Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Lion Queen

The Last Lions. Written & directed by Dereck and Beverly Joubert.
Warning: this review contains spoilers. But the fact that a nature documentary can even contain spoilers is testament to how unique Dereck Joubert’s The Last Lions really is. It’s the best film I’ve seen that contains no actual human beings since the last Lord of the Rings movie.
            The Jouberts, as National Geographic “Explorers in Residence,” spent eight years gathering their footage in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. The film documents the life of a solitary lioness they call Mau di Tau as she struggles to raise three cubs against enormous odds. Her pride (as in “her social group”) has been scattered by an invading cats; fleeing lion males who want to kill her young, and females with no decent intentions either, Mau di Tau lands on a quiet island that might offer some refuge. But then a herd of nasty water buffalo arrive, kicking off a blood struggle between feline guile and bovine stubbornness that is literally Homeric in its intensity—except that Homer wrote fables, and this is real.
            Let’s dispose of your obvious objection: though at first glance this might seem like some kind of live-action Disney product, an Incredible Journey with wild critters, that is far from the truth. There is no Disneyesque sentimentality here. It is nature pitiless, red in tooth and claw. Some passages are heartrending in their emotional power: when, for instance, the mama is forced to abandon one of her cubs alive because the youngster ‘s back has been broken, I’d challenge the hardest-hearted of viewers to sit indifferent. Just the expression Joubert captures on the lioness’ face as she turns away is heartrending. Fair warning: though it offers its share of cuteness, this is not March of the Penguins with fur. Children under ten should not see it.
            At a time when movie storytelling is seemingly becoming more and more of a virtual affair, The Last Lions is a reminder of what is possible with ingenuity, patience, and subject not made out of pixels. One could perhaps quibble over why the filmmakers chose to follow a solitary lioness when it’s their sociability that makes lions special in the first place. One could so object, but the Jouberts make up for it by demonstrating another, less-known fact—out there where it counts, there’s nothing soft and sentimental about being a mother. It’s perhaps the most cognitively demanding thing a mammal can do.
            Is a certain amount of anthropomorphism necessary to tell and appreciate this story? No doubt—despite spending eight years in the bush, neither Jouberts nor we can know exactly what it feels like to be a lion. The more cynical amongst us will likely scoff when the narrator (thankfully not Morgan Freeman for once, but Jeremy Irons) speaks of Mau di Tau hatching “ideas” and concocting “hunting strategies.” But just as animals aren’t people, they aren’t machines either. More than likely they are closer to the former than the latter.
            According to the Jouberts, the population of African lions has plunged from half a million to around 20,000 in just fifty years. This movie was so effective in depicting their plight that my cell phone came out to make a donation right as I left the theater (text “Lions” to 50555 to give ten bucks). There’s not much more anyone can say to recommend a “cause” movie than that.
© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

To Dope or Not to Dope

Limitless. Written by Leslie Dixon, based on the novel by Alan Glynn. Directed by Neil Burger.
It’s taken a while for Hollywood to discover the concept of the “pharmacological thriller.” No, I’m not speaking of movies about garden-variety drug addiction. I’m talking about movies about the potentials and pitfalls of performance enhancement, of drugs we take not to escape the real world, but to function in it—or even get an edge. With more than 10% of all Americans now taking antidepressants for such uses as overcoming acute shyness (“social anxiety disorder”), there’s a rich vein of experience to tap into about those little pills.
            Neil Burger’s Limitless goes there. A sharp, visually inventive thriller, it’s the story of Eddie (Bradley Cooper), a would-be writer who appears to be washed up before he’s begun. Facing a deadline for a book he can’t even start, he turns to an experimental drug that—his sleazy drug-dealing ex-brother-in-law says—will help him focus better. Sure enough, “NZT” is a cognitive performance enhancer on steroids, revving up his dormant synapses to such an extent that he can write a best-seller in four days, crack the stock market in four weeks, and soak up Chinese and Russian in his spare moments.
            Eddie’s meteoric rise to fiscal superstardom gets noticed, leading him into some deadly territory to protect his secret and his supply. On a slightly deeper level, and as anybody who enjoyed Flowers for Algernon can attest, the poignance of this kind of story lies not in the rise of the artificial genius, but in the bitter decline. NZT does turn out to have a few side-effects, most of which, alas, end up disappearing into holes in Leslie Dixon’s script.
            Overall, this represents a step up for Neil Burger, who is best known for directing 2006’s The Illusionist—otherwise known as the less-good hocus-pocus movie that came out around the same time as The Prestige. (Indeed, it’s such an improvement one wonders if Burger got some pharmacological help…) Much of the credit for the success of Limitless has to go to Bradley Cooper. Until his breakout in The Hangover, Cooper was the kind of annoyingly handsome guy who seemed destined to play the smug ex-boyfriend or the dick career competitor in the next cubicle. As he metamorphoses here from unkempt underachiever to master of the universe who may or may not be guilty of murder, he never loses our sympathy. That’s not an easy trick.
            One place Limitless doesn’t really go is the morality of its subject. To be sure, our hero does encounter obstacles and competitors, but the film seems to come down in an oddly amoral place, typified by how it just seems to lose interest in Eddie’s possible murder charge. The issue it raises—would a world full of drug-enhanced intellects be one we should like to live in?—is essentially answered by its silence: silly question! With the game seemingly rigged against the little guy, of course we want NZT. Just as long as that dick in the next cubicle doesn’t have it too.
© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Death From Heaven

Battle: Los Angeles. Written by Christopher Bertolini. Directed by Jonathan Liebesman.
 It's been years now since worldwide revenue from video gaming surpassed films (in 2008, $30-40 billion in revenue for games vs. $27 billion for movies). Yet the tail still seems to wag the dog in terms of the direction content is fed: games based on movies are commonplace, but movies based on games are both rare and, with few exceptions have been commercially disastrous (remember Prince of Persia?).
            It's tempting to speculate about why game-based movies tend to be, well, bad. Video games may lack drama, for instance, because they are only about perpetuating conflict--keeping the game alive--instead of  resolving it. And there's the pervasive juvenility of the material, which is meant to appeal to pubescent boys of whatever gender or calendar age. But mere badness has never been a reason for Hollywood to neglect a commercial opportunity. Sure enough, we now have Jonathan Liebesman's Battle: Los Angeles, which may be the first movie to look and feel like a video game, without actually being explicitly based on one.  Even the title looks more comfortable on a box at Best Buy than a movie poster. It also has the virtue of leaving plenty of room for  future upgrades (Battle: New York or Battle: London, anybody?)
            Whatever it is, Battle is an alien invasion story more or less in the tradition of Independence Day, albeit using the gritty, hand-held aesthetic of District 9. Instead of a massive spaceship, the aliens arrive in "meteors", and once they land, there's no contrived countdown until the fighting starts--the bugs just come out blasting. Fortunately, a rainbow coalition of US Marines--including more than a few Hispanics (Avatar chopper-chick Michelle Rodriguez, Ramon Rodriguez), blacks (Cory Hardrict), an Italo-American paesan (Gino Anthony Pesi), a Nigerian (Adetokumboh M'Cormack), and one or two Anglos (Aaron Eckhardt) chopper in to defend the Santa Monica pier from annihilation.
            Predictably, our boys (and girl) spend the first two thirds of the story getting their camo butts kicked, Starship Troopers-style, until they scope out the enemy's soft spots, after which tide turns in equally predictable fashion. The script by Christopher Bertolini is largely one long action sequence, making us all feel like twelve year-old boys refusing to take a bathroom break from a first-person shooter game. The movie offers up the combat and the combat clichés ("I'd go to hell and back for you, man!") with such shameless abandon that it's easy to forget the obvious objections...such as, why would the aliens negate their advantage in firepower by getting themselves bogged down in house-to-house urban fighting? Indeed, why don't they just nuke us from space and avoid the fight altogether? Well, almost easy to forget...
            While it has none of the epic sweep of Independence Day or pulpy fun of District 9, Battle: LA is not boring.  There are a few moments, such as when the Marines are on the verge of flying into battle against an unknown enemy, that the film generates some suspense. One senses that behind the clichéd treatment is faith in our reverence for the self-evident goodness of our boys in uniform--that through their fictional sacrifice, we all should be willing to cut them some slack on hackneyed dialog like "It's OK to cry, man!"
            In a way, it's not a bad gamble--the military regularly polls among the most trusted institutions in America. But polls can’t write our screenplays for us. At least not yet--man.  

© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Reboot Hill

Rango. Written by John Logan, Gore Verbinski & James Ward Byrkit. Directed by Gore Verbinski.
It seems as if a reviewer could make a career these days out of simply covering new animated features. And it wouldn’t be a half bad occupation, considering that the Pixar/Disney franchise has now pretty much standardized an approach that both mollifies the critics and makes mountains of money—that is, deliver slapstick and goofy characterizations for the kids, while offering enough winking, poke-you-in-the-ribs inside jokes for adults to keep them from resisting the next spectacle. The list of successes using this formula is long already (the Shreks, the Toy Story movies, Wall-E, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Up!, How to Train Your Dragon, etc.) and is getting longer.
            The latest instance, Paramount/Nickelodeon’s Rango, is as typical a case as any—a satirical Western about a cowardly chameleon (voiced by Johnny Depp) who gets abandoned in the Mojave Desert and blunders his way to the town of “Dirt”. There, the unscrupulous Mayor (a tortoise voiced by Ned Beatty) and his poisonous henchman, Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy) conspire to take control of the town’s valuable real estate by withholding its water supply. Rango tries to thwart them by reinventing himself, in proper frontier style, as a fearless lawman, allying himself along the way with a girl lizard with an intermittent catatonia problem (Isla Fisher) and a half-squashed armadillo (voiced, almost inevitably, by Alfred Molina).
            Rango is a clever story, made by people who know their classic (that, is non-kiddie) movies. Ned Beatty’s tortoise/mayor is obviously inspired by John Huston’s water-stealing magnate in Chinatown;  the Clint Eastwood “Man With No Name” Westerns are reflected in a cameo by Timothy (Deadwood, Justified) Olyphant as the Eastwood-esque “Spirit of the West”, a ghost who manifests to inspire Rango to go ahead, dare to be the legend he’d like to be. It’s also full of other vivid characterizations such as the grisled gambler (a half-mauled rabbit with one ear chewed off), the mariachi chorus of burrowing owls, the bullying Gila monster, the big-eyed, pig-tailed schoolgirl who happens to be a possum. All are tonally dead-on and amusing…more or less.
            So why does all this sound like grudging praise? I guess it comes down not to what romps like Rango offer, but what they don’t. Quick exercise: think about the all-time classics of movies for kids. Think about titles like Bambi, The Wizard of Oz, Dumbo, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Yellow Submarine, etc.—films that not only killed a winter afternoon, but defined movie magic for young eyes. What these offered was a sense of wonder—of safe and vivid entrée into a big, scary but fascinating adult world. More to the point, they didn’t specialize in ransacking other movies and TV shows for meta-cultural references. They didn’t implicitly disrespect childhood by making snarky, winking references over children’s heads. (The Warner Bros. cartoons, Bugs Bunny and Co., did trade in pop satire. But those weren’t really for kids, anyway.)
            Smart as Rango is, it contains not one original idea. Where the classics inspired curiosity about the world a child was about to enter, Rango and its kind simply speak in a sort of terminally hip cultural code, the endpoint of which is not wonder, but a smug, Bieberesque nod. The movie’s spirit ex machina, the Spirit of the West, perfectly typifies this: instead of a genuine cowboy or prospector, he’s just a old guy wandering in the desert in a golf cart, scavenging for treasure with a metal detector. This, it appears, what the West and its poets have become—drifters on a deleted cultural landscape, sifting the dust for remnants of a better time.
Copyright 2011 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Meshugge in Love

Barney’s Version. Written by Michael Konyves, based on a novel by Mordecai Richler. Directed by Richard J. Lewis.
A couple of years ago, the Coen Brothers put out A Serious Man, a dry-as-bones paean to the modern Jewish-American male that caused a fair amount of head-scratching among the goyim. Specifically, it baffled audiences by showing a knot of interweaved middle-age insecurities, expectations, temptations and failures, without recourse to the relief of weed and cheap sex that we saw in gentile counterparts like, say, American Beauty. For members of the tribe of Abraham, being trapped on the far side of the hill seems like more than just a function of age—it’s an existential comedy (or in the case of A Serious Man, unfunny existential comedy).
            For the perplexed, we now have Richard J. Lewis’ Barney’s Version, a far more digestible story that likewise springs from the Philip Roth/Saul Bellow tradition of artful kvetching. The complaint is delivered this time by Barney Parnofsky (Paul Giamatti), a dyspeptic putz who produces bad TV comedy for a living but mostly just watches hockey and chomps cigars. Based on a novel of Mordecai Richler, the film traces the romantic ups and downs of a man who, over his eventful lifetime, somehow manages to land—and then lose—one gorgeous woman after another (in order, Rachelle LeFevre, Minnie Driver, and Rosamunde Pike).
            Barney is a sourpuss, but he’s also smart, and level-headed, and exceedingly romantic in the way guys with few options (and understanding, non-litigious girlfriends) can be. Throughout Lewis’ somewhat overlong story, we’re supposed to roll our eyes at Barney’s cruel humor, and root for his open-hearted search for love, and excuse his curmudgeonliness, which at least he comes by honestly. And, admittedly, Paul Giamatti’s performance makes all that pretty easy. That rare romantic lead with non-matinee-idol looks, Giamatti (who is, incidentally, not Jewish) is one of the few reasons to believe Hollywood is still interested in making movies about real human beings. From the character’s younger days among the ex-pat literati in Rome—in a perm, no less—to his post-divorce years of cursing the darkness of cold, lonely Montreal, it’s difficult not to like him.
            The trouble with Barney’s Version, though, is that it never seems too sure we like him, and keeps straining to make sure we do. Every sadistic impulse is balanced by a gratuitously redeeming gesture—as when, for instance, Barney cruelly chews out an aging actress (Macha Grenon) for her vanity, but is vindicated five minutes later when we learn he was secretly sending her fan letters. He’s a schmuck to his dreamboat lady-love Miriam (Pike), but then he’s a chronically ill schmuck too, which deflects all anger at his prickishness.
            Where A Single Man expected too much of an audience for whom Portnoy’s Complaint is just a one title on a list of Great Books, Barney is afraid to go “all in”, to give us the straight, petty, self-loathing truth. While there’s nothing wrong with the literature of self-exposure, what’s the point when it’s afraid to expose the goods—all of them?
Copyright 2011 Nicholas Nicastro