Monday, May 30, 2011

A History of Violence

Incendies.  Written by Denis Villeneuve, based on a play by Wajdi Mouawad.  Directed by Denis Villeneuve . In French, English, and Arabic.
It’s probably safe to say that, after more than half a century, the prospect of “peace in the Middle East” has become as chimerical a vision as “universal religious tolerance” or “feeding the children”. In other words, though a manifestly worthy goal, it’s not anything we should expect to actually witness.
            This is not because the problem is insoluble. After all, this particular knot was tied by people and can be disentangled by people too. Instead, it has become one of those quandaries where continuing to tolerate the intolerable is less frightening than any conceivable solution. Those in a position to achieve it don’t want peace—not really. The obstacle is no less simple, or profound, than that.
            Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies (in English, “destroyed by burning”) is a powerful depiction of how people can try to live with the intolerable, attempt to discount it and make it routine, but can succeed only up to a point. Upon the death of their Arab Christian mother Nawal (Lubna Azabal), French-Canadian twins Jeanne and Simone (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin and Maxim Gaudette) learn the contents of her will, which tasks them to find and contact their father and brother back in the old country—relatives that, until that moment, they didn’t know was alive (the father) or even existed (the brother). Simone dismisses the testament as the ramblings of a crazy old woman. Jeanne takes up the task of solving the mystery, traveling to a Lebanon that is only beginning to recover from decades of Muslim-on-Christian-on-Jewish violence.
            There are too many potential spoilers in summarizing the script by Villeneuve, based on Wajdi Mouawad’s play, to reveal much more. Suffice it to say that what Jeanne she learns about her family history, about her mother’s surprisingly active role in this particular side-show of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is appalling and irresistibly absorbing, thanks in large part to a haunting performance by the Belgian-born Azabal. This is the best movie of its kind this writer can remember since Milcho Manchevski’s similarly powerful Before the Rain (1994), which was likewise set in a historical context of almost hopeless, chronically cyclic violence.
            Granted, some of the twists in the story, as relate to the loyalties of the characters, are too sketchily depicted to be plausible. Villeneuve also withholds too much information about the relevant history to make this genuinely comprehensible to the casual viewer. I believe the name “Lebanon” is never actually uttered in Incendies. Perhaps just seeing the cedar tree on the flag, the French street signs, and the spectacle of Christians and Muslims slaughtering each other, is enough key information for most Canadians. For the two-thirds of Americans who, according to a recent Zogby poll, can’t even find Iraq and Afghanistan on a map, such circumstantial details aren’t enough. But that is perhaps more our problem than the film’s.
            None of these quibbles make Incendies anything less than superb. I saw it with a friend who thought its final, eye-popping revelation was perhaps one shock too many. I won’t name it here, except to say that I disagree. There is no realization of horror quite as effective the one that is bred into our very bones, that we understand we carry around with us no matter how far we try to run away. Like a bullet lodged too close to the heart to cut out, this story will stick with you for a long time.
© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Taking It Out on the Beaver

The Beaver.  Written by Kyle Killen.  Directed by Jodie Foster. 

Let’s face it—you’ll probably never see Jodie Foster’s The Beaver. You just can’t forgive Mel Colm-Cille Gerard Gibson for his intermittent rages against Jews, blacks, his ex-wife, and anybody else who might cross his twisted path. Khalid Sheikh Mohammad was water-boarded 183 times by the CIA, but he doesn’t seem half as tortured as Gibson. The actual extent of his racism and/or anti-Semitism is a matter of debate in Hollywood, inevitably against the background of his Holocaust denying father and some Jew-baiting chestnuts featured in his Passion of the Christ (2004). Yet most of those who know him testify that—aside from a messy divorce and that infamous traffic stop in 2006 (which was most likely a half-hearted attempt at “suicide by cop”)—he’s actually a pretty sweet-natured guy.
            Mostly we just hope Gibson will have the good sense to go away, to disappear with his demons and his shame, and leave those atavistic hatreds where they belong—roiling under the surface of our collective life. But here’s the inconvenient thing: Jodie Foster, whose credentials in the circles of political correctness are impeccable, still believes in her friend and costar from Maverick (1994 ). And in exchange for giving him the plum role in The Beaver, Gibson gives her a terrific performance that, with any other star, would probably be on the short list for Oscar nominations. (As we all know, Oscar "hearts" mental illness). Oh dear.
            Gibson plays Walter Black, the son of a toy entrepreneur who is so deeply sunk in  depression he can barely function. Giving up on him after  years of suffering, his wife Meredith (Foster) kicks him out, much to the grim approval of their teen-aged son (Anton “Mr. Chekhov” Yelchin). Walter is just about to end his miserable life when someone else enters the picture: a beaver hand-puppet that proves to be the therapist/life-coach he always needed. By interacting with himself and the world through his “prescription puppet”—in a gruff Australian accent, no less—Walter finds a way to work through his feelings of gross inadequacy.
            This is, in a sense, another version of the American Beauty (1999) scenario, with another middle-aged guy salvaging himself from the dead end of his life—albeit in unique fashion. Also like American Beauty, The Beaver includes a subplot about how the sins of the fathers are visited on the sons, likewise in surprising ways. But unlike Kevin Spacey’s performance in Beauty, there’s no winking self-awareness to Gibson’s. Though occasionally funny in an un-ironic way, he’s absolutely convincing here, and he’s not playing games. The Beaver may not be as good a film as American Beauty (Foster lacks Sam Mendes’ visual flair), but Gibson’s performance is arguably deeper and most definitely darker. As a portrayal of the corrosive effect of depression on an outwardly average American family, this is far the more honest effort.
            The script by Kyle Killen displays the kind of structure they teach in screenwriting seminars, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it lacks heart. Killen is on to something when he makes the “prescription puppet” a beaver—he is, after all, is an industrious and productive little fellow, much like how modern males supposed to be. But the beaver, who is cute and cuddly and spends virtually all his time on home-improvement projects, seems pretty domesticated for a wild animal. He’s definitely not what five million years of evolution has prepared the modern American male to be.
            As for Jodie Foster, The Beaver is her first directorial effort in 16 years, since the forgettable Home for the Holidays. This certainly represents a step up—perhaps even into Sarah Polley (Away From Her) territory. Indeed, Foster’s instincts are surprisingly self-effacing here, insofar as she puts herself very much in a supporting role, allowing her film to rise or fall with Gibson. In a way, her belief in him represents one of the most compassionate artistic choices she’s ever made.
            To this critic, whether Gibson really has issues with the tribe of Abraham is about as irrelevant to his art as Woody Allen’s romantic liaison with his adopted daughter, or Roman Polanski’s choice of hot tub mates. The centuries tend to be kind to such character flaws anyway. (The painter Caravaggio, for a single example, is lionized today, although he once killed a guy in Rome.) Indeed, what Gibson really shouldn’t be forgiven for is making Bird on a Wire (1990), a comedy with Goldie Hawn that was predicated entirely on the shapeliness of his butt. Some things you just can’t get past. But let’s not take it out on The Beaver, OK?

© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

How the West Was Interrupted

Meek’s Cut-off.  Written by Jonathan Raymond. Directed by Kelly Reichardt. 

I looked forward to Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff with a fair amount of anticipation. Based on previews, this modernist Western looked like a throwback to such classics of foreboding as Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God and Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock—in short, the kind of textured, intensely visual, pensive work that makes folks today yawn and reach for their smart phones. Something, anything to remind us that movies started as a pictorial medium, before the sound and fury and chatter of most fare today, Hollywood and independent.
            At least at first, Reichardt delivers the goods. The story of three families trekking west along the Oregon Trail in 1845, Meek’s Cutoff  (“cutoff” as in “short cut”) is visualized with a novelist’s care and affection for its subject. As the party’s wagons crawl through an endless, desolate landscape, women in suffocating frocks and bonnets trudge, collecting firewood and warding off boredom and—at times—their sense of futility. Along with the splendid cinematography by Chris Blauvelt, the sound design by Leslie Shatz gives us a feel for the awesome space such journeys challenged, punctuated only by the homely sounds of a squeaky wheel or a hanging pot endlessly clanking against a post. If we experience this film’s vistas and silences as witnesses, not as consumers impatient to be entertained, they do evoke a time and a place (and an indomitable kind of individual) we can hardly imagine today. After all, Reichardt’s pioneer women are the contemporaries of the Brontes on their moors five thousand miles away—except that the ghosts they face are alien ones, and the question of love seems very remote indeed.     
            Unfortunately, at some point the question of story does tend to assert itself. Meek (Bruce Greenwood) is the grizzled braggart hired by the families to guide them west. The Tetherows (Michelle Williams and Will Patton) are getting the sense that Meek either doesn’t know what he’s doing, or is deliberately leading them to disaster. As the families bicker over the next move, their guide terrifies them with stories of Indian massacres, though it is never quite clear whether he knows what he’s talking about or is just making himself seem more indispensable. Before long a lone Indian (Rod Rondeaux) is captured lurking nearby. Meek wants to shoot him, but the Tetherows trust he will show them the way to the water they desperately need. Will he? If the Indian is saying, it’s only in his own inscrutable language, which Meek professes not to understand.
            Trouble is, neither Reichardt nor screenwriter John Raymond seem to know either. Is it a spoiler to say that a spoiler isn’t possible here, because the movie doesn’t end, it just stops? Indeed, a similar case of cinema interruptus marred Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy (2008). When the lights came up at my screening, an audible groan came up from the crowd. Reichardt shows a lot of good instincts here, from the way she plays upon and undermines our clichés about “how the West was won”, and her casting of the remarkable Michelle Williams, who looks very much her part. But by presenting a movie entitled “Cutoff” as literally cut off, Reichardt just seems to be playing a cruel joke on her audience.
 © 2011 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Hammer Time

Thor.  Written by Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, et al. Directed by Kenneth Branagh.
Asgard “No Fail” Swedish Meatballs

  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 1/2 pound ground pork
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 3/4 cup bread crumbs
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 tablespoon dried parsley
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon pepper
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon pepper
  • 2 cups boiling water
  • 3/4 cup sour cream
By hand or on medium speed with an electric mixture, thoroughly blend the ground meat, filler, salt and pepper, and other flavorings. Beat until very well mixed. Form into balls about 3/4"-1 1/2"  in diameter: do this by hand, or use a tablespoon-sized cookie scoop, or a melon baller.  
To make the sauce: In a saucepan, combine oil, flour, paprika, 1 tablespoon salt, and 1 teaspoon pepper. Cook over medium heat until sizzling. Stir in hot water and sour cream until smooth and heated through.
When meatballs have cooked 30 minutes, pour sauce over the top, and return to the oven for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

            While that’s in the oven, let’s take a few minutes to consider the latest superhero opus,  Kenneth Branagh’s Thor. Yes, you read that right: the guy who formerly cooked up literate delicacies like Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet has succumbed to the less-than-Shakespearean juggernaut of Marvel Comics, delivering a summer blockbuster more or less indistinguishable from something made by Tom Story or Joel Schumacher. Indeed, while Branagh the master thespian is capable of delivering the St. Crispin’s Day speech as good as anybody in the last century, he’s not as good at selling out as Jon Favreau (Iron Man). Whether this diminishes Branagh or exalts Favreau depends on how seriously you take your movies about guys in funny costumes.
            Having little interest in Thor comics growing up, my apologies for the cursory summary of the plot: Thor (Chris Hemsworth, last seen in a brief turn as Kirk’s father in the latest Star Trek movie) is the prince in the realm of Asgard, a cosmic empyrean which suggests a cross between a Laser Rock night at the planetarium and dinner at Medieval Times. Thor and his invincible hammer are an arrogant pair, so the prince gets exiled by his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) to the galactic backwater of Earth. Amongst mortals like über-cute astrophysicist Jane (Natalie Portman), Thor learns the virtue of self-sacrifice, thus helping him in his battle against the nasty Ice Giants and his duplicitous brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Along the way there are some rather listless battles, foot-dragging drama, and fish-out-of-water comedy that seems about as old hat as horned helmets.
            As nonsensical as these stories can be, they can be entertaining if they have the integrity of being true to themselves. Unfortunately, a work-by-committee like this (there are no fewer than five screenwriter/story credits) isn’t exactly cut out for visionary things. Asgard, for instance, is the kind of place where the technology exists to send people across the galaxy instantaneously—yet you still have to ride your horse to get to the teleportation chamber. Ask any baby boomer what Superman’s powers are, and he’ll reel them off with encyclopedic completeness; Thor’s powers, on the other hand, are left kind of hazy here (flying, throwing his trusty hammer, some kind of Viking judo skills…?).
            Hemsworth seems at first like a cut-rate Brad Pitt, but will likely fight another day. He’s actually quite funny in those scant moments when the orotund Thor gets cut down to mortal size. Portman, on the other hand, seems to have decided she’s reached the “Gwyneth Paltrow plateau”, when lovely actresses blessed with Oscars way too early in their careers feel they can afford to collect big paychecks for a while. You’d like to think that Hollywood is imagining heroines who have time to master astrophysics AND maintain perfect skin out of commitment to lofty feminist principle. More likely, though, the roles of the girl and the science are both seen as mere accessories, and best disposed of together.
            At one point, the hero explains to Jane that Asgard is a place where “magic and science are one in the same.” Unfortunately, in Thor the movie, the magic and science are “the same” only because both are absent.
            But there’s the buzzer from the oven…

Recipe makes 30-150 meatballs depending on how large they are.  Serves 6-8, more on the smorgasbord. These meatballs are great alone, but are also delicious poured over egg noodles.
© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Game of Throngs

Game of Thrones.  Created by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss. Based on the novels by George R. R. Martin. Sundays at 9pm on HBO.
Back in 2001, after the first Lord of the Rings movie became a big hit, a Hollywood producer raised eyebrows with his prescription for healing the wounds of 9/11: “America needs more hobbits!” The death of Bin Laden doesn’t necessarily end the threat of catastrophic terrorism, but it does feel like the closing of a chapter in that story. By the evidence of HBO’s new fantasy TV series, Game of Thrones, our collective need for hobbits seems to have died with him.
            For Thrones, based on the Songs of Fire and Ice series of novels by George R.R. Martin, is a strange sort of fantasy. It doesn’t have time for hobbits—much less orcs, wizards, or lugubrious tree-creatures—because there are political scores to settle. Set in a vaguely feudal world beyond history or real geography, it surveys a vast landscape of machinations surrounding the throne of the mythical kingdom of Westeros. The story primarily deals with four noble families—the Starks, a decent lot who rule the rough and wild north of the country; the Baratheons, whose patriarch seized the throne some twenty years before; the perfidious Lannisters, who back the King but scheme behind his back; and the bitter Targaryens, who were deposed by the Baratheons but hope to return on the strength of an alliance with a barbarian horde.
            If Thrones has anything, it is scale and sweep. Three episodes in, just summarizing the plot requires a dissertation, with a cast of characters that promises to swell into the scores (or the thousands, if the books are any guide). That said, much of the emotional weight is planted firmly on the shoulders of Eddard Stark (Sean Bean, from the BBC Sharpe series and a supporting role in Rings movies), a warrior-noble of sturdy virtues who prefers to do his own beheading if it comes to that. Even more remarkable is Peter Dinklage as the Lannisters’ black sheep, the mordant and vertically-challenged Tyrion.
            Every Sunday night we get to watch Eddard and Tyrion and the rest move around the chessboard of Martin’s model universe, much like the clockwork miniatures depicted in the show’s opening credits. All in all, the show is visualized, cast, and acted skillfully enough to be thoroughly involving—a high-stakes evening soap at a time when the afternoon variety is all but extinct. After investing the time and energy to take in Martin’s vast tapestry, it’s hard to be anything but “all in” for the whole ten episodes.
            It’s politics, politics, politics all the way, and while we Americans profess to loathe the gamesmanship of real government, we can’t get enough if the politicians happen to wear tunics and broadswords. But the lack of magical elements raises further, existential questions. If it’s all just scheming and backstabbing, but no wraiths or trolls, how is this kind of fantasy any different from a show based on, well, actual history, like HBO’s own Rome or Showtime’s The Tudors? Watching the latter the viewer enjoys intrigue that has the bonus virtue of being rooted in approximate fact.  Devote yourself to the intricately concocted worlds of George R.R. Martin and you haven’t learned anything factual at all.
            True, there is a school of thought that the fantasy genre shouldn’t necessarily be defined by magic, any more than “fantasy baseball” should include the possibility of throwing a 300 mph fastball. In principle, human nature alone should offer twists enough for any epic. If J.R.R. Tolkien had written hobbits and elves out of his trilogy—if Sauron was just a bad-tempered guy with a tower and a telescope—what would have been lost? Arguably, the supernatural is not just there for its exotic flavor, but to refresh the same old power struggles by making them less familiar, more a matter of childish fear and delight.
            Game of Thrones trucks in none of that. Indeed, it not only lacks the dragons of medieval myth (at least so far); it drops the tiresome pieties of organized religion too. A world inspired by the mores and institutions of medieval Europe, but without something like Christianity, is a fantasy indeed.
            Alas, while Martin’s world is wholly detached from historical  facts, it is not free of historical clichés. The Starks are upright and honest, after all, because that’s what we expect about denizens of the frosty North. By any other name, they’re Scottish highlanders—albeit the sanitized ones of Hollywood myth and not the unwashed cattle-rustlers remembered by their lowland neighbors to the south. The Lannisters, on the other hand, dwell in the vaguely Moorish-styled capital of “King’s Landing” and must therefore be, like all Southerners, effete and treacherous. With these and other half-digested generalities, Thrones doesn’t teach history, but does teach the prejudices that sometimes come with superficial knowledge of it. Begging milady’s pardon, but shouldn’t a king’s ransom buy us more than that? 
© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro