Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

29 July 2013

Fruitvale Station

Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale Station is based upon the story of Oscar Grant, who was shot by Bay Area Rapid Transit police on New Year's Day 2009, Fruitvale explores New Year's Eve in the life of the 22-year-old man as he takes care of his daughter, tries to get his job back, and celebrates his mother's birthday.

The film isn't perfect. It opens with cell-phone-camera footage of the violence, and so it is clear from the movie's beginning that the story is headed in a terrible direction. At times, then, the movie feels like a done deal, as though we're wasting our time watching this man live his life, discuss his dreams with his girlfriend, help a customer at Trader Joe's learn how to fry fish, pet a stray dog. It's all going to end in violence, we know, and so I found myself, more than once, impatient with Coogler's movie.

But this is the point, actually. Oscar Grant is just going about his day. His day is difficult and filled with numerous minor conundrums. He has a lot on his mind and the stakes are high, but Oscar doesn't know that he will be shot by the police. He's just trying to figure out how to help his sister with her rent and still pay his own. If we are impatient with him it is because we do not value his troubles, these difficulties which really make up his life. The police who shot him, too, did not value this young man's life.

The performances in Fruitvale Station are excellent, particularly Michael B. Jordan's as Oscar. It is a charming, sensitive portrayal of a man trying to make all of the ends meet up. (I loved Jordan as Wallace in The Wire – and as the popular kid Steve in Chronicle – and I loved him again in this.)

Fruitvale is, finally, about the value that our society puts on the lives of young black men, the ways in which we have created a society that arrests them, imprisons them, keeps them from their families, and even kills them. And the thing that ought really to shock us about the true events of Fruitvale Station is that events like these – where actual police or transit police or security guards or neighborhood watchmen shoot our kids simply because they are black – are nowhere near isolated. If Oscar Grant's case sparked protests and calls for justice (there wasn't any, in case you hadn't heard of the case), we ought to remember that police violence against people of color both in prison and outside of it is normal for how our society works. And if the police (or a neighborhood watchman) can go free after shooting an unarmed young black man, it is because we as a society do not value black life and because we as a society have let them know that they should expect to get away with it.

What Fruitvale Station takes great pains to detail is exactly the opposite of this. Fruitvale shows us the beauty of Oscar's life, the different ways his family and his friends show their affection for him, the care he shows for others, and the fun he has with his girlfriend and even the strangers he meets during the day. This is a life with immense value, and Coogler's film is a powerful, exciting, tense portrait of the way our culture disregards lives such as his simply because those lives are lived by working-class black men.

22 July 2013

Lunch with the Interns

Aaron: You're done!
Mariah: I am. Score! What's that? Score... score something? Is that a play or... What play is that? Four score years?
Aaron: "Four score and seven years ago..."?
Mariah: Yeah! That!
Aaron: That's the Gettysburg Address, Mariah.
Mariah: Right.

17 July 2013

Monsters. And Robots. And That's All You Need to Know

Guillermo del Toro's new film Monsters vs. Robots is really excellent. Okay, so its real title is Pacific Rim, which – as I am sure everyone you know has already remarked at least once – sounds like some kind of (gay) (Asian) pornographic video, and has almost nothing to do with Monsters vs. Robots, which is what this movie's real title ought to have been.

But back to the movie itself. There are these giant fucking monsters called kaiju and they are coming up out of the ocean through a portal from another world or dimension or somesuch. And the monsters are really, really cool looking. I mean, the design on these things is absolutely incredible. They are terrifying but sort of beautiful – vaguely dinosaur-esque but also have a kind of alien sludge/slime thing happening. And they also have this radioactive blue goo that coats their mouths and innards and spills out of them like monster blood when the kaiju are slain. And the monsters evolve, so after some are killed, new monsters keep showing up, and they have uniquely different and enhanced abilities and body types. It's all very exciting.

The same goes for the robots (a/k/a jaegers), if you can believe it. By the time of the film, the robot/monster war is in its seventh year or something like that, and so the technologies, though they are really cool and obviously better than anything we have in 2013, are actually sort of dated. The paint is chipped. The operators are practiced and even a little bored. No one thinks these robots are cool. The jaegers aren't slick like Iron Man; the people who run them treat them like a day-job. In other words, this art direction is absolutely excellent: it is detailed and studied, and every single room looks suitably tired, with the slight dishevelment and carelessness of bureaucratic banality.

Okay, so the side plots in Monsters vs. Robots are not very interesting – your generic heterosexual love plot, your generic father/son narrative, your generic father/daughter narrative – and the acting is not really very good (Robert Kazinsky as the hero's bitter rival is particularly painful, and Rinko Kikuchi and Charlie Hunnam are not much better). But Clifton Collins, Idris Elba and Ron Perlman are always welcome sights, and their performances are great.

I want to say, too, that Del Toro has managed to make a film with giant robots that (unlike Transformers 1-3 or Real Steel or Iron Man 2) does more than show these robots punching one another. Del Toro's robots fire weird plasma blasts and wield giant fiery swords and do all kinds of other cool stuff. Because if ever in the future, we as a people decide to invest in giant robots, I hope we give them more firepower than the simple use of their enormous metal fists.

But look. It's all about these monsters and these robots. That's really all that is important about the movie. I found the plotting tight and fast paced, the narrative just unpredictable enough to keep me totally engaged, and the finale just plausible enough to keep me from scoffing. I think Pacific Rim is worth seeing for its awesome sound effects, its absolutely fabulous production design, and its riveting action sequences.

11 July 2013

Why Is This Movie Called Oblivion?

The first thing to say about Oblivion is that it is essentially a bad movie that is gorgeously designed, beautifully scored, and acted with enough energy and commitment to make it watchable.

Tom Cruise is a guy living on Earth in the future with his partner. They are living on a planet decimated by an alien invasion (or something) and are now harvesting all of the ocean water off of Earth in order to move to the moon Titan in Saturn's orbit (or something like that). But Tom Cruise is plagued by memories of another woman, and also feels a longing, a nostalgia for Earth that seems somehow inexplicable for a man who has had his memory wiped for "security reasons".

Anyway, Tom Cruise basically fixes droids and flies around in a really, really cool helicopter thing until a USAmerican spaceship lands and on it is the woman who haunts his dreams/memories. The rest is the mystery of the plot. And Oblivion functions like a mystery, unfolding slowly and revealing to the audience more and more of what actually happened before the movie started.

Did I mention that all of this is sort of cheesy and laughable? It sounds less silly here as I type it out, so let me elaborate. Oblivion is interested in the sort of anti-technology/love-the-earth/grow-your-own-tomatoes politics that so many films about the future find interesting (WALL·E, for example). In the midst of all of this technology, Tom Cruise loves books (well, looking at them, anyway: he appears not to have time to actually read any of them) and sleeping on the grass, and he changes into flannel and a Yankees cap whenever he gets the chance, because he's, like, longing to be real, see, and all of this futuristic stuff is really just getting in the way.

But if those are Oblivion's politics, it traffics in exactly the opposite belief. In other words, what is cool about the movie is the absolutely awesome production design. Aside from the badass helicopter, Tom and his partner live on this station/outpost thing high in the sky where they have an enormous glass-bottomed swimming pool that is illuminated at night. The computers look sleek and innovative, like something Apple will design soon, and at one point Tom hops onto a motorcycle, which is also quite cool (with further echoes of Joseph Kosinki's previous film, Tron: Legacy).

The best line in the movie: Tom looks at Melissa Leo and with pitch-perfect delivery says... "Fuck you, Sally".

The costumes are great, as well, especially the ones worn by Andrea Riseborough (Tom's partner). Marlene Stewart has her decked out in all manner of muted, Stepford-Wife outfits accented with various metallic elements. And if she always looks the same or looks over designed or just a little too put together, she also looks totally fabulous.

So the film is selling one thing (badass video-game-style technologies) while telling us it values something else altogether (playing catch next to a lake with your kid). It wants us to think that flannel and tattered baseball caps are the things we should value the most in the world, but it lingers over Marlene Stewart's beautiful, futuristic costumes. Oblivion wants to tell us to value playing records on the old phonograph, but its score is by M83. And, in truth, all of Oblivion's "values" sort of fail, while all of its design elements all really succeed. The future wins again.

In a lot of ways, Oblivion is really just a repeat of Tron: Legacy. And if you found Tron: Legacy basically inoffensive and enjoyable, it seems likely that you'll feel the same way about Oblivion.

03 July 2013

Monsters! an Adventure with Fraternities

It's not that Monsters University is a bad movie. It's just... unimaginative and feels rather tired.

Don't get me wrong; it has a couple of good jokes – the hippie guy singing folk songs in the quad, the mild-mannered mom who listens to death metal, the Carrie homage, and, well, I'm sure there were a couple more but right now I can't remember them – but most of MU is a parade of knowing winks to an audience who has already seen 2001's (totally brilliant) Monsters, Inc.

There are also the sentimental life lessons that so many "comedies", particularly other Billy Crystal films (one thinks immediately of City Slickers or Throw Momma from the Train or Mr. Saturday Night), feel that they need to teach us instead of spending more time telling jokes and making us laugh. In Monsters University these pearls of wisdom include:

1) The cool people are not really that great to hang out with and are actually a little mean. Instead of trying to spend time with the cool people, look at the group of nerds with whom you are stuck: some of those guys are pretty interesting, even if they are totally socially awkward.

2) Being a total control freak and a nerd really pays off in the end.

3) Sometimes you actually can't be what you've dreamed your whole life you wanted to be. A little cyclopean monster who resembles an olive with legs is not scary, no matter how hard he wants to be.

4) And last but not least: friendship, man. That's where it's at.

Now I'm not saying all these sentiments aren't lovely, I just wish I spent more time in the movie laughing and less time "learning" lessons like these. I put learning in quotation marks, because no one here is actually doing any learning. When a movie spends most of its running time confirming my beliefs about children, friendship, morality, teamwork, etc., and telling me things I think I already know, I generally start to feel that there is a problem. There are lots of new things to be said about friendship. And there are lots of new things to be said about popularity, homosociality, teamwork, nerdhood, and social awkwardness. But Monsters University sticks with the old clichés.