First things first: Did y’all hear that a veteran won the National Book Award for fiction? That’s just about the highest honor a fiction writer in this country can get, so hats off to Phil Klay to winning for his short story collection Redeployment.
Redeployment joins a long list of illustrious writing by and about the military (Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When the Men Are Gone, Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk, and Aaron Gwyn’s Wynne’s War being among my favorites). Klay, a Dartmouth grad, served in Iraq. You can read a smart and humble interview with him here.
Now, for some fun. I don’t get out to the movies much these days, but this weekend I was lucky enough to go twice! The two films I saw were polar opposites, but I enjoyed them both:
— Nightcrawler with Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed. Directed by Dan Gilroy.
Nightcrawler is a thriller, so much so that I never got around to unwrapping the Werther’s Original that I clutched, like a little old lady, in my lap. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a lonely, socially-hindered young man who, hard up for work, begins videotaping various crises and accidents for the local news station. He soon learns that his contact at the station, Nina, is looking for sensational pieces to drive up ratings. His complete lack of social scruples gives him a strange aptitude for this line of work, but how far will he go?
Gyllenhaal lost twenty pounds for the role and grew his hair into a greasy, lank bob which he ties back, Steven Seagal-style, when things get hot. He manages to infuse everything from his clipped affect to his generic gray jacket with creepiness — even those gorgeous baby-blues are off-putting, burning too bright at all the wrong moments. He perfects a quick, vacant smile that only serves to highlight how out-of-touch he is with any real emotion. Perhaps the first moment of the film when we realize we’ve really lost Lou is when he arrives early to a car accident scene and moves a corpse to achieve a more artistic “frame” for his shot. Excitement lights up his face — this is a moment of achievement for him, realizing his talent, knowing he’s got something good; but, sadly, he’s good at something that’s repellent to almost everyone else on earth.
For a young man who’s imbalanced from the start, this new, dark art can’t be a healthy preoccupation. While the film’s core message is a scathing indictment of the bloodthirsty nature of local-news programming, there’s another interesting question contained within, which is: How much smut can we personally absorb before it begins to change us?
Lou has almost no meaningful contact with other people; he tells Nina that he “is on the internet all day” and that he “loves watching [his] own work.” His weird, porous mind soaks up an inordinate amount of trash day and night, and while he’s an extreme case, it’s a little chilling to think of all the people out there who spend their days in the company of a steady strobe-light of media filth: car jackings and sex scandals and murders and distant wars and feverish, inflammatory political commentary. For my last couple of years in high school, I volunteered with elderly shut-ins — dropping by and picking up their groceries and whatnot. These were sweet people, but their worlds had become very small, and a common refrain among several of them was, “The world is so awful these days.” I don’t blame them for feeling that way, but at the very least it was a little sad that they spent their last years stressing out about violence that would most likely never have touched them. There’s so much emotionally vacant programming at our fingertips, more than ever before, and there are people in the world who spend most of their time in its company. Lou Bloom is a worst-case end product.
The film pulls you along, and lest you think it’s all brooding, there’s a Die Hard-worthy car-chase scene near the end that will have you on the edge of your seat. This one’s a thinker and it’ll creep you out — not the worst way to spend a Saturday night.
— Big Hero Six, directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams
My two older kids saw this movie a few days ago with my mom, but they loved it so much that they asked to go again. I didn’t know if I was in the mood for an animated film, but I was glad I went along to see this quirky, artistic, hopeful movie about six makeshift superheroes who band together to stop a super-villain motivated by revenge.
At the movie’s heart is Hiro, a 14-year-old tech genius who is befriended by the robot his beloved older brother completed shortly before his death. Initially skeptical, Hiro comes to realize that the robot — a sweet, inflatable white “healthcare companion” called Baymax — contains more of his older brother than he had thought.
When Baymax inadvertently discovers that one of Hiro’s own inventions has been stolen and mass-produced to meet the needs of the villain, Yokai, the two unlikely heroes band together with four friends — forming the six heroes of the title — to stop him.
(I was delighted that T.J. Miller, who plays Erlich Bachman in HBO’s ‘Silicon Valley,’ had a role as the goofy, enthusiastic Fred, who may have more of a superhero lineage than we originally know.) All of the characters are innovative and funny in their own way; my kids and I laughed out loud many times.
Another creative aspect of the film is its setting in the fictional city of San Fransokyo, a San Francisco- Tokyo hybrid (heavier on the California than the Japan, but with elements of both). I read somewhere that Pixar had to create a supercomputer just to contain all of the details of San Fransokyo, and I can see why.
It’s beautiful, with its hills and bays and the unusual, tethered fans that sway above the city. (These add a fun dimension to Hiro and Baymax’s top-speed first flight).
But what I think sets Big Hero Six apart is its core sweetness, its message of love and forgiveness despite great loss. The villain, Yokai, acts out of revenge; Hiro would like to get revenge too, but would one act of hatred cancel out another? There’s an image near the end of the film, where Yokai is trying to get his revenge — destroying all that his rival has built through the use of a teleportal that’s sucking the building up into the sky — that struck me with its power. What does this image call up for you?
The shiny glass, the bright blue sky, the fluttering paper — this seemed so focused that it had to be intentional, and yet, in the middle of an action scene, it wasn’t heavy-handed. Still, it stopped my heart for a second. Comic books and action heroes have a long history of exploring themes of good and evil, mirroring cultural movements and concerns — Michael Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay deals with this — and I couldn’t help but feel that Big Hero Six was doing this, here, in a way so skilled and compassionate that it kind of blew me away.
If only the human soul were finite enough, like Baymax’s, to be contained in a computer chip.
When Hiro and Baymax have to part, and Baymax tells Hiro “I will always be with you,” my six-year-old son — always tenderhearted at the movies, and probably missing his daddy — bowed his head and wiped sweet-little-boy tears with the backs of his hands.