This week: Big Brother is watching you read, and making fun of Aaron Sorkin never, ever, ever gets old.
In some ways, Brave is a disappointingly conventional addition to Pixar Animation's acclaimed oeuvre. The protagonist is a princess, the story follows a traditional fairy tale path, and the humor indulges in some uninspired stereotyping and a few dumb, shoehorned pop culture gags that I consider beneath the beloved studio.
At the same time, the voice acting is delightful, the animation is breathtakingly lovely, and the two central characters, a girl and her mother, are drawn with heartfelt nuance. Princess or not, a female protagonist struggling with a nonromantic relationship is unusual in American cinema, and Brave movingly handles its strained mother-daughter bond. Perhaps only the astronomically high expectations that Pixar's name engenders make Brave disappointing. I still laughed, I still gasped, and even minor Pixar makes me cry.
This week I actually have my act together well enough to post links—hooray!
Alien is a classic horror movie in large part because of its simplicity. Stark and raw, it plays on primal fears with no subplots or distractions from the conflict at its center. That is its brilliance, the understanding that elemental needn't mean shallow. Alien, in its simplicity, is intelligent and incisive and ridiculously terrifying—and Prometheus, director Ridley Scott's new film in the Alien universe, is none of those things because it is a convoluted, overblown, pretentious mess.
Maybe—maybe—Scott and his collaborators deserve credit for their ambition, for trying to make something grand and profound. But I'm reluctant to give that credit because they've gone about it in all the wrong ways. There's absolutely no evident discipline on screen, no rigorous thought, no narrative insight, not even a shred of storytelling capability, just self-indulgent, would-be philosophical ramblings reminiscent of a college freshman getting high in his dorm room on a Friday night. Despite the pretensions of grandeur of Prometheus, Alien is not only scarier but also much smarter and more deeply provocative. Prometheus might as well be called Icarus—it's failure would be tragic if weren't so incredibly annoying.
Director Wes Anderson consistently uses an immediately recognizable, easily parodied style—something that's earned him a great deal of ridicule along with his success—so it's rather sweet, honestly, that he's sticking by it, haters be damned. No one's going to kill his love of slow-motion tracking shots, rapid character-to-character pans, relentlessly symmetrical framing, and intricately idiosyncratic, dollhouse-like sets.
And although I've giggled over the sheer obviousness of Anderson's signature aesthetic, I have to admit that I think it works in context, even if many of the shots look absurd in isolation. Anderson's style serves his pet themes well. His movies dwell on loneliness and sadness, a nostalgia for a time that never truly existed and a yearning for what can never be, and the preciousness of the visuals provides an added poignance, a sort of Charlie Brown–style melancholy. It's no coincidence that The Royal Tenenbaums (Anderson's greatest film) goes so far as to include Vince Guaraldi's iconic Charlie Brown Christmas theme on the soundtrack.
Moonrise Kingdom doesn't reach the heights of Tenenbaums (which I consider a genuine masterpiece), but it does represent a return to form after the unevenness (to put it charitably) of The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited. Wistful and idealistic and perversely funny, Moonrise is classic Anderson. If you could never stand the guy's movies, there's no way you'll make it through his latest, but if you consider "she's my Rushmore" a beautiful tribute and start crying at the first few bars of Elliott Smith's "Needle in the Hay," Moonrise is a lovely confection, less bittersweet than its predecessors but just as piquant and delicate.
The New York City Ballet on Sunday, May 27.
I think it must be almost impossible to see silent movies—really see them—as they must have been seen back in the nineteen teens and twenties. To my own jaded eyes, the air of camp hangs over almost every film, in the hyperstylized acting or the ridiculously melodramatic scenarios or the hopelessly stilted intertitles. That's not fair, and I'm sure it keeps me from truly appreciating any number of great works, but it is what it is. The conventions of cinema have changed so much since the silent era that it's hard to go back.
People try, though. Martin Scorsese's movie Hugo is nothing if not an earnest love letter to the work of visionary silent-film director Georges Méliès, and Hugo is surprisingly effective at bridging the gap between modern sensibilities and Méliès's luminously imaginative aesthetic. Choreographer Susan Stroman isn't as ambitious as Scorsese, but I wonder if she had a similar motivation in creating Double Feature, two short ballets inspired by silent films. It definitely is an interesting idea, as ballet, too, relies on exaggerated acting and simple, elemental story lines. But while Scorsese works to banish the kitsch that has gathered around silent films, Stroman giddily embraces it—in a way that feels a bit condescending, to both the movies and her own audience. To be sure, Double Feature is cute and funny, with a few especially great scenes, but it's also rather shallow and flighty. There are worse things, of course, but I can't help wondering if this merely good ballet had had the potential, with higher aim, to be great.
I know the lack of timely posts is starting to get a little bit ridiculous, but Sean and I decided last night to fly to Florida for my grandparents' sixtieth wedding anniversary celebration.
Expecting a time travel story to make sense is asking to be disappointed. The paradoxes are virtually impossible to resolve, so if you think too hard about the plot, you're almost certain to run up against nonsense. Better to just go with it, let the story take you where (and when) it will, and enjoy the ride.
That's my philosophy, anyway, so believe me when I say that my nagging dissatisfaction with the time travel in Men in Black III has nothing to do with anything so banal as logic. I don't expect the time travel to make much narrative sense; I do, however, expect emotional sense, some insight into how people think about the arcs of their lives, their regrets, their hopes, the paths taken or not. That's the underlying point of time travel storytelling. If you can't get that right, you just have a lot of cutesy riffs on history, real and alternate.
Men in Black III just has riffs, and those riffs aren't all that cute, at least not consistently so. Worse, the feints at an emotional payoff to the time travel go nowhere, deflating the whole enterprise. I wasn't expecting profundity, but a few solid emotional beats aren't too much to ask. Yet aside from the brilliant decision to cast Josh Brolin as a young Tommy Lee Jones, nothing about Men in Black III feels particularly inspired or sharp.