Sunday, June 19, 2016

Lobsters and Tigers

Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz in The Lobster

Hello movie world. It's me again. I know, I know. It's been a while. It's not you, it's me. On the off chance that anyone is still listening, I thought I'd check in to let you all know that I'm still going to movies even if I haven't been writing about them.

For example, I've spent the last couple of days wondering why I didn't like The Lobster (2015, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos), a film that has received rapturous notices form other quarters. I mean, in principle, it's a film I should like: oddball Charlie Kaufman-ish premise, a cast of stellar actors, and Rachel Weisz, who I adore. And yet, when I made my way through to the end, I found myself resenting it for the time I took to get there. I think its a film that's so caught up in creating its argument out of whole cloth that it loses track of whether it's telling you something about the world that's actually true. It's premised on a world in which you are compelled to be partnered and are hunted if you are single or else turned into an animal (hence the lobster of the title), and within the society of the single is compulsion to stay that way.  It matches people based on the most superficial of criteria: people who are prone to bloody noses are a match, people who are heartlessly cruel are a match, people who are myopic are a match. This is a film that views love relationships inside a societal framework that's totalitarian, which is a totally cynical view of love and partnering. And once it maneuvers itself to the notion that love is or ought to be blind rather than predicated on some superficial characteristic, its ending doesn't even have the courage of its own metaphor. I found it unpleasant.

Trevor St. John and Oona Laurence in The Grief of Others

I've also been wondering why I didn't like The Grief of Others (2015, directed by Patrick Wang), which has some of the same aesthetic virtues as the director's last film, In the Family, yet somehow rings false at every turn.  Part of this is the way it attempts to fracture its own chronology with overlapping sound mixes and an ill-advised flashback mid-film. Where In the Family was disciplined, austere, and moral, this film is too arty for its own good. When the filmmakers superimpose its last scene over a static shot of a kitchen, there doesn't seem much point and it just looks weird the way they've composed it. I might be inclined to forgive much of this if the storyline about a marriage in crisis over the death of a child wasn't such a cliche in indyland. I wanted to like this film, but I just didn't.

Michael Fassbender in X-Men: Apocalypse

At the other end of the cinema spectrum is X-Men: Apocalypse (2016, directed by Bryan Singer again), which is a god-awful mess. In terms of structure and plot and even in the conception of its action set pieces, this is very much the least of the X-Men movies, a film that makes X-Men: The Last Stand look like a finely crafted clockwork. Most movie people will tell you all that, and they're right. It's ill-conceived almost from the point of conception (when the choice of villains was made). And yet...and yet, I'm also a comics person. I draw them. I have a huge collection of them, including the X-Men comics that form this film's source text. I would be lying if I said I didn't respond to the way this film attempts to match the comics from the 1980s. As individual vignettes, scenes like Weapon X going all berserker on his captors or Jean Grey embracing the Phoenix or Quicksilver and Nightcrawler using their powers in creative ways are rooted deep in my hindbrain and there's a lot of pleasure for me in seeing these scenes even when they don't cohere into anything approaching an actual movie. Of all the X-Men films, this is the one most like reading those comics, though in defense of the comics, they at least had a firmer command of narrative, plot, and theme.

Neel Sethi in The Jungle Book (2016)

The most satisfying moviegoing experience I've had this spring was the new live-action remake of The Jungle Book (2016, directed by Jon Favreau), which manages the not inconsiderable feat of de-colonializing Rudyard Kipling while not dumbing down the material. The story beats are familiar: Mowgli is raised by the wolves, the tiger Shere-Khan wants him dead because a man-cub will become a man, Mowgli flees his home and falls in with the bear, Baloo, encounters King Louie the orangutan who wants the secret of man's red flower, and so on. You even get the songs from the animated film. But this is better than the animated film, which I've always thought looked cheap. This film is gorgeous, with lovely environments and characters and visual puns ("needs more cowbell"). Shere-Khan is a legitimately terrifying villain in this, unlike the urbane character voiced by George Sanders in the animated film, and the voice work from all involved is sterling. If I have a complaint, and I do, its that the animal characters still sometimes fall into the valley of the uncanny--particularly Baloo--but it's a minor complaint. It was a fun movie with a sly sense of humor.


Zach Murphy said...

Nice reviews.

I wasn't a huge fan of The Lobster either. It definitely has some interesting things going on, but I think it runs too long.

- Zach (

Anonymous said...

THE LOBSTER is a classic One-Note movie. Unfortunately, about half-way through the amusement at the odd premise wanes. Although some attempt is made to expand on the ideas in the 2nd half, the movie can't escape its bland flat throughline.