Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Check and Mate

*  *  1/2  (out of five)  Queen to Play. Written by Caroline Bottaro, based on the novel by Bertina Henrichs. Directed by Caroline Bottaro. 

There have been a fair number of movies about chess. Watching films like Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993) and The Luzhin Defense (2000), one gets the impression that it is a kind of rarified pursuit—an intellectual puzzle like string theory or composing sonatas for cello and violin.
            But in fact, chess is blood-sport. It is visceral. It is a scale for weighing one mind against another, and what it reveals is pitiless and never wrong. People who play it as a mere intellectual pastime, or a joining together in search of truth (or, lord knows, “fun”), rarely rise to the top of the game. That distinction is for people, mostly very smart, desperately insecure men, who derive pleasure from conducting vivisection-by-proxy on the minds of their opponents. David Mamet and Martin Scorsese should be making movies about chess—preferably with Joe Pesci in the lead.
            Caroline Bottaro’s Queen to Play (French title: Joueuse, or “The Female Player”) doesn’t get it quite right either, but at least the stakes are high enough. Set on the island of Corsica, it is the story of Hélène (Sandrine Bonnaire), a wife and mother who helps swing the household expenses by moonlighting as a cleaning lady. One day at the hotel, she sees (or more precisely, peeps at) a couple (Jennifer Beals and Dominic Gould) using chess as a kind of elegant foreplay. Hélène, who is dissatisfied with her life with her rube husband (the very Kevin Bacon-esque Francis Renard) and self-absorbed daughter (Valérie Lagrange), becomes obsessed with the game, seeing in it the beauty and refinement she is missing. In her quest to improve, she convinces a client, a prickly American professor (Kevin Kline) to spar with her in exchange for free housekeeping. Given how the script eroticizes the game from the outset, where their private sessions lead is not hard to guess.
            There’s a lot that is not plausible about Bottaro’s movie. Perhaps things are different in France, but cleaning ladies rarely resemble cinematic beauties like Bonnaire, who broods alluringly, yet has a smile outshining Julia Roberts’. Nor does the film’s half-hearted feminism—no doubt rooted in Bertina Henricks’ novel—cut very deep. (Yes, the queen is the most powerful piece on the board. But the king is still the only indispensible piece, the whole reason for the contest.) Indeed, the entire notion that chess is somehow sexy seems like a mere contrivance. I mean, anything can be eroticized, but there are a lot better candidates for that than a blood-sport like chess. Want a flirty game? Try billiards.
            True, the notion of using the game as a window on a deeper, more meaningful existence makes a kind of sense. There’s an intriguingly Bovary-esque quality to Hélène as she struggles to sharpen her game, neglecting the responsibilities of her “real” life, that befits the passion the game can rouse in some people. Bonnaire’s scenes with Kline are chess-matches of a slightly different kind, waged on a board tilted toward him in class and education, toward her in dignity. When, at the end of the movie, they murmur chess moves to each other, playing out a game existing only in their minds together, it is indeed a bona fide sexy moment.
            But I’m still holding out for that Martin Scorsese-Joe Pesci chess movie.
© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Planet of the Fist-Bumps

* * 1/2  (out of five)  Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Written by Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver. Directed by Rupert Wyatt.
 Given that people are almost genetically identical to chimps and bonobos, it’s only a terminological fig-leaf that keeps biologists from classifying us all as apes. Planet Earth already is “Planet of the Apes”—a fact literally upheld in that famous “kicker” ending of the 1968 film, with a wrecked Lady Liberty sticking of the sand, Ozymandias style, before a prostrate Charlton Heston. Though it was broadly based on a middling science fiction novel by Pierre Boulle, the real authorship of that film lay with co-screenwriter Rod Serling, who (along with Michael Wilson) injected ideas he had explored regularly in The Twilight Zone. One of these was the ongoing struggle to make people, despite their most atavistic urges, somehow more humane. The title was Planet of the Apes, but the real subject was the unfinished struggle to become human.
           Now, in the contemporary spirit of leaving no franchise behind, we are presented with yet another reboot of the Apes story. After the execrable 2001 Tim Burton-Mark Wahlberg version almost sank the whole thing, the makers of Rise of the Planet of the Apes have picked it up, dusted it off, and returned to first principles. Director Rupert Wyatt (The Escapist) and screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver present what is essentially a mash-up of ideas from the original movie series, borrowing mostly from numbers one and four (Conquest of the Planet of the Apes). Here, a research biologist Will Rodman (James Franco) is hard at work inventing a drug to cure Alzheimer’s. But his father (John Lithgow) is already fading away from the disease, leaving Rodman with no time procedural niceties. When he tests his nerve-generating drug on a chimp, the result is “Caesar”, a brainy ape with some very bleak social prospects, given the fact he is unique. How he contrives to give himself equally smart company is the essence of the apes’ “rise”.
            Long story short, this is a big improvement over Tim Burton and Markie Mark, but it still ain’t Rod Serling.  Visually, it is as seamless as we expect a modern product, with the wholly CGI Caesar looking more or less convincing, interacting plausibly with Franco, Lithgow and the others (yawn). No actors in preposterous latex masks here, folks--though in truth these digitized apes seem a bit too ideal, too bloodless. For the fans, Wyatt et al. give us riffs on classic lines from the originals, including droll variations on “Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” and “It’s a madhouse! A madhouse!” Along with the Apes films, the inspiration for Rise surely lies in the prison escape genre, with the canned simians learning begrudging respect for each other as they rage against the Man. By the end, we almost expect Caesar to fist-bump his comrades.
            The script is round and sturdy, if not very exciting, like one of those ape tree-houses from the original movie. In perhaps its weakest element, the climax depicts the apes battling to get across a certain orange bridge to get to…where, exactly? Marin County? It is scarcely a spoiler to note that Muir Woods, with Pacific coast redwoods that African and Asian apes would never, ever lay eyes on, is a poor candidate for the future site of Ape City. The projected loss of admissions fees alone would obligate the Park Service to go nuclear to protect it.
            Watching Rise, I was reminded less of the original Ape movies than the new J.J. Abrams Star Trek. Like the latter, Rise takes full advantage of Hollywood imagineering to make an old show seem fresh and exciting. But in the process, all the Big Ideas—in this case, the Serling-esque musings over the nature of man, of the ironies of evolution and history—have been drained out. For example, in the original film the apes portray themselves as somehow ethically superior to the humans they’ve displaced. Along the way, Serling and Co. have a lot of fun puncturing the simians’ moral conceit—the apes, just like us, still like to grin in trophy shots of the prey they’ve ruthlessly hunted down. (At one point, in a scene almost unimaginable in these conservative times, we even get a glimpse of an ape “pastor” giving a sermon full of self-aggrandizing religiosity about “God making Ape in His Own Image.”) Wyatt and Co., by contrast, just accept the apes’ supposed “humaneness” at face-value, having Caesar repeatedly stay the hands of his vengeful minions. So much for all those intriguing contradictions.
            Or compare the two human heroes of the films—Charlton Heston as “Taylor” in the original, James Franco here. Taylor encountered the apes for no other reason than because he was out exploring for “something that’s better than Man.” He’s a self-professed misanthrope, but by the end he discovers—the hard way—that he’s a humanist after all. James Franco, meanwhile, just wants to cure a disease. His only vice is an excess of zeal to help his Pop. That’s all well and good, but that’s the trouble—it’s just “well and good”. No principles are at stake here, and nothing is learned.
            Rise is better than what a million monkeys pounding on a million typewriters might produce by chance. But that still doesn’t make it Shakespeare.
© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Crazy, Stupid, Love, Actually

*** (out of five) Crazy, Stupid, Love. Written by Dan Fogelman. Directed by Glenn Ficara & John Requa. 


This is the place in the review where the movie critic, bludgeoned senseless by week after week of adolescent summer fare, gives thanks for “counter-programming”. In this case, it would be for Crazy, Stupid, Love, the witty, effortlessly entertaining rom-com Warner Bros. has wisely decided to slot between slabs of superhero beefcake. But the makers of Crazy deserve gratitude for a more practical reason. For how much action (as in that other kind of action) can anyone expect a Transformer or Harry Potter to inspire after that dinner-and-movie date? Geekdom can be cute, but that has its limits.

            Crazy is firmly in the Love, Actually tradition of warm, somewhat-but-not-too-hokey ensemble comedy, with a similarly motley cast of veterans and newcomers. We get Steve Carell as the older guy whose inner manhood has disappeared into that place our passports usually end up—someplace safe but we can’t remember where. We get the familiar but still beautiful faces of Julianne Moore and Marisa Tomei, and also the relative freshness of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling (who’s actually been around a while, but still seems new). And then there’s Analeigh Tipton, a former “America’s Next Top Model” who’s so appealing as a 17 year-old in love with a much older man, with a face a virtual billboard of tender emotions, that she’s better described as America’s Next Top Ingenue.

            The script by Dan Fogelman sets these figures around and against each other in curlicues of romantic frustration that are too complex and too frivolous to bother explaining, except that it’s full of coincidences and improbables that would bother a viewer who wasn’t so busy being entertained. (After all, Shakespeare had his share of romantic imponderables too.)  Cal (Carell), you see, is blindsided by his wife’s (Moore) decision to divorce. Suddenly thrust into the dating stakes, he inspires the sympathy of Jacob (Gosling), a womanizing smoothie who volunteers to remake Cal in his image. But despite his exploits in the single scene, Jacob is existentially miserable too…until he meets Hannah (Stone), a law student who has a surprising connection back to Cal. Meanwhile Jessica (Tipton), the girl who babysits his son Robbie (Jonah Bobo), is deeply, hopelessly in crush with Cal, whilst Robbie secretly pines for her in return. Got that?

            We appreciate the break from Transformers and vampires and Smurfs, but of course Crazy, Stupid, Love is as much a fantasy as anything made by Pixar. In the world of the rom-com, fellas who insist on the grand romantic gesture, who never give up on their ideal but reluctant soul-mates, get the girl in the end. Back here in Catharine MacKinnon’s America, they get a restraining order. And people who tramp around the yards of their ex-spouses’ houses, doing their landscaping and peeping in windows, are not heartbroken schmucks who deserve our sympathy, but stalkers. It’s as if Fogelman has imagined a parallel universe where the words “creepy” and “harassment” don’t exist.

            One difference lies in how writer Fogelman frames his characters. In Crazy, all of them are unfulfilled, but they’re also subtly puzzled by their unhappiness. Like Data, the almost-human android from Star Trek: The Next Generation, they seem to struggle with their unwonted emotions in a way that never becomes negative or threatening. Abandoned by his wife, Cal comes off more wistfully self-pitying than angry; when the guys scuffle here over their lady-loves, as they inevitably must, it’s more like a harmless scrum seen on an elementary school playground than conflict between emotionally-distraught adult males.

            Yes, it’s a romantic comedy. I did my share of laughing. But isn’t the real joke the idea that love is a laughing matter at all?

© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro