Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Reviews from gulag: 2016 almost got away from me, but I was too quick for it

I've been catching up on things I missed while they were in theaters: today, we're looking at Zootopia, Embrace of the Serpent, Eye in the Sky, and Green Room.

ZOOTOPIA (Byron Howard and Rich Moore, 2016)
In a weird world where animals are people, but still kind of like animals, a young rabbit from the sticks named Judy Hops (Ginnifer Goodwin) resolves to become the first bunny police officer in the big city of Zootopia.  Her dreams are realized, but only in the most humiliatingly limited way possible, until she stumbles upon a conspiracy that threatens to break her animal society apart.  With the help of a vulpine confidence trickster and jerkass named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), Officer Hops follows her enemies' traces into a labyrinth of despair.  And also into a Godfather reference joke, which is, in its own way, likewise a labyrinth of despair.

Seriously: if you cut out the fucking Godfather reference joke, which is an idea that might have even been rejected by DreamWorks (or at least cut down to a length where you don't want to annihilate your whole family and then turn the gun on yourself), Zootopia is a fantastic film, even a great one.  And if it had the supreme courage to be bleak, like its most obvious influences had a real tendency to be, then it would be able to stand like a titan amongst Disney's greatest masterpieces, as a reflection of the fallen, unfair world all of us out here in audienceland actually have the misfortune of living in.  (Imagine, if you will, that the film just cuts to black, with Hops back on her family farm, about twenty-five minutes before it grinds its gears into a stupid dance party instead.)  Of course, to expect such courage out of corporate family entertainment like this would have been a deeply idiotic thing to do—if it needs to be explicitly said, I did not—and so that's why I don't hold it against Zootopia very strongly that when it circles back to the city, it's not just for some closure, but also for a somewhat tacked-on resolution that won't break your heart.

I'll try to be far briefer than usual, for Zootopia is likely the most talked-about Disney film since good old Frozen, thanks to its engagement with the contentious (but, to my mind, mostly common-sensical) progressive politics of our age; the short version is that Zootopia uses funny animals to allude to all the nasty racial (and gender) disparities that still cleave our own dumbassed animal society in twain.

It's both a smart decision on the film's part, and (I can imagine) a somewhat disappointing one to some viewers, that within Zootopia's multitudes there's just no feasible way at all to map any of those real-life disparities onto these fictional characters in anything like a real, logically consistent, one-to-one manner.  Instead, whatever injustice the film's referring to in any given moment, with one character, is going to apply to another character pretty soon, and you're like, "Wait, I thought that guy was supposed to be white."  Personally, though, I'm going to go absolutely all in on "smart decision": it's a dangerous game to start applying animal characteristics to human ethnicities, and that's why most of the movies that actually do that were made before V-E Day.  Your best case scenario: you end up with something like Maus, a comic book wherein its author, Art Spiegelman, is compelled to break away from the story he's telling about his dad's unlikely Auschwitz survival, in order to explain that he's just now realized that his central visual metaphor makes virtually no sense and has been collapsing in upon itself this entire time.

Anyway, Zootopia's animals are animals—mammals, to be a lot more precise—and while the plot itself may hinge upon their being biologically different from another in a few key ways, the production design and animation embrace these differences with their respective whole hearts.  One of the film's greatest pleasures is in the exploration of a bizarre and wonderful world, where a whole lot of mammals of radically different sizes and functional capabilities have come to live together for no good God damned reason.  Thus is Zootopia is veritable feast for thine eyes—not endlessly inventive, but thrillingly inventive indeed, when it really wants to be.

Better yet, a lot of the animal jokes that necessarily arise out of this situation are, against all expectation, actually pretty funny.  (In fact, a lot of Zootopia's plain old jokes are pretty funny, too—most of them are delivered as sarcastic asides by Jason Bateman's dickhead fox in a role that, ingeniously, does not require Bateman to project a brand of physical charisma he doesn't really possess, because the animators can do that for him.  Meanwhile, Bateman's vocal talent effortlessly provides all the character's requisite half-credible half-sleaze, along with the more subtle emotions that he has to shade into his interactions with Ginnifer Goodwin's admirably straightforward performance as an admirably straightforward rabbit cop.  Now, obviously: Bateman was never going to be quite good enough to redeem the name "Nick Wilde," but nobody would be, because "Nick Wilde" is the name you come up with if your character was a man with a half-decade career in VHS-era porn still ahead of him, before he became a born-again Christian; whereas it is emphatically not the name you would ever come up with if your character was a Goddamned fox, because that would just be a little too on-the-nose and dumb, do you not agree?)

But, seriously, I must say this: there's a scene with sloths—let me just get it out there, okay, it's a joke about the sloths that run the DMV.  Here we essentially take a break from that dour race fable entirely—I mean, speaking frankly, it slams into the film at nothing less than a 90-degree angle to its actual message, considering that, essentially, the joke is that this one particular animal species is effectively unable to properly function—but I've got to be real with you here.  The gag's infinitely funnier than it has the slightest right to be, especially when it is neither more nor is it less than the joke you already told yourself in your head, when you heard the premise was "DMV sloths."  But maybe it's funny because the joke actually isn't "DMV sloths," it's "Christ on the cross, this bit is five minutes long already, and we're still not done with it yet!"  It's like those jokes on Family Guy where the point is that they're insanely repetitious and terrifyingly annoying, except, for reasons I can't begin to explain even to myself, it worked for me.  At any rate, it worked a whole lot better than that fucking Godfather parody—which goes on even longer than the sloths, if you can possibly believe it.

Score:  8/10

EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT (El Abrazo de la Serpente) (Ciro Guerra, 2016 USA)
In 1909, the young shaman Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), who perceives himself as the sole survivor of his people's slaughter, and hates the whites who have his whole life been pushing their way into the Amazon basin, is approached by a German scientist, Theodore Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet), and his guide Manduca (Yauenku Migue), to lead them to a place where they can obtain "yakruna," a sacred plant that Theodore hopes can cure the disease that's killing him.  Though reluctant, Karamakate is convinced of Theodore's honest intentions, and eventually agrees to take them to the plant.  In 1940, Karamakate is much older (he is now portrayed by Antonio Bolivar), and once again a white man from beyond the Amazon (Brionne Davis) arrives to ask him to show him yakruna.  Karamakate, averring that he remembers little, and that he has become in the intervening years (perhaps even because of his experiences with Theodore and Manduca) a hollow thing, a chullachaqui, nevertheless agrees to go upriver one more time.  And so we follow each man—the same man—as he visits the places once, and then again, and sees that they have changed, and he has changed, for the worse.

It is not especially hard to parse what Embrace of the Serpent is about, which is the destruction of the culture of the indigenous tribes on the Amazon; it wouldn't be hard to parse this, even if the film didn't close with a title card that explicitly said that this was what it was about.  But since that wouldn't be much of a narrative, we're lucky that Embrace couches its allegory in a proper genre, rather than just spitting out a whole stack of depressing facts.  So: on the one hand, it's a magisterially-paced yet suitably-entertaining jungle adventure film (bifurcated between two separate timeframes), and, on the other, it's a tolerably good character study of a man who sees himself as the last real Indian, who lives isolated and utterly alone within the jungle, and hates all the white people, as well as all the natives who have compromised with the white people.  And this means he hates nigh-on fucking everyone.  Including himself.

Embrace takes its cues from colonialist narratives and Indigenous Peoples Cinema generally, and not even the nice, liberal, sensitive kind.  (For one example, "yakruna" is 100% made-the-fuck-up.)   And so, it nods, in turn, to everything from Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now to Altered States to all those actual cannibal exploitation films—though the way cannibalism shows up in this movie is frankly one genius subversion of all the old stuff, even if director Ciro Guerra is regrettably disinterested in the actual gore part of cannibalism.  (And yet there's a rubber slavery scene in this film that came perilously close to making me cry in its emotional intensity, even though it is naught but a vignette amongst vignettes.)

But Sepent is always that allegory: it's a colonial-era narrative turned on its head, seen through the lens of the colonized, and that would be enough to make it intriguing, even if it remains up to Nilbio Torres' superb performance—wounded and easily-angered, he comes across as the ideal evocation of a young man's justified anger, with all the impulsivity and occasional whininess that implies—to make it really interesting.  (Meanwhile Antonio Bolivar's alternation between amusement and sadness within a container of strategic, performative "inscrutability" is almost as good, if not quite as showy.)  And so Karamakate is made to stand-in for a vanished people, but Karamakate also manages to stand on his own, and this is a very good thing.  Indeed, the movie, though in most respects brutal, isn't even without flashes of humor.  (The cut from Karamakate preparing a blowdart against the backdrop of a birdsong, to Karamakate wearing a wonderful headdress made of feathers, is a laugh-out-loud moment in a film that has never once stopped being about a straight-up slow-motion holocaust.)

Did I say "wonderful headdress"?  Well, just how wonderful it actually is somewhat left to your imagination, because Embrace is shot in black-and-white, and while I'd never go so far as to disparage it as anything less than handsome, there is nothing in the material, till almost the very, very end, that really seeks to justify that decision.  And when it finally does, it strikes you that two hours is a long time to wait for the payoff to formal trick, especially when the payoff, however well it works, is also not too terribly likely to challenge its cinematic forebears as piece of cinema.  (Give me longer, louder, more opulent and more transcendent, please.  I will never sit down to watch Embrace just to see its last three or four minutes.  You can't say that about its influences, even when its biggest influence is a full forty minutes longer.)  Still, the B+W's got grit, and grit isn't nothing when it comes to a film about plying a river through an environment as sick and grotesque as the South American jungle undergoing its death throes in the midst of an alien invasion.

Well, Embrace is better at structure, anyway: the transitions from young to old Karamakate, tending to utilize pans to and from the ever-flowing river beneath our hero, are elegant.  They impress upon you the long, long decades of his life.  We shall learn that he has, in some sense, wasted that life on a hatred of something he had every right to hate, but could never stop.  It's tragic, not accusatory; the river keeps going into the sea, and no one can turn it back, though we might struggle against the current.  The ultimate sense of Embrace of the Serpent is one of history's implacability, our individual smallness within it, and the sobering fact that what was lost in the crimes of the past is lost forever.  We can only go forward, and it has always been so, even if we stood and posed on rocks and yelled at people, and looked really cool doing it.

Score:  7/10

EYE IN THE SKY (Gavin Hood, 2016) 
We arrive upon a joint Anglo-American mission, led by RAF Col. Powell (Helen Mirren) and executed by USAF drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul), and overseen and opined-upon by something like two dozen stakeholders in-between, including British Lt. Gen. Frank Benson (Alan Rickman).  The mission is being undertaken in Kenya, and its objective is to observe and/or kill a clutch of Islamic terrorists, who have begun preparations for a suicide bombing in a residential area that is also occupied by civilians, especially a widdle girl (Aisha Takow).  In something close to real time, we witness our distant, privileged Westerners debate and fluster over whether to pull the trigger and send a Hellfire through the roof of the terrorist compound, and whether saving some innocents in the future is worth killing one innocent right now.

Eye in the Sky is the cinematic equivalent of a think-piece, I suppose, but let's not hold that too much against it.  After all, its reason to exist is to debate the morality and practicality of targeted drone attacks in the context of the pseudo-war we're presently waging against terrorism; it's not to naturalistically depict the 98% fewer fucks which one suspects that most of our well-trained drone pilots and drone decisionmakers would actually give, were they to be confronted with a situation identical to the one actually presented here.

Of course, in classic Hollywood fashion, the stakes of Eye come down to this: one single potential civilian casualty whom we get to know pretty well—who is, in fact, presented as the daughter of moderate Muslims, who likes to hula hoop, and whose father teaches her fucking math, and who's just trying to live, you know, and who is pretty transparently every atom the result of a great many exactingly calculated screenwriting decisions.  I know that sounds half-sarcastic.  But I actually mean it as a compliment: those are all good decisions, because they put us firmly in the little girl's corner, and ain't nobody who wants to see a moppet puke up her obliterated lungs after she gets stomped on by an anti-tank missile.  So Eye asks the question Star Treks II and III asked: do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one?  It does not offer an answer, because it wants you to write an essay about it yourself.  The actual answer is: of course it does, it always does, and this is a very clean-cut thing, but it's something you can wring a whole lot of great tension out of in a movie, despite your belief that the real-world professional would most likely do most of the things Aaron Paul eventually does here to try to minimize her risk, but (crucially) without Aaron Paul's movie-effective twitchiness, backsass, and recalcitrant tears of crumbling moral backbone.

That's fine stuff, true: but that's not the initial mode of Eye, and the film is the worse for it, because the first half of Eye—and sure, it's not that likely that you could have gotten a feature's length out of the second half, anyway—is devoted not to our moral quandary, but to utter bureaucratic quagmire.

Let's admit that Eye does it as well as it possibly could: it presents a vision of geographically-disparate decisionmakers, often played by great actors, sitting at their tables and arguing over Skype, and it makes it feel realistic, if not exactly real.  It does this with a certain awareness that these conversations are not great for its pace, but it knows it has to get through them, and so it looks upon them with a certain jaundiced eye that's interesting, even if a long game of Cover Your Ass is the opposite of compelling: it's beyond clear that most of the people don't actually care whether the girl dies, just whether it's legally or politically sound.  Watching characters who lack all conviction interfere with characters who don't can be tough, and that's why the best thing Eye has going for it during its many conference calls is the fact that Alan Rickman and Helen Mirren are both stewing in a barely-restrained rage.  Otherwise, it's a movie about ten Hermes Conrads from Futurama, limboing up and down their chain of command.  It's a fundamental paradox: the premise is important enough to tell a story about; but any story with that premise, even the good version, is still going to be all kinds of frustrating to watch.  And doubly so if it isn't, also, a comedy.  (Incidentally?  Whoever it was wrote the pullquote for Eye, featured in its trailers, that compared it to Dr. fucking Strangelove?  They are a crazy person, and I wouldn't trust them to water my fucking plants.)

But, luckily, this frustration is dispelled completely, every time we get back to the brassier tacks of the piece, the drone warfare procedural heart of the matter, weighted with heavy moral questions (and physical danger for the on-the-ground agent, played by Barkhad Abdi).  So the weight of bureaucracy never smothers the movie altogether; ultimately, by the back half, the bureaucracy has been quelled, and it's all drone procedural, all the time, and this part of the movie is arguably great, a white-knuckle affair that keeps dangling a little girl over the edge of a cliff called Hellfire, and threatening to drop her in.  Never gleefully—not overtly, anyway—but it's a hell of a thriller in its last forty-five minutes nonetheless, watching the watchers who keep praying she'll just go away, and she just fucking won't.  I will not say how it ends; I will simply say it ends well.

Score:  8/10

GREEN ROOM (Jeremy Saulnier, 2016)
A crappy punk band, the Ain't Rights (Anton Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, et al), find themselves in desperate financial straits, playing Hedwig and the Angry Inch-level lunch shows for half the minimum wage.  And so, when a gig comes along, paying something that even halfway represents an amount that you or I might consider real money, they eagerly jump at the chance to play it, even though this venue is (let's just say) a little bit too "east of the Cascades" for anybody's comfort.  But they go there anyway, and, by some miracle, playing anti-Nazi songs to a roomfull of Nazis goes pretty well for our heroes.  Unfortunately, their luck runs out when they return to the green room and find a body with a knife in its head, and immediately find themselves in the midst of a skinhead cover-up that won't be complete until all the witnesses are dead.

And that's the film: the Ain't Rights are trapped within the green room, and they have to fight their way through, or around, a gang of neo-Nazis who are determined to kill them and dump their bodies up the road.  There is very little more to it than that, but that's all writer-director Jeremy Saulnier needs in order to provide an utterly enjoyable little siege thriller—that is, if intense ultraviolence is something you find "utterly enjoyable," and personally I do.  Still, I can see your apprehension, for I shared it: this is stock as fuck, right?  It is—I mean, for God's sake, it's a movie made in 2016, and the villains are Nazis—but this overlooks Green Room's own particular wunderwaffe, whose name is Patrick Stewart.  Perhaps you've heard of him.

There is absolutely nothing not to love (to hate) when it comes to Stewart's Darcy, the owner of the neo-Nazi bar and the chieftain of this local band of yokel Aryans; through him, and through his interactions with all his little Nazi stooges, you get as vital a sense of the workings of this fucked-up community as you do our actual heroes in their little punk band, maybe even more.  It's as lived-in a Nazi subculture as you'll ever find onscreen—it arguably paints these monsters with more humanity than something like American History X, in the way that Darcy alternates between businesslike dominion, flashes of anger toward his subordinates' incompetence, and little touches, like the subdued, subliminal way he tries to earn the forgiveness of his chief henchman, whom he got a little too cross with a few scenes earlier.  The great thing is that this isn't even what the film does best; hell, it's not even what Stewart is doing best, which is infusing his evil with a certain tenor that mixes workaday banality with deep and abiding annoyance at the whole situation, that today is the day that he has to clean up an increasingly-large number of corpses on his property.  Anyway, you have probably never heard a villain calmly talk to the heroes through a door, promise them their safe passage, and come this close to believing him yourself; but you come insanely close here in Green Room.  It almost feels like a testament to our heroes' intelligence that they don't buy it.

So, if Darcy isn't what Green Room does best, what is?  Well, that's Saulnier's particular way of depicting violence, which we last saw in his feature debut, the promising deconstructive revenge thriller Blue Ruin.  (Presumably, Saulnier's next hyperviolent crime picture will be Red something.  Can't wait.)  Green Room is not quite as impartially observational as Ruin, to be sure—it obviously takes its side with the punk band, and often seeks to put you in their shoes, the better to thrill you into oblivion with their physical destruction—but it is very nearly as unflinching, in the way it neither fetishizes nor shies away from sights like the slashed-to-ribbons left arm of the Ain't Rights' bassist, Pat.  (Pat's played by Anton Yelchin, which probably makes him the obvious Final Boy of this scenario right from the get-go; and Yelchin is excellent, if you needed to know that.)

Meanwhile, the action is staged, much like in Ruin, with a certain random ineptitude on both sides—that is, the kind of mistakes you'd likely make yourself in a charged situation like this—and, while there's a certain inelegance to it, what it does above all is keep things terrifyingly spontaneous, so that when the Ain't Rights die and the neo-Nazis die (and, by Jove, they do) it lands with sickening thuds more often than it does with epic action beats.  (It does save one epic action beat, wisely enough, for the very last body to fall.)  It feels like stripped-down Carpenter, and if that sounds like it's ridiculously stripped-down indeed, then I think I've properly conveyed the general mood of the film to you.  But if it makes it sound like a machine, that isn't the texture of the thing at all.  It's a fleshy, sticky, failure-prone, human siege movie, and in that, it zigs when almost all of its genre fellows just follow JC's lead, usually to greatly diminished returns, and zag in all the expected ways instead.

The film only goes wrong when, in order to stretch out its premise to a feature length, it gets all kinds of undesirably plotty—characters of actual importance are introduced something like seventy minutes into this ninety-five minute picture—and there's a heroin lab that all-but-promises a few scenes of better murder through chemistry, which never manifests as a neo-Nazi's face dissolving, Raiders-style, under a beakerfull of acid.  But the film keeps hammering away, ultimately enunciating a frankly weird moral via Yelchin, and it displays a surprising (albeit dark) sense of humor all the way through its runtime.  Yeah, I have to say, I loved it to bits.

Score:  8/10


  1. I really had a tough time accessing Green Room, but I'm glad it has gotten such notoriety. It's only good for the genre, seeing a movie so willing to Go There getting buzz.

    And Zootopia was at least better than Frozen, the previous decent but wholly unworthy zeitgeist smash hit that Disney pumped out. And I never liked the sloths, but I appreciated that they weren't forcefully spliced into the rest of the picture like your Olafs and whatnot.

  2. "Still, I can see your apprehension, for I shared it: this is stock as fuck, right? It is—I mean, for God's sake, it's a movie made in 2016, and the villains are Nazis[.]"

    ...Well, you tell me, Future Hunter. Just how the fuck was I supposed to know?