Tag Archive | film criticism

Wrapping up 2015: Carol

It’s hard to pinpoint the precise moment when Carol and Therese fall for each other. Their romance begins with stops and starts. They connect instantaneously, when Therese (Rooney Mara), working that nightmare that is retail at Christmas, helps Carol (Cate Blanchett) choose a present for her 4-year-old daughter. Carol invites Therese out. Then she invites her over. Then she invites her on a road trip. To this point, they haven’t kissed, or even expressed much outward affection. Occasionally one’s hand finds the other’s shoulder or arm and lingers. It’s 1952. We sense that Carol is well-versed in pursuing romance with women in ways that don’t catch undue attention. We sense that this is all new to Therese, but that she is ready learn the ropes the moment her eyes first meet Carol’s.

Carol is the latest film from Todd Haynes, and it is as good a film as I’ve seen in the last year. It might very well be the best. It is my favorite sort of story: of people earnestly and humbly pursuing happiness. It shouldn’t be so hard to pursue such a clear mutual attraction. It goes without saying that there are plenty of obstacles standing in Carol and Therese’s way, even beyond the year they live in. Carol is married, and seeking a divorce. Her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) knows that she has had affairs with women

I’ve read critiques that Carol is a cold, even distant film. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Haynes presents the slow-burn of Carol and Therese’s relationship as a survival mechanism, one that Carol has clearly developed over the years and that Therese is willing to play along with. That doesn’t mean the film lacks emotion. It just asks the audience to look closely, to see how two people might come alive with one another and force themselves to contain it. Blanchett and Mara are both splendid here. Watch how Blanchett conveys Carol’s open flirting with Therese when they first meet, without saying or doing anything a judgmental, homophobic stranger might notice. Watch Mara in return, and how Therese notices that it’s flirting and reacts entirely with her eyes. This is not a distant film; it’s brimming with emotion, contained within two characters who are forced to try to repress it. As a result, moments where feeling overflows feel symphonic. In a time when so many films treat sex as a perfunctory plot point, Haynes makes a squeeze of a shoulder feel like a grand romantic gesture.

Have we become so accustomed to romantic cliche that we can’t comprehend a film that presents such an emotionally honest romance? One only encumbered from full bloom by outside forces? Haynes doesn’t downplay the dangers posed by homophobia in 1952. Carol carries a revolver with her; when Therese finds it, it feels like a wake up call. Men see Therese and barrel through her obvious disinterest. A boyfriend is gobsmacked when he sees that Therese has fallen for Carol; there’s no mistaking her attraction, he just seems indignant that his girlfriend is leaving him for a woman. We sense he’d care less if she was leaving him for a man. And Carol’s husband is a minefield for her future; he’s emotionally volatile, with full knowledge of her affairs and a willingness to use them to keep their daughter away from her. He sees Therese in their house, listening to music, and can barely contain his anger.

And yet, this is a far more hopeful film than not. It is rapt with the beauty of romance. This is the most sumptuous film of the year. Not a frame is wasted. In a year full of monumental achievements in cinematography, I hope it’s Edward Lachmann who takes home the Oscar. He and Haynes craft a painterly world, not in the usual sense of shimmering artifice, but in how aware the camera is of space, of light, and of color. My favorite shot of the movie is a short tracking shot of Therese moving around her apartment. It’s a drab, spare space, the sort of apartment we expect a twenty-something retail worker to have. The camera is positioned in the rear, and everything feels at a distance, like we’re observers peering in from a window, as in an Edward Hopper painting. Then Therese opens the door, and Carol is there, bathed in the hallway light, a burst of brightness and color in the far right corner of the shot. The image comes alive. We don’t need to hear a word to know exactly how Therese feels.



Wrapping up 2015: The Revenant

Spoilers ahead

Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant is a gorgeous depiction of terrible things happening. I wish there was more to say about it than that. Many harrowing events unfold; as empathetic people we wince and cringe and remember that this is based on a true story, so there’s decent chance some of this awful stuff really did happen. It looks lovely. It’s very well acted. And aside from its intermittent gross-outs, I can’t recall much else that it made me feel.

OK, so I’m a sucker for good visuals. Let’s talk about those for a bit. Emmanuel Lubezki has nature photography down. We knew this ten years ago when he was nominated for an Oscar (which he should have won) for Terrence Malick’s The New World. Look, I’m an unabashed Lubezki fan. Whether he’s working with Malick, Alfonso Cuaron, or Iñárritu, his camera swoops into the scene and skittishly looks around like someone getting their bearings. His wide shots are always painterly but not overly luxe; pretty as they are they’re still doing their job of setting the scene. And when situations call for mud, blood, and spittle, he makes sure we feel caked in it.

I just wish it was in service of a movie that was about something more than its face value. Many things happen in The Revenant, but there’s not much under the surface. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a tracker and hunter and guide for a large hunting party. The group of 40 is reduced to 8 in the opening minutes, when a party of Arikara warriors attack the hunters’ camp. The survivors include Hugh’s son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) and John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Fitzgerald wears villainy like a medal. He repeatedly makes clear that he cares more about making his money from this excursion than any individual’s life. He tries to goad Hawk, who is half-Pawnee, into attacking him with racist diatribes. All of this is before Hugh is attacked by a bear, after which Fitzgerald really gets his evil on.

The bear attack scene has been widely talked about, and rightly so. It is a spectacular set-piece. The Revenant comes alive during its action sequences, and this one is a standout. It’s a harrowing single-take sequence that uses that technique well; it refuses to look away from the horror, keeping us trapped up close as Glass fights for his life. When it’s over, Glass is so shredded we wonder how he doesn’t bleed out in seconds. It seems likely that only the bitter cold keeps him from succumbing to infection.

This sequence, plus the attack that opens the film, are The Revenant at its best. The technical craft is so sublime, the tension so brutal that it’s impossible not to be riveted. The problem is, the film is 2 hours and 36 minutes long.

No amount of time is inherently too long for a movie, of course; a bad 90 minute film feels longer than a good 3 hour film. The Revenant‘s biggest issue isn’t its length; it’s that it doesn’t use that time to amount to much. Once Hugh Glass is abandoned by his men, the film becomes about his survival. He goes through a gauntlet of terrible things. There comes a point where these ordeals are no longer inherently riveting. He doesn’t grow as a character. Nor does anyone else. Fitzgerald, who abandons Hugh for dead and murders Hawk in the process, only grows more brazenly evil as the film progresses. Hardy, to his credit, gives this character his all. He could have gnashed his teeth and wrung his hands and cackled the whole time and it would have been more in spirit with how Fitzgerald is written. Hardy is a very charismatic actor. We reflexively want to assume his characters have depth, but Fitzgerald is maddeningly one-dimensional; his scenes consist of his doing bad things or insisting that those bad things are justified. Are more nuanced antagonist would have done wonders to give this film, and Hugh’s desire for revenge, more weight.

Hugh’s journey does have some interesting moments. He meets a wandering Pawnee hunter who feeds him, builds him a shelter, and helps him recover from his injuries. The film does a decent job of bringing First Nations characters to prominence. For example, the Arikara chief who leads the raid that opens the film is looking for his daughter, who has been kidnapped by white hunters. We also get glimpses of Hugh’s earlier life, how he lived for some time with a Pawnee tribe and fell in love with Hawk’s mother. These interludes are welcome, but feel stretched thin by the long running time.

Unfortunately, for all its beauty, The Revenant simply isn’t interesting. For the most part, it’s not even as harrowing as you’d expect. A series of unfortunate events is not inherently fascinating; we have to be invested in the people going through them. Hugh survives ordeal after ordeal, and once in a while reminds us that he wants revenge on Fitzgerald by carving “Fitzgerald killed my son” into the earth. But we don’t see him grow or change or express much emotion aside from desperation. The third act feels like it should be triumphant or cathartic or something, but it all feels obligatory. There’s been no narrative buildup, and thus no satisfying payoff. It’s not a boring film; it’s just not gripping. It’s always beautiful, and the performances are all strong. This isn’t DiCaprio’s best performance, but it might be his most… well, “most” by itself is a pretty good descriptor. He is asked to portray a man who begins his story already a weathered shell of a person and whose only arc is to slowly transform into leather. He does this as well as I imagine it can be done. DiCaprio has always been best at broad, big emotive acting, and he has ample opportunity for that here. It’s not surprising he’s the Oscar frontrunner; he doesn’t have a killer monologue, but I sense that won’t matter voters when they see him desperately carving out a dead horse’s guts to use the carcass as a shelter. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is much like the horse corpse he turns into a bed; bloody, messy, and pretty hollow.

Wrapping up 2015: The Big Short

I watched The Big Short about 12 hours after I watched Ex Machina. Ever in search of patterns, I looked within this time. Here was a film I enjoyed easily with only a few hiccups. Ex Machina left me exasperated as often as it had me hypnotized. And yet, if pressed to arbitrarily pick one (because hey, sometimes movie watching choices come down to that) I’d likely recommend Ex Machina over The Big Short, despite my numerous frustrations with the former. What gives?

Well, think of it this way: Ex Machina is a film of significant ambition that couldn’t quite figure put its pieces together perfectly. The whole assembly is a bit of a mess, but from certain angles it’s astonishing. The Big Short is much easier to appreciate at first. Its edges are sharp and its surfaces polished. But no particular angle makes me stop and gasp. It’s not particularly more than the sum of its parts either. Its aims are obvious, less starry-eyed than Ex Machina. It is an entertaining story of several men who predicted an impending economic collapse that just about no one else in the world saw coming. It delivers the goods, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

To be fair, in delivering those goods, director/writer Adam McKay and writer Charles Randolph have to work around some serious inside baseball. The Big Short is laden with financial jargon that made me appreciate how Moneyball must have read to people who knew as little about baseball as I do about investing. To explain some of the more important, inscrutable terms, the film regularly breaks the fourth wall. A string of celebrity cameos (including Malin Akerman Margot Robbie in a bathtub, Anthony Bourdain preparing fish stew, and Selena Gomez playing blackjack) explain mortgage bonds and CDOs in layman’s terms. These moments are actually quite helpful, considering how much understanding at least the gist of the subprime mortgage crisis is necessary to follow the story. But the movie overplays this hand; characters regularly stop mid-scene to deliver monologues into the camera, often to let us in on details that could easily have been provided without interrupting the scene, or that add nothing to the narrative but a wink. It becomes repetitive to the point of monotony; moments like when a character admits that a scene that played out didn’t really happen are too clever by half. Breaking the fourth wall is best used as flavoring, not a course.

Still, The Big Short is far more energetic than not. It’s aided by a set of three lead performances that aim all over the comic spectrum and land on both feet. Christian Bale provides most of the movie’s pulse as Michael Burry, a hedge fund manager whose relentless attention to detail lets him see, as clearly as if he’s reading Cliff’s Notes, that the US housing market is doomed to collapse within two years. Burry is single-minded but not unfriendly; he spends days in his office working, reading every word of every detail he can find about the housing market He bets more than $1 billion shorting the housing market, making his clients apoplectic. When confronted, he presents his findings matter-of-factly; they aren’t debatable, he says. Housing will collapse. His boss looks at him like he’s speaking in tongues.

Elsewhere, Trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) hears about Burry’s work and does some digging himself. Dollar signs in his eyes, he goes looking for business partners to short the housing market with; he’s laughed out of room after room, only finding a willing ear in hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carrell). Baum is in this profession for god knows what reasons; he despises the banks and seemingly anyone who makes any money from them. He’s open to Vennett primarily because he is so unsurprised that bankers would run a sure like housing unto the ground.

Ryan Gosling is one of the few actors who could make Vennett’s unapologetic profiteering work. His character isn’t likable, but he’s so open in his motives and gobsmacked at this opportunity that so few other can see in front of him that his attitude becomes, against our best instincts, infectious. It’s in addressing the morality of profiting off of a worldwide catastrophe that The Big Short gets a bit muddled. This isn’t a film that needs a moral center, but it would help to have a consistent viewpoint. Aside from Vennett’s zeal for profit, there’s Burry’s straightforward practicality (he’s simply doing his job, basically) and Baum’s crisis of conscience (he almost gives up at the end rather than make money off of the misfortune of others). There’s an entire separate plotline involving two twenty-something investors (played by John Magaro and Fill Wittrock) who also cash in on the meltdown, aided by a banker-turned-hippie Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt). When they begin to celebrate, he chides them, spelling out statistically how many people will suffer as they’re raking in the money.The film’s coda is essentially a warning about how the banks are going to continue this cycle of pursuing profit at everyone’s expense. It’s a worthwhile message, but it doesn’t feel at one with the film that preceded it.

These characters aren’t the cause of the crisis, of course, but The Big Short seems less than eager to explore the moral conflicts it raises. It uses broad strokes (at one point Carrell literally says “this makes me no better than them” before reluctantly cashing in) or glib winks (when Gosling speaks to the camera one last time to rub in how happy he is with his success, regardless of what we think of him). In not engaging with its characters beyond their place as the pieces in an inherently interesting story, The Big Short limits its scope and narrative impact. I don’t blame McKay. He tells a fascinating tale with a lot of humor and energy. I learned a lot about a subject I might never have otherwise. The film does good work simply in educating a wide audience on a subject we all really ought to know about. This isn’t a frustrating film. But my frustrations with Ex Machina came from a place of love for what it did well and a desire to see more of that. The Big Short goes down easy, but it never compelled me to want more.


Monday’s movie you might have missed: Blue Ruin

Revenge is a tiresome engine for storytelling. While it makes constructing the plot easy, I don’t usually care much about a character whose only motivation is killing another character.

Movies about revenge have to offer me something else. Kill Bill, for example, is as much an exercise in style, choreography, and dialogue is it is about revenge. Beatrix Kiddo talks about her all-consuming need for revenge, but by the end of Vol. 2 we have learned quite a lot about her and her relationship with Bill. And there comes a point during a fight scene as wild as the showdown with the Crazy 88 that the plot ceases to matter; we’ve gotten this far, so we might as well sit back and enjoy the spectacle, regardless of how we got here.

Blue Ruin goes about as far from Kill Bill’s approach as is imaginable. It is a spare, uncompromising film that follows one man’s revenge process, never shifting its focus to anything else. In doing so, it becomes hypnotic. In being about nothing but revenge, it humanizes the process. Revenge is not the driving force of this story. A person is.

The story of Blue Ruin is simple as they come. A Dwight (Macon Blair) is a homeless drifter who finds out that the man who murdered is parents has been released from prison. He tracks the man, named Wade Cleland, down, and stabs him to death in a public restroom. He takes refuge with his sister Sam (Amy Hargreaves), who hasn’t seen him in years. She is furious at him for his recklessness, but glad that her parents have been avenged. Dwight watches the news all day. The murder is never reported. He realizes that the Cleland clan put two and two together. They never reported Wade’s murder. They are coming after Dwight and his sister. This all plays out in the first act. The rest of the film is about Dwight’s attempt to keep his sister and nieces safe, and finally put an end to the cycle of bloodshed that he has reignited.

This plot alone could have been the basis of something conventional, action driven, and very likely boring. But writer/director Jeffery Saulnier is obsessed with details. He does not simply abandon scenes and locations that have served their purpose in the plot. This attention to detail gives Macon Blair a remarkable amount of material to create a memorable character in Dwight. Early in the film, Dwight attempts to steal a gun from an unattended pickup truck. The gun has a trigger lock, which Dwight spends a considerable amount of time feebly trying to remove, before finally giving up and throwing the weapon away. Sailnier could easily have dispensed with this scene, and shown Dwight showing up to confront Wade with the knife he ends up using. But instead we get to learn something about Dwight. He seems hopelessly ill-equipped to carry out a one-man war against a family that seems to have a proclivity for violence. Blair gives an extraordinary performance here, as a man whose instincts for survival are at constant odds with his need for vengeance.

Scene after scene lingers just enough on details that bring these characters to life. When Dwight seeks out his old friend Ben (Devin Ratray), in hopes of getting a gun from him, they talk about everything but Dwight’s revenge plot. Ben is happy to provide a weapon, and doesn’t want to know the details. We sense he knows exactly what is going on. Perfunctory, plot-driven dialogue quickly gets boring. Characters talking like people is far more interesting. Ben and Dwight talk about old times, in the broad, sentimental way friends who haven’t seen each other since those old times sometimes do. A brief exchange about an old photograph Ben still has of them both reveals a lot about the fondness they still have for one another. Consider what Dwight asks Ben to do with the photo; it’s a beautiful example of a film covering the bases of its plot through character-driven action.

Dwight’s final, inevitable showdown with the Cleland clan at their home is drained of the kinetic energy of an action film. By focusing so heavily on Dwight’s preparation for it, Saulnier ramps up the tension. It’s reminiscent of the sort of sweaty dread of No Country for Old Men, which relied far less on action than the anticipation of a character with his finger on a trigger. The difference is that Blue Ruin provides no primal forces of evil like Anton Chigurh. No Country For Old Men was about the baffled people left in a killer’s wake. In Blue Ruin, the baffled people are the ones doing the killing. At one point in the film, Dwight reacts with horror after someone who was trying to kill him is shot. Ben tells him, like a parent trying to comfort a scared child, “That’s what bullets do”.

Monday’s movie(s) you might have missed: Summer Wars and Wolf Children

No country’s cinema has so thoroughly explored the family as Japan’s. The master Yosujiro Ozu focused almost exclusively on interactions within families in his films. Animation, such a robust part of Japan’s cinematic legacy, is no exception. Among animators, I don’t think anyone, from any country, has asked what it is to be a family with such inventiveness and curiosity as Mamoru Hosoda.

Today, I hope to bring to your attention two of the very best animated films of the 2010s: Summer Wars and Wolf Children. Both films center squarely on families: one a huge, sprawling clan gathered for a reunion, the other a mother and her two children, simply trying to get by.

Summer Wars is one of those films so loaded with detail that explaining all of it can seem dizzying. The protagonist is a young man named Kenji. He is a mathematician who helps moderate a social network called OZ. OZ is a vast virtual world that is half-RPG, half every app you have on your smartphone. You can have a duel with a ninja rabbit there one moment and take care of your banking the next. Kenji gets invited by a pretty young woman named Natsuki to her great-grandmother’s 90th birthday party. She explains that her family expects her to have a boyfriend, and she asks him to pretend to be hers. He accepts. We think we know where this story is going: a sweet summer romance plot, where the two characters find they actually like each other. It goes there, sure, but that ends up only being a fraction of the film’s plot.

There are two overarching plots in this film. First, Kenji goes around meeting Katsuki’s family. Her great-grandmother, Sakae, is a matriarch in every sense of the word. The family bends to her wisdom, and thankfully she possesses an ample supply. A vast army of parents, cousins, uncles, aunts, and every other form of family in between shows up for the birthday party. There is nowhere to run without bumping into multiple sets of scrutinizing eyes.

The other plot involves a hostile AI called Love Machine taking over OZ. This has global implications: most of the tech-using world uses OZ, including entire banks and militaries. Somehow, Summer Wars manages to meld these two storylines together. Kenji ends up getting mistakenly blamed for creating Love Machine, and ends up having to recruit Katsuki’s family to defeat it. In classic anime fashion, we see these showdowns in full theatre: real time fights play out in the virtual world between the family’s characters and the AI.

What I just described could easily be a plot for a mindless yet fun story. What elevates Summer War is how deftly it works the story of a family into the fabric of its gleeful sci-fi absurdity. Long before we witness combat between avatars, we meet every member of the family. There are long breaks in the action for dinners, conversations, and arguments. The story is always driven the characters, and the cast is large and lovingly written. When the showdown with Love Machine ends up threatening the world, and the family rallies together to attempt to defeat it, it’s a joyful moment. The climax of the film involves a series of escalating stakes we might expect from a sci-fi adventure, but the stakes are higher and the moments more meaningful because we know and like everyone involved. We are rooting, not for a character, but a team.

Wolf Children is a major change of pace from Summer Wars, but its plot is similarly unusual. Its protagonist is a college student named Hana. She meets and falls in love with a man who (it is revealed on their first night together) is a werewolf. That doesn’t affect her feelings, and they settle down and have two children together; a daughter, Yuki, and a son, Ame. The children are also werewolves, changing between their human and wolf forms as they see fit. What happens after that I will not spoil: this is a film that spans years in Hana’s life, whose power is derived from the small moments it uses to tell the story of those years. Wolf Children is abundant with splendid scenes that deserve to be seen without being spoiled. This film is full of heart and empathy. At its core, it is about the struggles of raising children with few resources. Hosada gracefully integrates the wrinkle: the children are werewolves. Raising human children is hard enough. When an argument can turn into a literal dogfight, or if your apartment forbids pets, it creates challenges that demand some extraordinary resourcefulness from Hana.

Hosada takes this material seriously. We are soon drawn into its rhythms, its portrayal of a family with a unique set of challenges. We never see the expectations of genre storytelling creep in. Hosada has more important questions to ask of these characters. As the children get older, do they have to continue to hide their identities? How do they handle those identities? Yuki and Ame begin to develop fiercely independent streaks: Yuki wants to blend in with her friends, while Ame finds himself drawn more and more to the woods. Hosada casts no judgements on the characters for the decisions they make for themselves. He is simply observing, letting this most unusual and fascinating story play out on its own terms.

Hosada is a storyteller of immense ambition and precise touch. Both Summer Wars and Wolf Children could easily have succumbed to their inherent strangeness. Instead, both films achieve a familiar quality without pandering to genericness. Summer Wars achieves this through an extraordinary balance of its stories. Wolf Children, meanwhile, is a fable told by a scribe more interested in the characters than in lessons. Both films are lovely to look at as well. OZ is one of my favorite science fiction movie locations. Like the very best places sci-fi can take us (my personal favorites are the cities from Dark City and Metropolis) OZ is both vividly rendered (my favorite detail is a shot of half a dozen stadiums, each for a different sport, floating in an arch in the void) and replete with possibility. It is full of charming minutiae and seemingly infinite in size. And Wolf Children is often extraordinarily beautiful, in Hosada’s mastery of its tone and his attunement to its emotional beats.

Mamoru Hosada has been cutting his teeth in animation since 1999. He worked on shows like Digimon and Samurai Champloo before getting his feature film break with The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. That film, a more straightforward sci-fi (based on a beloved novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui that has had 8 total film and TV adaptations), hinted at what he was capable of as a filmmaker: taking old-fashioned genre plots and propelling them with strong characters. Summer Wars and Wolf Children show Hosada in full command of these strengths. With both films, he turns plots that look like grab bags into stories of remarkable beauty and power.

Toil, tears, and sweat: The unlikely beauty of Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice

In college, a favorite debate among my friends was over which adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was superior: the 1995 BBC miniseries, or Joe Wright’s 2005 film? The public consensus usually seems to be the miniseries. This is understandable. Its 327 minute runtime allows it to more thoroughly cover the breadth of Austen’s novel. It has charming performances and is as faithful to its source material as one could imagine an adaptation being.

And yet it’s Wright’s film I find myself returning to again and again. Its opening shots are what convince me, every time, that this is how Austen ought to be adapted, and how her books rarely are. We meet the characters in a rush. They are lively, hair tousled, faces sweaty, the sort of traces of dust and dirt on their skin and clothing that appear after one gives up appearing tidy in front of their family at around midday. No attempt is made to quote or evoke the legendary opening lines of the book. I won’t quote it here because you know them, I know them, and the last person you spoke to today knows them too. The movie knows that we know them. Quoting them would be a matter of course, something perfunctory and expected.

But how often do we think about those words? How charmingly conversational they are. Austen disarms us by jumping headlong into the nuts and bolts of the story; in her bluntness, she makes us feel at home. The opening to this film has the same effect. I have four sisters and a brother. I grew up always an arm’s length from at least three cats and a dog. I cherish fictional homes that clatter with the the sort of perpetually awake half-chaos I grew up immersed in. Joe Wright’s vision of Pride and Prejudice matches mine.

So, too, does Keira Knightley’s take on Lizzie Bennet. Watching the film again recently, I was taken aback by her ferocity. There are many ways to play Lizzie Bennet. Jennifer Ehle’s take was drier, her wit more for her own amusement than for weaponry. Knightey uses words like a sniper. They are her first plan of attack, and she is always ready to open fire. Knightley’s performance puts a charge into the film that Wright uses to propel the narrative.

There is a headlong urgency to this film. It’s too easy to say it feels rushed; if anything, this suits the material. The tone is set the moment Brenda Blethyn, as Mrs. Bennet, realizes that a window has opened for one of her daughters to be married. She pursues setting up her daughters (primarily her eldest, Jane) with a relentlessness that comes from true desperation; they are poor and have no inheritance coming their way, meaning that good marriages are the main source of security for her daughters’ futures. She buzzes with energy in every scene she’s in. Her contrast to her husband (Donald Sutherland) is amusing, but his comparative aloofness serves the narrative as well. He seems to be coasting, hoping for as little stress as possible in his older years, unable to keep up with the pace of his family. When Lizzie comes to him at the end with the announcement that she loves Mr. Darcy, he is about four steps behind everyone else.

Period films rarely resemble a time and place in which people lived. They usually represent a vision through a modern lens, either romanticized or a deliberate deconstruction of romance. Wright attempts neither here; he aims for realism, and succeeds. The Bennet household is constantly in movement. Animals wander in and out of the frame. Lizzy’s youngest sisters, Kitty and Lydia (Carey Mulligan and Jena Malone- this movie was astoundingly prescient in casting young stars before they took off), seem to have learned sprinting before walking, dashing from room to room. Her middle sister, Mary, is glued to the piano. Despite her practicing, she is quite bad. The Bennets have quite a lot in common with the Sycamore family from You Can’t Take it With You. Both families have little use for convention and want simply to lead happy lives, pursuing their personal interests. They also have some trouble adapting when those conventions are thrust upon them. In the cheerfully un-capitalist world of Kaufman and Hart’s play, the the Sycamores always get by, rejecting currency and drawing anyone willing to listen into their lifestyle. In Austen’s world, male primogeniture isn’t so easily brushed over.

Finding a way through the quagmire of societal mores that reject the Bennets’ lifestyle is one of this story’s most potent sources of drama. Wright vividly highlights the contrast between the Bennets’ world and those of the Darcys and Bingleys of the world. Wright is perhaps a bit too fond of tracking shots, especially the type that call great attention to themselves. But in this film, a long tracking shot does its job well, swerving through a house during a ball as the Bennets attempt to make it through a ball at Bingley’s estate. The tracking shot condenses a lot of story material into a sequence of a few minutes, far more than enough time to take in everything that Darcy ends up objecting to. Our greater knowledge of this family makes us sympathetic to them, but empathy for Darcy’s view is essential for this story. The shot keeps things centered on the action. Rather than seeming like a shortcut, the camera turns voyeuristic. Not in a prurient sense, but rather like Kitty and Lydia frantically going from room to room looking for gossip material.

Jane Austen films so rarely move like this.  Austen’s prose is awake. When her characters aren’t speaking, Austen is moving them like chess pieces, setting up as many interesting encounters between characters as she can until the story is spent. On the DVD commentary for the film, Wright said he wanted to make the film as subjectively from her perspective as possible. We meet characters when she does. Major story beats (Bingley’s apparent rejection of Jane, Darcy’s sudden proposal, Whickam running off with Lydia) hit with such pace as to leave her breathless. Even the film’s indulgences (cinematographer Roman Osin makes constant use of how the magic hour looks on the English countryside) coincide with Lizzie’s emotions. When we take in a wide view of a cliffside, she is doing the same thing. It’s a moment to breathe for the audience, and no doubt the same for her. Likewise, a trip to Mr. Darcy’s gargantuan estate feels hushed and overwhelming. It’s a startling contrast in the difference between his wealth and Lizzie’s relative poverty, and yet the sheer beauty of it is itself breathtaking.

Matthew Macfadyen makes no attempt to make Mr. Darcy a heartthrob, and that is right for this film. It is invested in Lizzie’s perspective, it would be a mistake to make him immediately attractive, to make the audience swoon before Lizzie works through her dislike of him. Macfadyen plays Darcy as well-intentioned and socially awkward, woefully ill-equipped to match Lizzie’s initial weaponized verbal contempt. His proposal to Lizzie, and his reaction to her rejection, contains some splendidly subtle acting. Tom Hollander, as the hopelessly stiff Mr. Collins, also nails a scene where Lizzie rejects a marriage proposal. Mr. Collins is a uniquely Austenian character, and Hollander’s performance is equally unique. And somehow, Wright landed Judy Dench as Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Her role demands the sort of authority and spite that Dench can deliver in her sleep. Casts this deep are a luxury. The give every scene the opportunity to be memorable.

The BBC miniseries does cover far more of the novel. In many ways, television is an ideal format for adapting novels if your aim is to adapt as much of the written word as possible. However, Wright’s film captures the spirit of Austen more than any other adaptation I’ve seen. Above all else, it is a delight. This is not just a film about conversations, but the places where they take place. This story is driven by the heartbeats of characters driven by high tempers and emotions. A film like this discredits its material when it becomes a respectful recitation. Wright’s visual bombast works because it is in perfect synch with the massive emotional peaks and valleys of the story. There is a moment near the where Darcy and Lizzie have at last fallen in love, and they rest their heads together as the sun rises symmetrically between them. It’s Wright at his most self-indulgent. For this movie, it’s perfect.

Puzzles and poetry and Upstream Color

Every now and then a movie will present itself as a puzzle only to be revealed as a poem. A puzzle is a series of abstract elements with no apparent meaning or connection. In working out the connection, you derive the meaning.

A poem, I think, is best summed up by this quote from the film Bright Star: “The point of diving into a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore but to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out, it is an experience beyond thought.”

It’s tempting to see Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color as a puzzle. It provides tantalizing details about its world without fully explaining them. Its characters are frequently as at a loss over what’s happening as we are. This is a film told in passages, some sinister, some confounding, some heartbreaking, some sensuous.

I have written before about how I disagree with the suggestion that Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is a “tone poem”. It’s a film with a story to tell, it can just be hard to see if we don’t expand our scope to include the entire history of the universe. Upstream Color is more clearly structured as poetry, with three clear stanzas, and a strong sense of tone and rhythm.

The opening act of Upstream Color is an unnerving deepdive into the bulk of its exposition. We see a man extracting grubs from the roots of orchids. He kidnaps a woman named Kris, forces her to ingest a grub. Almost immediately, it becomes clear that the grub has a hypnotic effect. She obeys his commands. He tells her that a few sips of water will sustain her, and she seems convinced. He has her write out Henry David Thoureau’s “Walden” page by page, turning each piece of paper into a chain. He uses her hypnosis to extract all of her money from her account. It’s an astoundingly detailed and specific form of extortion. One could see this character (called the Thief) as the protagonist of his own crime film. As it is, he is putting the pieces of the film into play.

Kris snaps out of her hypnosis enough to eat, and to realize that she is infected with a parasite. She attempts and fails to cut it out, as it has grown huge in size, pulsing underneath her skin. She then is drawn to the woods, where a man has uses sound waves to attract the parasites within her. He extracts the worm from Kris’s body, transfers it into a pig, and then deposits her in a car on the side of the road. She has no memory of the events that have transpired. She attempts to return to work only to find she’s been fired. She has lost all her savings, but there was no apparent theft; security footage shows her withdrawing her money herself. Kris has no choice but to try to move on, but from what she does not know.

This bizarre first act reads like an avant-garde film, but plays out in actuality with the precision of a thriller. The difference here is that this setup is not for a heist, but a love story.

Kris meets a man named Jeff. They connect emotionally without seeming to know why. Both have strange habits. Jeff makes paper chains as one might mindlessly bite their nails. Kris likes to swim at the gym’s pool, gathering pieces of debris from the bottom of the pool, reciting Walden. Kris and Jeff are souls troubled for the same reason, they don’t know it, and yet that uncertainty, that loss of what they do not know draws them closer.

All the while, on a farm, the pig farmer (called The Sampler in the credits) from before wanders through his drove, occasionally leaning close to one. Through the pig, he can observe the lives of the people once infected by that pig’s parasite. It’s sinister and touching at the same time; this man knowingly participates in the theft of people’s autonomy, and yet he seems invested in the observations. One heartbreaking stretch involves a man whose wife collapses shortly after he rebukes her attempt to make amends after an argument. The man relives that last moment over and over again, imagining different outcomes as his wife lies comatose in her hospital bed.

This material is undoubtedly too abstruse for some, and that is understandable. I chose not to try to figure it out, to simply drift as a curious observer of this strange world. This is a strange film, but at its core there is a purity to the emotions on display. Kris and Jeff quietly, at times wordlessly, deconstruct the void that binds them. At the same time, they experience symbiosis to their ungulate counterparts’ behavior.* Kris and Jeff engage in impulsive, sometimes strange behavior. They get married out of the blue. They experience moments of mutual terror, hiding together in the bathtub with an axe.

*at this point, whether or not you will like Upstream Color might easily be determined by whether or not the idea that a human love story is simultaneously reflected by two pigs with parasitic worms in their brains holds any appeal to you
Like a poem, it’s easy to discuss a fall into a rhythm when discussing a film like Upstream Color by simply taking each stanza and describing it. And as with poetry, that can shortchange the film’s artistry. Upstream Color is a film of stunning beauty. You cannot see its $50,000 budget on a first glance. This is a film assembled with utmost care. Like the best work of Jim Jarmusch and Terrence Malick, each shot feels carefully constructed, each as significant as the one before it. Shane Carruth directed, wrote, and stars in this film. He also shot it and composed its beautiful ambient soundtrack. One of the film’s most beautiful shots begins as one of its ugliest; a shot of a dead pig in a river bursts into a bloom of color flowing down the river, the shock of an image of death slowly becoming something bizarrely lovely, an ode to the cycles of nature.
Upstream Color is as opaque as it needs to be. The love story at its center is surprisingly pure. The film suggests a small world of people like them, deposited on the side of the road, left to answer mysteries with no answers. That Kris and Jeff came together, the movie suggests, is odd. It throws off the controlling forces of the Thief and the Sampler. We have a slightly clearer view of things than Kris and Jeff do; we know why they connect, and we wait to see if they can figure it out themselves. The level of that connection becomes the driving force of the movie; whether or not Kris and Jeff solve their personal mysteries is not as important as that they came together to do so. There’s a moment when Kris cannot stop swimming in the pool, as if in a trance. She swims, retrieves broken pieces of concrete from the bottom of the pool, and recites Walden. How Jeff reacts to this shows a side to relationships that films rarely think to explore: not romance, but understanding.

The most Studio Ghibli moment of all is not what you think

The single most Studio Ghibli moment of all Studio Ghibli moments occurs in Whisper of the Heart. It’s not a moment of artistic splendor or imaginative wonder, but a throwaway line by a girl who’s mad at her dad.

It occurs when Shizuku is at her best friend Yuko’s house. They are about to discuss some major boy troubles. Yuko glances at her dad sitting in the living room. He greets them cheerfully. She whispers to Shizuku “we’re not speaking,” or something to that effect, while the dad appears to be utterly oblivious to this apparent tension with his daughter.

I think about this moment, in the context of cinematic world building, a lot. Yuko is a secondary character in this film. She has some key scenes, a minor arc of her own, but it’s all backup to Shizuku’s goings-on. Yuko’s dad never appears again. It’s a throwaway line of dialogue with absolutely no bearing on the plot. And yet it packs a lot of information that gets us thinking about these characters.

Is Yuko playing up her conflict with her dad? Or maybe she has a strained relationship with her dad, and this is a regular occurrence? We never know: the film doesn’t linger on the dialogue. Shizuku also doesn’t have anything to say about it.

But also consider that Shizuku and Yuko are best friends. The line is the sort of thing people actually say to their friends that rarely ends up in movies. Normally, such a line would have to be followed up in the story. Chekov talked about guns but we apply to the rule to just about everything. Instead, its passivity is actually a very subtle indication of Yuko’s comfort in talking to Shizuku.

Studio Ghibli films are regularly marvels of packing a lot of information in small packages; one of my main gripes with the English dubs is how often they fill silent moments with unnecessary verbal exposition. The films are masterpieces of less-is-more storytelling. This scene is not important at all to the plot. But Yoshifumi Kondo and Hayao Miyazaki obviously saw it as a moment to flesh out this world, a chance to know these characters a little but more.

In Miyazaki’s fantasy films, he fills the screen to the brim with detail, often hiding incredible works of art on the outer edges where we might never notice them. Isao Takahata’s masterpieces of quiet real-life, Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday, are full of moments that show that there is no better way to learn about someone than to see what they do when nothing else is happening. In this contemporary film, one of the very best made by Studio Ghibli, there are no mythical monsters and sentient lamps to put on screen. But there is still ample worldbuilding to be done.

As I said before, Whisper of the Heart‘s drama is constructed entirely around the anxieties of growing up and realizing that you are going to leave behind all that is familiar to you. That Whisper of the Heart takes every possible moment to make that world as familiar to us as it is to Shizuku is one of its greatest strengths.

The Babadook: Take a look, it’s in a book

Horror movies rarely resemble true nightmares. It is possible for a film to be sufficiently scary with enough frightening stimuli. But to make us feel trapped and bewildered? To not simply frighten, but shake the ground beneath our feet? That is the sort of horror that I remember most a week later, when I’m awake late at night.

The Babadook is being marketed as a demonic funhouse thriller, akin to The Conjuring. The two films bear little in common, however. The Conjuring used a grab bag of old-school horror tricks to create a very scary thrill ride. It knew its audiences wanted a good time, and it delivered. The Babadook is frightening. But while The Conjuring left me giddy with post-scare endorphins, The Babadook left me trembling in its wake. Most horror gives the audience enough enough distance to remain oriented even as the protagonist is running dizzy for their life. But The Babadook puts its two protagonists; a woman named Amelia (Essie Davis) and her 6 year old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman); through a brutal fight for their sanity and their lives, and it makes the audience feel every blow.


The Babadook occupies a space somewhere in between We Need to Talk About Kevin and The Exorcist. All three films are about mothers driven to their breaking points with the realization that something is unnaturally wrong with their children. The difference lies in the types of evil the films deal with. Kevin in We Need to Talk About Kevin is an evil person, pure and simple. Regan in The Exorcist is an innocent child who has been possessed by an evil spirit. But both films are primarily about the brutal tests their mothers endure for the children’s sakes. I think people forget that The Exorcist spends more time on Ellen Burstyn running her daughter through every medical and psychological test available than on the exorcism itself, which only comprises the final act.

Like both of these movies, The Babadook begins with a mother sapped of resolve, caring for a son whose needs seem beyond her capabilities. Whatever problems they are suffering at the beginning of the film will soon be dwarfed by the events that unfold. Where The Babadook falls on the KevinExorcist scale depends on whether or not those events are caused by the evil spirit of the film’s title. I won’t spoil the film by answering that question here. More to the point, by the end of the film I was so drained it didn’t really matter.

The Babadook is surprisingly empathetic as descents into hell go. Endurance horror is usually aggressively cynical. Consider the nihilism of the French New Extreme films, like Martyrs and Inside. Both excellent movies, neither with so much as a whisper of hope. The Babadook starts off without a hint of horror at all; it is simply the story of a woman still grieving the loss of her husband and perhaps in over her head in trying to raise a son who needs more care than she can provide without support. That Amelia’s husband died in a car crash as he drove her to deliver Samuel at the hospital complicates her relationship with her son, to say the least. She has never emerged from the shadow of that day, and Samuel only now seems to realize that he has been living under it his whole life. Amelia reaches out to her sister, but gets no reciprocation. Her elderly next door neighbor loves her and Samuel, but she is frail and can only offer so much help. Amelia doesn’t seem to have any friends or deep relationships. Samuel isn’t doing too well at making friends himself. The one solace Amelia and Samuel have is their nightly bedtime reading.

This is a stage we’ve seen before. It is a versatile one. In another movie, Amelia and Samuel might make a friend or two to help them find stability. Or perhaps it would be a bittersweet story about the inherent struggles of being a single mom. This isn’t necessarily bedrock for a horror movie. Had I not known this film’s genre going in, I would have been surprised that it was a horror film. Most horror films telegraph their intent. The most common tactic is to open with a shocking sequence, to rattle the audience before beginning the plot. Consider the infamous first-person murder that opens Halloween. But there’s nothing to suggest that anything unnatural is afoot in the opening of The Babadook. This is not a happy family, but the goings-on are still firmly placed on a scale of normality. But when Samuel requests that Amelia read him a new book- titled “Mister Babadook- at bedtime, things begin to veer off the scale.

Let’s talk about the book that gives the movie its title. It provides some of the most frightening images in the movie. It is a pop-up book for the type of children who grow up into horror movie fanatics. When I was a child, I was a huge fan of Keith Moseley’s horror pop-up books (choice title: “Some Bodies In the Attic”). They were playfully gruesome but still very dark, confirming my suspicions that attics were places scary spirits and their skeleton friends gathered in their spare time. I imagine Moseley would recoil at the images within “Mister Babadook”. The book itself is crucial to setting the movie’s tone: the drawings within nudge across the line from spooky (say, Emily Carroll’s “His Face All Red”) to sinister (like Emily Carroll’s “Out Of Skin”)*


*By the way, please read all of Emily Carroll’s comics. She is brilliant.

After the first read through, Amelia considers the book to be too frightening for her son, but otherwise nothing unusual. Samuel initially reacts as children often do to frightening books, taking it completely seriously. He starts to see the demonic Mr. Babadook everywhere. His behavior worsens. He injures his cousin, throws tantrums that would test the patience of a saint. It’s the Babadook’s fault, he says. He starts bringing homemade weapons to school, and gets suspended. He needed them to protect himself and his mother from the Babadook, he says. Amelia, already at the end of her endurance when the film begins, starts to turn on her son. Understandable impatience and anger turns to shocking verbal cruelty. This could all still simply be a tale of familial woe. But we begin to wonder, just a bit, if that is too simple an answer. And that’s when the film hooks us and and refuses to let go.

The rest of the film deserves to be seen without being revealed. Writer and director Jennifer Kent is in astonishing command of this story. As darkness overtakes Amelia and Samuel’s lives, we are never sure whether or not it’s the doing of the Babadook, or simply their inevitable personal unraveling. Kent doesn’t cheat. There’s no “it was all a dream” obfuscation. She builds a completely believable world, introduces the possibility of otherworldly evil, and sets things into motion. We are in the same place as Amelia and Samuel. The possibility of the Babadook’s existence is no more frightening than the possibility that Amelia is simply falling to pieces.


Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman deserve far more plaudits than awards-givers will likely bestow on them. The movie rests on their performances, and they do far more than simply carry it. Davis finds every color on the gradient of exhaustion. I wondered how the hell she made it to the end of the movie, like a pitcher tossing a complete game on no rest. And Wiseman gives a performance of fearsome believability and energy. I grow weary of critics who dismiss child actors as simply being themselves on screen. It is a task for any actor of any age to stand up to this material and not just withstand it, but to be completely convincing.

Credit also goes to cinematographer Radek Ladczuk, production designer/art director Alex Holmes, and art director Karen Hannaford. The Babadook was filmed in sun-bathed south Australia, the film’s use of light and dark is essential to its tone. The outdoors aren’t much of a respite for Amelia and Samuel, but it’s a welcome diversion from their enclosed tomb of a home. The home becomes a character in itself. At one point, Amelia says to Samuel “we just need to get out of this house”, and I just about nodded in agreement. Without ever calling attention to the home in the usual horror movie way ( your usual dramatic exteriors and long shots down dark hallways), Kent instead slowly makes it feel claustrophobic.

The Babadook is one of the best films of this year, and yet difficult to recommend easily. You should see it if you want to see a superb movie. Just don’t expect a grand old time. It is a deeply unsettling experience, in a way that burrows deep and dies there. It is an assault on the most paranoid recesses of our minds. It wields empathy like a weapon; without such an understanding of its characters, it would not be nearly as effective. I actually hoped that Amelia and Samuel were under attack from a monster, and not simply caught in a personal death-spiral. I hoped, for their sakes.

Big Hero 6 and the pleasures of animated superhero movies

My favorite superhero film remains The Incredibles. No superhero film before it or since has so deftly balanced so thoroughly engaging a story with an unrelenting sense of fun. Oh, there have been contenders for its belt. Heath Ledger’s performance as he Joker in The Dark Knight is one of those pitch-perfect turns that elevates the entire movie by setting a tone that reverberates throughout the whole film, like Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. As someone who has never hopped on the “Batman is the best superhero” bandwagon, The Dark Knight won me over by being the Joker’s movie.

This summer produced two films which announced their candidacies for my “favorite superhero movie” mantle: Captain American: The Winter Solider and Guardians of the Galaxy. Winter Soldier was a film blessedly devoid of plot excess, lean and thrilling. Superhero movies that trust in there lore- in this case, resting on Steve Rodgers’s lingering sadness over Bucky Barnes’s “death”- to drive the story without relying on excessive exposition are immensely satisfying. Make no mistake: Winter Soldier has more than its share of cheerful and goof moments, but it frequently ventures into shadows.

On the other hand, Guardians of the Galaxy was unabashedly goofy. In Chris Pratt it found the perfect star for this approach. Pratt has been one of the most charming actors on television for years. In Parks and Recreation, which boasts one TV’s most talented comic ensembles, he is frequently the standout performer. A lesser actor might have turned Peter Quill into a poor man’s Tony Stark, a repository of sass and snark and not much else. Pratt injects an sincere, just-a-bit sensitive core behind the smartassery. Pratt’s performance elevates the film much like Ledger’s elevated his, just in a different direction. Guardians of the Galaxy is a fun film, but without Pratt it could easily have teetered into a constant series of reminders that we weren’t supposed to take it too seriously. In an age dominated by sarcasm and irony, Pratt’s comic gift is how thoroughly he doesn’t break the fourth wall, and how convincingly he makes just about any setting feel like home.

But still, there was something missing in both those films that The Incredibles had, that special something that elevated The Incredibles to a higher tier: the ability to have fun with their material while still taking it seriously, and effortlessly changing gears between both tones without missing a bear. Having one overriding tone is not a flaw, but when sorting out my personal hierarchies, it can be a deciding factor. The Incredibles is no less interesting or engaging to me than The Dark Knight and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, no less willing to have fun with its material than Guardians of the Galaxy. But it has more fun with its material than those first two films and none of the arms-length self-awareness of the latter. The Increidbles is as earnest in its convictions as the 1978 version of Superman or the 2002 version of Spider-Man, only with none of their corniness.

I felt some of that same energy watching Big Hero 6. It’s not as good as The Incredibles or even Winter Soldier. Butt is the first superhero film since The Incredibles to take its material seriously without a stone face, to radiate with the joy of simply being fun without being obligated to find the material silly. And that both The Incredibles and Big Hero 6 are animated plays a big part in this sort of appeal.

I love animation for its ability to make any world feel fully alive. A live action film can be undone with poor special effects. Our point of view, no matter how otherworldly the plot might be, is always going to be rooted in reality. Sam Raimi’s 2002 version of Spider-Man suffered mightily for this; at times Spidey looked so rubbery that it broke the trance. Animated movies can render lo-fi universes without worrying about this effect- the immersiveness of the world tied to the scope of the artist’s vision. A literally sketchy film like Don Hertzfeldt’s Rejected is no less convincing in depicting its strange little universe than a technological wonder like How to Train Your Dragon 2, because realism is not the goal with animation. On the flip side, a live action rendering of Dragon would likely be much more difficult to do convincingly (considering how much of the Dragon’s emotional core relies on humans and dragons communicating directly, something that feels perfectly normal in animation). And a live action version of Rejected wouldn’t be Rejected, so let’s not even go there.

I have long felt that animation is an ideal format for superhero movies. The easy immersion into any world of the artist’s choosing, that 1:1 translation of an artist’s vision to the audience’s eyes, is what has made animation such an effective medium for fantasy. With animation, there’s no such thing as suspension of disbelief, because reality does not apply.

But in the modern (let’s say beginning with Raimi’s Spider-Man) era of superhero movies, The Incredibles had long been the only animated offering.

And lord, what a good offering it was. Right from the opening, its fleshes out the core cast of characters and the rules of the world they live in with a breezy sense of humor that nonetheless sets the stage for a meaty plot. We likely wouldn’t accept a Superman movie that opened with Superman shaking a cat free from a tree and defeating an evil mime on his way to his wedding, and then getting sued after the fact. But in a world as stylized as Brad Bird’s creation, every tone he aimed for fit. The goofiness was exactly what we expected from a movie with a futuristic 1960s aesthetic. The serious moments are earned from the realistic, at times unnervingly sad and human family drama that builds these characters.

A live action movie forcing actors to navigate these narrative waters would have a difficult time avoiding tonal dissonance. When a live-action movie or show adopts an “everything goes” style of storytelling, we call it “cartoonish”. It tends to be strictly comedy, shows like 30 Rock and Malcolm in the Middle.  Navigating across tones and genres is doable in live-action, but difficult, requiring a razor-sharp directorial focus and vision, and actors game for the challenge. Films like Fargo and Dr. Strangelove are classics for a reason. But when such a story is animated, the material is much easier to digest, and more easily applicable to simpler genre films.

Big Hero 6 doesn’t quite pack the narrative punch of The Incredibles. Brad Bird’s film was as much a drama about the relationships within its titular family as it was a superhero movie, which is what helped make it so good. But Big Hero 6 does benefit from the same narrative freedom granted to it by its medium. The first major action sequence in the movie is a delirious chase sequence through the streets of “San Fransokyo”* The film’s primary villain is a mysterious figure in a kabuki mask, who moves atop a massive swarm of completely mind-controlled microbots that act as a sort of sapient, free-flowing silly putty. It’s a wonderful bit of character design, and in a superhero film universe increasingly filled with indistinct and boring villains, it was terrific just to see one who looked so damn cool.**

The scene has a reckless silliness that reminded me of some of the best Pixar action scenes- the door chase in Monsters Inc., the paper chase in Ratatouille, and my favorite, the 100 Mile Dash scene in The Incredibles. Yes, they could all technically have been done in live action, but there’s a joy in seeing a sinister figure atop a flowing black mountain towering over a cityscape and experiencing absolutely no dissonance: for that image to be as organic to the world of the movie as the heroes who are being chased. To some degree, we are always aware the special effects are special effects. But in good animation, nothing feels like a special effect. Everything feels like a part of the film’s reality.

*I admit, much more could have been done with this setting. Ostensibly a hybrid of two of the most visually distinct cities in the world, in the movie it comes across as San Francisco with occasional superficial Japanese motifs. For example, the Golden Gate Bridge has pagodas.

**While the best villains have backstories as interesting as any hero, I like to employ what I call the T-1000 rule now and then: A villain consisting of nothing but menace and a great visual design can be spectacular when done right. Technically, this might better be called the Darth Vader rule, given that that describes Vader in the first Star Wars film to a T, but it stopped applying to him the moment he uttered the word “father”. 

Big Hero 6 lacks a truly compelling story for its villain, but it ended up being so much fun that I could forgive it that. It incorporates many of the expected elements of both superhero and Disney movies (tragic first acts, cuddly sidekicks) but they are seamlessly integrated. The other people who make of the team of six (Go-Go, Honey Lemon, Wasabi, and Fred) are all surprisingly distinct, and given plenty of character despite the limited runtime. Baymax is a delightful character, aided by a gentle and powerful voice performance by Scott Adsit. The protagonist, Hiro, is relateable and likeable even when he’s going through (usually completely understandable) bad moods. Their interactions are the heart of the movie and yes, it’s the most Disney film to stick its hero with a cuddly sidekick, but this hero and this sidekick felt fresh and new. The film relies a lot of physical comedy. Not pure slapstick, but the sight of the giant puffball that is Baymax trying to move around the world when he was clearly designed not to leave a room. Again, animation enhances the appeal of these scenes significantly. Baymax is every bit as normal resident in this world as Hiro. It’s easier to appreciate his physical comedy as a character, and not as a prop or an effect.

The Iron Giant is probably the finest example of a movie using the unique advantages of combining human and non-human characters in the same universe. The way that film continually came up with ways to creatively use space to create scenes with the Giant (Brad Bird again; where have you gone, dude?) was inspired, effortlessly flowing from desperate comedy to poignant drama.

Big Hero 6 still has a knack for physical comedy, though. A partially deflated Baymax is inherently hilarious, like an old basset hound rolling on its back, rolls of loose skin happily flopping everywhere. And his limited movement makes for some terrific tension in the early scenes that is easily combined with slapstick humor; for example at one point, Hiro and Baymax need to make a quick escape that’s impeded by Baymax’s inability to easily squeeze through a window. It’s a simple visual gag, but a funny one. It’s not quite the range of The Iron Giant, but the principles are the same: when you can easily integrate physically creative character, as animation allows you to do so easily, the possibilities for scenes that are just fun are endless, which for a superhero movie can be a priceless quality.

Big Hero 6 doesn’t quite have the deft control of its emotional range that makes for the upper echelon animated films. Its story is more broad strokes than the little details that make The Incredibles and The Iron Giant really special. But it has all the usual elements in place for a perfectly fun Disney film. And yet I enjoyed it more than that. Because superhero films that are built on earnest joy are unfortunately rare in this new golden age for the genre. And Big Hero 6 was the most pure fun I’ve had at the movies since Pacific Rim, another big action movie as goofy as it was sincere. I treasure movies like that, because they know that “fun” is not a synonym for “mindless”, that you have the most fun with any activity when you are invested in it. And both of the animated superhero films of this era have been so effortlessly fun without compromising their sincerity. I can only hope the third one comes out in less than ten years.

%d bloggers like this: