A Pan of “Pan”

Pan

Pan (Joe Wright, 2015)

Never having been a particular fan of Peter Pan growing up, I was unaware of the shifting origins of the character (changes in age, personality, motivation) or of the fact that the play, Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, came before the novel, Peter and Wendy (1904 and 1911, respectively). I had seen (I think) the 1953 Walt Disney animated version, and that was it. Yet somehow, the flying boy created by Scottish writer J.M. Barrie was such a part of popular culture by the time I came into the world that I have always felt as if I knew of him, if not about him (with many adaptations beyond Disney’s).

And now comes a new film, entitled simply Pan. Directed by Joe Wright (Pride & PrejudiceAtonementAnna Karenina) – no stranger to bold interpretations of established texts – the film promised (at least from its trailer) visual delights and a fresh take on the 100+-year-old story. Would that it were so, Joe. Instead, what we have is a movie with nary an original thought in its director’s head. A pastiche of virtually every action/adventure/fantasy/sci-fi trope ever created, Pan is almost worth watching for the spectacle of the chutzpah of it all. It turns out, however, that stealing from better (or, just previously made) work does not a quality production make. If I were pitching this to studio executives, I’d frame it as a mashup of AvatarRaiders of the Lost ArkStar WarsOliver!Harry PotterMad Max (Beyond Thunderdome and Fury Road) and even Pixar’s Up (you’ll get it when you see the big birds). And those are just the ones I can remember. I lost track after a while.

Ostensibly a prequel to Barrie’s tales, Pan introduces us to baby Peter as his mother (Amanda Seyfried, Ted 2) abandons him on the steps of a London orphanage. Flash forward 12 years, and we’re in the middle of World War II, with the Battle of Britain raging above the orphanage, where Peter (bland newcomer Levi Miller) and his mates try their best to live under the care of some obese and nasty nuns. Mother Superior is a real piece of work, and her charges have a tendency to disappear at night. It turns out she’s made a deal with space pirates (or are they just magical … I’m not sure), who come in the dark to kidnap orphaned boys. Sure enough, Peter is caught in the latest roundup, and soon finds himself aboard a flying schooner, first in the middle of an aerial dogfight and then in sudden near- (and then far-) earth orbit. Strange and incomprehensible (and also, I’ll admit, oddly beautiful)? Just wait until we get to Neverland.

Ah, Neverland, home of floating islands (that’s where Avatar comes in) and the brutal pirate dictator Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman, Prisoners, in a performance about as broad as it gets). He’s a mean one, and perhaps his cruelty is best exemplified by his insistence that his minions join him in a chorus of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I know you think I’m joking, but I’m not. From there, it’s steadily more absurd. Garret Hedlund (On the Road) shows up as Captain Hook (before he and Peter become enemies), doing his best Harrison Ford imitation (as both Han Solo and Indiana Jones), and Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) is on hand as Tiger Lily to remind us how Hollywood always gets ethnic casting wrong (although I think the overall “ethnic” portrayal of the “natives” of Netherland to be more problematic than Rooney’s casting, alone). Add some fairies and mermaids to the mix, and you have an overstuffed mess. That’s also not without the occasional flash of mild interest. Mild.

Pedestrian Filmmaking Can’t Destroy “Malala”

He Named Me Malala

He Named Me Malala (Davis Guggenheim, 2015)

At the age of 15, Malala Yousafzai was shot by a Taliban gunman in her hometown in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. The reason? She was a champion of young women’s education, and deemed a threat to the patriarchy. She survived, went to the United Kingdom for treatment, accompanied by her family, and made a home in Birmingham. She continued speaking out on behalf of women everywhere, traveling to parts of the globe where female education is still viewed with hostility, and in 2014 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s a powerful story, some of which is told in I Am Malala, a 2013 book that Ms. Yousafzai co-wrote with journalist Christina Lamb. Unfortunately, it is given the Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient TruthWaiting for ‘Superman’) treatment, which means that pedestrian filmmaking – including unexamined assumptions/assertions and distracting non-diegetic music – threatens to overwhelm the beauty of the tale. Still, Malala has proven resilient beyond all measure, and will, I am sure, pull through this.

The movie opens well, with voices under the opening titles (Guggenheim’s and Malala’s) that lead into the first of many animated sequences (one was enough). This first scene tells the story of the mythic Malala, a 19th-century teenage girl who rallied retreating Afghan forces (against the British) with the cry, “It is better to live like a lion for one day than to live like a slave for 100 years.” It’s a beautiful beginning, and the animated Malala’s red outfit mirrors that worn by her modern-day counterpart. We then move to Birmingham, England, where we meet our Malala and her family. The first thing that strikes us is Malala’s youth: she may be an internationally known activist, but she is still an adolescent.

It’s in the family moments that the film begins to break down. They are sweet, but overlong. Instead of spending so much time with the brothers, I wish that Guggenheim had spent more time examining, in greater detail, the motivations of the father, Ziauddin Yousafzai. He clearly loves his daughter deeply, but has also been quite willing to put her in the way of danger from an early age. We learn that he sees himself as an inspirational speaker – his father was also a great leader – and sees Malala as following directly in his footsteps. We also learn that his wife, Khushal – Malala’s mother – is virtually illiterate, raising troubling questions about his own motivations in educating Malala. Guggenheim does explore this territory, but only at a distance. It is far easier to focus on the inspirational story of Malala’s phoenix-like rise and globe-trotting activism. To his credit, he did title the film “HE Named Me Malala” – a noted shift from the book’s “I Am Malala” – but he skirts the full implications of that alteration’s meaning.

Overall, however, as with An Inconvenient Truth, the subject matter is ultimately more important than the (lack of) artistry. Malala’s story deserves to be told (though not everyone in the Swat Valley agrees), however ineptly, and if this is the only documentary out there, then it should be seen. Keep in mind, though, that as with Waiting for ‘Superman’, Guggenheim is better at asking easy questions than providing complicated answers.

“The Martian” Is a Great Space Western for Our Time

Martian

The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015)

It’s another beautiful day on Mars, our closest planetary neighbor. As far as the eye can see stretches a reddish landscape reminiscent of Monument Valley in the great Westerns of John Ford. Given how science-fiction films supplanted the Western almost 40 years ago, with the release of Star Wars (a process that Western author John Jakes eloquently describes in his introduction to the anthology A Century of Great Western Stories), there is something plaintively beautiful about these vistas. As the film progresses, our lone hero stranded in a hostile environment, riding through the dusty desert in his dune-buggy rover, the elegiac power of the images stems from this simultaneous invocation of past and future, combined.

Who is this man, lost on the 4th rock from the sun? It’s Mark Watney, played with wry humor and physical grit by Matt Damon (The Bourne Identity). As the film opens, he and the other members of his six-person interplanetary crew are on “sol 18” of a planned month-long stay on Mars (a sol is a Mars solar day, 3% shorter than an Earth day). Into the raw majesty of their work site comes a sudden violent dust storm, and their commander calls to abort the mission, lest their MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle) tip over, leaving them with no way to reach their orbiting spaceship for the return journey. As they make their way through the whirling clouds of particulate matter, a loose satellite disc strikes Watney, pierces his EVA suit and sends him spiraling into the dark. Search as they might, his colleagues can’t find him, and with the MAV about to topple and Watney’s on-suit vital-sign reader registering a zero, they leave the surface, abandoning what they think is Watney’s corpse.

But he is not dead, and once the storm passes, he regains consciousness and makes his way back to the Hab (or Habitat Station). In a gruesome scene of self-stitching, Watney is able to clean and close the wound in his side. That’s all good, but it doesn’t take long for him to realize that, alive though he may be, he’s alone on a planet 54.6 million kilometers from Earth, with limited rations and no way of communicating with NASA. Fortunately, he’s a man of great scientific ingenuity (as we would hope an astronaut would be). As he says in the video log he keeps, he’s going to have to “science the sh** out of this.” And that he does.

Based on the bestselling book of the same title by Andy Weir, the movie is a brisk adaptation (even at 140 minutes, which go by quickly) of what was already a brisk novel. The screenplay is by Drew Goddard, the showrunner of Netflix’s “Daredevil” (and one of the credited writers on World War Z), and it doesn’t waste a lot of time with elements that don’t advance the narrative. This is a classic “man with a problem” story, and since that problem is of rather epic proportions, in a world we haven’t seen before, every physical detail feels fresh. Directed by Ridley Scott – whose 1979 Alien is still one of the best films about space exploration to date – the movie is a marvel of an action thriller in which there isn’t a whole lot of action. There are the occasional explosions, and a final sequence worthy of the best parts of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, but the real “action” – and real hero of the film – is the science. It’s wonderful to see a movie in which nerds are celebrated.

Watney may be far from home, but he is not, ultimately, alone. Once NASA figures out he is alive, they get on the case, sometimes effectively, sometimes not. Though it may be mostly Damon’s movie, it’s also a nice ensemble piece, as we cut back and forth between Watney, the folks on Earth working to save him, and the crew on their way back from Mars. Not only does the film celebrate scientists, it also celebrates gender and racial diversity (as much as a Hollywood film can), even making a few changes to the source text to allow the mission commander played by Jessica Chastain (Interstellar) her own heroic moment. Other noteworthy performances include Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), Michael Peña (Ant-Man), Kate Mara (Fantastic Four), Donald Glover (Magic Mike XXL) and Jeff Daniels (“The Newsroom“), among others. The dramatic stakes are high, as is the tension, but the film never loses site of the fact that it is here to entertain, and that it does, marvelously. Even if – in strictly narrative terms – no one goes through great character development, there is more than enough conflict and resolution to satisfy even the strictest adherents of Aristotelian three-act structure.

It’s nice to see Ridley Scott in such fine creative fettle once more. After the one-two miserable punch of The Counselor and Exodus: Gods and Kings, I was getting worried. Shooting in 3D – a format not strictly necessary for this story, but one that adds to the majesty of the images – he has created a visually stunning work that marries science and fiction in the best possible way. A lot of reviewers have already expressed the hope that the film could reinvigorate interest in space exploration. Here’s hoping.

“Sicario” Starts Strong, but the Deeper We Go, the Dumber It Gets

Sicario

Sicario (Denis Villeneuve, 2015)

Sicario opens with a text-on-screen definition of its title, explaining the word’s Latin roots and current, Latin American meaning: a hitman. All the time, we hear a low bass beat that, to me, at first, sounded annoyingly like music from the theater next door. It’s persistent and grating, and then suddenly we are in the bright sunlight of Arizona, along for the ride as an FBI squad prepares to take down some drug dealers. They burst into a generic house, exchange gunfire, and then, once the dust settles, discover, within the walls of that house, the stuff of nightmares. Our guide throughout this tight, masterful adrenaline-fueled sequence is Kate Macer, the leader of the federal team, and tough as she is, even she can’t comprehend the horrors they discover. The guys they’re dealing with make Gus Fring in “Breaking Bad” look like an amateur.

So far, so terrifying. Kate is played by the terrific English actress (and new American citizen) Emily Blunt (Edge of Tomorrow), who, ever since The Young Victoria, in 2009, has proven, time and again, that she is worthy of our undivided attention when on screen. Here her character holds all of the promise of her earlier dynamic roles: she’s smart, fearless, and extremely capable. She’s also driven by a powerful internal force to catch the men creating havoc in her border town.

But then the movie gets in the way, and we lose sight of the great qualities of Blunt, the actress, and Kate, the FBI agent. I’ve seen two previous films by Denis Villeneuve: Incendies and Prisoners. I found the former to be a brilliant meditation on the cycle of violence in the Middle East; the latter attempted to be a film about the cycle of violence within each of us, but ended up just being an exercise in violence. Villeneuve has bold ideas, and is a fine visualist, but sometimes cannot control his impulses towards quasi-torture porn. Sadly, here we are more in the territory of Prisoners than Incendies.

That is not to say that the film has nothing going for it. Shortly after that terrific opening, Kate is recruited by a shadowy upper-government organization, headed by the always watchable Josh Brolin (starring right now in Everest, as well), and before long finds herself across the border, in Mexico, on the Bridge of the Americas with her new team, bringing a drug lord back into the United States for questioning. She doesn’t know why she’s there or what she’s supposed to do. But when all hell breaks loose – in another solid bit of mise-en-scène – she acts, saving herself and at least one other member of the group, Alejandro – a man of mysterious origin – played by Benicio Del Toro (Savages) with initial gravitas and wit that, sadly, evaporates later in the movie.

We have a great setup: idealistic young agent, recruited to catch the “real bad guys,” finds herself asked to commit acts she deems illegal. Will she sell her soul for the higher purpose (as it’s put to her)? Will that be the central conflict, the war within herself? That would have been interesting. Instead, what we get for two hours is Kate’s constant naïveté about the nature of the work that governments do to fight crime. She is shocked – SHOCKED – to find lawbreaking here. And shocked again. And again! To which I answer: really? What a bore you are. Instead, then, of an evenly matched duel between her and Alejandro (who turns out to have very specific motivations of his own), we get a rabbit facing off against a tiger. No contest. And very little drama. Such initial promised squandered.

“Sleeping with Other People” Flirts with Tropes from Better Movies

Sleeping with Other People

Sleeping with Other People (Leslye Headland, 2015)

Alison Brie (Trudy Campbell on “Mad Men“) and Jason Sudeikis (lots of characters on “Saturday Night Live,” since 2003) are both such likable performers with natural chemistry – with the audience and with each other – that it seems a shame they don’t have a better movie in which to flaunt their charisma. They play Lainey and Jake, two thirty-somethings who first meet in college and then run into each other – after years of no contact – outside of a sex addict 12-step meeting. Since they lost their respective virginities to each other, it’s meant to be an especially poignant and/or ironic encounter. It’s neither, really, but forms an excuse for them to become friends again, which they do with the caveat that they will not sleep together, since, you know, sex ruins things. The problem is that they are so obviously meant to be together – and even they know it – that the conceit of their abstinence (from each other, since they still have sex with others) makes very little sense. I am hardly the first person to notice the overt resemblance to Rob Reiner’s 1989 When Harry Met Sally, but it bears mentioning again, if only to note that it is possible to make people avoid commitment and have it seem natural. You just need an interesting (and witty) script to pull it off.

That’s not to say that writer/director Leslye Headland (Bachelorette) has no talent for sketch comedy – some of the individual scenes work – but rather that the movie, overall, falls flat. Headland seems to want to reinvent the romantic-comedy genre with her in-your-face raunchiness, but never pulls off more than a weak imitation of better movies. More disturbingly – for me – this is the second film directed by a woman I have seen, in as many weeks, which spends as much time trafficking in the worst stereotypes about male-female dynamics as ostensibly attempting to subvert them (the first was The Intern). Jake is a classic womanizer – and chicks sure do dig him! – while Lainey is hung up on the one guy who consistently ignores her, a gynecologist (really?) played by Adam Scott (wearing the same unappealing mustache he sported a few weeks ago in Black Mass). Jake never talks about his feelings; Lainey cries a lot. There is one very sweet scene between the two protagonists, in which Jake is finally able to express why he is so afraid to sleep with Lainey, but it exists in its own bubble, outside of the world of the rest of the movie.

Perhaps the best part of the film – again going back to Headland’s apparent talent for sketch writing – are the scenes that involve Jake’s business partner/only friend Xander, played by a very funny Jason Mantzoukas (Neighbors), and Xander’s wife, Naomi, played by the equally hilarious Andrea Savage (Ivanka Silversan on “The Hotwives of Las Vegas“). In their moments together, we sense a wonderfully quirky shared history that gives us the character development so sorely lacking in the two leads. Theirs is the clever take on romance that this movie’s premise promises.

A final, special note to filmmakers everywhere:

  1. Slo-mo is not a shortcut for dramatic tension
  2. Taking drugs in a movie is not funny for its own sake
  3. A man teaching a woman how to orgasm is, well, kind of insulting to women, no? Then again, here I am, a man, lecturing female directors on their portrayal of women, so … maybe not.