Academy Rewards: 2018

The Academy Awards have always straddled the awkward space between creativity and competition. When the institution was formed, 90 years ago, the “creatives” were basically race horses; it was their breeders—the studio heads—who coveted the trophies. Even as the studio system crumbled, and talent found empowerment through agents and became managers of their personal brands, the breeders’ vision won out: the thoroughbreds crave the carrots, but those who feed them now crave—and covet—their respect.

There’s a lot riding on those carrots. To some degree, the left carps about the legitimacy of the Oscars until those statues reflect their agenda in the same way that Donald Trump gloats about his role in the booming market until stock prices go bust. But his office serves to illustrate the grim reality of our moment: the entertainment industry represents American thought more accurately than our elected officials do. Just as the state of California is a bellwether for political trends, Hollywood is the driver of our culture.

It’s a peculiarly American tragicomedy that the places where our laws get written lag far behind the city where our screenplays do. But I hesitate to escalate that condition to tragic because many of the people writing those screenplays regard this as a problem, too. There are exceptions, of course. Tarantino’s revenge fantasies rewrite the past for the sake of enacting his fantasies in the same way that cable news and the Web warp the present. Winking at alternative facts is a complacency that becomes a black eye in light of the challenges that liberal democracies are now facing.

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Dunkirk

While I’m dusting off memories of movie viewings past, let’s not forget Dunkirk, which I saw over the summer. Normally, I’m a Christopher Nolan skeptic. He likes the idea of ideas, which gives him a leg up on the Michael Bays of the world, but it’s as if he pastes passages from Wikipedia articles into his scripts; everything else is overridden, and, to me, overwritten. His structures are ornate: rat mazes with no cheese in the middle.

The framework of Dunkirk, with its expansions and compressions of time that vary from section to section, didn’t bother me, though, because they serve the drama. Altogether, it’s a logistically impressive rendering of a logistical nightmare: the Allied evacuation of Dunkirk, following the Nazi invasion of France in 1940. Though little-known here, it’s a touchstone in Great Britain. Their soldiers were rescued by intrepid civilians in fishing boats. This part of the story is represented by Mark Rylance, who seems too old to be the father of Tom Glynn-Carney (a sweater-clad thirst-trap), and by Cillian Murphy, whose shell shock implies horrors off-screen.

There are other subplots, one involving the unnerved senior brass of the Navy (embodied by Kenneth Branagh), and another featuring Harry Styles as one of the soldiers caught up in the evacuation. (For reasons that seem historically inaccurate, his visage does not exceed the mean cheekbone height among the grunts.) If these scenes evoke the sense of chaos, those featuring Tom Hardy as a fighter pilot—which are the most absorbing in the film—have an almost abstract clarity. The elements seem as daunting as the Nazi aviators, with whom he’s locked in a battle of nerves.

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Interstellar

So far as I can tell, the best vindication for Christopher Nolan’s method in Interstellar is its black hole. Like so much of this director’s work, black holes are spectacularly dense but ultimately empty, and yet the fallen star of this film casts a warm afterglow. That most lethal of all world-killers—an appetite incarnate that eats global warming for breakfast and Creation for doomsday brunch—is presented not as the jaws of nonexistence but rather a swirl of molten glass. It isn’t an impediment or the object of dread; it’s closer to being a miracle. Like so much that comes out of Hollywood, this image seemed too beautiful to be true. But, by feeding 800 terabytes worth of astrophysical research into special-effects software, the filmmakers have created the most scientifically accurate model of a black hole ever visualized. The artist’s instinct is to find truth in beauty; Nolan has found beauty in data.

Interstellar wants to ascend to the heavens, but it’s pulled down by the blue ribbons that Nolan has tied to every last meteoroid. Maybe ten minutes have passed before Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is told by his father (John Lithgow) that this world was never enough for him. Those lousy bureaucrats who don’t believe in dreams have reduced this erstwhile engineer, test pilot, and all-around gentleman and scholar to subsistence farming. In the midst of something-or-other that somehow relates to climate change, our intrepid hero’s old employer, NASA, has been defunded. Instead of trying to stanch this cataclysmic dustbowl, the powers-at-be are sticking every able body with a pitchfork, and rewriting textbooks to remind kids that the moon landings were faked. Strangely enough, for what appears to be a rapidly collapsing, quasi-totalitarian state, the military has also been abolished. The plow is mightier than the sword—until it comes time to take out the riot gear.

You see, it’s not like back in the day, when people used to have ideas and build things—or so Grampy Lithgow groans, again and again. But who could blame these neo-Okies for not wanting to listen? An estimable actor like Lithgow must need Ex-Lax to get lines like these out. Whatever his heartfelt convictions, Nolan is not a born populist when it comes to expressing them. He mistakes pablum for wisdom. And then he goes and does a flip on his perceived audience anyway by having Coop discover that NASA’s alive and well, and guzzling tax dollars in secret—ergo, whoever is running things is actively stripping its citizens of hope for the future, by way of propaganda, but is at the same time financing a rescue operation behind their backs because they’re too cynical to be counted on to support it? Perhaps I’m slicing things too thin, but considering his reputation as an idea man, Nolan sure seems oblivious when it comes to implications. This homage to 2001 could’ve been called Mr. Magoo Meets the Monolith.
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Snowpiercer

A train that chugs around the world with nowhere to go is an astute metaphor for Snowpiercer. In Bong Joon-ho’s fever dream of the near future, a countermeasure against global warming has made Siberia blanket the earth; the remnants of humanity, crammed into several dozen cars on a self-sustaining train, makes a yearly circuit around the globe. The train, which is called the Snowpiercer, was the brainchild of a crackpot billionaire named Wilford. It isn’t clear whether he had intended it to be a Noah’s ark all along or whether its construction just happened to coincide with the apocalypse, but the result is a case study in apartheid: the haves live near the engine and the have-nots bring up the rear. But what was it that the haves had? Were the groups segregated on a first-come-first-serve basis? Skin color isn’t a factor. Save for the imperious Wilford—who has claimed the engine as his throne room—an individual’s on-board status doesn’t appear to correlate with his former income level or earthly station: the first-class manifest includes Tilda Swinton as a yokel with an oik accent and false teeth, and a onetime violinist for the Boston Symphony is mixed in with the rabble. Money wouldn’t have much currency at the end of the world, but the hedonistic first-class passengers don’t seem to have paid their way in practical skills. If the film’s sympathies with Occupy Wall Street are to be taken seriously, this isn’t a small bone to pick; the invocation of the One Percent seems the result of fuzzy math, as those languishing in steerage appear to be the minority. Even Marx wouldn’t have given the plot-launching insurrection by the lower orders his imprimatur: with one grotesque exception, the train doesn’t run on the back of labor. Just about every review of this movie cautions you to take its political allegory with a grain of salt. I would suggest a quarry.

At the risk of sounding obvious, Boon has a vision, but it is strictly visual. Along with his co-writer Kelly Masterson—with whom he has adapted a French graphic novel—the director has some intriguing ideas that, in the conservative world of the entertainment industry, might pass for edgy; but he has little talent for integrating them. All of the foreshadowing, which imbues the whimsical design with an oracular tone, just ends up making the movie bottom-heavy; revelations sputter out like mad ravings, but, as in Oldboy, the absurdity and paranoia are justified by an overblown Christopher Nolan-like windup. Chris Evans, who is impressive as the rebel leader, gives a wallop of a monologue toward the end that might have been more effective earlier, when it would have clarified the goings on and given substance to the rebel cause. Bong and Masterson pick off big names and major characters with the ease of George R. R. Martin, but not the facility; some of the goners hadn’t enough opportunities to earn much grief for their loss, so the effect is just a jab at convention. Still, there are moments in which Boon proves himself as a top-notch visual storyteller. He takes advantage of the narrow-gauge width of these characters’ world; the whole movie has the effect of being shot with a fish-eye lens, but without the peripheral distortion. You have to take a cold shower to shrug it off. At one point, Evans and his sidekick Jamie Bell lie in two separate bunks but look squished like sardines. There’s an expressively distended sequence which sums up Evans’s choice between The Cause and its collateral in a simple but wrenching way—and it’s parodied moments later by Swinton. There are also excellently staged action-movie flourishes, like a witty shootout when the Snowpiercer is rounding a bend or a hide-and-seek sequence in a car full of saunas that may as well be trees in a wood. But these are effective set pieces, nothing more. Moments like Evans’s flicker of decision have a human gravity that Boon clearly wants to express, but he fails to inform his more idiosyncratic elements with pathos. The intended effect is 12 Monkeys, but the result is a cockeyed spoof like The Fifth Element.

Sure, I’d take this bizarro blockbuster over most Hollywood sequels; it’s something of a miracle that Harvey Weinstein bet on this pipe dream being a box-office success: a bona fide Bong hit. Snowpiercer isn’t mellow—doesn’t go down smoothly like the fine-tooled Edge of Tomorrow—but I think it’s a more interesting diversion rather than a superior work of art. The film is a masterpiece by proxy: Alison Pill is a Lynchian schoolteacher with a smile that seems detached from her face; Swinton goes haywire like the whorebot in Metropolis; John Hurt plays a beard-to-knees seer called Gilliam, in homage to the director of 12 Monkeys and Brazil; and music from the hotel band in The Shining gets piped in at one point like the anodyne tunes at Disneyworld. But the Kubrick reference—a signifier of the dryness of the upper crust—stuck in my craw because it diagnosed what’s wrong with this movie: Its “politics” aren’t rooted in the real world or history, but in second-hand notions spawned from pop culture that doesn’t really have anything to do politics. Even Brazil is only political in the sense that The Trial is, and Kafka had his politics assigned to him by a society that was reeling from totalitarian states that didn’t come about until after his death. Gilliam—the filmmaker—has an Ignatius J. Reilly side: He protests just about everything that’s happened since the Middle Ages. His ideal reality is just what that term implies—an oxymoron. Quixotic though this may be, it gives his work a temperament that Boon can only approximate, possibly because Gilliam’s fantasies aren’t as moored to specific current events as Boon’s appear to be. Boon’s flashes of brilliance get interrupted; life stutters by like it does for someone in a video game who can’t make it to the next level. The tart ominousness in Snowpiercer may prime you for a mystical revelation, but any insight it has just goes off the rails.

Blue Is The Warmest Color

Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos, the two young actresses who star in Blue Is The Warmest Color, deserved to share the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year with the director, Abdellatif Kechiche. In fact, I think they might have deserved more of a share than he did. Kechiche’s range of expression isn’t much more expansive than Christopher Nolan’s; his camera has a hammerlock on the girls, and most of the film’s storytelling relies on reading their faces, and, to a lesser extent, their bodies—which the director likes to have wiggling on top of one another, in the buff. In this context, I don’t think that the NC-17 material is pornographic, exactly, but it sure is an easy way for the movie to generate publicity for itself in a critical environment primed to hail girl-on-girl booty-slapping progressive. The shrewdness of making an art film with explicit sex scenes between two gorgeous women in 2013 and passing it off as radically broadminded (Kechiche to Reuters: “Everyone who is against … love between two people of the same sex must see the film”) reminded me of Beyoncé releasing her surprise album earlier this month and bemoaning that music these days is “all about the single, and the hype is so much that it gets between the music and the artist and the fans”—as if the surprise stratagem wasn’t a different form of hype that just so happens to have saved her millions of dollars. I think there’s more to what Kechiche is doing than that—but maybe not enough more.

The French title translates as “The Life of Adèle, Parts 1 and 2,” and I think I liked Part 1 better. In these scenes, Adèle (Exarchopoulos) is about 17; she has a pretty, gamine, chipmunky face, hair she must soak in a deep fryer, and a jaw that hangs down stupidly, as if her lower teeth were dumbbells. Adèle is not stupid, but she seems as intent on closing herself off as she is on opening up books. Nothing seems to draw her to her female friends; she doesn’t break the mold at family dinner, which her parents spend speechless, slurping spaghetti, in thrall to the TV; and when she finally gives in to the advances of a meatheaded but kind upperclassman, she’s terrified to find herself going through the motions, and that those motions produce no heat. When she confesses these perceived failings to Valentin (Sandor Funtek), her gay best friend, one can tell that she isn’t falling on her words here for want of trying; suddenly, she notices the ickiness of her hair. Funtek conveys his character’s gayness very subtly, and though out-and-proud Valentin offers Adèle some consoling words, it’s impossible to tell just how much he knows, even if it’s quite possible to induce how little she lets him know. Curiously, the gay club he takes her to is lighted mainly blue, but the lesbian equivalent into which she strays is the warmest, mellowest yellow. The blue is in Emma’s—Seydoux’s—hair as she approaches Adèle at the bar. I think the closed-in camera achieves intimacy with the adolescent girl here; I think it does so, and gives the lie to her solipsism, when Adèle brushes past her old friends to meet with older Emma in the school parking lot; and when she denies, later, what they met for.

The blue in Emma’s hair is artificial, but the blue in her Buddha eyes is not, and the dissonance alone is striking enough to pierce Adèle’s heart. She’s studying to be a painter, and her butch look is an invention: the chassis of an android from some better time and place than Adèle’s lower-middle-class naturalism. (This isn’t always the case, but Emma’s blue hair sends the opposite signal that a collar of the warmest color would.) Emma is the aggressor, the buyer of Adèle’s drink, and she senses that Dorothy has wandered in from Kansas. They talk Sartre and art, sketch (Emma) and get sketched (Adèle); and we see them suddenly transition from a kiss in the park to bliss in the bed in what Richard Brody calls “one of the most jolting cuts in the recent cinema.” But I disagree with him that the “intermediate stages of seduction or proposition” are skipped. It’s an earned release, for the girls and for the viewer—a resolution to an hour’s worth of ardor that radiates without getting lost and yet is finally found. (He is correct that “the sexual teasing of anticipation or [the] buildup of undressing” aren’t there, but that’s a different story. Adèle is too serious for teasing foreplay; what makes her sexy, perhaps, is her absence of wit, her absolute, unconscious liberation from the world of wit, which is to say: the world.) No, we don’t see them take their clothes off; but Adèle has been naked since Emma laid eyes on her, a meet-cute in a dream that Adèle later made wet.

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Man of Steel

Man of Steel isn’t bad for a superhero blockbuster—which is to say that it does a good job of not being terrible despite the twin handicaps of having Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder attached to it. Their movie is a work of popcorn theology—supersized, with extra butter, and a couple pillars of salt; but, as its faith is as widely practiced and sanctioned as any in our culture today, its message is as worthy of scrutiny as that of a televangelist. It’s no secret that the ur-hero, who came to Earth from Krypton to save us from a fallen angel named General Zod, has been resubstantiated as a Christ figure. His conception was the opposite of immaculate: Kal-El is the first of his kind in centuries to be born of copulation rather than bred into a destiny like his scientist father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), and Krypton’s generalissimo Zod (Michael Shannon). When the advanced planet, starved of resources, blows up, Kal floats down the Nile to Kansas in his space bassinet, and is raised by a farmer named Kent (Kevin Costner) with a bumper crop of moral fiber. Kal (Henry Cavill), whose name is anglicized to Clark, has godlike powers in this new environment, but a hypersensitivity to it, too. His Joseph figure teaches him restraint for his own safety’s sake—humans aren’t ready for the Second Coming; we don’t even have a cross of kryptonite to nail him to. The way he hangs around truck stops during his post-high school years, if Clark wasn’t a closet superhero, I’d expect this saintly lumberjack to be a closet something else. But he’s essentially a free-agent Good Samaritan, without branding. When Zod and his junta, exiled from Krypton and thus its only other survivors, arrive on Earth, Clark has to save his adopted people from his bloodthirsty compatriots, who are angling to strip-mine our planet and turn it into a new Krypton. Like a transplanted sports fan, Superman is torn between home teams.

What Man of Steel makes clear, which previous iterations of this franchise (which dates back to 1938) may have glossed over, is that doing the right thing is a choice. Granted, I need to brush up on my Bible, but the immediate parallel that occurs to me isn’t in Scripture, but Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. When, way back in the Captain America period, Superman stood for Truth, Justice, and the American Way, it was as much about choice as being drafted into World War II was. It was about duty. No questions asked. Virtually all superhero movies are about choice on some level, but the immaculate, unearthly Superman may be the only one for whom this solemn peroration is appropriate. Nolan’s Batman was a mortal in the real world, even if the director gave no evidence of familiarity with it; Nolan’s Superman is in a real-ish world, too—but, here, the setting is even less stylized than Gotham, and serves as a contrast between men and this god among them. Or at least it should. There is an idea behind Nolan and David S. Goyer’s conception, and that counts for something; but, as usual, it gets as worn down as the Metropolis skyscrapers that are battered by Zod. If the material were really to be brought up to date—and, on top of that, made intellectually respectable—Superman must guide his new neighbors down a path that allows us to avoid the self-destructive fate of Krypton. If that planet stagnated because its population was deprived of choice, surely it’s on the filmmakers to demonstrate how humans are saved by their capacity for choice—and not simply by a Caped Crusader: the deus ex machina of childish escape fantasies. Making him a Christ figure—even making him human—is an easy way out, because the humans aren’t compellingly human, but are mere pawns in a spectacle that is likely much more cynical than Goyer or Nolan anticipated it would be. Our foremost faculty, it is implied, is not our liberty but our helplessness. Marx’s line about religion being the opiate of the masses is often misunderstood, but the logic behind the misunderstanding clarifies why makers of blockbusters are now mining the Church for material: superheroes once provided escapism; they now stand for ritualized self-delusion.

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Star Trek Into Darkness

In the first scene of Star Trek Into Darkness, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and Doctor McCoy (Karl Urban) flee a horde of pissed-off primitives who look like the second-century Scots of The Eagle and act like the Skull Islanders in the 1930s King Kong. The planet is as red as Mars but much lusher; this scene was probably conceived before John Carter tanked, but it hearkens back to the same period of sci-fi pulp—the dark ages that Ray Bradbury and Robert A. Heinlein and, yes, Gene Roddenberry, wrested the genre from. Spears whiz past and one’s own inner primitive gets hooked. But then, in willful defiance of Starfleet’s mandate against meddling in the affairs of the technologically challenged, the Enterprise warps past the natives, and they draw the starship in the sand. Will there be ethical consequences to this mental pollution? Will the power-mad supervillain land on this planet and install himself as a god? Could the darkness into which the title says we’re heading be the same as that which Joseph Conrad got at the heart of? Nooope! Because then the filmmakers would have to be aware of a work of art or literature that’s not Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan—and on the evidence of this flick, they aren’t.

If this was a movie made in the spirit of the pre-J.J. Abrams Star Trek franchise, rather than an amusement-park ride hiding behind a famous brand, it might’ve gone there—or at least boldly tried to. I won’t pretend that the old days were all better ones. Rewatching the episodes can be painful: the dialogue is often dull-witted with delivery to match, expounding on obvious ideas bungled by banal direction—and I’m not just talking about the shoestring ’60s series, which has a hallowed place in the kitsch hall of fame next to black-velvet portraits of Elvis and poker-playing dogs. But even at its most Boy Scoutish, the old stuff was unified by a curiosity, both scientific and moral, that made it special and made it endure. Unlike Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Hunger Games, or Game of Thrones, which have primary authors from whom universes have spun out, the fictional universe of Star Trek, in keeping with its democratic ideals, was built on by writer upon writer, series upon series, decade after decade; it was densely populated and intricately linked; and though the strange new worlds that it passed through were all, in grand sci-fi manner, reflected in turn, the franchise had a core—ever familiar and almost autonomous. Abrams and his crew have trashed this unique asset, and worse, seem as thickheaded as Klingons. They have no new take on the material; they just distill it to its most commercial essences and milk it for self-parody, with some wit and jarringly modern patter tossed in for smirks. It’s no coincidence that their only frame of reference—out of a project of universe-making unseen in its complexity since the Big Bang—is Wrath of Khan. Khan is the best of the movies (nudging out First Contact, in my opinion), but, more importantly, it’s the most mainstream. That’s how little respect they have for their own instincts and putative passion for the franchise. It’s a Khan job.

Although the plot is held together by clichés that wouldn’t escape the delete key even in fan-fic, at least there’s more linkage than there was in the 2009 Star Trek—though the comic highs are lower, maybe because the whole conception is a joke that inevitably gets stale when repeated. (Abrams became a better storyteller with Super 8, which is certainly an auspicious development; but his brightest moments in Star Trek were slapstick routines and skits.) Pine earns his name with the degradation heaped on Kirk over Spock: Why is this cocky space-jammer so pathetic that he needs to hear a Vulcan tell him “I love you”? (One peculiarity of this reboot is that it’s adolescent and yet emasculated; there are more grown men bawling here than in a Lifetime movie.) But Pine makes Kirk more frazzled than William Shatner ever did, and he makes the combination of restless and wry both fresh and endearing. (Leonard Nimoy, in his cameo as Old Spock—who functions as a Magic 8-Ball—could be a dude in a Spock costume making minimum wage at Six Flags. Some continuity this is. Has he gone back to disowning the character?)

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