Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Favorite Films: "The Rocketeer"

It's easy to love a perfect film, to watch Jaws or The Godfather or Chinatown or Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure over and over and realize that there's no way the movie could get any better.

Flawed films are tougher to love, and no Hollywood studio has made flawed films as consistently and as near greatness as Disney.  Almost from the very beginning, with movies like The Sword and the Rose, Disney couldn't quite crack the code of live-action films in the way it did with animation.  It was especially true of Disney in the 1970s and early 1980s, when it made movies that were downright terrible, like The North Avenue Irregulars and Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo, leading up to three of the most ambitious and disappointingly muted films in its history: The Black Hole, Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Watcher in the Woods.

(Side note: I've always wanted to write more about The Watcher in the Woods than I did when I wrote a review of it in Mrs. Patterson's 10th-grade English class, but I just can't bring myself to put it in the category of my "Favorite Films." Still, it remains a source of fascination and a strange sort of awe to me.  If you've never seen it, do yourself a favor and don't; if you're one of the many who think of it as a childhood horror classic, do yourself an even bigger favor and never try to rewatch it.  If, however, you're a fan of some bizarre-but-true stories of what can go wrong in Hollywood, by all means read this terrific Vulture essay on this weird movie.)

By the time The Rocketeer came around, Disney had finally reversed its fortunes.  Thanks to Touchstone Pictures in the late 1980s, it was, in fact, a powerhouse in live-action movies, and very little that Disney produced failed at the box office.  Then, in 1990, came Dick Tracy, a film so expensive and so weighted down by expectation that even Disney's studio head said it "may not have been worth it."

Maybe it's because I was of the age to have been moderately aware of all of these machinations of Hollywood that by the time summer 1991 rolled around, The Rocketeer seemed the answer not only to the perplexing problems that Disney was starting to experience, but to the feeling of sameness that had started to creep into moviegoing.

Looking back, the age of the massive blockbuster had begun, and every summer promised aggressively loud, modern action movies about cops or aliens or sometimes both.  Everything about The Rocketeer looked different.

And, in fact, it turned out that The Rocketeer was different.  Too different.  It was a disappointment at the box office.  Critics had a hard time being enthusiastic about it.  Even its fans had a hard time being enthusiastic about it.  Twenty-five years later, that sort of reception is understandable.

The Rocketeer hasn't improved with age -- but, and here's the very important but, it hasn't gotten any worse, either.  It's remained just as off-kilter, just as charmingly not-quite-perfect as it was when it debuted a quarter of a century ago.  Something about The Rocketeer is not quite right for modern sensibilities; its pacing seems off, the acting feels a little forced and fake, which is exactly how the movie serials that inspired it used to feel, too.

Surprisingly, those flaws actually make The Rocketeer a better movie than maybe it actually is. It's a satisfyingly timeless movie, an action-adventure that romanticized and fetishized a bygone era so perfectly, it seems almost to have sprung fully formed from that time, which is both a compliment and a criticism.  It has the pacing and style of a big-studio movie from the 1940s, a period (as Disney itself came to perfectly describe it) "that never was and always will be."  The thing is, the pacing and style of movies had evolved by the 1990s, but The Rocketeer hadn't.

The sheer determination of The Rocketeer's director, Joe Johnston, to maintain that romantic, heroically glamorous appeal is exactly what keeps The Rocketeer so gosh-darn neat, which is exactly what it wants to be, should be and is.  It's just swell.

That's especially true considering how, 25 years after The Rocketeer, super-hero action movies have become insular and exclusionary.  They intentionally lock out audiences who aren't familiar with their stories.  The Rocketeer doesn't have that problem; if anything, it spends so much time trying to explain its story that you want it to pick up the pace a little bit.  But, then, to want it to be a different film is to want it to be something other than The Rocketeer, which is a terrible thing to want.

But, gosh, for a movie that I profess to adore, I feel awfully critical of The Rocketeer when there's so much to love, from its exquisite visual design to its polished-to-a-sheen cinematography.

There's its brilliant, hummable, perfect score by James Horner, with one of the all-time great musical themes.  (No, seriously, this is one of the very best movie scores ever written.)

There's the casting that's perfect down the line, from Bill Campbell, who manages to be both chiseled and giddy; to Jennifer Connelly, who's simultaneously sweet and sensual; to Timothy Dalton, who is almost as good at being Errol Flynn as Errol Flynn; to Alan Arkin as the sidekick and Terry O'Quinn as a perfectly cartoon version of Howard Hughes.

And yet, I can't deny that all of the dazzlingly perfect parts of The Rocketeer never quite add up to an equally dazzling whole.  There's a reason the movie has remained locked stubbornly in the world of fan-driven love, that it hasn't been and probably never will be rediscovered: It's just slightly too entranced by its own charms to be entirely lovable.

The Rocketeer may never make it onto any list of truly great films, which is fine with me.  Everyone knows the great films.  It's the not-quite-great ones that remain little secrets.  I like my little secret of The Rocketeer, I enjoy knowing I share my fondness for the movie with people who also find so much to love about it.

From the standpoint of Hollywood and Disney history, The Rocketeer holds an interesting place, it's an early casualty in the industry's fascination with making things bigger and more expensive, but not necessarily better, and one of the bigger stumbling blocks in Disney's long and not-always-easy climb from live-action obscurity to its global dominance today.

The Rocketeer needed to be made, and it needed to be made by Disney.  Like the jetpack its hero finds, it was designed to be a game-changer, but that wasn't its destiny.   The Rocketeer never became the hit, the "franchise" that its producers wanted it to be, and maybe that's for the best, but the way it turned out, its fate makes me love it that much more.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

"The Lobster"

 3.5 / 5 

Somewhere in the same strange city where The Lobster takes place, a man is waking up in the body of an insect and another is resisting the pressure to become a rhinoceros.

This intellectually probing but emotionally distant movie is as true to its odd proposition as Kafka and Ionesco were to theirs, but there's something even weirder (if that's possible) about The Lobster and its disturbing blend of gentle comedy, wicked satire and off-putting violence.

Still, the very fact that The Lobster got made, got released and is playing in the theater right next door to the latest Marvel blockbuster is some sort of proof that not everything is wrong in the movie industry.  The Lobster takes more risks per minute than any other movie you're likely to see this summer, maybe this year.

In the opening moments of the movie, following a brief and puzzling introduction, a man named David is forcibly removed from his home and taken to a tranquil hotel in the countryside, where he seems to understand the rules that are explained to him:

Because he does not have a romantic partner, he must stay at the hotel for 45 days, during which he can try to find someone to love from among the other guests.  If he doesn't, the punishment is clear: He will be turned into an animal of his choice.  David says that if he can't find love, he wants to be a lobster.

The hotel is a blend of the Grand Budapest, the Overlook and Hailsham, the insular school in Kazuo Ishiguro's similarly strange Never Let Me Go.  Its rules are clearly understood by its residents, less so by the audience, but it's the internal, not external, logic of the story that is of greatest concern to director Yorgos Lanthimos, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Efthymis Filippou.  This is not the first time they've worked together, and on the basis of The Lobster, I'd be intrigued but anxious to examine their previous work.  The Lobster is a movie more to be appreciated and considered than entirely enjoyed.

Frequently, a shrill alarm sounds in the hotel and all of the residents are sent on a hunt the capture "loners," survivalist-types who live in the woods that surround the property and who eschew the societal requirement of partnership.  Every loner they shoot with a tranquilizer dart nets them an extra day of humanity before the transformation to animal

One of the guests has been there for more than 300 days.  She's not just a sharpshooter, she's a blank-faced cipher who, it's said, lacks any emotion at all.  As David's days and prospects dwindle, he becomes pragmatic about "love" and settles for this austere woman.  (None of the characters except David is given a name.)  He almost fools himself into thinking he'll be able to make do with her, and in his desperation the movie's themes and ideas finally begin having some emotional impact -- and then she commits a horrific act of violence that jolts David into acknowledging his mistake and throws the movie into an even stranger second half.

He joins the loners in the woods, whose leader (Lea Seydoux) explains her group's equally restrictive set of rules to a rattled David.  When she invites him on a trip into The City to get supplies, he meets another woman (Rachel Weisz), to whom he is instantly attracted.

David is caught between competing ideologies: At the hotel, having a partner is the only thing that matters; the woods, it's the only thing that's forbidden.  David considers the alternative of falling in love without pressure and without a timeline, but his approach has its own perils, not the least of which is unforeseen jealousy.

As David and (as she's called) the Short-Sighted Woman form their attachment, the movie ironically loses some of its focus.  Skewering the idea that people are somehow less than fulfilled without a romantic partner propels all of the scenes at the hotel, but in the forest the satire is less sharp and less sure.  The Lobster piles ideas on top of ideas, so that the very notion that David and the woman might fall in love is too easy a conclusion -- and when the Loner Leader turns against the Short-Sighted Woman, the result comes across as less of a logical plot development than an almost desperate effort to add one more layer of symbolism to the story.

That action, which results in something terrible happening to the Short-Sighted Woman, leads to a final scene that will prove the height of frustration to most audiences.  The movie ends mid-scene, leading us on a difficult, often fascinating journey only to unceremoniously dump us at the side of the road just before we get to the destination. Just like its first scene, the last scene in The Lobster wants to be puzzling, but by that point it's more exasperating.

At turns funny, challenging, troubling and angering, The Lobster isn't entirely satisfying, but it is something that might be even more worthwhile -- it's entirely original.

Viewed May 27, 2016 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Sunday, May 22, 2016

Favorite Films: "Lost In Translation"

The first time I went to Tokyo, I was drowning in a sea of tears that, like Alice, I had cried for myself, not knowing why, and as I wandered through the towering, endless city, whatever sadness I felt gave way to curiosity and fascination.  Tokyo was such a strange wonderland that I let go of what I did not need.

For days, I was adrift, surrounded by endless noise and movement, and yet none of it made any sense: street signs, advertisements, anything written or spoken became irrelevant.  I could be surrounded by everything and yet embraced by nothing, and it was revelatory.  I did need to pay attention to anything, I could just let it wash over me the way, maybe, a child does, wide-eyed and eager yet utterly alone even while surrounded.

Even the smallest pleasure of eavesdropping on conversations was futile, so instead of trying to discern the meaning of it all, I focused only on the experience.

In Tokyo, the only possibility for a foreigner is to live in the moment, to be so taken in by the incomprehensible sights and sounds that nothing else seems to matter.

When I finally returned, dazed and awed, into the thudding comprehensibility of everyday life at home, I tried to explain what I had felt in Tokyo, how my sense of dislocation was so overwhelming that all I could do was give into it and let it define me, even for a little while, but (like Alice again) I was unable to say what I meant; it had to be felt.

Sofia Coppola's dreamy, wondrous Lost In Translation lets it be felt.  This near-perfect reverie gives form to the strange magic that Tokyo seems to hold for many: Only when you arrive do you realize how lost you are, and how the only way to find your way back to yourself is to fist succumb to the he hazy, dizzying incomprehensibility of it all.

Lost In Translation is about two specific people, a movie star named Bob Harris and a young woman named Charlotte.  The movie star (played by Bill Murray, a real-life movie star) has too much of everything, especially experience, while the woman (played by Scarlett Johansson, before she was a movie star) has very little of anything, especially experience.

But they are both tired, physically and emotionally.  Somehow, they've become invisible in their own lives, and it has started to wear on them.  They have become fixtures in the lives of the people around them, as functional yet anonymous as a desk lamp.  They know they should matter more to people, and they know that people should probably matter more to them.

They both have ended up at the singular Park Hyatt, and the hotel is as much a character as Lost In Translation as they are, with its modern, dimly lit halls, its automated rooms with floor-to-ceiling walls that open up onto the sprawling, infinite city sixty floors below.  The hotel is as quiet and safe as a cocoon, which is kind of what it becomes to both Charlotte and Bob.  But after a while, it becomes too quiet, too safe, and when they break out of the shell they emerge in Tokyo.

For a while, Charlotte and Bob are on their own and they keep running into each other in the hotel, so they come to the conclusion that since they are both alone in Tokyo, they might as well be alone together.  That's how they spend their time together, against the city as it glows and hums at night, visually shouting out the messages that everyone around them understands but that make no sense to Bob and Charlotte.

The only thing they can do is what Tokyo requires: to be with each other in the moment.  Lost In Translation does not insist that they fall in love -- he is in his 50s, after all, and she is in her 20s -- but neither does it insist that they don't.  It's possible.  During their few days together, maybe anything is possible.

Lost In Translation is the rare mainstream American film that does not depend on a traditional plot or story structure.  It has a beginning and an end, but is mostly middle, watching its characters closely (and, it's impossible not to note, beautifully), seeing if and how all of this time alone with their thoughts will drive them to change, will result in any hard-won realization.

There is a moment toward the end when, perhaps, they do come to some conclusions.  Famously, the movie does not let us know for sure, because when Charlotte and Bob finally part, Coppola muffles their conversation.  We hear him whisper something to her.  We see her react.  But the movie does not reveal exactly what he says, or exactly how she feels about it.  Only Charlotte and Bob know for sure.  For a movie that spends so much time luxuriating in how wonderful it can feel to be disconnected, how satisfying it can be not to understand what is happening around you, its ending makes perfect sense.

Make of it what you will.  Just like everything else in life.