“The Great Wall” adopts a philosophy that all famous wonders must be rooted in the legend of absurdist yarns, and that their endurance apparently comes at the expense of sacrifices too great for the respect of modern civilization. Of course, no one involved contemplates the scientific practicality of that suggestion, but no wonder – movies of this vain are far more devoted to their underlying cynicism than they are focused on creating believable worlds, even in the context of their rather elastic suggestions. But for the sake of getting through a basic plot description, let us suspend, for a brief minute, the disbelief that comes when we contemplate this ridiculous premise. Thousands of years ago, China’s great wall was constructed as a barrier to keep enemies away from the empire they hoped to dismantle, but the greatest of those threats was not human at all: it was a horde of ravenous beasts resembling alligators on stilts, who moved with ferocious speed, attacked with evolving precision and seemed to feed from the psychic energy of a queen who, I guess, desired to conquer all mankind in some karma-ridden crusade. The human characters regard this war with military precision and unsmiling focus (as they should), but it never dawns on anyone involved that maybe, just maybe, a future that must be saved from the dangers of an alien reptile onslaught may not be a future worth facing in the first place.
Romantic interests are rarely as simple as an act of affection or a passionate gesture, though few of the more naïve movie fantasies freely dissent from that assumption. To their directors, it’s easier for a story to coddle the complexities into a neat package of hopes and desires rather than descend into their paralyzing mysteries, though that may be of a great disservice; once we become wise to the sensations we grow to resent the idea of unrealistic happy endings. On the other hand, an exhausting discussion about contradictions can lead less experienced sorts astray from taking risks, because we are not easily programmed to tolerate a constant barrage of mistakes and arguments, especially if they may lead to damaged connections. In some strange way, both perspectives are dealt with at arm’s length by the characters at the forefront of “Vicki Cristina Barcelona,” which tells of two female friends vacationing in the Spanish countryside who walk into the lives of people who may expand (or even tarnish) their views of human relationships. Woody Allen is hardly foreign to the concept of these kinds of spirited discussions, of course, but rarely has he taken them this far, or been so perceptive about the discoveries he makes in the company of his focused actors.
When it comes to supernatural dangers, a priest to the movies is what black cats are to superstitious amblers – a presence that should to be avoided at all costs, lest they lure you into the hungry jaws of pain and suffering. A certain awareness of this possibility rises to prominence in the early scenes of “The Vatican Tapes,” in which Father Lozano (Michael Pena) is seen casually brushing past an injured woman arriving at the hospital. Their dialogue is brief and innocuous, but necessitated; it implicates their relationship as one of destiny, to be escalated shortly thereafter when said woman begins to show signs of a dangerous pathological state. Yet just as precise the foreshadowing is, one can’t help but wonder if it all comes off as excessively ham-handed, even for a film of this nature. Certainly we know what we are in for right from the beginning as opening credits roll, in which a montage of footage of exorcisms is seen flashing between title cards. Certainly the early discussions of priests warning each other of demonic forces are enough to implicate a source. And certainly the abrupt transition of the heroine’s charming demeanor to one of misery is enough to lead one down all the obligatory psychological and moral detours of demonic possession premises. Observing these devices in all their vulgar and excessive glory made me nostalgic for the subtlety of “The Exorcist,” a film that outlasted all others because it trusted the audience to assemble the mystery in the slow passages.
The scene is a parking lot, just after a teenager’s birthday party, where three high school girls enter a car that is destined to be their final link to freedom. He who enters the driver’s seat is not the vehicle’s owner but rather a stranger – ominous and suspicious, wearing black-framed glasses and an expression of deadened complacence. Their uncertainty is far more persistent than their fear, resulting in knee-jerk struggles that come far too late; after spraying their faces with a sleeping agent they awake in a small dusty room somewhere underground, unknowing of what troubles await them. Their confusion is emulated by audiences that too have little concept of what will transpire, even as the movie delves deeply into the framework of a psychological crisis. That’s because its villain, played with deadpan conviction by James McAvoy, is not your conventional psycho interested in orchestrating brutal suffering (although there is some level of that throughout). His is a body housing multiple personalities – some childlike, others nurturing, and a few troubled beyond rational thought. Who are they going to see every time the door to their prison opens? A less threatening face, or one that will bring them incredible harm?
The central relationship in Herbert Ross’ “Funny Lady” involves characters whose baggage has made them inconsolable mules: a gifted songwriter with no concept of stage management, and an experienced performer hardened by the weathering of failed marriages and declining artistic standards. They meet in an early scene that is destined to generate fireworks, but not the sort that necessarily constitutes positive distinctions. They argue, express mutual respect, discuss professional partnership, and even explode into aggressive verbal tangents, sometimes in that order. There are claims of dislike that infuse their interactions, yet they continue to find reasons to be around one another. Does the aggravation inspire them? Or are they feeding off the blatant honesty of the moment, perhaps because it is a luxury rarely afforded to them? They say that damaged souls with a quick tongue have a loyalty to those who spit back the same venom; because they understand the context of the words, a respect persists beyond the outlandish tirades. Theirs is a connection so strangely alluring that it gives the film an edge rarely seen – not even in “Funny Girl,” its popular predecessor, where the only significant relationship the female lead had was the one she shared with the audience.
On the cusp of what seems to be turning into the silent death for movie personality, great stars of the past century have entered a stasis in the memory as images of a lost idealism. One of those in particular – the face of Barbra Streisand – embodies the spirit of the most important of filmmaking eras, when conventional beauty was redefined by those whose gifts were as monumental as their artistic endeavors. A divisive figure who rose from the cinders of old Hollywood glamour, found her presence during the age of feminists and endured beyond the inert populism that would attempt to silence her great aspirations, few entertainers of the past hundred years match the depth of her contributions. To consider those achievements now is to be swept up into the awe she has created in the hearts of her most loyal admirers, many of whom have come to regard her legend as pervasive even among her most accomplished peers. On a chance occasion this last August she and I finally came face-to-face during one of her rare concert tours, which culminated in an even more resonant realization: midway through her 70s there is a sense that no other living performer is as motivated to spread richness among members of the audience, even when they might not be as cognizant of the realization.
The most notable curse of time at the movies is the dulling of the proverbial edge of shock, the realization that a once-sensational gimmick can be annulled by the ongoing sensory expansion of more modern exercises. Erotic thrillers, perhaps the most notorious of testing grounds for these standards, have worn the most erosion. Once embraced with a certain apprehensive enthusiasm, they came and went in the latter half of the 20th century during a boom for suggestive imagery, when the marriage of sex and violence was seen as the most challenging of weapons for a director to wield. Nowadays it seems almost blasé to consider their work in a context of more ambitious shock value, especially given the rapid advance of both implications. It is rare to find any R-rated film now, for instance, that doesn’t celebrate the extremes of gore or the thrusting of excited human anatomy; they are as much a staple of pop culture trends as a mere cuss word or insulting gesture. Would a movie like “Fatal Attraction” work at all now against what has become the norm of genres intoxicated by the excess of human exposure?
Once upon a time in a faraway Hollywood boardroom, producers and executives fashioned the premise for what would become the most impenetrable force of mainstream movie genres: the family film formula. Few avenues have been as loyal to the perseverance of that standard as the animated feature, though their images are often devised to blur one’s awareness of the process; the belief is that the more distinctive or colorful the style, the less likely it is for someone to pick up on the conventional nuances or predictable indicators. But those well-versed in film cartoons eventually find themselves deciphering the output with two minds: as a child-at-heart in search of harmless adventure, and as a seasoned adult with the nerve to understand the mechanics functioning behind the curtain. A good movie will allow the former perspective of circumvent the skepticism of the other, but others may simply sell their illusions too candidly for us to forget their underlying clichés. As I watched Disney’s new “Moana,” both sides of that brain engaged in a tug-of-war that tempered my enthusiasm for what would otherwise have been a harmless experience.
“Princess Mononoke” begins with a voice that throbs over the chords of an ominous score, heralding the arrival of a menacing reality. The scene is the edge of a lush forest, fogged over, and its docile facade is jarred from silence by the breaking of branches and the flight of frightened birds. What lurks among the tall trees is not man but rather the monster man has created, a former deity of nature that has withered under corruption and now seeks to lay waste to those in his path. The peaceful denizens of a nearby village are triggered into frenzy by its dismaying appearance – a massive boar covered in an armor of maggot-like parasites – but among them is a young man whose face never seems to engage in the nightmarish rampage. It is his destiny to fight the creature and ultimately be cursed by it, leading him towards quests of intricate mystery that will blur the lines of fable and reality in ways that are rarely told (or at least done so with such precision). Those opening impulses exist above the sphere of ordinary exposition; the fact that they occur at all in an animated film is cause to contemplate the elasticity of movie genres, especially in a time when most are geared towards much simpler tastes.
Like a substantial ratio of my readers, I don’t leave 2016 with a sense of relief or accomplishment – I walk away nursing significant mental wounds. Among recent annual passages that carry with them an arsenal of perplexing human experiences, few could be considered as volatile – or indeed as troubling – as what went on over the course of the last twelve months, when social structures were rattled by startling political fallout, world violence reached a new facet of severity, and entertainment industries faced rather troubling dichotomies. It was also the year of the death of celebrity – both literally and figuratively. As famous names from the reveries of the past faded from mortal grasp, others lost their hold on their very reputations, in a time when the lone successor seemed to be corporate entities intent on exploiting the hard-earned dollar of the escapists and the feeble-minded.
The first act of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is the frenetic embodiment of the Hollywood machine, a collection of scenes so relentless and overdone that they provide us little time to grasp the scope of their events – unless you are ingrained enough in the mythos of George Lucas’ universe to possess a thorough comprehension, I suppose. Those are the luckiest viewers, in a way, because their sense of exhilaration is likely amplified by their connection to the material, even beyond the mere notion of a movie like this existing at all. But what can be said for the rest of us who don’t own the cliff notes version of the premise, and must observe closely to attempt and piece together the fragments of the conflict? This new stand-alone chapter to the ongoing “Star Wars” saga is an anomaly that will at first seem insufferably distant. There are early moments that involve wondrous sights and notes of nostalgia, but most are sidelined by a central narrative arc that gives little time to characters or their personal experiences. Only later, once an idea has finally lodged in our mind of what everyone’s role is, do things come together well enough to satisfy the more intellectual urges of the audience. The thing about established franchises is that as much as you think you know, so little of it matters when the gears move into new positions.
I am compelled to make a few remarks about the loss of Carrie Fisher and instead am driven to expand the focus, thanks in part to the rather surprising death of Debbie Reynolds, her mother, just a day after she herself succumbed to a heart attack. In a year of so many losses and a tremendous tone of shock, the simultaneous demises of both a mother and daughter just 24 hours shy of one another is unprecedented – an event so unsettling that even those who are removed from the mourning process must regard the occasion with some level of confusion. Peers and admirers on social media have taken to the internet to denounce this troubling year as a source of disgust, perhaps, because it has been clouded by memories we desperately want to forget. But entertainment figures, for better or worse, are symbols of an idealism we treasure in our minds; when they produce good work, it becomes something meaningful. And when they die, we are compelled to react with sorrow not because we knew them personally, but because their work provided us a roadmap towards self-discovery.
A statement comes late in Werner Herzog’s “Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World” that frames the predicament of the times: “The system was designed for people who trust each other.” Those words are spoken by one of the key architects of what we now know as the Internet, a series of connections that began life in the halls of UCLA in the late 60s, back when servers were the size of coffins and the idea of sending immediate messages to great distances was an absurdity out pulp science fiction. But those dreams fueled the engines of a handful of great thinkers in those formative years, leading to an audacious task that culminated on October 19, 1969, when the first word was sent across hundreds of miles of electronic transmission: “Lo” (though it was supposed to be “log”; the system crashed before the final letter came across). The mantra “Lo and Behold” can certainly be used to describe a plethora of technological breakthroughs (and indeed has), but in those days the revolution belonged to only a fragment of people: those who had faith, conviction and loyalty to the movement, decidedly opposite of the perspective of today’s world. What is a mere person living in the here and now supposed to feel when he hears about these details, long after the origins of cyberspace have been blurred and the net is seemingly in control of vitriolic bullies who are capable of inflicting great harm with words and actions?
The first time any young journalist hears the name R. Budd Dwyer it usually occurs during introductory reporting curriculums, when the discussion shifts from writing styles and plunges into the troubled waters of ethics. Once thought to be the leading point of an argument about appropriate newsroom conduct, his very public suicide in front of television cameras has come to rest in the margins of a convoluted history in media decency, especially in the wake of a post-9/11 world of bombings, massacres and civilian beheadings. But it persists, no doubt, because there remains almost no similar conduct for people to compare it to; as such, his is a situation frozen in the shocking embrace of controversy, and a constant source of ambiguous political arguments that would like to erase his strange existence from memory. Shameless voyeurs, however, have preserved his notoriety even more than those fascinated by the puzzling circumstances leading to that tragic day, and easy is the opportunity to search the internet for those final moments, relentlessly plastered all over video feeds. Some may initially wonder if “Honest Man,” a documentary about his troubled political career, would even have been relevant if his last act had not continued to reverberate with perverse allure. Is there anyone left that cares more about the context of that moment than the disquieting inevitability of his lifeless body slumping down in front of a room full of cameras?
In the conventional sense “The Devil Wears Prada” is about a woman who finds herself at the mercy of a demanding boss and does everything possible to earn her approval. In a more conscious perspective, it takes on added meaning – namely as a metaphor for our work-obsessed culture and the growing divides between professional and personal value systems. The heroine at the heart of the matter is the embodiment of that example, and certainly there are moments where her struggles are exploited for the shallow exercises of a standard comedy plot, but why doesn’t it end there? Why does her situation persist so glaringly after the jokes fade and the characterizations erode? Because her life reverbs with the same struggles and contradictions that affect most in the American work force, where it has become a perfunctory routine to abandon personal space and mental safety nets. More serious or satirical contemplations would have burrowed down to the root cause of that irony, but this movie is far less concerned with reasons than it is with the ramifications. And that’s ok, you might say, because the surface of the matter is potent enough to engage our emotional investment, and the characters identifiable enough to sell this pitch with some level of relatability.