Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Executors of 2013, Pt. II: Feat. The Hunger Games 2, Iron Man 3, and Monsters U.

On to Part II of the Executors. If you missed Part I, you can find it here.

Fruitvale Station. It's easy to brand Fruitvale Station as a hyperbolic piece of biased blubber. Ryan Coogler's debut feature tells the tragic tale of Oscar Grant, a young black man who was murdered by Bay Area police in the early-morning hours of New Year's Day 2009. (The officer claimed the shooting was accidental. Three guesses what Coogler thinks of that claim.) It's sad stuff, and Coogler has no qualms with divesting you of your tears, even as he also quietly asks for your outrage. The problem is that, while Fruitvale Station traffics in complicated issues of race, class, and profiling, it fails to adequately grapple with the complexity of those issues. As a result, viewers who approach the movie as a piece of social commentary will find it muddled and hopelessly strained.

But that hardly matters, because at its core, Fruitvale Station doesn't want to be an important movie about contemporary racial politics. It's really more of a character study, and on that score, it's engrossing, enriching, and occasionally overpowering. That's partly due to Coogler's day-in-the-life screenplay (with the exception of a single flashback, the entire proceedings take place on that fateful New Year's Eve), an approach that provides a realistic glimpse into Oscar's life and yields an arresting immediacy. But it's mostly due to Oscar himself, or more specifically to Michael B. Jordan, the actor playing him. Coogler wants to lionize Oscar and make his goodness unimpeachable, so that when this heroic figure is struck down by a corrupt society unworthy of such a saint, it's all the easier to induce those tears and that outrage. But Jordan is better than that. He plays Oscar as man rather than martyr, a decent and generous soul (he's quick to smile), but also one beset by anger and pride. An early scene in which Oscar haggles with his former boss illustrates the dichotomy; at first, Oscar is gregarious and charming, but after he's rebuffed, his body language tenses, his voice drops, and he becomes truly threatening. Saints aren't supposed to be scary.

In all, Jordan gives Fruitvale Station a richer performance than it likely deserves, but the slippery dimensionality of his work redeems the picture, turning it from preaching polemic to harrowing drama. As a film about young black men, Fruitvale Station is trivial. As a film about a young black man, however, it—along with its star—is hypnotic.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. The second installment in the globe-dominating Hunger Games franchise is, in a vacuum, a good movie. Director Francis Lawrence (replacing Gary Ross) brings a distinctive aesthetic sensibility to the proceedings, with a dark visual palette and a steady hand with the camera. The acting is uniformly excellent, and the production design is immaculate. The pace is liquid-fast. The special effects are convincing, but everything serves the narrative rather than upstaging it. This is what can happen when a major studio gifts a massive budget to filmmakers who actually care about crafting a compelling story. You get quality work.

But if Catching Fire is a sturdy example of broadly appealing genre fare, its insistence on being good prevents it from being truly great. The problem lies not with the film itself but with its relationship to Suzanne Collins' voraciously read novel. For starters, Lawrence is hamstrung by the limited plotting of the book, which essentially reads as, "The Hunger Games, Round 2, but with subtext!" Lawrence's filmmaking chops function to make Catching Fire enjoyable on its own terms, but it nevertheless feels like a retread, albeit one that replicates the kid-eat-kid ethos of the original and infuses it with tentative alliances and shadowy peril. But the larger issue is one of screenwriting: In adapting Collins' book, Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt have dutifully transplanted the novel's plot points, hitting all of the relevant story beats while deviating from the provided source material as little as possible. It's an approach that's sure to please the book's zealous fans, as who doesn't love watching the events of their beloved literature play out on screen?

This viewer, for one. To be sure, I admired the execution of Catching Fire, and the dexterous way Lawrence infuses his brute-force adaptation with energy and flair. But the movie's fanatical adherence to Collins' book deprives it of its own spark of creativity. It is scrupulously faithful to the novel to the point of being enslaved by it. As a result, there is no élan, no sense of mischief, no thrill of unpredictability. (Excepted: the scenes between Donald Sutherland and Philip Seymour Hoffman, which don't take place in Collins' first-person universe and which provide the movie with a welcome charge of uncertainty and menace.) In an ironic twist for a story about revolutionaries, Catching Fire's fidelity to its source robs it of its independence.

But perhaps I'm holding it to too high a standard. (Namely: the standard set by the latter six adaptations of the Harry Potter franchise. We must remember that the first two Potter pictures suffered from this same flaw of maniacal devotion, partly because Chris Columbus is a hack, but mostly because the producers were terrified of taking legitimate risks and thus alienating their rabid built-in fan base. Thankfully, Alfonso Cuarón took over for the third installment, and the boy wizard never looked back.) The Hunger Games: Catching Fire remains, as I said, a good movie, and in harping on its limitations, I would be remiss in not acknowledging its strengths, most notably that stellar cast. It is deeply satisfying to watch star performers commit wholeheartedly to their work, and the actors' craft occasionally elevates the machinic aspects of Catching Fire to high art. All of the supporting players are very good, though two deserving of special mention are Elizabeth Banks, bringing astonishing pathos to the ludicrous role of Effie Trinket, and Jena Malone, feisty and funny as rival tribute Johanna Mason. But the franchise's anchor remains Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen. On the page, Katniss is a bit of a bore, plagued by self-pity and prone to fits of histrionic emotion. But Lawrence adds innumerable layers to her personality, concocting a profoundly sympathetic protagonist whose steely nerve mingles with her heartfelt yearning for a better life. Her shape-shifting performance is the most dynamic element of this engaging, mildly frustrating film, one that, like its heroine, lasers its focus, takes steady aim, and—when all is said and done—hits its mark.

In a World... In the hilarious trailer for the Jerry Seinfeld vehicle Comedian, legendary voiceover artist Hal Douglas enters a sound booth and solemnly intones, "In a world where laughter was king..." A producer abruptly cuts him off, instructing him, "No 'In a world.'" Douglas' bemused response: "What do you mean, no 'In a world'?" He then swiftly pivots to variations of the same phrase—"In a land," "In a time," "In a land before time"—as the producer grows more and more irritated. It's a funny joke, one that adroitly sends up our preconceived notions of how even niche entertainments are numbingly mass-marketed.

Lake Bell's In a World... extends that joke to feature-length, and the returns are far funnier than could have possibly been expected. Bell, who also wrote the screenplay, stars as Carol, a down-on-her-luck voice coach whose duties include instructing pampered American actresses on how to credibly fake foreign accents. (One of her clients is Eva Longoria, playing herself in wonderfully self-deprecating fashion.) But Carol dreams of ascending to the apex of her profession: narrating movie trailers. That aspiration draws the ire of her father, Sam, a voiceover pioneer who firmly believes that women's lightly-pitched lilts have no place within the noble, sonorous realm of the trailer. (Sam is played by the mellifluous Fred Melamed, and Coen Brothers devotees will undoubtedly flash back to his work in A Serious Man, where he provided such lustrous line readings as, "The rooms are eminently habitable.")

And so, In a World... proceeds as a faintly delightful underdog-sports movie. It is also, at one time or another, a misfit farce, a marital drama, a women's empowerment picture, and, most unfortunately, a romantic comedy. Bell is a screenwriting omnivore, and she exhibits little interest in being constrained to a particular genre or convention, even if most of her digressions—particularly her flirtations with a singularly unmemorable love interest—are fairly conventional. But In a World... is too expressive and inviting to be boring, and it's laden with striking offbeat touches, from Ken Marino's manic performance as a rival voiceover artist to the ping-pong dialogue between Carol's acerbic cohorts. It also, despite its unassuming nature, makes some cutting points about gender politics, both in Hollywood's masculine-dominant culture and society at large. But most importantly, the movie features a thrilling specificity, providing us with what feels like a forbidden glimpse into an entire secret industry. Who knew the domain of voiceover narration could be such a cutthroat, vibrantly competitive trade? In a world where most comedies feel like stale clones, In a World... performs a rare feat and shows us something new.

The Invisible Woman. From Homer to Hemingway, history is littered with artists who have provided the world with great drama. Cinematic history is similarly cluttered, not only with dramatic adaptations of such artists' work, but with movies that attempt to reveal the secret drama, the one that unfolded in the artist's life behind the fictional drama so generously provided to the public. The problem with such biopics is that there's rarely a nexus between an artist's life and his work, and filmmakers' clumsy attempts to create one often feel forced and artificial. (Recent offenders include Hitchcock and Saving Mr. Banks.) Sometimes, a legend's personal life just isn't all that interesting.

Thankfully, Ralph Fiennes' The Invisible Woman, in which the director also stars as Charles Dickens, avoids this trap in two ways. First, it takes place late in Dickens' life, at which point his fame and literary prowess have already been established. This isn't a movie about how a young boy's poverty led him to write an epic novel about a plucky orphan; it's a movie about an established genius who rages against the moralistic hypocrisy of his day.

But second, and more importantly, The Invisible Woman isn't really about Dickens at all. It's more about Ellen Ternan (Felicity Jones), aka Nelly, the much younger woman with whom Dickens carried on a torrid affair. Like Martin Scorsese's Age of Innocence, this is a film in which passion clashes with propriety, and in which two people must reconcile the ardor of their private love with its very public consequences. (Joanna Scanlan, as Dickens' discarded wife, does fine work in limited screen time illustrating the severity of those consequences.) It's a story that's moving, uplifting, and, ultimately, tragic.

Which is not to say that The Invisible Woman will overpower you. Fiennes' storytelling approach is patient, thoughtful, and occasionally downright dull. It makes good sense for a film about hidden desires and forbidden feelings to proceed at a deliberate pace, but the movie's tone is so wispy and pained that it sometimes feels murmured. All the same, Fiennes chronicles the progress of Dickens' and Nelly's romance—the tentative courtship, the blossoming affection, the ensuing scandal—with methodical intelligence, as well as estimable craft. Michael O'Connor earned an Oscar nomination for his period costumes, but Ilan Eshkeri's sweeping piano-based score is equally impressive, while Rob Hardy's cinematography captures both the beauty and the chill of Victorian England. The star of the show, however, is Jones. Tasked with playing the same character in two different timelines—Fiennes bounces back and forth between Nelly's affair with Dickens and the life she led after his death—she communicates both rapture and grief through sharp body language and haunted, thousand-yard stares. Charles Dickens may have been a heroic artist, but thanks to Jones' soulful, quietly devastating performance, Nelly is every bit The Invisible Woman's hero.

Iron Man 3. Superstardom doesn't suit Iron Man. Sure, Marvel was undoubtedly delighted when the first Tony Stark feature exploded, racking up $318 million and sowing the seeds for that eventual box-office behemoth, The Avengers. But with success came expectations, or more precisely the requirement that the franchise proceed according to the rigorous studio blueprint, one in which big-name actors shepherd their superhero alter-egos through bigger-budget action sequences. The problem was that Iron Man succeeded precisely because it defied expectations. The first movie's legacy wasn't its action or its explosions. It was the pleasure of watching a motor-mouthed Robert Downey, Jr. constantly parry dialogue with his co-stars, most notably a worthy romantic foil in Gwyneth Paltrow. The words were the headliner; the explosions were just background noise.

That's why Marvel's decision to tap Shane Black to take over directing duties from Jon Favreau for the third installment was brilliant, even if only widened the ideological schism between the studio's vision for Iron Man and that of its maker. Not that Black is an established auteur—his only previous directorial credit is Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a little-seen comedic classic that arguably features the best performance of Downey, Jr.'s career. But he also scripted the Lethal Weapon movies, and what really interests him as a filmmaker is not action but characters: joking, fighting, bonding, verbally sparring, but above all interacting with one another. Black cares about people, not superheroes.

Of course, Iron Man 3 remains a Marvel property, and as such, it must pay tribute to the studio gods of carnage and spectacle. And so, given Marvel's priorities, the movie features a fair amount of action; given Black's priorities, almost all of this action is boring. His evident apathy toward blowing things up is most apparent during the film's egregiously long climax, during which many different mechanized Iron Men painted in various colors zoom across the screen, firing missiles toward faceless baddies and occasionally turning into flaming piles of debris themselves. It's all completely meaningless and utterly devoid of artistic innovation. (The lone exception is the inspired "barrel of monkeys" sequence earlier in the film, in which Iron Man rescues a dozen terrified frequent-flyers as they freefall toward Earth, though even that scene ends in an unforgivable cheat that cripples the movie's already-low sense of stakes.) It's as if Black, upon accepting the assignment, agreed to a contract clause mandating a particular number of explosions. If there's a reason that Iron Man 3's action scenes feel even more perfunctory than usual, it's likely that its director is utterly disinterested in them.

And that's fine. Because as empty as Iron Man 3's action sequences may feel, they comprise a blessed minority of the film's runtime. The rest of the movie is smart, colorful, and, most of all, funny, and it places a premium on characters. That is, Iron Man 3 is more about Tony Stark than it is about Iron Man. That shift in focus is made literal during a lengthy interlude where the prized suit breaks down, rendering Iron Man a nullity and leaving Stark with only his considerable wits and inimitable charm to squirm his way out of trouble. It's a classic illustration of less-is-more storytelling, and it's a microcosm of Black's larger devotion to dialogue as the best way to advance a film's plot. He loves words, and he's also fortunate enough to have the funding to hire some expert actors to deliver them. Downey, Jr. continues to showcase his unparalleled ability to combine smarmy entitlement with genuine likability, all while spouting Black's verbiage at a million miles a minute. The supporting cast is equally strong; in addition to the sturdy Paltrow, Guy Pearce and Don Cheadle are in fine form (as is the always-delightful Rebecca Hall, albeit in a wasted part), while a marvelous Ben Kingsley excels as a supervillain who is more (or less?) than he appears. Indeed, Kingsley's sly, underhanded performance echoes Black's guerrilla approach to franchise filmmaking. The lights-and-magic razzle-dazzle is just for show. It's the other stuff—the wordplay, the camaraderie, the insults, the fun stuff—that really matters.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. IMDb's plot summary for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom reads as follows: "A chronicle of Nelson Mandela's life journey from his childhood in a rural village through to his inauguration as the first democratically elected president of South Africa." This is a problem. It is virtually impossible to condense even a boring person's entire life into two-plus hours, much less one whose life was as brimming with history and freighted with consequences as Mandela's. That's why the best biopics, like Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, focus on a narrow slice of their hero's legacy and then use that intimate perspective to communicate larger truths. Attempting instead to cover a gargantuan swath of a person's past in a single feature is invariably a losing proposition.

But it isn't a lost cause, and operating within this inherent limitation, Justin Chadwick's biopic does as well as one could reasonably expect, paying homage to Mandela's enormity as a global icon while also detailing his exploits as a man. It helps that the "childhood" portion of the movie is a mere prologue; after a matter of minutes, Idris Elba thankfully shows up, embodying the man called "Madiba" with a curious combination of square-jawed decency and visible anger. These days, we typically think of Mandela as a warm and tolerant father-figure, but his initial defining characteristic, as conveyed by Elba, is rage. The film's brisk and energetic opening act paints Mandela as a hotheaded firebrand who isn't above resorting to violent means in order to achieve noble ends. In this, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom separates itself from 42, 2013's other high-profile depiction of historical racism. Unlike Jackie Robinson in that well-intentioned, forgettable movie, Mandela is not a simple cipher for the film's thematic message—he is its center. There's true passion behind his rhetoric, and Elba's convincing combustibility gives the movie a sharp kick.

For a time, anyway. Things slow down once Mandela is imprisoned, and they get even slower once he gradually becomes a major player in South African politics. Chadwick tries his best, but he eventually succumbs to the temptation of venerating Mandela's heroism at the expense of actually revealing his personality. It's an understandable gaffe, and it illustrates the difficulty in using cinema as a tool to express adoration. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom recognizes that oftentimes, real-life atrocities can only be extinguished by a leader of singular greatness, but while this film is sober and respectful toward its subject, it is by no means great. But it also is not bad, and it's a movie, not real life. Sometimes, at the movies, not bad is good enough.

Monsters University. The first hour-plus of Monsters University is comfortably, dispiritingly adequate. A prequel to the much-loved Monsters Inc., the movie returns Billy Crystal and John Goodman to the roles of Mike and Sully, but the spark of flavorful ingenuity that so enlivened the original is absent. Instead, we get a familiar "slobs vs. snobs" story, in which our cuddly heroes join forces with a fraternity of misfits and wage war against the big monsters on campus (including Steve Buscemi, reprising his villainous role as Randall). The only moderately interesting conceit is that Mike and Sully begin as antagonists, but there's no real tension in their initial animosity; we know they'll soon become fast friends, and once they do, the film essentially unfolds as Revenge of the Nerds: Monster Edition. The animation is lively, the jokes are stale, and the conflict seems so engineered that it's difficult to reconcile this picture as a product of Pixar. Sure, it's fine, particularly with its eye-popping colors and witty set design. But Pixar doesn't do fine—it does transcendent. Yet after an hour, I was despairing that the preeminent studio in animation had finally run out of ideas, and that it had basically reverted to DreamWorks or Fox, abandoning artistic ambition and settling for churning out pleasant, facile fare that will entertain eager kids and pacify weary adults.

The joke's on me. Because the third act of Monsters University is a stunner, and a richly rewarding one at that. It pivots on a legitimately surprising plot twist, but there's more to it than just a clever reveal. It also builds on the characters, expanding the friendship between Mike and Sully and pushing it in a new, engaging, and even mildly scary direction. Many mainstream movies develop momentum while articulating their initial premise, then collapse when they fail to follow that premise through to a satisfying conclusion. Monsters University operates in reverse, lulling us to sleep with the mundanity of its opening hour, then suddenly confronting us with major truths about friendship, honesty, and the fallacy of the "Everyone's a winner!" mantra. Of course, this doesn't excuse the blandness of its first two-thirds—quantitatively speaking, the majority of the film remains ordinary rather than extraordinary—but it does remind us how special a thoughtfully-conceived Pixar movie can be.

Toward the end of Monsters University, the dean of the school—a winged gargoyle-like creature voiced with cut-glass imperiousness by Helen Mirren—tells Mike and Sully, "You surprised me." That makes two of us.

More to come.

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

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