Wednesday, April 27, 2011

"If you win, you win. If you lose, you still win. You can’t lose."

Win Win. Written by Thomas McCarthy & Joe Tiboni. Directed by Thomas McCarthy.
In Raging Bull, Joe Pesci gives a roundabout description of a “win-win” situation that goes something like “If you win, you win. If you lose, you still win. You can’t lose.” Something like this definitely applies to anyone who takes a chance on Thomas McCarthy’s terrific off-beat comedy, Win Win. You’ll be out ten bucks after paying to see it, but trust me—you’ll still come out feeling like you’re ahead.
            The story concerns a New Jersey storefront lawyer named Mike (Paul Giamatti). Mike gets bittersweet satisfaction out of his second career coaching the losingest high school wrestling team in the state, but money is tight. He has family expenses to share with wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) and appearances to keep up at his business—nobody wants to hire a lawyer who can’t afford to maintain a working toilet. To ease his cash-flow situation, he agrees to become paid legal guardian to his client Leo (Burt Young), who is suffering from nascent dementia. After all, the guy has no close family and would otherwise become a ward of the state, destined for an institution. What’s the harm if Mike puts him in a nicer rest home and pockets the fee himself?
            A surprise comes when Leo’s nephew Kyle (Alex Shaffer) shows up after running away from his druggie Mom (Melanie Lynskey, too long absent since her 1994 role opposite Kate Winslet in Heavenly Creatures). The chain-smoking, bleach-blond, pimply-faced Kyle looks like a dirt-bag, but turns out to be the finest natural wrestling talent Mike has ever seen. Mom’s in rehab and the kid’s good with his half-crazy Uncle too, so what’s the harm in enrolling him at the local high school—and putting him on his wrestling squad too? Sounds like a “win-win” all around, even if Mike has to bend the truth a bit to make it happen.
            Naturally, Mike has to pay for all this good fortune, and pay he does in the smart script by director McCarthy (The Visitor, The Station Agent) and Joe Tiboni. Suffice it to say that his designs fail to count on the human connections that trail, like trip-wires, behind them. Though Mike is not a king or captain of industry, Win Win is one of the most poignantly fashioned tales of punished presumption in recent times. It also happens to be very funny.
            There isn’t a weak link in the cast. Paul Giamatti continues his winning streak of picking roles that complement his schleppy (or is that “schlumpy”?) everyman appeal. Amy Ryan, last seen flirting with Gabriel Byrne in the final season of HBO’s In Treatment, shows herself equally convincing in a less elevated mode  (she declares she wants to “punch out” Kyle’s missing mom).
            But best of all is newcomer Alex Shaffer. Before getting this role, he really was a star wrestler, until a back injury put him on the sidelines. But there’s much more to his superbly modulated performance than a few good moves on the mat—he’s got the presence of someone who’s already been acting for years. The only comparison to him I can come up with is another bottle-blond who lit up a high school movie almost thirty years ago. True, Fast Times at Ridgemont High was a very different sort of comedy, but the comparison with a young Sean Penn is no exaggeration. Keep an eye out for this kid—you’ll be seeing him again.  
© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro  

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


The Conspirator. Written by James D. Solomon & Gregory Bernstein. Directed by Robert Redford.
Robert Redford’s eighth outing as a director is perhaps the clearest case in years of a movie justified by its noble intentions. The Conspirator tells the largely forgotten story of the messy aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination, when the circle of John Wilkes Booth’s accomplices was prosecuted in closed military tribunals. The film is epically topical: though it was completed in 2010, it has reached screens in the US in time for the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War—not to mention a series of disheartening developments about new military tribunals of accused terrorists at Gitmo, the prison that refuses to die. If more people actually cared about history and current events, The Conspirator might be taken as a hot ticket.
            The “conspirator” in question is a sympathetic, virtually silent 42 year-old widow and mother named Mary Surratt (Robin Wright).  Surratt was tried for complicity in the assassination, but her real crime was begetting John Surratt (Johnny Simmons), the last of the Booth co-conspirators to be caught. As Redford and screenwriters James Solomon and Gregory Bernstein recount it, her fate was largely preordained by the rabidly anti-South Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline), who hand-picked the judges, fixed the rules, and rigged the sentence. Mary is nevertheless defended tenaciously by novice lawyer Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a 27 year-old army veteran who, alas, gets a bitter lesson on the real nature of the system he fought for on the battlefield.
            This subject matter would seem to demand a forensic testoster-fest, with titans flinging rhetorical broadsides a la A Few Good Men, albeit with unkempt beards and pointy accoutrements. And indeed, some of the dialog sounds suspiciously like it was cribbed whole from Bruce Beresford’s even more high-octane military court tragedy, Breaker Morant (1980).
            In this struggle McAvoy, though likeable, seems to be fighting a bit above his weight class. He’s supposed to be only 27 at the outset of the trial—and McAvoy plays him as such. But 27 then was not the same as 27 now. A male at that age in 1865 was a man in full, fully expected to participate in the civic affairs of the nation. A 27 year-old today is barely expected to have moved out of his parents’ basement.
            Redford’s heart isn’t really into Aiken’s story or the rhetorical fireworks anyway. Instead, his camera prefers to linger on the wan, laconic Robin Wright, who plays her role inertly but picture-perfectly, the Pieta of maternal dignity under assault. It’s a chilly performance, but at least deserves recognition for transcending the shouty, declarative acting style of her former husband, Sean Penn. It is the one truly extraordinary thing about this film.
            Redford and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel drape Wright with courtroom air thick with smoke and scandal. Yet despite the murky atmosphere, The Conspirator is largely without subtext or nuance. The most telling detail comes at the very end, when a title comes up explaining that Aiken left the law right after Surrat’s trial to join the editorial staff of the fledgling Washington Post—the paper Redford’s character Bob Woodward worked for in All the King’s Men. By this, Redford seems to suggest that, like slavery and the Civil War itself, the railroading of Mary Surratt was one of America’s original sins, whose legacy (Watergate, for example) we are still coping with today.
             Despite its stately tone and lofty ideals, the film pointedly avoids any mention of the word “slavery”, even though the real Surratt family was indeed a slaveholding one, and more than willing to fight for their peculiar institution. In this, Redford seems to be playing right into hands of those who prefer to remember the Civil War as a “reasonable folks can disagree” dispute over the limits of state vs. federal power. It wasn’t.
            In the movie, Kline’s Edwin Stanton rather lamely excuses the hasty military trials as somehow necessary to “healing” of the nation after a crime that was, like 9/11, inconceivable in its time. The take home message, of course, is that current Secretary of Defense Bill Gates will likewise be compelled to pull the strings at the coming Gitmo tribunals of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and others. Be that as it may, the fact that all this happened before—the hysteria, the demagoguery, the tribunals—ironically offers something other than the cautionary tale Redford wants to tell. After all, it did all happen before, but the Republic didn’t collapse in a lawless heap. Maybe our ideals are tough enough to survive our failings after all.
 © 2011 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

26 Varieties of Nonsense

Source Code. Written by Ben Ripley. Directed by Duncan Jones. 
There are twenty-six synonyms for the word nonsense listed in Roget’s Thesaurus, 3rd edition. That number actually seems conservative to me—for instance, the list includes rarities like “piffle”, “flumdiddle” and “blatherskite”, but not obvious ones like “bullshit”, “hooey”, and  “quantum physics”. It also doesn’t include Hollywood thrillers that pretty much epitomize pure nonsense, like Duncan Jones’ entertaining but contrived Source Code.
            This critic was actually going to give Source Code a miss, until he heard that it was directed by Duncan Jones, who gave us the haunting space elegy Moon in 2009. As befits the spawn of David Bowie (Jones was first introduced to the world in 1971 as “Zowie Bowie”), Code is another sci-fi opus with a thought-provoking (or at least thought-teasing) premise: Army helicopter jock Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) disappears from the battlefield in Afghanistan, waking up two months later at the linchpin of a new weapon in the war on terrorism. You see, he’s been drafted into a secret program that, using some kind of quantum engineering, allows him to enter the heads of victims after they die. As the script by Ben Ripley cryptically explains, this isn’t time travel—Stevens can’t change the course of history, he can just explore a “simulation” based on what existed in a dead guy’s mind, looking for clues that might thwart subsequent attacks. Or something like that.
            As visualized by Jones, the premise becomes a kind of techno-geek Rashomon, where we get to experience the same incident—a train bombing—from various points of view, none of which count as the entire truth. And as all that goes, the film is fairly involving as our hero experiences the same eight-minute loop of horror multiple times, becoming more and more attuned to his environment with each iteration—until the bomb goes off and the real Stevens wakes up in his isolation tank again. Along the way we also get to make the acquaintance of the dead guy’s girlfriend (Michelle Monaghan from Gone Baby Gone), who we all assume is equally deceased.
            But is she really dead? Is he? Thus we arrive at the fundamental problem with Source Code: is it real, or is it the Matrix? Ripley and Jones can’t seem to make up their minds. Though quantum physics may make for interesting discussion at symposia and dorm lunch rooms, the way it tampers with basic notions of causality just can’t make for compelling drama. For us to care about a story requires something to be at stake; it requires the illusion of real consequences. And if nothing is at stake because everything is liable to unlimited “do-overs”, or sidestepped by escaping into some parallel universe, then nothing we see really matters—does it?
            And then there are the more pedestrian objections. For instance, how exactly can a “simulation” based on the memories of a dead person preserve information that the original victim never actually experienced firsthand?  And even if it could, the ability to explore the subjective experiences of dead people seems to cry out for more imaginative use than solving mundane crimes. Curious to explore the last moments on the Titanic? The Challenger space shuttle? The happenings on the grassy knoll in Dallas on November 22, 1963? The final thoughts of Napoleon before Waterloo?  Spool up the quantum drives, Lieutenant!
            Source Code makes Inception seem almost reasonable by comparison—but at least the players convince us to go along. As he matures, Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko, Brokeback Mountain) is looking more and more like one of Alfred Hitchcock’s elegant heroes, a plain, sturdy soul caught up in extraordinary circumstances. Monaghan is similarly appealing as that girl you overlooked at first, realized was a knockout in retrospect, but could never reconnect with. Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air, The Departed) is worth watching in anything, even if she plays little more than a glorified switchboard operator here, with Jack Bauer expected to break into her control room at any second.
            Though this is only Duncan Jones’ second feature, there are some definite thematic correspondences with his first. Moon likewise dealt with an ordinary guy (Sam Rockwell) in a technological trap, who comes to learn that his own nature is not what he (or we) first supposed. Like Major Tom in his father’s  “Space Oddity”, or Colter Stevens in Source Code, Rockwell spents most of the movie in a drab-looking tin can, trying but failing to reach out to the people he loves. If Jones’ next movie is about some lonely oceanographer marooned on the sea floor, or somebody locked in a meat freezer overnight, Jones may need to quantum teleport himself into the minds of some dead people for some new ideas.

© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Ultimate Trip

Enter the Void. Written by Gaspar Noé & Lucile Hadzihalilovic. Directed by Gaspar Noé.
A lot of nasty names have been flung at the work of the Argentine-born French director Gaspar Noé: nihilist, brutalist, “the new extremity.” The bulk of his reputation rests on  Irreversible (2002), a tale of revenge that unfolds in reverse chronological order during the course of a single day. The technical brilliance of Noé’s visualization—his masterly control of point of view as his camera hurtles, swirls, and swoops above the streets of Paris—has been widely praised.
            But what most people remember is the scene where the heroine (Monica Bellucci) is brutally and explicitly raped in a highway underpass. The shot lasts nine long, excruciating minutes, and though it is brilliantly performed by Bellucci and Jo Prestia—and is made doubly effective by the fact that Noé’s camera stops moving—this unflinching treatment of horror has been blasted as “self-indulgent”, “voyeuristic”, “traumatizing”. Casual viewers beware: the Noé theater is not for everybody. But for those who are willing to follow him over the edge, Irreversible is one of the handful of truly visionary films in the last twenty years. Want to bet Goya and Bosch were called “self-indulgent” and “traumatizing” in their times too?
            Noé’s follow up, Enter the Void, didn’t reach screens in Europe until seven years later. As cosmic as his concerns seemed in 2002 (Irreversible’s French title is Le temps détruit tout, “Time Destroys Everything”), his new film is more ambitious in every way. A year and a half was spent just in perfecting the trippy visuals—something one usually hears in connection with some James Cameron opus, not an art-house product.
            Noé’s camera is again weightless, barely ever seeming to touch the ground as it floats above a phosphorescent, Blade Runner-ish vision of modern Tokyo. The point of view this time belongs to Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), a young foreigner with a burgeoning narcotics business. When Oscar is shot during a botched drug bust, the camera sticks with him after his death, its point of view literally becoming Oscar as slips through walls, through past and present, even into other peoples’ brains. The afterlife, it appears, closely follows the Tibetan Book of the Dead, wherein the spirit wanders, visiting and revisiting the key junctures in its mortal life until it either transcends the cycle of suffering or chooses the opportunity of its reincarnation. If this sounds like an occult documentary on The Learning Channel, rest assured that Noé’s spectacle is both burn-up-the-screen visual and kick-in-the-gut visceral. To perpetuate the drug theme--it is like mainlining pure cinema.
            There are a few things we might compare this to, but just a few. The obliquity of the visuals is faintly Lynchian; Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly also did wonders with the subjective, “first person” gaze. Years before that, in the brilliant last ten minutes of The Passenger, Michelangelo Antonioni’s camera literally became Jack Nicholson’s transmigrating soul. Noé himself has professed admiration for the virtuosic use of tracking shoots and POV in Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1964 cult masterpiece, I Am Cuba.
            But the real inspiration for Noé’s ultimate trip is his hero Stanley Kubrick—specifically the last sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, where a weightless Keir Dullea is given a grand tour of all space and time by some omnipresent, never-glimpsed intelligence. Like Kubrick, Noé yearns to make movies that are not just busy with incident, not filmed 19th century novels about who-did-what-to-whom, but remarkable for what is on the screen. (Indeed, Irreversible is full of 2001 references, not least when Albert Dupontel, playing a professional philosopher, channels his inner ape-man by bashing in someone’s head with the butt of a fire-extinguisher.)
            At more than two and a half hours long, Enter the Void has the feel of a movie that contains more ideas than its maker was willing to part with. The pace of it seems calibrated not to my comfort or yours, but to some clock only Noé carries. Others may be put off by the way Oscar’s ghost seems to ogle the sexual goings-on of his sister Linda (played by a torrid Paz de la Huerta)—though the nascent incestuousness of their relationship is amply framed by the script. Noé’s drug trip imagery, a half-organic, half-galactic kaleidoscope of rippling colors and pulsating tendrils, is eye-popping, but may strike some as outtakes from Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Most challenging of all, the protagonist’s face is barely glimpsed here (once, in a mirror); some viewers will have trouble finding empathy for the back of a character’s  head.
            For those people, God gave us The King’s Speech. For the rest of us, this why we got into film in the first place.
© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro