Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Reviews from gulag: The cover story we're going with is "borough-sized gas leak"

Welcome back to lazy reviews for lazy movies!  This week in lazy, there's Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which is kind of awful; fortunately, in the non-lazy column, we also have The Edge of Seventeen, which was good.  Note: there shall be some relatively minor spoilers for Fantastic Beasts.

It's 1926, and Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is a Hogwarts-trained cryptozoologist on the final leg of his global expedition.  Arriving in New York, New York, with a magical suitcase chock-full of supernatural critters, Newt's mission to catalog  and sample is derailed almost completely once his beasts are suspected of being responsible for a rash of magical disasters which threaten to reveal the existence of Wizard America to its secular counterpart.  In the process of escaping his accusers, Scamander teams up with a sympathetic Auror of the Magical Congress of America, Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), as well as her mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) and, last but not least, the random Muggle who accidentally got roped into their mystical shenanigans, Jakob Kowalski (Dan Fogler).  But if any of them hope to survive, Scamander and his friends must clear their names, ensure that the mundane world and the magical realm remain healthily segregated, and prevent the real villain of the story (Colin Farrell) from raising up a monstrous "Obscuris," which turns out to be capable of wiping out all of Manhattan, both magical and regular alike.

So congratulations, nerd, if you knew what even half of the proper nouns in the preceding paragraph meant.  But at the risk of ruining your fangasm, I probably should mention that I dumbed it down a little bit anyway.  "Muggle," you see, is the British epithet for "regular human."  In America, however, our grand wizards use a different and much less credible word, "NoMaj," when they lower themselves to refer to those of us without magic in our blood.

As I am me, and I evidently have some kind of legitimate disorder, this minor linguistic disconnect led me down the dark rabbit hole—trying to figure out if, back in the 1770s, Wizard America fought a War of Wizard Independence against Wizard Parliament and Wizard England and Wizard King George, and, if so, did that mean there was a Wizard Glorious Revolution?  A Wizard Magna Carta?  A Wizard Norman Conquest?  And at that point, I realized: why the hell are the wizard states so incredibly determined to keep the two worlds separate, when it would be easy, and I mean Goddamn trivial, for their ancient and powerful orders to have established their own above-ground polity that didn't see fit to arbitrarily tie itself to human institutions and boundaries?  The reason, naturally, is that the Harry Potter novels are based in low fantasy, and are therefore required to bend their mythology around something that appears to be our real world.

But there is absolutely no good answer to that vexing question in any of these Harry Potter movies, including this one.  That remains the case even though this question forms the fundamental basis of the whole universe's underlying plot, insofar as just about every villain in the series is some kind of dire fascist who wants to tear down the barrier and put the human race to the wand (that is, just as soon as he's finished figuring out which wizards live, and which ones go to the Wizard Gas Chambers instead).  Before, it was Voldemort; now, in this prequel, it is an offscreened, Goldstein-from-1984-like fugitive by the name of Grindelwald.  Even so, Grindewald has an obvious onscreen adherent in the form of MaCUSA's mean-minded bureaucrat, Percival Graves, whom we find being played by Colin Farrell with an alt-right haircut, just in case we hadn't gotten the picture yet.  (Or it's just a 1920s haircut, but either way, repressed memories of Winter's Tale rise up, threatening to drag me back down to hell with them.)  Meanwhile, on the side of Muggle supremacy, we have Samantha Morton, playing a 20th century witchfinder general.  Her goal is to uncover, persecute, and ultimately liquidate the secret wizarding community.  And, much like the proverbial story of the dog and the speeding car, you really have to stop and wonder exactly what this bigoted idiot thinks she's going to do with all these wizards and witches, were she to really, truly catch them.

Here's the rub, though: "what's the deal with Rowling's geopolitics?" is simply not any kind of important question in a film series made for children.  And yet, when the ninth in that series turns completely upon the Statute of Secrecy (oh, great, another proper noun), you wind up thinking about Rowling's Fake Wizard History anyway, and whether their commitment to invisibility was ever a remotely good idea in the first place, given that some mighty asshole is just going to tear that veil to pieces regardless, and in the meantime maybe some of these all-powerful mages could cure some cancers, or maybe help us fight the Real Nazis.

Of course, the preceding three paragraphs strongly suggest two things.  One: I have never read a single damned word that J.K. Rowling actually wrote, and hence I almost certainly come off as an ignorant jerk.  Two: this new Potter-related product is simply not that interesting or enjoyable on its own merits.  Its nominal premise—that is, the premise that's etched into the title of thing—is the story of Newt Scamander, wandering the world and rescuing and/or enslaving various magical animals.  Frankly, that seemed like a pretty cute idea to make a movie about.  But director David Yates is here to disabuse you quickly of any notion that his movie will be about Scamander's quest (for that part's over before the movie even starts), or that his movie is going to be particularly fun in any other way.  Yates, turning in his fifth monochromatic Potter movie in a row, has grown so terrifyingly resistant to any color other than gray—even the color of Scamander's (allegedly) magnificent  menagerie—that his film would've seemed noticeably livelier had it been shot in black-and-white instead.

(And yet, please, let's be fair: Yates and his film's scenarist—that selfsame global sensation Rowling, presently adapting herself, because what would professional screenwriters know about writing movies that she couldn't pick up on the fly?—do see fit to insert a few moments of fantastic beastliness into their movie, which I'll remind you is called "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them," thanks to a few key creatures escaping from the magical geometry of Scamander's steamer chest.  Perhaps needless to say, each of them has their own silly name, their own arbitrary behavior pattern, their own uninspired design, and their own multi-gigabyte file worth of semi-competent CGI rendering; and if you like Rowling's marginalia, I suppose I really can't imagine that you might find these scenes unpleasant or boring.  But, since I kind of hate Rowling's marginalia, and since they are clearly not worth talking about in any other context, I won't—except that I'll happily admit I did rather appreciate the miniature Groot thing, who clings to Scamander like he was its mother, and can also pick locks when called upon to do so.)

Anyway, at least the proper Potters had a justification for their darkening palette.  Yet I guess this one really does go in pretty much the exact same direction, so I can't say it's entirely inappropriate, even if the specific choice here reads a lot less, "this film is serious business," and a lot more, "this film is set in the 1920s, and apparently I, David Yates, am a shameless hack."

In the end, what Beasts represents is a helplessly anodyne fantasy adventure, with a few good ideas spread far between, and mired in 21st century action movie tropes that were already old years and years ago.  There is the hero who falls ass-backwards into heroism; there is the villain who's evil mostly for the sake of it; and, in the end, there is the great big Thing in the Sky Above New York.  (Indeed, it's even worse than most such efforts at Septembersploitation, for in Beast's climax, it hits you like a diamond bullet that, in 1926, the Manhattan skyline wasn't worth destroying yet.)  Beasts suffers from prequel problems, too, since we know in broad strokes that nothing that happens will really matter.

It seems like it could have been fun, though, and yet it escapes me exactly how.  Perhaps it might have been better if Eddie Redmayne, who I am now convinced is a good actor but also an almost-offensively obvious one, played Newt Scamander less as a cringing geek—he casts his eyes downward in almost every scene, as if he's afraid he's going to be struck with a newspaper—and more as what the scenario honestly seems to call for, a Doctor Who-type ascended nerd, lost in his own bullshit, and who can muster up only a tenuous appreciation of or concern for the problems of his fellows.  It might have been better still if Tina were not swallowed whole by Katherine Waterston's herculean struggle to keep up an American accent, and if she and Redmayne therefore had some manner of pleasant antagonism between them, rather than what they actually get: her yelling, and him looking sorry.

Finally, I think there's a decent chance that Beasts might've been legitimately good, if it had been reworked from the ground up to foreground the sole completely effective element of the whole film.  That would be Scamander's accidental sidekick, the Muggle he neglected to mindwipe, after bouncing him with a whole bunch of magic.  Dan Fogler is in fine form as Kowalski, all wide-eyed, slack-jawed, "I'll-wake-up-soon-right?" wonderment.  (And there's just something honestly charming, in a deciedly old-school way, about the cute little miscegenation-fetishist romance that pops up between him and Queenie, the witchy flapper, whom we are not remotely prepared to believe when she says she's never met a NoMaj before, considering that she lives in New York, and is, also, an adult who presumably sometimes goes grocery shopping.  In any event,this relationship  is rather more charming than the one that "develops" between Kowalski and Scamander, for this relationship appears to be largely nonexistent outside of their tepid Screenwriting 101 exchanges.  It's definitely more charming than Scamander's relationship with Goldstein, for this one exists only in Yates and Rowling's imaginations.  And it doesn't show up on the screen until a final farewell scene, the likes of which would come off as genuinely confusing, if it weren't also rote-as-shit pseudo-romantic boilerplate.)

Still, if he were absolutely nothing else, then at least Kowalski represents something altogether novel in this franchise: a human being, whose only defense against wizardly magic is to punch it right in its stupid, ugly, elfin face.  Or maybe it was a goblin.  I can't tell, because I'm not a racist.

Of course, even when you spot the film Rowling's comparatively low level of interest in what I presume must be, ironically, her most unique character of all time, Kowalski is pretty ill-served by a script that forgets he's right there, sitting at the same table, while people talk (in the third person) about "obliviating" him.  So: even in a screenplay where Rowling jams hatefully self-aggrandizing lines like "I don't got the brains to dream this!" into Kowalski's mouth, that dinner scene still has to contain the film's most arrogant moment—that is, when it assumes that just because the audience might know what Rowling's made-up English-adjacent jargon is supposed to mean, a layman who didn't would simply sit there quietly during the discussion of what to do with him, without immediately interjecting: "Hey, you swell buncha guys ain't about to murder me, right?"

But somehow, the most arrogant moment isn't also the most condescending, which is to say, its most outright insulting.  That moment comes a few hours after the credits roll, when you realize, with cold fury, that something like 10,000 people must have died during the climax of this film, yet the only thing the wizards have really accomplished when they "fix it" is simply ensure that the Muggles don't know why so many of their fellows perished.  (In the conclusion of Beasts, Jon Voigt's grieving father presumably forgets that his beloved son's organs were crushed into paste by an Obscuris, and one imagines that he will spend the next several weeks wondering why the lad won't return his phone calls.)  Rowling seems certain you won't notice this nasty turn—because her wizards did resurrect some Goddamn buildings.  That's this movie, guys.  So magical!  So wondrous!  So enchanting!

Score:  4/10

THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (Kelly Fremon Craig, 2016)
Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) is a junior in high school, with all the problems that already implies, plus a dead dad, to boot.  But when her best friend (Haley Lu Richardson) starts dating her more-popular brother (Blake Jenner), Nadine spins into a legitimate death spiral, as she alienates everyone who ever cared about her in an explosion of good old-fashioned teenage angst.  Ultimately, the only person she can turn to is her crotchety history teacher (Woody Harrelson), who can (almost) tolerate her, albeit mostly because he appears not to give much of a damn about her, or her problems.

Stevie Nicks has nothing in particular to do with this film, and while that's a pretty minor complaint, the title seems awfully generic and dumb without any textual foundation to rest it on.  Of course, it slightly lifts the veil that conceals the fact that The Edge of Seventeen, like all teen films, is a partly-fantasized, partly-idealized version of high school life as remembered by the adults in charge of its production; the curtain is disturbed a little bit more when, despite of the salient presence of texting and social media, our heroine can apparently wander in and out of her high school at will, something I had an extremely hard time doing almost two decades ago when I was in high school, and something which I understand is even harder in our modern era of heightened fear.  (Now, yes: the thing was originally entitled Besties, which is 1)somehow less true to the content of the film than the 80s rock song and 2)so dishwater dull that even fewer people would've gone to go see it.  So you can't say there wasn't a rationale behind the title change.)

Still, all those John Hughes movies don't endure because of their fashion, or entirely because of their music.  They certainly don't endure because of their general plausibility.  They endure because they remain connected to certain universal (i.e., white middle-class American) themes; and writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig is pretty consciously doing her level best to make a new John Hughes movie for the new millennium.  However, since being a "John Hughes movie" is about the best thing a teen dramedy could ever be, one is very happy to have seen someone pull it off so tremendously well, at least in terms of Craig's screenplay, and in terms of her direction of several really excellent performances, especially Hailee Steinfeld's, who has returned from the Territories to impress us once again.

Just like any good Hughes joint, it's more well-made than brilliantly-made, only now, because it's 2016, Craig gets to indulge in a few modern-day missteps, too, notably one of the single most ham-handed and obvious "something bad is about to happen inside this moving car!" scenes in a whole decade's worth of that particular formal trick being driven into the ground.  (On the plus side, there is one very well-judged shot in this film, coming somewhere in the final third, that could not communicate "desolation" any more clearly than it does.)

Not that Seventeen is anything like uncut Hughes.  There's a whole lot of Kevin Smith and Diablo Cody in this film's ancestry too, with conversations coming off as charmingly, amusingly written—even moreso than Hughes' kids, I mean, and I swear, if you were a student in Woody Harrelson's history class, you'd presume that the honest-to-God bits he gets up to with Nadine simply must have been pre-rehearsed.  Indeed, in the midst of these vicious bits, you'll find these two unlikely friends crossing a few Rubicons that would more likely engender outright hatred, but of course they couldn't just be removed from the screenplay, because this comedy does need some gags, despite a naturalistic, somewhat dour register that was never going to support too many overt laughs otherwise.  But that's the other thing; in this regard—its realism, its severity, its ability to make it seem like Nadine's problems really are life-defining—it might even do Hughes better than Hughes usually did himself.

Seventeen gets about as close to presenting a "real" teenager as any movie experience possibly could, while still being remotely palatable, and it accomplishes this near-miracle by refusing to make Nadine particularly likeable at all.  (It also does it by swerving wildly to avoid cliches that its narrative has unmistakably foreshadowed—it frankly amazes me that a giant, parent-free mansion introduced halfway through the film does not become the site of a legendary party.  Luckily, however, that "overly-written" quality I was just complaining about turns out to be an enormous boon: it means that the film can still be very entertaining, rather than turning too far toward realism, and relating instead the tale of a dumb pre-human too inarticulate yet to do much of anything but sneer.)

Still, the main thing is this: Nadine actually sucks, a lot, and even if she has reasons for sucking, that doesn't make her suck less.  And Seventeen is admirably committed to making her so bitchy and unpleasant that her friends' and family's distaste for her never seems to be the slightest bit unfair.  It almost reaches the point that her brother, mother, and former best friend seem like saints for being as patient with her as they are.  Happily, they each have enough flaws of their own—well, the brother and mother do; the best friend is only barely a character—that they get to seem like genuine human beings, too.

The genius, or near-genius, beneath Seventeen is that it's a teen movie that essentially mimicks the structure of a mental illness melodrama, which doesn't seem to me to be too far off the mark.  And, of course, it posits a cure—"growing up."  This is the part where the movie seems to lose its nerve a little bit, and while it's hard to disapprove of a happy ending, especially one that's handled well, Seventeen is palpably afraid of furthering any idea about adolescence other than "It gets better."  You wouldn't mind it so much in a movie that hadn't invested so much in its own teenage wasteland, and in the subjective reality of its protagonist's pain.  It feels just a little too easy, a little too pat, because the thing is, a lot of the time, it actually doesn't get any better.  You just get used to it.

Score:  7/10

1 comment:

  1. I have to say, I DID enjoy Fantastic Beasts, though I'm aware I had to make a million and a half concessions to do so. I do love Kowalski's tendency to solve magical problems with brute force.

    But what the HELL was going on with the Shaw storyline? Was the assassination just random? Or are we supposed to believe Colin Farrell somehow perpetrated it even though he didn't know exactly who the Obscuris was? And why does Ezra Miller have that haircut?

    It's best to ignore these scenes, which I did with gusto. I'm disappointed the franchise seems to be pointing in the direction of "wizard World War II" rather than "let's chase wacky beasts," but I liked it enough to hope that a sequel figures things out better.

    Also, yeah, "No-Maj" is maybe the most intellectually insulting term I've ever been asked to accept in a fantasy universe.