Thursday, January 5, 2017

Thoughts on a Slight Year in Movie Watching Allows "The Lobster" and "Moana" To Somehow Be Reviewed Together

The Lobster will frustrate some and titillate others.
In years past, I'd usually be putting together a top 10 list for last year around this time. That was something that seemed worthwhile back when I saw north of 125-150 titles a year, but now, it doesn't make much sense. I’ve only seen about 30 movies released in 2016 – what kind of credibility could a top 10 list possibly have?

That being said, I'm simply conditioned to do a year in review in my head around this time. And what's amazing is how consistent the make up at the top seems to be in terms of the types of films I rated highly. As with every year, I found myself intrigued by a few idiosyncratic independents that certainly won't be for everybody, but I also gravitated toward a few down-the-middle entertainments that just hit their notes so well that I fell really hard for them. In the past, movies like Spring Breakers (reviewed here), Ex Machina (reviewed here) and The One I Love have represented the former, while undervalued mainstream stuff like Gone Girl (reviewed here), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (reviewed here) and Bridge of Spies have represented the latter. This year, it’s the absurdist, dystopian black comedy The Lobster and Disney’s animated musical Moana representing the two extremes toward the top of the heap.

Written and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, The Lobster depicts a society in which newly single adults are rounded up and sequestered in a hotel where they have 45 days to find a new romantic partner. Those who succeed are permitted to move back to society and embrace coupledom; those that fail are turned into an animal of their choosing and released into the world.

The film focuses on David (Colin Farrell, against type and fantastic), a schlub who arrives at the hotel with his brother (a dog) after his wife leaves him. If you think the premise sounds weird, I can tell you the execution is even stranger. The hotel has all kinds of odd rules, including a prohibition of masturbation despite a requirement for unfulfilled sexual stimulation by the service staff. There's also the fact that to be paired off with a mate, you must share a defining characteristic (an unsubtle critique of reductive online dating sites). David had previously connected with his wife over their nearsightedness. Meanwhile, an acquaintance with a limp laments how he can't couple up with a limping women because her limp will heal. In desperation, he periodically bashes his face so he can mimic her chronic nose bleeds. The couple struggles to make things work, and so naturally they are assigned a child to smooth over their relationship issues.

Hotel guests are given an opportunity to extend their stay by hunting rogue singles out in the wilderness. David eventually escapes the hotel and falls in with this group of loners, and he even forms a connection with a nearsighted woman (Rachel Weisz). However, the loners have rules of their own, and romantic connections are forbidden.

I don't want to give much more away here, but I will say that each time you think you know where the film is going, it pivots and does something else. I'm not entirely sure the film holds together the whole way through, as it's busy making so many different observations that it begins to meander and lose focus. However, the dry deadpan remains incredibly enjoyable throughout, and the whole thing is beautifully shot with ace acting from the principles, not to mention a great supporting cast that includes John C. Reilly, Léa Seydoux and Ben Whishaw. Besides, I'm convinced the lack of focus is part of the point. The Lobster serves as a thought-provoking satire of the superficial construct of courting, the societal pressure for coupledom and the insanity of love-induced sublimation, but it leaves plenty of room to poke at the potentially stifling nature of singledom as well. It's a Rorschach test about romantic relationships that's guaranteed to provoke a response, just not any sort of consistent one.

Look at how good the hair looks in Moana. And this is just a screen grab.
Along with this year’s Zootopia, Moana is the latest evidence that Disney Animation Studios has emerged from their early 2000s doldrums to stand alongside sister studio Pixar at the top of the animation heap. Both films will likely land Oscar nominations for Best Animated Feature, and Zootopia’s got the better chance to win because of its message about xenophobia and tolerance in this time of tremendous political uncertainty. It’s a great film, but for my money, the more traditionally structured Moana is even better.

In many ways, Moana is Disney returning to their formulaic bread and butter. It’s a musical about a princess directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, the duo who brought the world Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, and The Princess and the Frog. It even features a catchy “I want song,” which is that song in which an unsatisfied Disney protagonist sings about what they want (think “Part of Your World,” “Someday My Prince Will Come,” or “When Will My Life Begin”). Well, actually Moana (Auli'i Cravalho) is quick to point out she’s not really a princess, but she does have “How Far I’ll Go,” which is as catchy and affirmative as an “I want song” gets. Plus, as the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) points out, “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.”

As Kristen Page-Kirby with the Washington Post points out, that statement is rooted in a legit critique of Disney’s Princess Industrial Complex, which has long used the term princess to describe all of its central females, even the non-princesses, who, to be fair, usually transcend to princessdom by the end credits via hooking up with a royal dude. Unfortunately, this has long been displayed as the crowning achievement a Disney heroine can achieve.

Disney has been subtly introducing more feminist friendly messages into its princess stories. Take Frozen for instance. I initially objected to bits of the film (reviewed here), but having seen it a jillion times now (thanks, Cassie), I realize how deft it was in dealing with all of this stuff. Anna’s part of the story is largely focused on critiquing the ludicrously flimsy romances that typically define these tales, and Elsa (not a princess, but a queen) has way more pressing things to deal with than whether or not she can find a man.

Moana takes things a step further, giving us not only a rare non-white heroine (she’s Pacific Islander), but also the first Disney princess story with absolutely no romantic interest (yes, I know, Merida from Brave, but that’s Pixar not Disney). Instead, Moana’s whole arc is more of a traditional hero’s journey (save the day by restoring some gem to its proper place), something that seems pretty old hat, until you consider how progressive it is to put a female in this type of story. Moana isn’t finding a man, getting saved by one, or serving his needs; she’s finding herself, fighting her own battles and serving her people. In that respect she’s following in the footsteps of Mulan (another non-white heroine, which is interesting) and, well, no one else (and even Mulan had a love interest, albeit not a prince).
Like many of their recent films, Disney goes for the easy "aww"
with an early kid-centered prologue.

Like Tangled, this is basically a two-hander about a girl and the rapscallion who’s begrudgingly helping her, but Maui is more like a selfish version of Aladdin’s Genie than a love interest. It’s probably more accurate to call him a Jack Sparrow-type. He’s a fun and even complex character, and the film gets a lot of mileage out of a running tattoo gag that reminded me of a similar stylistic Greek chorus from Musker and Clements’ Hercules. Plus, Johnson really livens up the film when he’s around and even delivers with Maui’s big musical number “You Welcome” (which, more than any other song in this thing, even the one Lin-Manuel Miranda actually sings, makes crystal clear that the Hamilton mastermind concocted much of the soundtrack).

The film isn’t perfect. At times, it feels like it takes too long to get where it’s going, but that time is well spent and results in making the leads feel more dimensional than typical Disney creations. Compare it to the tonally similar yet tighter Brave (reviewed here), and it becomes evident how much that time adds narratively. Even if it is a bit overlong, the music is fantastic and the animation is outright dazzling. John Musker and Ron Clements are old hands at all of this, but this is their first go around with CGI, and it’s damn impressive how well they carried this thing off. Look at the way water or hair move in this thing. It’s transfixing.

Plotwise, Moana is as formulaic as The Lobster is unconventional, but both films left strong impression on me. Once I get around to seeing more films from last year, both may not remain in my top 10, but they’ll remain close, because they represent truly worthwhile cinema from 2016.
The Lobster A-, Moana A-