Friday, January 20, 2017

A Monster Calls: The Darkness Before the Dawn?

I tend to prefer movies made for grown-ups.  And my friend Susan, a serious cineaste whose favorite films of 2016 include Neruda and Manchester by the Sea, can never be accused of opting for kiddie flicks. So when Susan suggested we check out A Monster Calls, I was surprised, to say the least. I’d seen the trailer, which looked visually intriguing. But the story (based on an acclaimed 2011 children’s novel) seemed all too familiar: a boy whose mother is dying of cancer finds solace through the sudden appearance of a fantasy figure. Somewhat like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, young Colin O’Malley experiences three visitations. In his case, it’s not ghosts who come to visit, but rather a huge and mysterious tree-creature with three stories to tell.

For their work on this novel, author Patrick Ness and illustrator Jim Kay won two of Britain’s most esteemed literary prizes. Ness went on to write the screenplay, which is perhaps why the film’s characterizations ring so true. Colin (played by Lewis MacDougall) is not the adorable kid of so many poignant children’s films. His unhappiness constantly plays out on his face, whether he’s getting ready for his day without parental help, ducking the sympathies of his teachers, dealing with schoolyard bullies, or fending off the horrific nightmares that plague his sleep. Felicity Jones is his mum, an artist who’s still vibrant but fading fast; Toby Kebbell is the dad (now busy with his new family in California) who just can’t connect with the son he’s left behind. Only Sigourney Weaver, as the strait-laced grandmother with whom Colin must come to terms, seems questionable casting. But highest kudos for Liam Neeson, whose unearthly basso voice contributes so much to the presence of the tree-monster.

The monster’s stories are really what set this film apart from other variations on this same theme. Vividly told through the use of gorgeous animation, the stories are by no means obvious in their message. A prince commits murder, and gets away with it; little girls die when a parson turns to a healer for help that does not come. The stories make Colin angry, and prompt him to commit violent acts of his own. Ultimately, though, the presence of the monster leads him to an important acknowledgment of his feelings about his mother’s condition. At the end of the film, a fraught sort of peace descends.

A Monster Calls  bears an unusual credit: “from an original idea by Siobhan Dowd.” Dowd was a celebrated  author of young adult books. She had every intention of writing this story, but a terminal bout with breast cancer defeated her plans. As Patrick Ness has put it, “She had the characters, a premise, and a beginning. What she didn't have, unfortunately, was time.” She died in 2007, at the painfully early age of 47. A Monster  Calls is a strong testament to her imagination and her spirit.

Perhaps it’s because mortality is a very real part of this film’s legacy that it hit me so hard. I don’t duck movies that focus on the darker side of life, but it’s not often that I see a film that genuinely moves me to tears. This one assuredly did. By the final fadeout there was a lot of sniffling going on in the screening room, as the all-adult audience confronted the fact that the pain of loss is a fundamental part of our human inheritance. Still, I think we all felt hopeful that life remains worth living, thanks to the power of love to transcend darkness. A lesson, perhaps, for our turbulent times.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

“Arrival”: How to Handle Illegal Aliens

This week, as the air waves were being dominated by politics and world issues, I went to see Arrival. This is hardly Hollywood’s first stab at the depiction of friendly (as opposed to scary) aliens. I think back to 1977’s Steven Spielberg hit, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in which Richard Dreyfuss is welcomed aboard a craft piloted by extraterrestrials. Twenty years later, Robert Zemeckis shot Contact, in which Jodie Foster plays a SETI scientist chosen to interact with mysterious beings visiting from outer space. Two more decades have passed, and (in some political circles, at least) aliens are now interlopers of a different kind. But Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve, goes back to some classic assumptions: that the creatures making contact seek communication rather than warfare and that it’s a sensitive but brainy woman who’s best capable of  knowing what to do and say.
We’re now in, it should be noted, an era when women are being recognized for their STEM expertise, at least on the movie screen. We’ve had gutsy, heroic female astronauts in both Gravity and The Martian. The recent Hidden Figures is dedicated to three real-life African American women whose mathematical gifts made possible the U.S. manned space program. In Arrival, star Amy Adams is not exactly a scientist or engineer. Instead she’s a high-powered linguist who (in the word of her sidekick character, the physicist played by Jeremy Renner) thinks like a mathematician. And she’s the one American capable of deciphering the exotic written messages being sent her way by two unearthly beings code-named Abbott and Costello.

Arrival is based on an award-winning 1998 short science fiction tale by Ted Chiang, titled “Story of Your Life.”. I haven’t read Chiang’s work, but I’m told it’s a densely packed philosophical musing on the role of time and causality, because the extraterrestrial heptapod creatures studied by Amy Adams’ character, Dr. Louise Banks, have no sense of past, present, and future. Perhaps that’s why the throughline of the film version has me so confused. It’s clear enough from the film’s many memory flashes that Louise is suffering from the loss of her young daughter to a terrible illness..(Frankly, there’s something all too obligatory about the fact that all the STEM-superior young women in movies like Arrival and Gravity are compensating for the loss of a child.) But while watching Arrival I didn’t grasp what the movie was trying to say about basic chronology as a purely human construct. And I now suspect that the film critics I started reading after the lights came up understood better than I did because they had Chiang’s story to clue them in.

I needed no help, though, in understanding the film’s geopolitical messaging. It seems that alien visitations are simultaneously taking place in twelve locales spread throughout the world, including such unlikely outposts as Venezuela. At the U.S. site, located in rural Montana, scientists like Louise are closely monitored by Pentagon brass, but still manage to conduct their probes in a humanistic way. China and Russia, however, quickly move toward a militaristic posture, convinced as they are that the outer space invaders mean war. Louise becomes our only hope for convincing the nations of the world to work together peaceably for the sake of understanding and learning from the extraterrestrial visitors. It’s nice to see our heroine as a spokeswoman for peaceful coexistence. But this week some of us may be wondering – at a time when nationalism and xenophobia seem to be rapidly mounting around the globe – whether a worldwide push for peace can ever really be possible.

Friday, January 13, 2017

20th Century Women: Struggling to Be All Right

Who can be said to be quintessential twentieth-century women?  Adventurous sorts like Amelia Earhart? Political and social leaders like Golda Meir and Eleanor Roosevelt? Inspirations like Coretta Scott King? Style icons and glamour-girls like Jackie Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe? I’ve just seen the new film, 20th Century Women, so the question comes to me naturally. All the names I’ve mentioned above are worth considering. But I’ve just been lucky enough to see again (on an airplane!) Audrey Hepburn’s first big film,1953’s Roman Holiday. It’s a blithe little romance, though one with a bit of substance, broaching as it does the tension between personal freedom and the need to do one’s duty. And of course it’s proof that Audrey Hepburn was one of the most delicious actresses who ever lived.

Writers other than me have crowned Hepburn (Audrey, not Katharine) a major social influence. Sam Wasson’s 2010 bestseller, Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M., is subtitled Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman. Wasson’s argument is that Hepburn’s Holly Golightly character contains a very modern moral ambiguity that doesn’t distract from her charm. Though I loved Wasson’s book, I can’t say it convinced me on that point. My vision of Audrey Hepburn is still that of someone who’s pristine: girlish and adorable. And, as she is in Roman Holiday, a genuine princess.

If you’ve been around little girls lately, you know that princesses are a very big deal. The Disney universe is full of them (see Frozen, Tangled, Brave, and now Moana). Why? Partly it’s because they wear great clothes. The modern Disney princess (unlike the very boring Sleeping Beauty) gets to go on adventures, and heroically save her people. At the same time, she’s always well-dressed, and when her adventures are over she gets to return to the castle and marry the prince (or at least an appealing stand-in). What more could a little girl want?

Which brings me to 20th Century Women, the quirky semi-autobiographical film in which Mike Mills (who’d chronicled his father’s coming out in Beginners) reveals what it was like to be a young man coming of age in the late 1970s, surrounded by women working hard at the new concept of female empowerment. The #1 woman in young Jamie’s life is his mother, Dorothea, a smart, nervous chain-smoker who would like to have been a World War II pilot. As played by the always-gutsy Annette Bening, Dorothea is both lovable and exasperating; she’s capable of a joyous exuberance but remains at the same time fundamentally sad about the ways life has let her down. The film’s other two 20th century women are Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a punked-out artist with serious health issues, and Julie (Elle Fanning), a gorgeous high-schooler who sleeps around with unworthy men but demands of the sexually frustrated Jamie a purely platonic friendship. Quixotically, Dorothea turns to these two young women to help teach her son about life and love. Meanwhile he’s reading classic feminist tracts like Robin Morgan’s Sisterhood is Powerful to try to make sense of the world that his mother and her surrogates inhabit.

It’s been Annette Bening’s lot in recent years to play unusual “mom” roles. With spouse Warren Beatty she’s raised four children of her own, so she certainly knows the territory. In American Beauty she was an angry, hostile mother. In The Kids Are All Right, she played a devoted lesbian mother. .Dorothea is an equally worthy role for Bening: she captures both the love and the confusion of a mother trying desperately to make sure the kid is all right. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Blah La Land?: A Dispatch from the City of Stars

This past Sunday evening, La La Land hosted the Golden Globes. And the Golden Globes ceremony, sponsored by the Hollywood Foreign Press corps, returned the favor by making a big winner out of Damien Chazelle’s Hollywood musical, La La Land. Well before the envelopes were opened, it was clear that La La Land was high on everyone’s list. Even the opening of the TV broadcast saluted Chazelle’s work by mimicking the film’s famous Hollywood traffic jam, with M.C. Jimmy Fallon among those caught up in the musical action.

Personally, I’d been waiting to see La La Land for a long time. As a native Angeleno (born in Hollywood, yet!) as well as a huge fan of movie musicals, I was eager to watch a paean to my birthplace, sung and danced by talented young performers. And Chazelle’s Whiplash was such a genuinely thrilling piece of work that I had the highest hopes. I’d heard Chazelle speak beautifully about the raison d’être for movie musicals: the way they capture emotion through fantasy; the way they sidestep conventional movie realism with a boldness that’s positively avant-garde. Chazelle’s favorites were my favorites too: Fred and Ginger, Singin’ in the Rain, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. So, yes, I was excited.

When I finally went to see La La Land, I was accompanied by two family members. One of them is (fingers crossed) starting to make a name for himself as a writer of stage musicals. We all expected to be bowled over. And there was a lot to like. F’rintance, that exuberant opening on an L.A. freeway when commuters give up on getting where they’re going, instead bounding out of their cars to sing and dance to “Another Day of Sun.” And the in-jokes that capture the spirit (if not exactly the reality) of my home town: everyone drives a Prius; despite the season the weather never quite changes. And the bold colors all the women are wearing. And the romantic use made of one of my favorite places, the Griffith Park Observatory. And an astonishing final “dream ballet” sequence à la An American in Paris. And my personal favorite little scene, when a star-crossed Ryan Gosling -- serenading sunset on the Hermosa Beach pier -- sweeps a very average middle-aged lady into a waltz as her spouse looks on, bemused.

So why the “yes, but”? I realized, while watching the film, that the central story line just wasn’t quite enough to hold me. The tale of Mia and Sebastian -- she a would-be actress, he a jazz pianist too pure to stray into other musical styles – left me a bit cold. I was less bothered that Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling don’t come off as trained singers and dancers. After all, both possess oodles of charm. But their on-again, off-again romance didn’t seem entirely worth rooting for. Not that all musicals are blessed with great screenplays. I know one of Chazelle’s big influences (and the source of that opening musical outburst) was Jacques Demy’s Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, a very charming, very French musical in which all the romantic comings and goings finally amount to very little. Still I, and my two moviegoing companions, felt just a bit cheated by La La Land’s script deficiencies.

And yet . . . as I hear snippets of those musical numbers, like the lovely “City of Stars,” I start remembering all the parts of La La Land that gave me pleasure. And made me – come to think of it – want to jump on top of my Lexus and start dancing. Who could ask for anything more?

Friday, January 6, 2017

Letting Go of “Frozen”

I’m feeling a bit Frozentoday. And it has little to do with SoCal weather. As a kid, having zipped through loads of Greek mythology as well as Grimm’s fairy tales, I started in on Hans Christian Andersen. I’d known about the Danish author for years: the Frank Loesser musical version of Andersen’s life was the very first movie I ever remember seeing. In the role of Andersen, funnyman Danny Kaye performed spirited musical versions of “The Ugly Duckling,” “Thumbelina,” and (if memory serves) “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” But when I sat down with a fat volume of Andersen’s FairyTales, I was startled to discover at the heart of Andersen’s stories a darkness that Loesser and Kaye had managed to sidestep.   For instance, consider Andersen’s original Little Mermaid. Hardly a pixieish Disney sprite, she was instead a mournful creature, one who gave up her voice and her seafaring identity for the sake of a mortal man who done her wrong. And then there was “The Snow Queen.” This tale, featuring a cold-blooded queen as well as shards of mirror that lodge in the heart, was so much grimmer than Grimm that I simply stopped reading.  

“The Snow Queen” has turned out to be the genesis of Disney’s Frozen. This 2013 release, now the top-grossing animated film of all time, contains plenty of Disney trademarks: charming leads, wacky sidekicks, affably anthropomorphized inanimate objects (here a snowman, Olaf, who romanticizes the joys of warm summer days). There’s also gorgeous scenery, lively musical interludes, and the joys of young love. Still, this is a darker story than the usual Disney fare. I was not surprised by the film’s female empowerment message: the idea that young women can be the controllers of their own destiny has been an article of faith in the Disney canon for quite a while. But when I finally caught up with Frozen, I was struck by the Nordic gloom that balances the film’s Anaheim affability.

I was late coming to Frozen. Instead of properly enjoying its scenic beauty on a wide screen in some stately movie palace (Hollywood’s El Capitan is the perfect place to see movies like this one), I checked out a copy from my local library. It was scratched and smudgy, surely the result of having been lovingly handled by a great many little girls. The result was that the DVD got stuck from time to time, leaving me with a picture that was – yes – frozen. As frustrating as this was, I persisted. After all, though I’d heard the hit song countless times, I still wasn’t sure exactly what Elsa was letting go of.

The answer surprised me. Since the film was intended to be family-friendly, I’d assumed that Queen Elsa, who is cursed with the ability to turn the world into ice with the wave of her hand, sings this song in the course of renouncing (letting go of) her magical powers. Not so. In fact, this is the moment when she (voiced by the full-throated Idina Menzel) essentially comes into her own, unleashing the full force of those powers even if this means cutting herself off forever from the rest of humankind. From this point onward, she’s downright scary, even toward her trusting younger sister, Anna.

For today’s little girls, even those too young to see the movie, Anna and Elsa are icons. What’s interesting is that the sisters do not represent good and bad in a conventional Disney way. Throughout all their frosty adventures, they care about one another. And at last, in Disney fashion, they don’t let go of family feelings.