Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Executors of 2013 (Part I): Feat. Horror's "Conjuring", McConaughey's "Buyers Club", and Disney's "Frozen"

Did you know that Darth Vader's Star Destroyer was called "The Executor"? It's a cute pun—not only did Vader take care of business, but he also killed a lot of people. But it's the "taking care of business" side that lends this next batch of 2013 movies its label. In branding these films "Executors", I'm implying that they served their purpose. Whereas the Intriguers showed promise but fell somewhat short of fulfilling their ambitions, the Executors understood their job and completed it with maximal efficiency and minimal fuss. They may not be the most high-reaching pictures of the year, but there's something to be said for a movie that follows through on its goals, however modest. The Intriguers may have teased us with potential, but these films turned potential into actual entertainment. They did their job.

On to the list.

Behind the Candelabra. If you've never heard of Behind the Candelabra, it's because it wasn't a 2013 theatrical release—Steven Soderbergh couldn't convince a major studio to distribute his biopic of Liberace, so he sold it to HBO instead. As a result, it wasn't Oscar-eligible, but that hardly prevented it from receiving praise; it competed at Cannes, won the Golden Globe for best TV movie, and racked up 11 Emmys. The praise is largely earned, as the movie's surface pleasures are easy and many. Most obviously, it graces us with a pair of winning, lived-in performances from Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, the former as the closeted piano-playing legend, the latter as his younger, social-climbing lover, Scott Thorson. Liberace's heyday was before my time, so I can't vouch for the exactitude of Douglas's portrayal (though I can say that, underneath the mounds of prosthetics and makeup, he still sounds an awful lot like Michael Douglas), but he creates a particularly compelling narcissist, while Damon is equal parts enthralled admirer and wounded consort. And Soderbergh's evocation of the early '80s is impressive, capturing an era where sexual abandon began to mingle acidly with society's mounting contempt for homosexuality. It's an engaging story, and Soderbergh tells it well.

At the same time, Soderbergh's inveterate skill masks Behind the Candelabra's hidden mundanity. The title is something of a red herring, as there just isn't much beneath the surface here. The proceedings unfold predictably, and the lovers' quarrels—Liberace desires a more sexually adventurous mate, while Thorson grows frustrated with his partner's growing indifference—feel transplanted from a standard relationship drama. There is an amusing subplot in which Liberace employs an unscrupulous plastic surgeon (a wonderful, unrecognizable Rob Lowe) to turn Thorson into his double, illustrating the depths of his ego. But for the most part, Behind the Candelabra dutifully tracks the contours of the men's romance as it slides from courtship to intimacy to antagonism. It's solid stuff, and both Douglas and Damon give it their all, but it's strangely lacking in resonance. Like Liberace, Soderbergh is a born entertainer, and he plays this particular piece without sounding a false note. But given Soderbergh's pedigree, I can't help but be disappointed that Behind the Candelabra feels like the work of a professional, not a maestro.

The Conjuring. Making scary movies is easy. Just shoot your characters in close-up, dim the lights, make something jump at them from just outside the frame, and "BOO!"—four-fifths of your rowdy opening-night audience just shrieked in terrified delight. Making scary movies where we care about the people being scared, however, is harder. Modern horror often suffers from the same flaw as modern action, with filmmakers prioritizing spectacle at the expense of actual substance, only with jolt-scares instead of big-bangs. James Wan's The Conjuring doesn't entirely evade that temptation—its finale is a messy grab-bag of shrill screaming and grisly Exorcist-style hokum—but it at least makes an effort to add up to more than the sum of its scares. Part of that is thanks to a shift in focus: Haunted-house movies are typically most effective when we empathize with the haunted, but The Conjuring is equally effective examining the investigators, those paranormal experts whose arrival is typically reserved for the third act, when things really start going wrong. Here, they're involved from the beginning, an intriguing structural maneuver that lends The Conjuring a welcome, off-kilter feel. It also helps that they're played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga; the latter, in particular, excels in silently evoking the existential trauma that quietly torments her.

But Wan's greatest quality as a director—and the attribute that distinguishes his horror movies (he also made the chilling Insidious) from the usual schlocky gore-fests—is his patience. Like Ti West's superlative House of the Devil, The Conjuring is in no hurry to jolt you out of your seat. It prefers to let you sink in, enveloping you with its dank atmosphere and dark corners, while a clammy doom rises ever-so-gradually, ready to engulf you. Not that much happens during the movie's first hour, and that absence of palpable fright creates a far more queasy sensation of suspense. By the time Wan unveils his virtuoso set piece—a seemingly innocent child's game called "hide-and-clap" (a game that you will absolutely never play after seeing this movie)—The Conjuring has its hooks in you, and even if you aren't entirely invested in the characters, you're nevertheless anxious about what might happen to them. The movie doesn't revolutionize the modern horror genre, but it's basically the apex of the form: a stylish, unsettling fear trip that whispers as often as it shouts. Any horror movie can be scary, but this one will make you strain, listening intently, as things go bump in the night.

Dallas Buyers Club. One of the paradoxes of movies is that they allow us to take pleasure in other people's pain. Among the many virtues of Matthew McConaughey's Oscar-winning performance in Dallas Buyers Club is his ability to convey anguish, be it physical—yes, those are the ribs of the former sexiest man alive, practically splintering his skin—or spiritual—as when his proud protagonist gradually realizes that his disease is going to kill him unless he fights it. But there's something undeniably satisfying about watching McConaughey on screen as Ron Woodroof, a bigoted Texan afflicted with AIDS, squirming in a doctor's office, pleading helplessly for the medicine that could be his salvation. That satisfaction is not sadism; rather, it's the warm recognition that you're watching a star perfect his craft, communicating Woodroof's dire circumstances via every trick of the trade. His pain is, if you'll pardon the rhyme, our gain.

There's more than desperation to McConaughey's performance in Dallas Buyers Club—there's also the streak of selfishness mingling with his broader heroism, the evident pride in challenging the establishment, the sly grace notes of humor and levity—but there isn't much more to Dallas Buyers Club than McConaughey's performance. Director Jean-Marc Vallée has set out to create a compelling tale of age-old redemption, and he's done so. But to the extent Dallas Buyers Club strives for grander ambitions, it doesn't fulfill them. There's the sense that Vallée sought to make a crippling exposé of American bureaucracy, skewering both the intransigence of the Food and Drug Administration (personified by the always-welcome Michael O'Neill) and the greed of the pharmaceutical companies and their drug-peddling doctors (personified by the equally-welcome Denis O'Hare). But to the extent these goals exist, they feel half-formed, which is, sadly, about twice as well-formed as McConaughey's courtship of a sympathetic physician played by Jennifer Garner. Jared Leto, who also won an Oscar, provides some refreshing color, but outside of a heartbreaking scene when he steps out of drag and implores his father for help, he's more effective than extraordinary. And that impression—of sturdiness but not excellence, immersion but not enchantment—generally embodies Dallas Buyers Club as a whole. It's a solid movie in which solid characters do solid things.

And that's fine. The world needs serviceable, well-told stories brought to life by capable directors and committed actors. Dallas Buyers Club is unlikely to change the way you view the world, even in chronicling as important a subject as the emergence of AIDS in America. But its story of redemptive triumph can stand on its own terms. Perhaps proud Ron Woodroof wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

The East. Drama thrives on conflict, and few cinematic tropes are as automatically compelling as that of the undercover operative facing a crisis of conscience. In The East, rising star Brit Marling plays Sarah, an ambitious intelligence officer tasked with infiltrating the titular anarchist group, a quasi-cult wreaking havoc on pharmaceutical companies (again!) and other ruthless corporations. But as fate—and the gods of screenwriting—would have it, she falls in love with the East's leader, a towering dreamboat of a man played by Alexander Skarsgård (offering a dash of charisma, as compared to his usual bucketful). She also becomes seduced by the anarchists' reactionary politics, to the point where she begins to question the validity of her assignment, even as she scrambles to keep her identity secret from her false comrades.

If it sounds vaguely familiar, it is. Despite its loaded subject matter, The East is basically a straightforward cop drama, with its hero forced to choose between personal desires and professional aspirations. It's hardly new, but director Zal Batmanglij delivers enough colorful detail and backwoods verisimilitude to keep viewers intrigued and off-balance. For one, he's invested not just in Sarah but also in the dynamics of the East itself, a jittery collection of radicals that includes Ellen Page as a hotheaded firebrand. He also knows his way around a set piece, such as Sarah's first meal with the group, when its existing members sit down for dinner in straitjackets, then watch impassively as Sarah attempts to feed herself with a wooden spoon; it could be cheesy, but Batmanglij's execution is bold and expressive. Most intriguingly, Sarah serves her clients, not her country. That is, the screenplay (co-written by Batmanglij and Marling) casts her as an employee of a private firm rather than the government, thus stripping out the patriotic solemnity that attends most undercover procedurals and replacing it with an intriguing layer of sociopolitical ambiguity. (It helps that her boss is played with icy precision by the peerless Patricia Clarkson.)

The East is at its best when it's at its narrowest, whether it's tightening the net around Sarah and her duplicity or exploring the inner workings of a cultish lifestyle. Unfortunately, Batmanglij broadens his scope in the movie's final third, shoehorning a political statement into his narrative. It's difficult to fault a filmmaker for possessing a point of view, but his blunt assignment of right and wrong lands with such a thud that it makes The East feel less like a thriller than a sermon. Still, even those heavy-handed final scenes hum with energy, and afford audiences the pleasure of watching Marling work. At one point, Sarah must sneak precious intel past a checkpoint. Contrary to Batmanglij's insistence, the contents of that intel are meaningless, but your breath will still catch in your throat as you watch this skilled actress turn to a security guard, smile tentatively at the camera, and keep up the charade.

Frances Ha. Noah Baumbach doesn't want you to like his characters. In his previous films, most notably The Squid and the Whale and Greenberg, he took perverse pleasure in crafting unpleasant protagonists, perhaps to test his audience's ingrained tendency to sympathize with a movie's leads. Though well-reviewed, neither of those pictures worked for me, as I found Baumbach's hostility less edgy than merely off-putting; caring for contemptible characters becomes onerous when you're the object of a director's contempt yourself. Greenberg did, however, feature a winning supporting turn from Greta Gerwig, an emerging 26-year-old ingénue who counteracted Ben Stiller's loathsome title character with sweet, wholesome decency. Now, with Frances Ha, Baumbach has flipped the script, casting the intrinsically charming Gerwig as one of his typically charmless antiheroes.

And voilá! It works. Not that Baumbach has gone soft, even if he's sanded down some of his rougher edges. Frances, for most of the movie's runtime, is a faintly terrible person. She's selfish, shallow, and entitled, and when she isn't oblivious to her callous treatment of others, it's because she's just plain hateful. But she is also a wondrous creation, a wounded starling whose crippling loneliness stems not from true meanness but from her sad inability to find her place in the world. Under the stewardship of a lesser actress, Frances could have been insufferable, but Gerwig's nimble, self-assured, vanity-free performance renders her an object of compassion rather than scorn. Frances' failings are entirely her own fault, but Gerwig nevertheless taps into her underlying humanity, making her mistakes feel both deeply personal and emphatically universal.

From a storytelling perspective, Frances Ha appears simple on the surface, but it's something of a smuggler. It begins as a caustic character study of twentysomething ennui, mocking its clumsy hero for her lack of ambition and disastrous social graces. Baumbach fancies himself a detached observer of human foibles, and he gleefully heaps one embarrassment on Frances after another; at one point, she hijacks a bland dinner-party conversation and delivers a monologue of incomparable, sublime awkwardness. But after Frances' catastrophic, underfunded sojourn to Paris, the movie's tone shifts slightly, and shafts of sunlight start to brighten the stoic black-and-white cinematography. Baumbach could hardly be called a humanist, but Frances Ha's resolution feels defiantly humane, and the small victory Frances seizes in the film's final act is surprisingly moving. In this, Gerwig—who co-wrote the movie's script with her director—provides something of a miracle: She's turned as resolute a curmudgeon as Baumbach into an optimist.

Frozen. Frozen is more phenomenon than film at this point. It's already bagged $1.27 billion at the worldwide box office (fifth all-time), Elsa and Anna dolls are flying off shelves in droves, and this is the first Google hit for "Olaf". Hell, my nieces recently attended a Frozen-themed birthday party (no word if anyone made an off-the-cuff Joan of Arc reference). I'm happy that it's done well, because I'm always happy when well-executed original screenplays make money. But the ice-princess marketing craze that followed Frozen's release is almost a shame, because it's dwarfing any discussion of Frozen itself. And there happens to be a pretty good movie lurking behind all of the merchandising.

Not a great one, mind you. Frozen strives earnestly to evoke the early-'90s heyday of Disney animation, but it isn't as funny as Aladdin, nor as moving as Beauty and the Beast, nor as triumphant as The Lion King. Its classical story of heroism and redemption is fairly straightforward, its supporting characters are unmemorable, and its dialogue lacks the zip of other recent Disney efforts like Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph. None of it is bad, but with the exception of its showstopping music, it's merely good, and when you're aiming for the crest of the Disney Renaissance, "good" isn't good enough.

But oh, that music. Honestly, when was the last time you watched an original musical and came away legitimately delighted by the vast majority of its songs? I've commented at length about the majesty of "Let It Go"—a transcendent ballad whose pop-culture ubiquity has unfortunately overshadowed its absolute greatness—but what about the other terrific numbers? What about the plaintive sibling plea of "Do You Want to Build a Snowman"?, or the ringing optimism of the duet "For the First Time in Forever", or the infectious choral playfulness of "Fixer Upper"? The musical interludes from Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez are more than just songs—they're storytelling. That they compel you to burst into applause as soon as they're over is just a bonus.

And it's not as though the film itself functions as mere visual accompaniment to a crackling soundtrack. Frozen's wistful story of sisterly affection may not overpower you, but it's still a tale worth telling, and it's refreshing to watch an animated movie that doesn't rely too heavily on bawdy gags or anthropomorphic sidekicks to keep children entertained. More importantly, Frozen takes evident joy in shattering the gender stereotypes that have permeated throughout Disney's reign as lord of animation, whether it's poking fun at traditional fairytale romances ("Wait, you got engaged to someone you just met that day?!") or developing a legitimately surprising spin on the enduring trope of "true love's kiss". Global domination and Disney logo aside, Frozen isn't a glittering cinematic palace—it's a bit of a fixer-upper—but it's nevertheless a vividly realized creation, one that will enchant your ears, dazzle your eyes, and thaw your heart.

More to come.

Previously in the Manifesto's Review of 2013
The Intriguers (Part III)
The Intriguers (Part II)
The Intriguers (Part I)
The Failures (Part II)
The Failures (Part I)
The Unmemorables: The Least Memorable Movies of 2013 (Part II)
The Unmemorables: The Least Memorable Movies of 2013 (Part I)
The Worst Movies of 2013

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