Friday, May 20, 2016


Opening this week:

The Angry Birds MovieThe Angry Birds franchise began in 2009 as a video game, the object of which was to launch roly-poly little birds from a slingshot at little green pigs. The pigs have stolen their eggs, you see. The game led to more than a dozen spin-off games, and merchandising ranging from toys to clothes to TV cartoons, and now, inevitably, to this animated feature.

Our hero, voiced by Jason Sudeikis, is Red, the scowling, cardinal-like bird you’ve been seeing on kids’ hats and t-shirts the last few years, if you’ve been paying attention. He lives on an island inhabited by oddly flightless avians—it’s the entire Universe, as far as they know. Most of these birds aren’t inordinately angry, so an outburst, early on, lands Red in court, and he’s sent to an anger management class, where he meets other…well, you know.

Then huge ships arrive filled with green pigs. The guileless birds are taken in by their friendly overtures, except for Red, who’s suspicious of them. He turns out to be right, of course. The pigs steal the island’s eggs, and it’s up to Red and his anger management classmates to rouse the ire of the populace, and lead them to the land of the pigs to try to rescue them from the Pig King’s kettle.

The high-ticket voice cast, which includes the likes of Josh Gad, Danny McBride, Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph, Peter Dinklage and even Sean Penn—amusingly cast as the Angriest of the Birds—more or less ensures that there will be a few laughs. There’s some ingenious visual shtick, too. But overall The Angry Birds Movie is tiring—too many of the gags and situations seem artificially extended, as if the filmmakers knew they didn’t have much story to work with, and were trying to pad for time.

More than this, there’s the whole matter of the theme of anger. Anger is funny. Most comedy is based on some degree of anger. Anger also resonates with children, who feel it intensely but in most cases impotently.

But there’s anger and then there’s anger. There’s legitimate, mature outrage at, say, rudeness or injustice, and then there’s the anger that can arise from annoyance at other people’s cheerfulness, or from changes in our world with which we’re uncomfortable, or simply from daily inconveniences.

We’re all subject to this second sort, of course, and it’s always a good source of comedy. But it shouldn’t be mistaken for wisdom, and I fear that’s how The Angry Birds Movie wants us to see it. I certainly don’t think the film is intentionally reactionary, but I’m also unconvinced that a celebration of anger—resolving itself in war on foreigners—is what our society is most in need of just now. We have plenty of angry birdbrains already. 

 The LobsterHaving been dumped by his wife, David (Colin Farrell) checks into an elegant but cheerless resort hotel for singles. He has forty-five days to find a new partner, and if he fails he’ll be transformed into an animal. This happens often: David shares his room with his dog, who used to be his brother.

David is asked what kind of animal he wants to be if he doesn’t pair off, and he chooses to be a lobster, because of their longevity, and because he loves the sea. The hotel manager congratulates him on his thoughtful choice; the staff’s manner is always one of brisk, patronizing politeness, with contemptuous pity just under the surface.

Compatibility in a relationship is judged by shared impairments—nearsightedness, or a limp, or a tendency to nosebleeds, or sociopathic heartlessness—and people regularly try to feign these limitations to attract a mate. The guest activities include hunts of the neighboring forest, where “Loners”—feral single people—are shot with tranquilizer darts and brought back to undergo their transformations. Bagging a Loner adds days to your stay at the hotel, and thus to your chances of pairing off.

In other words, this is another of those Kafka-lite pop absurdist comedies, sort of a European spin on the likes of Being John Malkovich or Cold Souls. Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek known for Dogtooth, from a script he co-wrote with Efthymis Filippou, the film is seamlessly imagined and entirely coherent on its own strange terms.

The pace is a little slow, and it seems to slow down even more in the second half. Other than that, the movie really can’t be faulted in terms of execution. The cast, which includes John C. Reilly, Rachel Weisz, Lea Seydoux, Olivia Colman and the excellent Ben Wishaw, maintain admirably straight faces, and Farrell, remaining quietly shellshocked throughout, makes you care about his plight.

It might even be fair to call The Lobster brilliant, but for all its whimsicality, it isn’t much fun. The atmosphere is dark and desperate, and many scenes are horrifically violent—those sensitive to violence toward animals are particularly warned to leave this one alone.

The premise seems to have arisen from a genuine, vitriolic bitterness toward the societal pressure to pair off, and the implication that those who can’t, or don’t want to, are regarded as subhuman. This avoids coming off as a hipster pose because Lanthimos pointedly shows us that life in the woods among the Loners is no less oppressive—romance and sex are forbidden there, and severely punished.

So The Lobster isn’t sentimental. It fully acknowledges that there’s a price to going it alone, or two-by-two, and that the price can be high either way. It also implies that our motivations, either way, are generally selfish. It’s possible to be both cynical enough to respect this viewpoint and romantic enough to be unable to fully agree with it. In any case, this Lobster, though admirable in many ways, brought me less pleasure than one served with butter and lemon.

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