The Movie Club

How did the terrible Lava ever get made at Pixar?

Entry 9: Lava is the worst movie Pixar has ever made.


Courtesy of Pixar

Amy’s observation that, in The Revenant, Leo DiCaprio eats his freshly killed animal meals raw while standing only feet from a crackling campfire could serve as a pocket guide to Alejandro Iñárritu’s directorial oeuvre. His movies have always shown some degree of that wholly unnecessary excess, a desire to rub the viewer’s face in the raw horribleness of life as if in a still-steaming bison liver. His 2010 Biutiful is the most salient example of this go-for-broke miserablism: Hey gang, let’s watch Javier Bardem go from sad, sick, and poor to really sad, really sick, and really poor! But I can’t deny that The Revenant transfixed me, especially the almost dialogue-free first hour, with Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera whooshing through those vast, elemental pine forests as if on a luge.

Lubezki is the kind of artist who can take a simple visual idea and express it in thrillingly kinetic form. (In Birdman, this was part of the problem: The relatively banal script didn’t seem worthy of all that virtuosic spiraling and swooping, and the one-take premise started to seem like a showy embellishment rather than an expressive tool.) Remember, during The Revenant’s early battle sequence between the white trappers and the Arikara tribe, how the camera follows first one combatant (of either side), then whoever kills him, then whoever kills him, suggesting an endless cycle of mini-protagonists? I didn’t become aware of that gambit until the take was nearly over, but the idea behind it—that the wars fought for control of this continent created a potentially infinite chain of violence and suffering—suffuses the whole somber scene.

Having just spent a day thinking and writing about Charlie Kaufman’s smart, sad, formally dazzling Anomalisa, I have one immediate answer to David’s question about brave performances in 2015.  Jennifer Jason Leigh, with her finely filigreed vocal role in that stop-motion-animated love story and her barn-burning turn as the murderess Daisy Domergue in The Hateful Eight, has pitched two cinematic no-hitters in one year. To the degree that I had “problems” with the latter movie—being a critic with Tarantino problems is so embarrassing, like breaking out in hives whenever you eat a food everyone else seems to relish—most of them had to do with the film’s treatment of Leigh’s Daisy. I can say no more without giving away several major twists, but let’s just say that symbolic retribution—a gift Tarantino loves to dole out to his historically oppressed subjects in individual goodie bags of justified violence—keeps eluding Daisy, even as she continues to embody the site of that retribution for others. When the men in the stagecoach near the beginning express open mirth at seeing the mouthy, shackled Daisy take multiple punches in the face from her captor (Kurt Russell), I know the takeaway is supposed to be what dicks the men are all being. But isn’t there also a side effect, an off-label one if you will, of making the audience giggle along at this postmodern Punch-and-Judy show?

It doesn’t matter, though, whether you think The Hateful Eight does right by Daisy Domergue or not—Leigh does right by the part, making this battered but indomitable prisoner a canny player of the movie’s zero-sum mind games. As I mentioned in my review of The Hateful Eight, Leigh’s performances—from Fast Times at Ridgemont High on—have always had a quality of outsider-ness, of not quite inhabiting the same social or moral world as the characters who surround her, of being too fragile, too needy, or otherwise too much. This surplus of intensity has made her well-suited to play a narcissistic musician (Georgia) or a psycho roommate (Single White Female). That same quality becomes Leigh’s superpower in both Anomalisa and The Hateful Eight—in the first case, as intense vulnerability and openness; in the second, as intense hatred and will to survive. I’m excited that Leigh—who, good as she was in her ex-husband Noah Baumbach’s movies, seemed insufficiently challenged by the supporting roles he gave her—may be embarking on a new period of her career, when she’s recognized by important filmmakers as the singular performer she is.

Things that offended me at the movies in 2015? Having just gone all prune-faced over The Hateful Eight, I’ll pick a lighthearted example for this one. Lava, the animated Pixar short that was shown in theaters before (the wonderful) Inside Out, was embarrassingly terrible, one of the rare true dogs Pixar has produced either in short or feature-length form. In addition to biting (while sentimentalizing) the style of the legendary Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, this seven-minute-long horror show chronicled a creepy May-December romance whose age gap could be measured literally in geological time. All I could think as the hero, a wide-bodied, lonely volcano, finally realized his dream of normative heterosexual bliss with a newly born (yet slim and sexy!) volcanic vixen was: Didn’t anyone involved in its no doubt highly labor-intensive production realize this whole thing reads like a PSA for cradle-robbing, or at the very least a dispiriting reminder that in Hollywood, even geologic formations are subject to gender-governed body-size requirements?

Now I’m off to watch American Ultra, so I can arbitrate Amy and David’s dispute in our fourth and final round. And also maybe because I have a thing for Jesse Eisenberg, who did fine, modest work in 2014 in The Double and last year in The End of the Tour—though to judge by his “humor” column savaging movie critics in the New Yorker in early 2015, the crush is less than mutual. Over to you, Amy—what offended your hopefully less-tender sensibilities this year? Or better, what sent you out of the movie theater staggering, skipping, or singing?

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