy-splained to his friends that James Franco's new film is the story of the making of the celebrated 2003 film The Room, often hailed as one of the worst films ever made. Franco directs and also plays Tommy Wiseau, the inexplicably wealthy and not self-aware director and star of The Room. I wonder if the guy in front of us would have reacted on first viewing The Room the same way as the audience at the premiere scene did in The Disaster Artist. The audience, heavily made up of people who've worked on The Room is at first horrified by the technical incompetence but almost instantly switches gears and begins to cheer for the film as an object of ironic adoration. In this version of events, Wiseau likewise is brought round to the idea that his film will live in infamy even before the premiere is over, in a moment that plays as wish fulfillment. Franco's performance is a skilled imitation, but since no one has ever been able to figure out Wiseau the man the character doesn't have much of a soul. Still we do have The Room, which I knew little about going in. Loving derision is a valid response to art, but watching the object of that derision created doesn't make a good film. I hope the guy in front of us enjoyed it.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

What kind of art do we need right now? Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is written and directed by Martin McDonagh, the English and Irish playwright (The Pillowman) turned filmmaker. Whether or not McDonagh intended his film to be of this moment, Three Billboards arrives in a year when the prejudices of established power structures and the behavior of police and other civil institutions are at the forefront of cultural conversation in America. McDonagh addresses those subjects with the same bitten-off, hard-won humor and spurts of violence that will seem familiar to those who know his work. Three Billboards sees an America roiling with tension and bitterness over differences in race and class, and also makes room for characters facing more existential problems in their own lives. One such character is Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), who when we meet her is a few months past the rape and murder of her daughter Angela. No arrests have been made, so one day Mildred - using money from the sale of her ex-husband's tractor - rents three billboards to post a message calling out Police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for a lack of progress on the case. Willoughby is a beloved figure in Ebbing, and the billboards are perceived as an attack on the very goodness of the town itself. Mildred, who seems to have few interactions with people other than her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges), is dismissed as a woman driven mad by loss.

Three Billboards wants to be many things, but it isn't especially interested in being a mystery. Willoughby is sincere in his sympathy for Mildred and in his desire to solve the case, but all leads have run cold and there is no new evidence coming in. McDonagh is more interested in observing the town's underlying civic order and pointing out how close it is to slipping away. Willoughby can pacify Mildred - in the moment - while also controlling the racist deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell), but we find out in an early scene that the Chief has been diagnosed with cancer and that the prognosis isn't good. As Willoughby's energy fades the rest of Ebbing becomes more and more chaotic. All of this would be much more trenchant if McDonagh weren't enjoying himself so much. To answer the question I put at the beginning of this review, a kind of art that feels less necessary these days involves Europeans broadly characterizing American mores. McDonagh's natural theatricality makes Three Billboards feel like a broad swipe at American culture from someone who doesn't really want to get too close to it. McDonagh isn't interested in social realism, the Ebbing of this film never feels very much like a real place. Key locations like the police station and the office where Mildred rents the billboards from a nervous young man (Caleb Landry Jones) are across the street from each other, creating a convenient stage for two of the film's most violent scenes. Much attention is paid to shots of blood, such as in Mildred's altercation with a dentist and (in a moment that feels very false) Willoughby yanking out his Iv in the hospital. McDonagh lingers on a shot of Harrelson's blood on a hospital wall as if to say that we're all one bad doctor's visit away from the same fate.

Frances McDormand is as much of a spitfire as one might expect in Three Billboards, never compromising on Mildred's anger while also finding moments of dark humor. A flashback points out that Mildred maybe wasn't such a great parent, and McDormand plays Mildred's confrontations with her ex-husband (John Hawkes) with just the right level of resentment and fear. A less successful subplot involves Mildred crossing paths with a character played by Peter Dinklage, and McDonagh isn't shy about people using the word "midget". Neither McDormand nor Dinklage really look like they know what their scenes should be. The best casting decision McDonagh made though was Woody Harrelson as Chief Willoughby. Harrelson gets to play a wonderful warmth with his wife (Abbie Cornish) and children while projecting a kind of basic American competence on the job. (Abbie Cornish is actually a distraction as Willoughby's wife, she forgoes an American accent and I didn't believe Willoughby would have fallen for her.) But McDonagh wants to place heavy symbolic weight on what happens to Willoughby, and it's more than the film can bear. In its second half Three Billboards becomes more interested in Sam Rockwell's Officer Dixon, and McDonagh's broad take on the character as a blight on the American grain shifts the film into an almost operatic gear of social satire. Dixon is a showy role and Rockwell's performance matches the film tonally, but McDonagh is only nominally interested in the character's possible redemption. Willoughby has been reduced to a guiding spirit at this point, giving everyone instructions, and while he offers Dixon some hope the end of the film suggests that violence is Dixon's only way of really relating to others. The character's racism is situational - offhand references to torture and an insertion of the N-word - and the script doesn't take the time to show how Dixon's racial attitudes and relative power might do more insidious work upon the lives of Ebbing's residents of color. Of whom there appear to be about four. Martin McDonagh is more interested as a writer in the havoc people can wreak than in the way that individuals rub up against institutions, and it's that misplaced emphasis that reduces Three Billboards to well-acted curiosity.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Novitiate/Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold

Novitiate is set in the 1960's, at a time when the Second Vatican Council ("Vatican II") was reforming and liberalizing the practices of the Catholic Church. Vatican II put Catholics on either side of a divide, depending on one's views. The changes involving saying Mass in vernacular languages and acknowledging the beliefs of non-Catholics either seemed like a welcome engagement with modernity or an unforgivable dilution of the Church's authority. Maggie Betts, here writing and directing her first feature, puts her characters right in front of the coming change and lets them figure out who they want to be in a post-Vatican II world. Cathleen (introduced as a child and played as a young woman by Margaret Qualley) discovers the Church as a girl while in the company of her mother Nora (Julianne Nicholson). Cathleen's father is barely a presence in her life, and to Nora's surprise she finds great comfort in the nuns like Sister Margaret (Ashley Bell) who are teachers at her new school. A teenaged Cathleen proclaims her desire to become a nun, and the rest of Novitiate takes place at the convent where Cathleen becomes a postulant under the supervision of the Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo).

In Betts's script, becoming a nun is an end in itself. Cathleen and her fellow postulants refer to themselves as being "in love" with God, and Betts calls out the bridal imagery in the scene where the girls finish their time as postulants and enter their novitiate. The film doesn't place the idea of being a nun in any context, and it isn't clear why Cathleen is attracted to the possibility of life inside the convent more than the idea of serving as a teacher like Sister Margaret. Maybe that's why even though Margaret Qualley so thoroughly commits to the idea of Cathleen as swooning and God-struck, her performance feels so stifled. It's hard to express what Cathleen and the girls are striving towards in dramatic terms, so Betts keeps breaking away from the postulants to comment on Church politics. Melissa Leo plays Reverend Mother as a fountain of barely suppressed rage, first at the perceived insubordination of the young teacher Sister Mary Grace (Dianna Agron, who gets some Malick-style voice over that the film then forgets about) and then at the Archbishop (Denis O'Hare) who mansplains Vatican II to her. Again there's a lack of context here. Reverend Mother tells the postulants that the Church has given her her "work", but we never see the character do anything but find other people inadequate. It's in the scene with the Archbishop - O'Hare nails the character's sanctimony - that I think Novitiate gets confused about what it's doing. Reverend Mother clearly finds many of the Vatican II changes too liberal, and in fact she hasn't even told the other nuns about them. But when confronted by the Archbishop she is also angry that women weren't included in the Vatican's process.  That thing you did that I don't like? It's also sexist. If the end titles of Novitiate are to be believed, we have actually been watching a film about the Catholic Church's betrayal of nuns. As Cathleen and the others prepare for another set of vows they notice the convent seems emptier, and we're told that the mid-1960's was a time of nuns' departure from the Church at historic levels. If we're to take the scene in which Reverend Mother tells the older nuns - who are never individualized - as as a dramatization of Betts's views on Vatican II, then Novitiate reads as an unhappy and backward-looking film. Cathleen and her sisters deserved better.

The actor Griffin Dunne has made a documentary about his aunt Joan Didion, the essayist and novelist probably best known now for her writings on grief. The film Lady Bird opens with an acerbic Didion quote about life in her hometown of Sacramento, and fortunately Dunne was able to put more of Didion's sensibility on screen with an extended interview. Though readers may be most familiar with Didion's book about her late husband John Gregory Dunne (The Year of Magical Thinking), Didion is no sentimentalist and has a journalist's eye for the telling detail. Didion describes a famous moment - encountering a child whose mother had given her LSD - depicted in Slouching Towards Bethlehem as "gold", and it's this detachment that makes it clear at once why Didion is a great writer and what it must have been like to live with her in the 1970's. Dunne skillfully weaves together news clips and the testimonials of colleagues (Calvin Trillin, Hilton Als), but the interview with Didion is the film's center. Worn by time and opened up by loss, Didion - now 82 - is lively but clearly preoccupied by work already done as a writer, wife, and mother. (Didion's adopted daughter Quintana died in 2005.) The greatest achievement of The Center Will Not Hold is to make the woman shown receiving a medal from President Obama seem beautifully and honestly human.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Lady Bird

Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird is a startlingly assured directorial debut, and it certainly deserves a place in the conversation about the best American films of 2017. Gerwig, who also wrote the script, has made a film that succeeds in both being a first-rate coming of age comedy and also a moving character piece about a parent and a child coming to understand each other. Sacramento, 2002: Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), who has dubbed herself "Lady Bird", is entering her senior year at a private Catholic girls school. Lady Bird is smart but an underachiever in the classic mode, more likely to declare her plans to go to college somewhere in the East where "writers live in the woods" than to actually make a plan to achieve that goal. When Lady Bird isn't vexing her mother Marion (an excellent Laurie Metcalf) by jumping out of moving cars she is hanging out with best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) and - on a whim - auditioning for the Sondheim musical that her school is producing with the boys from the neighboring school. Lady Bird is an episodic film, one that conveys the late teenage feeling of moments piling up without resorting to sentiment or cliche. The plot unfolds over Lady Bird's senior year, one in which she meets a boy she loves and then entertains the possibility of someone new. But to dwell on the story would be to reduce Lady Bird to the sum of its events. This is very much a movie about self-discovery. Saoirse Ronan is capable of great poise as an actor (Brooklyn, Atonement), but she is warm and open here even in the scenes where she's fighting with her mother. Those fights reveal just how much each woman needs the other to understand her, and they also serve as Lady Bird's unsentimental education in adult problems. Lady Bird's parents are dogged by money worries - Tracy Letts is Lady Bird's loving but sad father - and Lady Bird's first reaction is to gravitate towards wealthier classmates like Danny (Lucas Hedges) or the popular Jenna (Odeya Rush). As in any teenage movie things don't turn out as planned, and Lady Bird is confronted with her parents' problems as the possibility of college in the East becomes more real and her relationship with Howard Zinn reading rich kid Kyle (Timothee Chalamet) begins to slip away.

With a sharp script and actors as good as Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, who has a stunner of a long take as Lady Bird prepares to leave for college, Lady Bird could have been above average even with less confident direction. But what a pleasure to see how cinematic a naturalistic film about people talking can be. The script clues you into what it's doing with a pair of scenes that Gerwig places next to each other. Danny breaks down as he confesses a secret to Lady Bird, who can only offer comfort in return. Gerwig then cuts to a conversation between Marion, a psychiatric nurse, and Father Leviatch (Stephen McKinley Henderson). Father Leviatch is the beloved drama teacher who led the school production of Merrily We Roll Along but has left without explanation before the spring production of The Tempest. (He is replaced by the football coach.) In just a few lines, Gerwig establishes that Father Leviatch is suffering from a severe depression and that she intuitively understands how to help him. This scene isn't necessary for the plot - we never see Leviatch again - but it connects Marion to Lady Bird in ways that neither character will ever speak of. Both women are full of a great love, but sometimes their expectations of this world don't match their reality. Gerwig later treats this idea of disappointment with some playfulness, in a scene where Marion and Lady Bird attend open houses together. Lady Bird is learning to see all kinds of people for who they are over her senior year, from her parents to loyal Julie to self-absorbed Kyle. But Gerwig reserves the films most beautiful sequence for Lady Bird and Marion. As college freshman Lady Bird speaks to her family's voice mail, Gerwig cuts between moving parallel shots of Marion and Lady Bird that serve as a closing  statement: We are always opening the gifts others have given us. Lady Bird is gorgeous.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Justice League

The Wikipedia entry detailing the production history of Justice League reads like a Russian novel, one full of competing visions of the future and frequently dashed hopes. Remember when George Miller, late of Mad Max: Fury Road was supposed to direct? Or when someone named D.J. Cotrona was to play Superman? The Justice League we have now received is of course supposed to be the sort of quarter pole of the "D.C. Extended Universe", the film meant to consolidate earlier success and point to characters and films yet to come. The only problem with that narrative is the truth: Critics and a large chunk of the audience have rejected the D.C. films (other than Wonder Woman) as bloated and self-serious, and this final version of Justice League is the product of well-reported reshoots and rewrites by Joss Whedon after credited director Zack Snyder stepped away due to a family tragedy. So, what do we have?

Justice League is a film that is eager to please. It wants you to know - Chris Terrio and Whedon share writing credit - that Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) and Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) are good people and very engaged with their superheroic responsibilities. Also, being some sort of oceanic royalty is awesome, man. Jason Momoa as Aquaman speaks and behaves as if he's an enforcer in a 1990's action movie who really digs surfing on the weekends. There is also a character named Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), who due to a lab accident has become Cyborg and functions in the film as a sort of half-human USB drive. Every time the good guys need information or some technological task performed, Victor (who is acquiring power as the film continues) has the interface necessary to move the plot forward. Finally, Ezra Miller plays Barry Allen, a.k.a The Flash. Miller is the comic relief of Justice League, playing Barry as a geek who's thrilled to discover what his powers can be used for. It's an appealing performance, and the only one other than Gadot's that I would want to watch carry a film on its own. Barry's speed also helps set the visual template for the film, and probably for future D.C. projects as well. When The Flash accelerates everything else slows down, and it looks as if he's running through a color-saturated poster or an image from a video game. There is some visual comedy with the character's speed, but not too much. Coming in at just under two hours, Justice League isn't messing around. While we're on the subject of video games, the copious use of visual effects signals that D.C. films are taking a turn away from the Urban Gloom Hauteur of Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad. Quite a bit of Justice League looks as though it would be best enjoyed on an Xbox, especially the scenes where our heroes do battle with Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds). These scenes take place only in what I'll call something other than our physical reality, but that doesn't matter because even after spending over two hundred million dollars on this film the best that the studio could do was have iconic characters do battle against a World of Warcraft extra. Steppenwolf's plan is explained at length and involves appearances by Connie Nielsen's Queen Hippolyta and Mera (Amber Heard), who is either Aquaman's love interest or his assistant. (I look forward to Mera being an underwritten character in a future Aquaman film). If Steppenwolf can unite three all-powerful boxes then the world will essentially turn into something that looks like Mordor before gentrification, though it isn't clear if humanity would survive or if hard currency would surrender to Bitcoin.

If Justice League points to a new house visual style for D.C., well then at least they commit to it. What's less acceptable is how rushed and scattershot the film feels, more like a notebook of ideas than a finished script. The Steppenwolf plot feels so inconsequential because it's balanced with the possible return of Superman (Henry Cavill) from the fate he suffered at the end of Batman v Superman. Bruce and the others need Superman's help to defeat Steppenwolf and also to make more films. I actually don't hate Justice League, it's lighter than other D.C. films and not too long, but there's a feeling of putting pieces in place that pervades the whole enterprise. Franchise fatigue isn't a new complaint, but the D.C. films in particular give off an air of every choice being made so others can be made down the line. Do you think we won't see those boxes again? There is even a hint that Bruce Wayne may be looking to pass off the Bat gear to someone younger. If D.C. is smart they will take a lesson from Wonder Woman and open up their "Universe" to new storytellers and new characters that aren't burdened by so much expectation. I'm looking forward to that Wonder Twins film.