Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Storm of Swords

Lucy Lawless orders you to "strip" in Spartacus.

* * * (out of five stars)  Spartacus: Blood and Sand and Spartacus: Gods of the Arena. Created by Stephen S. DeKnight. Available on Netflix. (Spartacus: Vengeance premieres on STARZ on Jan 27, 2012.)
Of all the stylistic spawn of Zach Snyder's 300, the best may be STARZ's Spartacus. Now entering its third season (or more precisely, its second-and-a-half—see explanation below), the series has everything Synder's testosterone-pumped sandal epic had—and then some. For not only do spurts of blood and lopped limbs arc through the air in tender, loving slow motion, and the bronzed sides of masculine beef glisten in the simulated sun, but this Spartacus breaks new ground in its unapologetic, full-frontal sexuality. Classic Hollywood always made the pagan Romans a decadent bunch, but this show leaves virtually nothing to the imagination, including the question "When does a busy gladiator have time to do all that man-scaping down there?" You won't get the answer in the first two seasons (available on Netflix until February), and I'm guessing you won't get it in Spartacus: Vengeance, starting on January 27. But what you do get is eye-opening enough. It’s a fair bet that, like in the previous seasons, you’ll have ample occasion to watch this show slack-jawed, wondering Did I really just see what I thought I saw?

            The show's maximalist aesthetic is not all that makes it compelling television. To get at that, we have to go back not just to Synder's movie, but to the legacy of Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus. As we all know, Spartacus was a real person, a Thracian gladiator who led a serious uprising against Rome in the late days of the Republic. Kubrick’s film, like its dogged and methodical hero, has earned classic status in the half century since its release. Indeed, with the brutal elegance of its action and the intelligence of its chief players (Kirk Douglas, Laurence Oliver, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov), it actually left some of us (OK, maybe just me) yearning for more. Just who are those guys sharing Spartacus' formative days in the ludus (gladiatorial school) of Gnaeus Lentulus Batiatus? We hear their names (Crixus, Galleno, et al.), but who are they, and what are their stories? We know Spartacus has a thing for the sweet-faced Varinia (Jean Simmons), but what loves and passions drive his comrades in arms? True, these may be questions nobody asked. But this new Spartacus hurtles at maximum warp toward the answers, driving all before it with its pure, pulpy momentum.
            At a time when the craft of politics has a bad odor, it’s not surprising that this contemporary Spartacus (Andy Whitfield) is no ideologue, no fighter for principle. Instead, he’s just a barbarian chieftain out for revenge. Betrayed during a joint expedition with the Roman army, Spartacus and his wife (Erin Cummings) are cast into slavery, with the former consigned to the brutal training regimen of Batiatus (John Hannah). A shrewd judge of character, Batiatus knows that Spartacus may be the champion and cash-cow he’s always wanted—if he can be properly motivated. The bargain is struck: if Spartacus will play the obedient slave, Batiatus will reunite him with his wife. Spoiler alert: Batiatus keeps his end of the bargain, but not in the way Spartacus expects.
            For a show that pretends to be about nothing else but blood and sand and cocks (with a little girl-on-girl action mixed in), Spartacus features better performances than it has any right to. Hannah is a social climber of DeNiro-esque intensity, a kaleidoscope of venality relishing the twist of every knife he can stick in his adversaries. Yet he also shows a conditional sort of honor when circumstances dictate. Playing his wife Lucretia, Lucy Lawless would also pretend to be without scruple—except for her devotion to Crixus (Manu Bennett), the school’s champion before Spartacus. There’s no question who wears the pants in their affair (her most frequent command to him seems to be “strip”), but for all its frank portrayal of female lust, this is more femdom than feminism. The stakes rise further when Crixus conceives an unwise love with Naevia (Lesley-Ann Brandt), Lucretia’s personal servant.
            Under the guise of big-screen spectacle, Dalton Trumbo’s script for the celluloid Spartacus was a cri de coeur against the Hollywood blacklist. The TV show’s original Spartacus, Andy Whitfield, seems a diminished figure compared to Kirk Douglas, both in the modesty of his style and the limits of his motivation. The series’ first season ends just as the gladiators rise up against Batiatus; how it would contrive to make Whitfield into the plausible leader of a universal slave revolt would have been interesting. Alas, the actor was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma after the first season, and passed away in September. The transition from self-motivated gladiator to crusader for freedom will now rest on the thin shoulders of Liam McIntyre, who faintly resembles Whitfield and got his blessing to take his role.
            Spartacus is a show with few pretensions, but the context of tragedy surrounding it (Whitfield was only 39 when he died) lends it a faint wistfulness that humanizes it in a way some much better-written shows rarely achieve. Indeed, in case Whitfield improved enough to return, the show took a detour for its second (half) season, telling the back-story of Batiatus and Lucretia and their school before Spartacus’ arrival. Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, as the six episode prequel was called, is as much guilty fun as the first season, and is worth watching first for those who want to get up to speed before the next season begins in late January.
            Purists find much to object to in the show’s portrayal of antiquity’s “peculiar institution”. Though Spartacus (and Gladiator, for that matter) present their fights as always life or death, real gladiators were too expensive commodities to risk losing every time they stepped into the arena. Like modern performers for the WWE, gladiators knew how to put on a good show without necessarily killing each other. Many, if not most, gladiators survived their combats if they fought well. It was actually the Christians, having seeing many marytrs made in the arena, who had an interest in making pagan institutions seem as barbaric as possible.
            Yet some thought has obviously gone into the show: its clunky, stilted dialog seems laughable at first—until you realize that the writers are trying to approximate the sound of spoken Latin. (For example, since the equivalents of common English terms like “thanks” and “sorry” would have sounded more formal in Latin, the characters here say “gratitude” and “apologies”.) Next to the frequent beheadings, this is a small thing, but as a show like Deadwood proved, there can be universes in small things.
            The universe of Spartacus is a coarse place, but it comes by its coarseness honestly, with no apologies or (gods help us) irony. For that, it deserves its fair share of gratias
© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Slack Key

Clooney and Woodley are stuck in low gear in The Descendants

* * (out of five stars)  The Descendants. Written by Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon & Jim Rash. Directed by Alexander Payne.  
In Alexander Payne’s Sideways (2004), the prickly wine aficionado played by Paul Giamatti condemns a lackluster glass of cabernet franc as “hollow, flabby, overripe.” This critic feels similarly let down by Payne’s flabby, overdue follow-up to Sideways, The Descendants. This half-hearted comedy-drama isn’t the worst thing in the world. Let’s call it an unremarkable bottle of wine that took way, way too long to get to the table, and subsequently suffers the consequences of over-anticipation.

            The schlemiel this time is Matt King (George Clooney), a good-hearted but emotionally unavailable family guy who happens to own a few thousand acres of prime Hawaiian real estate. While he is busy deciding how to deal with the bevy of developers who covet his legacy, Matt’s wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) drifts into an affair with another man, and then into the path of a stationary object during a boating accident. She is now comatose and dying, forcing Matt to at last confront the superficiality of his relationships with her and his two daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller). Based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, The Descendants is basically the story of a man who belatedly realizes he’s sleep-walked through his life, and is not entirely sure he wants to wake up.

            Payne is at least on to something in the premise. As Matt observes early on, the fact that he is a rich man living in a tropical paradise is no guarantee of happiness. More precisely, his advantages allow him to be as desperately unhappy as anybody else—just on a higher plateau. “Paradise can go fuck itself,” he says in the film’s first five minutes, thereby setting us up for something a great deal edgier than Payne delivers.

            Indeed, it’s hard to figure exactly what The Descendants wants to deliver. Aside from some odd moments, it’s not particularly funny. It won’t make you cry. Aside for a brief scene near the end, it offers no dramatic fireworks, no bravura performances that make good clips during the Oscar show. What narrative momentum it does have—such as when Matt decides he must seek out and confront his wife’s lover (Matthew Lillard)—is spent in very talky, very civilized scenes that are resolved in very talky, very civilized fashion. In short, it offers nothing like the catharsis in Sideways, as when Paul Giamatti grabs a bottle of bad wine and runs into the vineyards screaming for everyone to leave him alone.

            Mostly, The Descendants seems content to be a somewhat quirky (but not too quirky) semi-comedy that somehow deserves our attention because it has heavy themes. Those themes don’t exactly weigh on its soul, exactly, but lie somewhere in its vicinity. It is to Payne's credit that he has produced a mature story here, for mature minds. But that doesn’t mean it needs to feel like a funeral reception, afraid to be too amusing or too loud—in short, to be too fun.

            Don’t believe the hype that will undoubtedly attend George Clooney’s “slack key” performance. True, he proves he has the integrity to allow himself to be ordinary, to be the guy who wears Hawaiian shirts in Hawaii without irony—but is this really much of an accomplishment? Is his acceptable masculinity, the debonair charm of his Clooniness, really that common in the world that he must prove he can turn it off at will? Having Clooney play the schlump is like watching Scarlett Johansson fill penny-rolls in her sweatpants—possible, but why?

            With its layered performances and rich quotability, Sideways is already on its way to full cult status. Election (1999) is also deservedly remembered. The Descendants isn’t Payne’s sophomore effort (as in “sophomore slump”), but it sure feels like it. Seven years is a long time to wait for a drink that is just “quaffable”.
© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Uninvited Guest

Dunst conducts in Lars von Trier's Melancholia. 

*** 1/2 (out of five stars)  Melancholia. Written and directed by Lars von Trier.

Danish director Lars von Trier got himself into trouble at the Cannes Film Festival last spring with some rambling, intemperate remarks about Nazis (“I really wanted to be a Jew and then I found out that I was really a Nazi…I understand Hitler. He did some wrong things, absolutely, but I can see him sitting there in his bunker at the end ... I sympathize with him…I am of course, very much for Jews. No, not too much, because Israel is a pain in the ass. But still, how can I get out of this sentence? No, I just want to say about the art, I'm very much for Speer...”). Trier’s bold foray into no-go territory got him personally banned from the festival. It also led many to wonder if the maker of Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, and Dogville was being a sly provocateur, or just a fool who, if entrusted with a shovel, couldn’t resist digging himself deeper and deeper.
            In fact, the answer to this question is right where it should be, in the very film he was presenting at the festival. The elegiac and utterly crackpot Melancholia once again shows von Trier to be a visionary AND a fool, for it is if nothing else — a meditation on why being “exceptional” and “an exceptional pain in the ass” must often correlate in art.
            Melancholia is a boutique end-of-the-world movie, far from the routine apocalypses offered up by Hollywood. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is an advertising executive who is getting married to what seems like a decent guy (Alexander Skarsgård) at the palatial abode of her future brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). The latter is the kind of rich guy who regularly reminds her that the splendor of his generosity comes at a high cost. But despite the top-flight wedding planner and convenient golf links, Justine is perversely determined to be unhappy, smiling what everyone can see is a threadbare smile and spurning her groom’s advances in favor of some random guy in the sand trap of the 18th hole. “Sometimes I hate you!” cries her faithful, exasperated sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), to which her sister replies, “What did you expect?”
            The wedding is a disaster, but is only an appetizer for ensuing, radical shift in the film’s tone. The existential cause for Justine’s misery, you see, is a rogue planet that has left its hiding place on the far side of the sun and may or may not be on a collision course with Earth. Sutherland’s John, who stands in for the kind of cocksure rationality von Trier despises, is thrilled by the passage of the planet “Melancholia”. Justine expects the worst, and more seriously, thinks a collision may be for the best. “The earth is evil,” she declares. “No one will miss it.” No credit for guessing which character — the technocrat or the lissome Cassandra — turns out to be right.
            The juxtaposition of tragedy of manners and sci-fi spectacle, with the orb of Melancholia gradually filling the sky over John’s empty estate, seems awfully contrived. Yet the mood von Trier builds here wins you over with its power and utter lack of compromise. Justine is von Trier himself, a depressive barely able to function under normal circumstances, as when she weeps with despair at the prospect of climbing into a bathtub. Yet when it comes to facing universal mortality she, the archetypal artist, is unflinching. The edge of the knife is where she lives, after all, and the sense that something is indeterminately “wrong” is her accustomed mode.  Von Trier perpetuates the metaphor with a long sequence at the opening of the film, depicting a series of static tableaux of Justine waterlogged, Ophelia-like, and Justine with spikes of electricity leaping from her fingertips—not unlike the filmmaker with his bag of special effects tricks. Meanwhile, planet Melancolia stalks the earth, promising the ultimate rolling of the credits.
            While von Trier seems ferociously anti-commercial in his choice of subjects, he has a way of patiently building suspense that is compelling from even the most conventional perspective. Similarly, though he seems to identity most with Justine, the heart of his film is given to Charlotte Gainbourg as the rock-solid but increasingly desperate Claire. Gainbourg—who was spookily good in von Trier’s Antichrist—plays the emotional anchor this time, although anchored in ground that is itself losing solidity.
            It is tempting to dismiss both this film and its maker as completely nuts, but there are rewards for sticking with both. Afflicted as we all are by forebodings of melting ice caps and the next, inevitable pandemic, it would be a lie to for any of us to claim we can’t understand the disquiet of someone like Justine—or the despair of artists like von Trier, whose circle of compassion seems to include, yes, even Hitler. Somehow, in a medium where our collective imaginations are straitjacketed by the bounds of PG-13, his flaws don’t look so dangerous after all. 
© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Procrustes on the Ganges

Time for negotiations is over in Tarsem Singh's Immortals.

* 1/2  (out of five stars)  Immortals. Written Charley & Vlas Parlapanides. Directed by Tarsem Singh.   

In Greek myth, the hero Theseus met a nasty customer named Procrustes. The latter was a demonic craftsman who invited weary travelers to rest on his custom-built bed. But when his hapless guests lay down, Procrustes made them exactly fit the bed by any means necessary, including stretching their bodies or chopping off their feet. Deviously, to make sure everybody needed an “adjustment”, Procrustes kept two beds of different lengths, always offering his victims the mismatched one. Of course, Theseus turned the tables on old Procrustes, making him lie down in the bed he made. Thus we get the get the English adjective "procrustean", for the quality of forcing something to meet some arbitrary standard.

            Tarsem Singh's sandal epic Immortals is procrustean too--but not in an interesting way. In these times of severely reduced expectations at the movies, is it worth mentioning that Singh's film is a lot less imaginative than actual Theseus mythology? Singh, who made his name with eye-popping visuals of The Cell (2000) and the frantic invention of The Fall (2006), breaks no narrative molds here. Instead he has produced pretty much what we've come to expect from the genre--the kind of thing that either delights twelve year-old boys, or makes the rest of us feel aberrant if we don't share the tastes of twelve year-old boys. Both the audience and the mythology (which bears scarcely any relation to the script by Charley and Vlas Parlapanides) are forced to fit the arbitrary standard of bloated, hyper-produced Hollywood action. Procrustean indeed.  

            The story is basically the same as the one in every other recent mythological/superhero/fantasy epic: in pursuit of his ambition to destroy the world, a nihilistic villain seeks the Ultimate Weapon, opposed only by the usual feckless organs of good (let's call them "justice-pussies"), and a rag-tag band of rebels led by the usual super-warrior. Here, the blanks are filled in by Mickey Rourke (as Hyperion, the nihilistic villain), something called The Epirus Bow (the ultimate weapon), and Henry Cavill (from The Tudors, and soon to be the new Man of Steel) as the hero, Theseus. The justice pussies prattle on about appeasing the Dark Lord by negotiating, but the hero knows better, that there's no negotiating with Hitler/Bin Laden/Sauron/Hyperion/The Joker/Red Skull/et al. In this procrustean school of storytelling, every conflict must be resolved with a mailed fist to the face (and add your Herman Cain “period!” right here…)

            To be sure, Singh does dress up the proceedings with his usual multi-culti drapery--touches from his native land including Indian drip-molding incongruously set in supposedly "Hellenic" temples, priestesses bedecked in lamp-like headgear as if they've floated out of the Thar desert. The story is set in some indeterminate past when all interiors look like slick layouts for upscale spas. Singh's "Taj-Minoan" aesthetic at least has the virtue of uniqueness. But in the service of a depressingly familiar story, the visual innovations feel wasted.

            Under all the rippling abs and empty tumult, Immortals does have subtext. Most obvious is its comprehensive sadism: not only must our adversaries be vanquished here, but Singh slows down the action to show the exploding heads and dismemberments in tender, loving detail. True, he’s just following the lead of Zach Snyder, who pioneered the aesthetic of hyper-bloodshed in 300. But when Gerard Butler kicked that Persian emissary into the pit in Snyder’s movie, we got the passion, and we got the bluster, but we didn’t necessarily think King Leonidas was getting off on it. Here, Singh never misses an opportunity to eroticize the dispensing of pain, as when Hyperion verbally humiliates a turncoat before he crushes his testicles with a mallet, or when Theseus, as he lies on top of Hyperion, dirty-talks him to “look into my eyes” as he penetrates him with his blade.

            Potentially more troubling is Immortals’ recurring appeals to ditch reason and “keep the faith”. Theseus, you see, starts out as a rational, skeptical fellow, taught by bad luck to depend on himself, not the gods. That’s when Singh, pointedly unlike Wolfgang Petersen in Troy, dares bring in the actual gods. Mount Olympus looks, well, like an upscale spa--but at least the gods aren't the tottering codgers of Clash of the Titans, but as young and jacked as anything from an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog. The pantheon is somewhat abridged here--there only seem to be a handful of gods in residence. But that’s enough to teach Theseus the error of his agnostic ways, and to sneer at the King of the Hellenes when—in typical secular-humanist fashion—the justice-pussy argues that the gods don’t really exist, but are “just metaphors”. Pretty soon the “metaphor” called Ares is intervening on Theseus’ behalf, pulverizing his enemies’ heads with a club.

            In the myths, Hyperion is not a scungilli-sucking mafia don—as Mickey Rourke plays him here—but one of the more intellectually accomplished Titans. The Titans, moreover, aren’t a platoon of nameless, mud-daubed monkey men, but the full and equal adversaries of the Olympians. (Indeed, that’s the whole point: though the Olympians win the battle, they are not necessarily more deserving to rule.) And you’d never know from this movie that Theseus is actually the mythic founder of Athens—the city that epitomized the kind of talk-heavy democratic politics Immortals has only contempt for. Along with faith, there was room for rationality and even atheism in Theseus’ city—but not here.

            What’s tragic about Immortals is not that its makers play with the myths, changing them around and using only the bits they need. It’s that they alter the myths to such little dramatic effect, trivializing and truncating them for no more reason than that they trust nobody will care.

            Somewhere in Hades, Procrustes is smiling.
© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Through a Canvas, Darkly

Rutger Hauer in Bruegel-space in The Mill & The Cross.

* * * * (out of five stars) The Mill and the Cross. Written by Lech Majewski & Michael Francis Gibson. Directed by Lech Majewski. 

The way they tell you to look at art in museums is all wrong. The preferred approach, certain experts say, is to forget about names, dates, and labels, and just look, letting the work “speak” to you directly. In other words, to stand back, relax, and let the latent power of the object simply wash over you. This is the attitude that makes us guilty when we read the labels at exhibitions before we’ve really confronted the artwork.
            But the problem with this purely aesthetic approach is that art never speaks for itself. In most cases, it is the product of many particular choices, all of which were made in specific contexts that are personal, social, technological, political, etc..  To try to understand art without awareness of these choices—of who the artist was, when he or she lived, what he loved and what he loathed—is as absurd as, well, trying to understand a Renaissance nativity scene without any knowledge of Christianity. For this reason, I’m a believer in labels.
            It may still be possible to appreciate Peter Bruegel’s 1564 painting “The Procession to Calvary” without seeing Lech Majewski’s remarkable The Mill and the Cross first—but I wouldn’t recommend it. Using CGI, Polish director Majewski lets us into the masterpiece in the most literal sense possible, by rendering it into a three-dimensional world in which Bruegel’s figures live, love, and die. Indeed, Bruegel (Rutger Hauer) himself is a character here, puttering amongst the tortured denizens of his passion landscape, sketchbook in hand, explaining his thoughts and purposes to his nervous patron (Michael York). It may be the most elaborate museum label yet devised.
            In subject and tone, Majewski’s film is reminiscent of the art historical phantasmagoria of Peter Greenaway (The Draughtsman’s Contract, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover). And certainly, in the way Majewski and screenwriter Michael Francis Gibson reflect how Bruegel mashes up his vision of the Roman-era Crucifixion with the politics of Flanders at the time of the Spanish Inquisition, Mill has a kind of period timelessness, a temporal indeterminacy, that is vaguely Greenaway-eque. But unlike Greenaway, Majewski isn’t fond of dropping allusions or posing riddles. Instead of graduate-level intellectual self-importance, Mill aims at an elegant, almost architectural concreteness. “Like the spider web, I will build my composition from certain anchoring points,” explains Bruegel. And so he does. “Instead of God looking down disapproving from the clouds, his place will be taken by the miller,” he says, indicating the wind-mill that looms over his otherwise godless composition, grinding away its harvest of human misery.
            Fair warning: Mill isn’t for everybody. Though it features a cast of internationally recognizable actors like Hauer (Blade Runner), York, and Charlotte Rampling, there are no dramatic scenes here, no dialog except interior monologs. Nothing really happens. Like a painting (and paradoxically for a film), it unfolds more in space than in time.
            But as a sensual experience, this is something truly unique. Majewski has not only put us into “Bruegel-space” here, with the artist’s signature mountain-scapes stretching into the distance. He also painstaking recreates the colors of a sixteenth-century painting, with their particular kind of purity and saturation. All this is thanks to the use of CGI not to destroy the Earth for the umpteenth time, or make hobbits come alive yet again, but in a truly imaginative way. Not to be missed.
© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Lovers and Other Partisans

Sarah Forestier and friends in The Names of Love.

*  *  *  (out of five stars) The  Names of Love. Written by Michel Leclerc & Baya Kasmi. Directed by Michel Leclerc. Available on Netflix.

Here’s a hypothetical exercise for you: take a jar, and for every political argument you have in your life from birth to college graduation—every dorm room bull-session and internet flame-war and debate over the Thanksgiving dinner table—drop a penny in. Then, for every political discussion you have after, for the rest of your life, in which you actually convince your opponent to agree with you, take a penny out of the jar. If you do this faithfully, what will you have on your deathbed?
            A jar full of pennies, of course.
            Which is a roundabout way of saying that in politics there is no reason, only temperament. The old metaphor of citizens as shoppers in a “marketplace of ideas”, rationally weighing the relative merit of the wares, is as dead as William F. Buckley. This is especially true in the age of the internet, when it more convenient than ever for folks to cherry-pick statistics, anecdotes, and other bits of informational detritus that confirm what they already believe. Instead of being objective shoppers in a marketplace, most people are ideological nest-builders, constructing the political roosts they prefer, and then hunkering down in them.
            In Michel Leclerc’s The Names of Love, pretty anarchist Baya (Sara Forestier) has found a way to up-end the nests of fascists, technocrats, and other right-wingers: she seduces them. (“There’s a point right as they climax that they’re susceptible to persuasion,” she explains.) Leclerc’s comedy was a hit in France last year, and won Forestier a Cesar for Best Actress. It also happens to be amusing in translation, in a breezy, insouciant, French-comedy sort of way—as long as you don’t think too much about the tragedy at the root of its premise, the demise of actual political reason.
            Alas, we never see Baya put her techniques of persuasion into effect here, for The Names of Love (actual title, Le nom des gens, is better translated as “the names of peoples”) is less about the psychology of politics than about the politics of ethnicity. Baya, as the child of a love-match between an Algerian immigrant (Zinedine Soualem) and a French hippie-chick (Carole Franck), is deeply allergic to the images and expectations that come with being a Muslim female in France. Arthur (Jacques Gamblin), the older man who finally inspires her to end her career as a political missionary, is a Jew whose mother (Michele Moretti) concealed her religion during the German occupation. Where Baya openly flouts her Muslim heritage—not just eschewing a headscarf but absently going out in public stark naked—Arthur hides his under a façade of anodyne Frenchness (his full name, Arthur Martin, is a corporate brand name in France).         
            The lively script by Leclerc and Baya Kasimi plays out the paradoxical truths of race and identity in these times, where they count for less institutionally than they ever have, yet in other, less formal ways they matter more than ever. The labels are deceptive, of course, but as precious to Baya as to the “fascists” she converts—as when, for instance, she learns that her college scholarship was not sponsored by a proper Socialist but by a conservative she detests. Instead of making her reexamine her politics, the news makes her weep with horror.
            Your particular enjoyment of this movie will depend on your taste for piquant comedies of ideas. That, and your reaction to Forestier, who plays Baya as the kind of mercurial child-woman who buys live crabs at a market just to set them free at the beach. Whether her utter lack of self-consciousness will seem refreshing to you—or just deeply manipulative—is, like your politics, probably a matter of temperament.
© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Paranormal and Revolutionary Activities

Tea House (1914) by Aleksey Isupov, 
from the Savitsky Collection.

*  *  * (out of five stars)  The Desert of Forbidden Art. Written and directed by Tchavdar Georgiev and  Amanda Pope. 

* * 1/2   Paranormal Activity 3. Written by Christoper B. Landon. Directed by Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman.

The suppression of a single significant artistic voice is a tragedy. The suppression of an entire generation of voices is a cataclysm. The record of the Soviet Union in this regard is whatever is worse than “cataclysm”—the deliberate, systematic, and pitiless purging of whole fields of artistic endeavor, liquidated because they had no place in the regime’s ideological narrative of “liberation” (that’s doublespeak for “enslavement”). In Tchavdar Georgiev and Amanda Pope’s extraordinary documentary The Desert of Forbidden Art, (available now on Netflix) we get a glimpse of what the world missed under Stalin and his cronies.
            Much of the art that never saw the light of day under the Soviets has landed in an remarkable museum located not in Moscow or St. Petersburg, but in the provincial town of Nukus, Uzbekistan. The museum, formally called Karakalpakstan State Museum of Art, is the brainchild of an extraordinary collector named Igor Savitsky, a failed painter who devoted his life to preserving the artistic legacy his nation would not. Over the course of decades, Savitsky collected some 40,000 paintings, prints, and other pieces of visual art, funding his acquisitions with tacit help of certain individuals in the regional government of Karakalpakstan. The paradoxical result is that one of Russia’s greatest collections of Russian avant garde art isn’t in Russia. A hypothetic equivalent might be encountering one of the world’s best collections of Monets, Manets and Renoirs not in Paris, but in a second-tier regional capital in southern Algeria.
            Indeed, many of the banned, imprisoned, or otherwise ignored artists had some connection with that poor, remote region, where European and central Asian cultural crosscurrents met and intermingled. So while the Savitsky’s cause was worthy just in a moral sense, the film very clearly shows that this is emphatically not a case of artworks celebrated because they were suppressed. In paintings by Alexander Volkov, Alexander Nikolayev, and Mikhail Kurzin, we are looking at the Goyas and Gauguins and Daumiers of their time. With stunning vividness, they demonstrate that principle—dangerous to the Soviets’ highly Russocentric ideology—that there was much the country’s “backward” Islamic underbelly could teach their overlords in Moscow.
            Aesthetically, The Desert of Forbidden Art is a revelation. But it also shows that an individual like Savitsky—a man who was, quite frankly, a nobody—could make a profound difference, even in the face of the worst tyranny in a century of tyrannies. 

*  *  *
I’m still a fan of Oren Peli’s 2007 Paranormal Activity, a faux home-movie creep-fest about a suburban couple tormented by a demon. Like demons, sequels are can be hard to get rid of, though you can try to ignore them (as this critic did Paranormal Activity 2 last year). The original Activity, after all, was the essence of a sleeper: a low-key, atmospheric horror at a time when virtually nothing was being left to the CGI equipment between our ears. Boosting the budget—and the expectations—doesn’t seem to add much to this particular premise.
            Great word of mouth drew me into Activity 3—a prequel set back in the 1980’s, when the haunted Katie (Katie Featherston) was first visited by her personal demon. At first, young Katie (Chloe Csengery) isn’t really frightened out by her new friend, whom, in a possible reference Tobe Hooper’s infamous 1982 haunting movie, Poltergeist, she calls “Toby”. Mom (Lauren Bittner) is content to indulge the “imaginary friend” thing, but live-in boyfriend and video geek Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith) is determined to get all those bumps in the night securely on tape. Katie’s fate is not exactly a matter of suspense here, as she obviously lives on to appear in the other movies. Poor Dennis and his honking, ‘80’s-vintage tape deck? Not so lucky.
            Though there too many cheap shots, there are also a few genuine jolts. A scene where “Toby” makes creative use of a sheet—Halloween ghost style—is creepily funny, and niftily shot by directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who (or more precisely, have their character Dennis) mount their camera on an oscillating fan. The fundamental conceit of the Paranormal series—mating primitive video with the visceral kick of modern sound technology—still packs some power. But the script by Christopher B. Landon takes the story in a vaguely Rosemary’s Baby-ish direction that undoes the beguiling simplicity of the original.
            At the risk of spoilers, nothing more specific can be said about how this movie doesn’t relate to what is supposed to come later. Suffice it to say that coming out of PA 3, we’re not relishing our survival—we’re scratching our heads. And while “Toby” himself might thrive on confusion, that’s not the best place for horror to live.
© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro  

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Old Gringo

Sam Shepard makes a legal withdrawal in Blackthorn.

* * 1/2  Blackthorn. Written by Miguel Barros. Directed by Mateo Gil.
The only desert in Europe that looks anything like the American Southwest is in Spain, near Almeria in the lee of the Sierra Nevada mountains (the original Sierra Nevadas, that is). Sergio Leone made his spaghetti Westerns there in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and it’s another reason why—in the addition to the obvious historical connections between Spain and the old West—that the Spanish have a bigger stake in this quintessentially American genre than, say, your typical Belgian. Little surprise, then, that a Spanish director and a Spanish screenwriter have taken up a challenge Hollywood probably would never accept today—to make a credible sequel to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
            More properly, Blackthorn is an “alternative history”, the premise being that Butch (real name, Robert LeRoy Parker) survived that 1908 gunfight with the Bolivian army. In the script by Miguel Barros, Butch (Sam Shepard) has lived out the twenty years since his alleged death in quiet semi-retirement under the alias “James Blackthorn”. By 1927 he’s hankering for home, and decides to cash in his Bolivian property for a ticket out. Along the way, however, he runs into a shifty Spanish geologist (Eduardo Noreiga) who costs him his bankroll, but offers in compensation a stash of loot he stole from a crooked mining company. His bridges burned, Blackthorn has no choice but to hope the Spaniard is telling the truth. (Hint—he is, but only in part.)
            To get any enjoyment out of Blackthorn you ought not expect anything remotely as fun as George Roy Hill’s original, Paul Newman/Robert Redford Butch Cassidy (1969). Although that film was on equally shaky historical ground, it became a classic for its unique combination of romping fun and piquant wistfulness for the end of the West’s heroic era. Director Matteo Gil (who wrote the scripts for Agora and Vanilla Sky) nails the wistfulness, for sure, but Blackthorn is more a low-key slog than a romp. The gristled, copiously maned Sam Shepard, who perhaps resembles Mr. Mephistopheles from Cats more than either Newman or the historical Butch, has undeniable presence. His performance, however, is no more fun than one of his celebrated post-modernist plays (e.g., Buried Child, True West). The sole exception: a wry scene where Blackthorn, the career bank robber, makes a legal withdrawal from a Bolivian bank.
            Even if they preferred to turn the normally talkative Cassidy into a taciturn old goat, Gil and Barros could have made his temporary sidekick, Noreiga, a bit more colorful, a bit more than just a desk jockey who goes stealthily corrupt. They need not have gone for the full, scene-chewing Eli Wallach, but some basis for camaraderie, some reason for the old Butch to ride again with a worthy partner, might have made Blackthorn more engaging. As it is, they don’t, so it isn’t.
            There are moments of undeniable visual poetry here. The locations in the Bolivian high country, and in the towns Butch himself might have known, are stunning, evoking the U.S. west but also unique in their way. Gil deploys them beautifully, suggesting by topography alone that Butch’s heyday is not exactly gone, but transformed. He also offers up some flashbacks to the better-known episodes from the boys’ pre-Bolivian days, with Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as the young Butch, and the ravishing Dominique McElligott as an updated, swashbuckling version of Etta, the distaff corner of the amicable love triangle played by Katherine Ross in the ’69 version. These scenes are too brief to amount to much, but they do suggest that, in the right hands, a reboot of the full legend could be non-embarrassing after all.
            No question that Gil and Barros have channeled the spirit of the old Butch. His final reckoning with the Spaniard, who stands in for the old aristocratic kleptocracy, is fully in the spirit of the outlaw’s Robin Hood ethic of only stealing from one-percenters like Mr. E.H. Harriman of the Union Pacific Railroad Company. It’s just too bad Blackthorn doesn’t give us the jam with the bread.
© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro