Monday, January 02, 2017

Winter 2016: Nocturnal Ocean Beasts

Amy Adams in Nocturnal Animals

Here are some comments on some of the films I've been seeing this month. I don't have the heart or fortitude for my usual jeremiads right now, so these are brief.

Nocturnal Animals (2016, directed by Tom Ford) is sleek, as you would expect from someone who came to the director's chair from a design background. It's usually well-acted, too, with a performance from Amy Adams that challenges the actor to emote in ways the audience may not even like. Adams is one of the cinema's premiere actors right now, so this is no small thing. But it's not well-constructed and the director undermines his actors with his editing choices. Beneath its tricky self-awareness, it has a particularly vile view of the relationships between men and women.

This is a nested narrative in which two separate and distinct stories are built into a third. The framing story finds Adams's gallery owner, Susan Morrow, stuck in a loveless marriage with a man who is obviously cheating on her. There's a whiff of industry in their relationship, a hint that she stays out of financial dependence. This part of the film is cold, all modernist surfaces and designer clothing. The next layer of narrative is the manuscript of a novel sent to her by her ex-husband, Edward, a bleak crime drama that's part Straw Dogs, part The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, in which a family that looks suspiciously like Susan's is harassed off the road by rednecks who rape and murder the hero's red-headed wife and daughter. Susan, of course, is a redhead, as is her daughter. This story is apparently a critique of Susan's perception of Edward as weak. The third narrative recounts Susan and Edward's relationship, one disapproved of by her conservative mother, and one that ends when Susan has an affair with her future second husband and gets an abortion. The movie ends with Susan sitting in a restaurant alone.

This is a deeply misogynistic movie, one that punishes women for their choices and punishes men for not asserting their masculinity (through violence if necessary). This starts with the montage over the opening credits, in which nude obese women dance for the camera like cheerleaders, complete with pompoms. There's a hint of the freakshow to this, especially once it's revealed to be part of an art installation. In some ways, this is a summation of the film, in which women are shamed for the sake of art, though it doesn't really connect to the central narrative at all. In the film proper, Susan is excoriated by the film for leaving Edward, for having an abortion, for having a career, for recognizing her limitations and not fulfilling herself as an artist or whatnot. This film judges her hard from a lofty peak of paternalistic masculine expectations. The way this codes Susan as either Madonna or Whore is almost laughable: her state of innocence is fresh-scrubbed, her state of having fallen from grace is covered with severe make-up. Also laughable is the way this is edited to highlight Susan's occasional reactions to Edward's manuscript. And, indeed, the ending, in which Susan sits in a restaurant waiting for Edward to show up, suggesting that she'll never have a real man of her own, or, indeed, that she doesn't deserve a real man of her own because she had an abortion and left her first husband. What a load of patriarchal bullshit.

Marion Cotillard and Brad Pit in Allied

Allied (2016, directed by Robert Zemeckis) is an old-fashioned World War II spy film that indulges in some of the techniques of old-Hollywood. It's a film that relies on movie star charisma for its effects, such that the plot is almost secondary. The real pleasure of the film is in watching Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard play against each other. There are other old-Hollywood touchstones, too, starting with our lead characters meeting in a cantina in Casablanca that's swarming with Nazis. If you're a fan of old movies--as I am--this film will stroke your pleasure centers. But it's more than nostalgia.

The story finds Pitt's Canadian special forces operative, Max Vatan, parachuted into Morocco to assassinate the Nazi governor. His contact is Cotillard's resistance fighter, Marianne Beauséjour, who has embedded herself as a worker with the Nazi command. Their cover is that Max is Marianne's itinerant husband, and to that end they become publicly intimate. In private, they begin to fall for each other, too. The assassination goes off and the two flee back to England where they get married for real and have a daughter together. Happily ever after until, one day, Max is taken into the bowels of British intelligence and told that Marianne is a Nazi spy and that he must trap her with false intelligence. If she takes the bait, he must execute her with his own hand. Max doesn't believe it and endeavors to prove her innocence. Things don't go exactly to plan...

This is a refreshing change of pace for director Robert Zemeckis, who has often been more of a technocrat than any other kind of director. While I'm sure there are formidable special effects behind the production, it's all mostly invisible (compare this to the showy special effects that recreate the World Trade Center in The Walk). It's been a long time since the director settled on the chemistry of his actors for his effects, maybe not since Romancing the Stone thirty-five years ago. The plot and setting are a comfortable Hollywood otherwhere version World War II, with Casablanca being a setting charged with exotic mystery and London being a murk of persevering determination. We've seen these places before in countless other World War II stories. No, the central object of this film is the relationship between Max and Marianne and how it plays across the movie-star gorgeous faces of Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard, who, in their way, are among the very few working actors who embody both the glamour of old Hollywood and the acting chops to make the relationship compelling. And it IS compelling. The closest relative I can think of is Richard Marquand's underseen Eye of the Needle, and like that film, Allied follows its premise to a very bitter end that's built on a tragic romance. Where this ultimately diverges from its old-Hollywood antecedents is in the brutal nihilism of its ending. Because this is a film made by what remains of Hollywood royalty, it has the luxury of an ending that is satisfying rather than happy.

Eddie Redmayne in Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016, directed by David Yates) returns to the Wizarding World of the Harry Potter films, set many decades earlier and in a fantasy version of 1920s New York rather than in an alternate universe contemporary Britain. Our hero here isn't a schoolboy, but a scholar: Newt Scamander, magizoologist, author of the eponymous book last seen mauling students in Hagrid's fantastic beasts classes at Hogwarts. Scamander, who scours the globe looking for fantastic beasts, has arrived in New York as the film opens, carrying a magical valise full of strange creatures. Inevitably, some of them escape and Scamander must recapture them while eluding the magical authorities. The magical authorities are represented by Porpetina "Tina" Goldstein, auror of the Magical Congress of the United States of America, currently on the outs with her superiors. The authorities are dealing with two crises as Scamander arrives. First is rising anti-wizard sentiment among the non-magical citizenry, particularly the rabid variety espoused by the Second Salemers and their leader, Mary Lou, who would like to burn witches and wizards alive. The second is the hunt for the powerful dark wizard, Gellert Grindlewald, who has vanished from Europe and who is suspected of fleeing to America. The man charged with finding Grindlewald is Percival Graves. Graves has his own agenda, though, one connected to an unknown child in the care of Mary Lou's Second Salemers. Scamander's escaped creatures upend everyone's agendas. Caught in the middle of all of this is one Jacob Kowalski, a no-maj (American for muggle), who accidentally winds up with Scamander's magical valise, and Tina's sister, Queenie, who reads minds. Chaos ensues...

Fantastic Beasts is not likely to attract the same rabid cult as the other Potter films. For one, the pump has not been primed with a beloved source text. This is improvised from a faux version of the Potterverse textbook J. K. Rowling published for a charity in 2001, a book that had no "story" as such. For another, this doesn't have the same novelty the Potter books and movies had when they were first published. This is all very familiar by now, even if it gives everything an American spin (the film has some fun with the idea of two peoples separated by a common language). Moreover, some of the "fantastic beasts" are unfamiliar to the point of alienation. While the thieving Nuffler bears some resemblance to a platypus crossed with an echidna and the Erumpent appears to be a magical version of a rhinoceros, creatures like the Graphorn and (especially) the Obscurus seem positively Lovecraftian. The Obscurus in particular points to the crisis in creature design amongst Hollywood blockbusters these days, in so far as it's an amorphous cloud of evil, much like other amorphous clouds of world-destroying evil like Galactus or Paralax. Oh, don't get me wrong: This film has the terrific production values one would expect of its pedigree, but it's faint praise anymore to say that a film has good special effects when the film industry spends a majority of its total production expenses on special effects. One wishes they would spend at least some of that money on artists who step outside the mainstream of contemporary concept art.

I mostly like the actors in this film. I have every reason to bristle at Eddie Redmayne after his recent career in Oscar bait films, but I can't say he's bad here even if he underplays things a bit. He mostly cedes the spotlight to his costars, particularly Katherine Waterston as Tina and Dan Fogler as Jacob. Much like the Marvel movies, the Potter movies have a habit of throwing amazing actors at the screen in the most ridiculous of roles, which tends to lend weight to otherwise weightless fantasies. Still, this film has a feeling of treading water, particularly at its climax, where, in restoring New York to the state it found things in, it unconsciously repeats the climax of Doctor Strange. To an extent, this is inevitable because the whole purpose of a franchise is to sell the audience on things they've already seen--indeed, to sell them on the next installment of what they've already seen. In spite of that, I can't really say this is bad, because it's not. I enjoyed watching it and didn't feel like my time was wasted. It's just not inspired, and there's the rub. Fantasy should instill a sense of wonder, rather than a feeling of been there, done that.

Auli'i Cravalho and Dwayne Johnson in Moana

As we left the theater after seeing Moana (2016, directed by Ron Clements and John Musker), I told my viewing companion that if Disney is hell bent on colonizing all cultures everywhere, then we could have done a lot worse than Moana. The filmmakers founded the Oceanic Story Trust to inform their film, an organization of scholars and advisers whose sole purpose was to avoid the accusations of cultural insensitivity that have dogged films like Pocahontas and Mulan. You can sense the hand of that effort in both the first and third acts of the film, which play like deep mythic experiences. The middle of the film, on the other hand? Well, not so much. That part of the movie plays like a dude-bro comedy, with the demigod, Maui, acting as the dudebro. I don't know how Pacific Islanders are inclined to view this. Fortunately, it's not a crippling flaw, and even in this part of the film, there are fun songs to keep the whole thing, well, afloat.

The story finds Maui stealing the heart of mother goddess Te Fiti, thus incurring a curse that spreads across the ocean. Many centuries later, the curse comes to the island where Moana Waialiki lives. She is the daughter of the chief, who frowns on exploring beyond the reefs. He thinks the island is safe. He is wrong. As a child, Moana is chosen by the ocean itself to find Maui and to restore Te Fiti's heart. In defiance of her father, but with the aid of her grandmother, Moana sets out on the quest. Maui, it turns out, is feeling unappreciated by the islanders. Didn't he pull the islands up from the sea with his magic fish hook? Didn't he slow the sun in the sky? Moana is unimpressed, in part because she thinks Maui is a jerk. She manages to compel his cooperation anyway. First, they must retrieve his fish hook from an island of monsters. Beyond that is the fire demon who defends Te Fiti's island...

Moana is a rich visual experience. Like their stablemates at Pixar, the current regime at Walt Disney Animation likes to show off. Hence, difficult-to-animate things like Maui's massive hair or the ever-present oceanscape become not just a challenge to the animators, they become part of the film's visual identity. The filmmakers are confident enough in the spell their visuals cast that they embellish it with other types of animation--hand drawn 2-d animation, no less--among things like Maui's animated tattoos or re-tellings of myths. Thus does Moana establish an identity of its own in a year littered with animated films. And yet, it echoes other traditions, too. One cannot look at this film's fire demon without seeing Hayao Miyazaki's fire demon from Nausicaa, nor can one watch this story of nature gods and spirits and not recall the spirits of the forest in Princess Mononoke, particularly the forest god who searches for his head. These are worthy influences.

But it's the way the film plays with the conventions of its own provenance that is perhaps most striking. This is a "princess" movie with no prince charming (following on Frozen, in which Prince Charming is the actual villain). Indeed, there's no love interest at all for our heroine, and moreover, the film never suggests that she needs a love interest. Of all of Disney's princess characters, Moana has perhaps the most self-reliance, the most agency. This is reflected, too, in the fact that they've designed the look of her character such that she's not a ridiculous body type that would snap in two were she to attempt what Moana attempts in this film. She's a got a body that's beautiful AND strong, something that hasn't always been the case in Disney films even up to the present day. On top of this, Moana is a more female-centric film than is usual even for Disney's princess stories. Disney films have been indulging in light feminism since The Little Mermaid; Moana ups its game to middle-weight feminism. The central agents of the story are Moana, Moana's grandmother, and Te Fiti herself. The movie does not allow Maui to elbow any of these characters out of the spotlight when it really counts.  In truth, this shouldn't seem revolutionary, but given the tradition from which this film derives--to say nothing of the politics of the present moment--it sometimes does.

In any event, Moana was the most fun I've had at the movies this winter.

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Marilyn Ferdinand said...

Hi Christianne - Nice to see you writing again. I actually haven't seen but one of the films you discuss, though Moana and Allied are two I hope to catch up with. As for Nocturnal Animals, I can't really fault your excoriation of it on feminist grounds, but I did find a bit more nuance in it than you did. Susan was a deeply conventional person who ended up pursuing the life she was trained to have. Her mother begged her not to hurt Edward by marrying him, which seems pretty knowing on her part of the kind of daughter she raised. I thought the novel portions were pretty interesting, not necessarily giving Edward a chance to show off how macho he really is, but rather revealing the way a creative person expresses the violence that is part of us all.

I did have some problems with it, including the huge non sequiturs that are the nude women exhibit and the revelation that Susan has a daughter, as well as the uneasy grafting of the two stories together. I agree that Susan is punished too much for her choices, but it is true that people come to regret those choices over time. So, in sum, I guess I found it interesting and well performed, but not something I'd necessarily recommend.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Marilyn. We'll see whether or not I can keep up with writing. I probably should have chopped this into four posts, but I didn't think any one review was enough value for my Patreon patrons. I cut two reviews, too, for Moonlight and La La Land. I'll come back for them with the Oscar bait edition once I see Manchester By the Sea.

Mark Fuller Dillon said...

In your opinion, how does MOANA's protagonist compare with ZOOTOPIA's?