Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Bits vs. Bugs

* * * (out of five) Contagion. Written by Scott Z. Burns. Directed by Stephen Soderbergh. 

Jude Law is worse than the plague in Contagion.
With all the bad news going around lately, anybody can be excused for lacking appetite for yet another apocalyptic disaster movie. Hollywood has killed the world so many times already, with zombies and aliens and demons and cyborgs and vampires and global warming and nukes, that the whole thing seems rather old hat. A viral epidemic than kills only a few hundred million people, like in Stephen Soderbergh’s Contagion? Please get back to us when you’ve got something serious!

            Having finally gotten around to seeing Contagion, though, I can report that even modest mishaps can have their compensations. For this film resembles Soderbergh’s own Traffic (2000) more than a conventional disaster movie—that is, a sweeping drama featuring many big-name actors in tiny roles, each filling in a piece of a picture that comes out larger than the sum of its parts. This time we have Matt Damon as a father crazed with worry for his (as yet) uninfected daughter (Anna Jacoby-Heron), and Lawrence Fishburne as a government bureaucrat crazed with worry for his infected co-worker (Kate Winslet), and Jude Law (terrific here) as a blogger-huckster who profits directly from spreading disinformation about the virus that’s eating the world. We also have Marion Cotillard as a World Health Organization investigator who is abducted by the Chinese, and Jennifer Ehle as the CDC scientist willing to do anything to stop the plague, and Gwyneth Paltrow as the unfortunate “Patient Zero”.
            With the exception of Damon, whose portrait of a man whose world has fallen apart is the heart of the story, none of these performances add up to more than ten minutes of screen time. Nor is much of this particularly scary—at least not in a visceral, “flesh-eating virus” sense.Instead, Soderbergh aims for, and gets, disquieting drama that builds in tiny, deadly increments.
            A less perceptive script, for instance, would start to round things down when the vaccine is finally discovered. This is not a spoiler here, though, because  as Scott Z. Burn’s screenplay shows, the invention of the vaccine is only the beginning of the end, and a very tentative beginning at that. And indeed, Soderbergh may have pioneered something here that adds up to a truly weird creature: a “pandemic procedural”. Don’t know what do when viral hybridization jumps your R-nought from 2 to 4? Can’t find your index patient? Wondering how to handle the press when setting up social distancing? Contagion is your education.
            As Burns’ screenplay notes, respect for the probability of the next global plague has been undermined by too many false alarms—too many bird flus and H1N1’s that leave behind more hysterical headlines than corpses. What these “shoes that didn’t drop” actually suggest, however, is that fast as viruses can mutate and spread, they just can’t compete with the spread of information that helps us keep ahead of them. It has been said that earthquakes don’t kill people—houses falling down in earthquakes kill people. Similarly, it’s not the bugs that make pandemics, but ignorance. In this sense, the idea that some super-virus can wipe out billions of people in the age of the internet may be as fanciful as invading cyborgs from the Moon.
            Meanwhile, we can give thanks for Contagion, a movie that reminds us that there’s still power in the merely cataclysmic.
© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Drive Already

* * 1/2 (out of five stars)  Drive. Written by Hossein Amini, based on a novel by James Sallis. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. 

Ryan Gosling, not driving in Drive.

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive comes off the line impressively. A man (Ryan Gosling) sits behind the wheel of a getaway car, suffering through a silent, tense wait as two other guys rob a warehouse. The police are already on the way when they finally get going. Slipping into the night, the driver engages the cops on a moving chess match through the streets of downtown LA as the thieves sweat out the ordeal in the back seat. But when the heat gets too close, the driver just pulls into the garage at the Staples Center and calmly walks away, leaving his clients to their fate.
            The scene, which is superbly cut and paced, lasts five minutes, and features not a single word of spoken dialog. It’s terrific, but alas, it’s all a colossal tease, because like a new car that excels only during the test drive, Refn’s film is all downhill from there.
            Gosling’s character is known here only as “Driver”. He’s a mystery man with Formula One racing skills and ice-water in his veins. Like that other “Man with No Name”, Driver came from nowhere, has no friends, chews a toothpick, and doles out his words like a miser forced to hand out Kruggerrands. Truth to tell, he’s desperately cool in that Steve McQueen, dorm-room poster sort of way, with an attitude about human connection typified by his longest speech in the movie: “If I drive for you, you give me a time and a place. I give you a five-minute window, anything happens in that five minutes and I'm yours no matter what. Either side of that five minutes, you’re on your own.”  
            Trouble is, dorm-room posters aren’t enough to sustain a whole movie. Screenwriter Hossein Amini (Jude, The Wings of the Dove) has to give Driver some trace of compassion—in this case, for Irene, a young single mother (Carey Mulligan, at full dimple) who lives in his apartment building. Irene has a young son Driver kind of likes too, going so far as to offer him one of his precious toothpicks.  Unfortunately, she also has a convict husband (Oscar Isaac) who comes home early with a lot of prison debt to work off. Driver’s inevitable attempt to free the husband—and therefore Irene—from his past gets him involved in a heist that he can’t walk away from after five minutes.
            None of this is necessarily bad, though the way it unfolds is as predictable as a red light following a green. Nor are any of the ancillary players, including Albert Brooks as a noxious small-time gangster or Bryan Cranston as Driver’s hard-luck business partner, particular liabilities. The problem is that there’s too much preposterous gang-banger stuff, too many skulls stoved in by heavy boots and forks stuck in eye-sockets. Being a terrific driver, after all, doesn’t make you a ninja, and it doesn’t need to make you as ornery as Joe Pesci crushing guys with a car door. Driver actually admits he’s good at one only thing: “I don't carry a gun... I drive.” So why isn’t that enough?  And why is the ultimate measure of an American male’s devotion how many bones he’s ready to pulverize?
            The logic fairy apparently took a few naps while Amini was penning the screenplay. Having Driver administer a beat-down to a wise-guy in a strip club, in full view of God and the girls and everybody, is worth an eyebrow raise. But it becomes truly absurd in the context of a later scene, when he takes the trouble to don a mask to murder another guy—on a deserted beach. I guess Driver is more concerned with incriminating witnesses when they happen to be hermit crabs, not strippers
            Reyn, who made the cult hit Bronson, makes visuals with a theatrical flair reminiscent of Michael Mann (Heat, Public Enemies). How disappointing, then, that Refn never gets back to the elegant road poetry he promised in the opening scene. The second or third time Driver metes out street-justice on somebody, we wonder if he’ll ever just put down that hammer and drive.
            In perhaps their last chance to have any fun with this premise, Refn and Amini are offered a golden opportunity to resurrect a classic when they have Driver steal a Mustang for his next job. But the ensuing chase—the second and last in the movie—is not only unremarkable, but shows no awareness of Steve McQueen’s Mustang chasing that Challenger through the streets of San Francisco in Bullitt. That’s a missed opportunity so painful it deserves a ticket.
            This movie is called Drive, and their character is called Driver, but these filmmakers just aren’t interested in driving.
© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Moon Dance

* * * (out of five)  Apollo 18. Written by Brian Miller & Cory Goodman. Directed by Gonzalo López-Gallego.
America's mass semi-bored shrug over the exploration of space is pretty much summed up by critical reaction to Gonzalo López-Gallego's nifty new thriller, Apollo 18. "A zero intensity space-bore" says some guy from; "Watching people land on the moon isn't all that interesting," declares another guy from Slant (sorry, not Slate) magazine. "In space, no one can hear you yawn," random dude from someplace called "Total Film" quips, showing his mom that he is a very clever dude indeed.
            Now everyone is entitled to his opinion. Nor is it very useful for a reviewer to waste (much) time reviewing other reviews. But there does seem to be something strange going on here--a collective yawn at a technological miracle that was once routine, circa 1968-1972, but sure isn't routine anymore. Russia never managed to send a manned mission to the Moon. The vaunted Chinese still can't, though at their current rate of progress they might get there in fifteen to twenty years. And as America's recent troubles with her (now defunct) Constellation program attest, it's not even clear we could go back to really explore the Moon, even if we could somehow summon the vision to do so.
            In fact, the only places where all that Apollo lunar landing stuff really is yawn-worthy is at the movies, and in computer/online games. When going to "a galaxy far, far away" already seems old hat, a mere trip to the Moon sounds like pretty small beer. Stress goes on the seems, because it bears emphasizing, o ye net-heads, that movies and games are just bits and bytes and have nothing to do with the sloppy, wholly analog, spam-in-a-can reality of flying in space. A child of the internet age who declares "watching people land on the moon isn't all that interesting" is about as crazy as a guy who has mastered Madden Football announcing that the Super Bowl--the real one--isn't all that tough to win. He's like the supposedly badass lieutenant in Aliens who had tons of combat experience--all in simulations.
            Apollo 18 is a "found-footage" fakeumentary in the style of The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity, et al. The conceit this time is that there was an extra Apollo mission to the Moon, and that this movie was assembled out of hitherto "lost" footage from the secret flight. The astronauts (Warren Christie, Lloyd Owen, and Ryan Robbins) went along with the secrecy, not even telling their families about where they're going, for the privilege of being the first to stand on the lunar South Pole. Naturally, the mission was covert for a reason, which the guys discover when a pair of extra footprints turn up in the lunar dust not far from their spacecraft.
            Go into this movie expecting to watch space soldiers battle aliens and you're bound to be let down. What newcomer López-Gallego and writers Brian Miller and Cory Goodman actually mean to deliver here, and entirely succeed in delivering, is a moody, haunted house movie. After all, hearing unexplained bumps in the night in an empty house is one thing, but hearing them on a dead planet is quite another. What horror there is comes not in bloody spurts, but in the slow death of the characters' faith in their routine, in the system.
            Indeed, trying to make whole story out of just three (really, two) characters, crammed in a lunar module the size of a walk-in closet, is fairly ambitious in itself--sort of like that novelist a few years ago who wrote an entire book without using the letter "e". The pleasure lies not in how good it is compared to more conventional thrillers, but in watching someone pull off the challenge. The way the filmmakers have done their homework on the real Apollo program, right down to the comm lingo and mission patches, also serves the mood.
            Aside from how "boring" López-Gallego's movie is, the most common complaint was that these characters aren't likeable. True, during its entire 86 minutes not a single one of them kisses a puppy. But in fact, these guys are no more or less sympathetic than any of the real Apollo-era astronauts, who were all white-bread types all drawn from the small, strictly non-diverse world of elite test pilots. Indeed, it is one of more perverse pleasures of footage from those old Apollo missions (the real ones, that is) is watching those rock-solid, square-jawed, deathly-dull guys suddenly try to switch on the eloquence when confronted with soul-stirring cosmic wonders. An astronaut on the first flight around the Moon, Apollo 8, once reflected on infinity by speaking of  "the big vastness of space". In short, López-Gallego's fictional astronauts might be dull, but they're exactly what they should be.
            Apollo 18 isn't a crowd pleaser like Apollo 13. It doesn't give us instantly likeable stars like Tom Hanks; it doesn't let us get to know the astronauts' wives (though really, who ever really cares about the astronaut's wife?). As someone who tends to like the "found footage" subgenre of thriller, it worked well enough for this space cadet. If you don't, feel free to subtract a star and go back to your X-Box. 
© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Sea of Salt, River of Tears

**** (out of five) The White Meadows. Written and directed by Mohammad Rasoulof.

When it is a struggle to find American movies that qualify as merely “serious”, it can be a shock even for a critic to be confronted suddenly with truly profound work. Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof’s The White Meadows is just this kind of revelation: a visionary, hypnotic film that is not only beautiful, but has—like many sublime things—exacted a very real price from its maker.

            The story is pure myth: a lone man named Rahmat travels in his rowboat around the islands of a brackish, landlocked sea. His profession is even more unusual than his home: touring the islands there, Rahmat collects the tears of the inhabitants, keeping them all in a flask for some unclear purpose. And there are tears aplenty in the place, which is being slowly strangled by salt. With increasing desperation, the people try anything to bring rain: some whisper their laments into glass jars and throw them away; others set their daughters adrift as sacrifices to a sea that has turned poisonous to them. And virtually all give their tears to Rahmat.
            What he ultimately does with their precious bodily fluids is both surprising and inevitable and won’t be revealed here. Suffice it to say that Rasoulof presents imagery along the way that is uncannily lovely. Shooting almost entirely on or from the water, he locates Meadows in a luminous no-place that is simultaneously heaven and hell. In a painterly manner, he applies color to this landscape with precision, showing a restraint that makes Antonioni’s imagery look almost haphazard by comparison. To this spare, poetic loveliness, I can compare nothing to this except for Hiroshi Teshigahara’s legendary Woman in the Dunes (1964).
            At his very best, Tarsem Singh occasionally approached this quality in The Fall, a spectacle shot for millions with the best available technology on multiple continents. But The White Meadows has a rigorous, almost ethnographic authenticity that Singh’s contrived fable simply can’t manufacture. Part of this stems simply from the fact that Rasoulof, like many contemporary Iranian filmmakers, believes his audience can sit still through his film’s more glacial moments, allowing its spell to—as it were—permeate the moment. At a time when instant gratification is not just routine but demanded, the notion that real poetry can’t be rushed almost qualifies as subversive.         
            Alas, some see more obvious subversion in Rasoulof’s work. In December, 2010, Rasoulof was sentenced to six years in prison in an Iranian court for “assembly, collusion, and propagandizing against the regime.” His sentence (which is currently on appeal) has since become an international cause célèbre, with such notables as Steven Spielberg, Abbas Kiarostami, and Martin Scorsese speaking out against the regime’s heavy hand.
            Rasoulof, for his part, appears to have known exactly how this fable might be read: in one Kafkaesque episode in the film, Rahmat encounters a painter who is punished by his fellow villagers for painting the sea red instead of blue. To “correct” him, they force him to gaze into the sun, then try pouring monkey urine in his eyes. Despite these remedies, the painter insists that the sea is “many colors”. Last we see him, he’s on a prison island, forced to clamber up and down the salty ramparts by a miserable jailor who has himself contributed heavily to Rahmat’s store of tears.
            This is perhaps the most subversive theme raised by Meadows, and resoundingly confirmed by the ongoing events of the “Arab Spring”: in some kinds of tyranny, everyone, even the oppressors, can feel trapped. The mullahs and Revolutionary Guards might have given Rasoulof credit instead of jail time for suggesting they also have tears to shed. But that would require imagination—a quality perhaps more precious than tears in the halls of power. 
© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Moveable Feast

* * * (out of five)  The Trip. Directed by Michael Winterbottom.

Michael Winterbottom's The Trip is about two mismatched actors who spend a week together touring posh restaurants in England—and I liked it. I also liked it seven years ago, when it was called Sideways and starred Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church as a pair of mismatched college chums touring California wine country. When it comes to certain fondly remembered cinematic meals, déjà vu isn’t necessarily a problem, is it?

            The Trip is also reminiscent of My Dinner with Andre (1981), still the touchstone of feature-length food-for-thought movies. But unlike the scripted Andre or Sideways, The Trip depends entirely on witty, wholly improvised by-play between its stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Insofar as it neither gives nor needs anything to fall back on beyond the appeal of its players, it’s perhaps the bravest of the three. Add the fact that Coogan and Brydon are actors playing versions of themselves—and that actors can be the most tiresomely self-absorbed of human beings—and the success of The Trip was never guaranteed.
              Coogan, who is hardly known over here for small roles in Tropic Thunder, The Other Guys, and Marmaduke, plays Steve Coogan, a barely-known actor who yearns for mainstream Hollywood success. While he awaits his big break, he takes a magazine assignment to tour the culinary landmarks of northern England. He asks Brydon, a veritable juke-box of cartoonish impressions, to tag along, but only because his much-younger, much-foodier girlfriend (Margo Stilley) can’t go. This leaves two guys on the road together, in cozy hotel rooms, facing incomprehensible dishes like “millet pudding with spelt and Blackstick blue, burnt pear and alexandersor an amuse-bouche that is tasty, but with “the consistency of Ray Winstone’s snot.”
            Together, these two blokes aren’t exactly like oil and water. They’re more like two slightly different grades of oil, alike in some ways, but just different enough not to mix. Watching them try to top each other in the things that matter most to underemployed British thespians, such as producing the most spot-on Michael Caine impression, or delivering choice lines from Goldfinger, is never less than hilarious. Indeed, their skill at dressing their deep juvenility in choice bon mots, classed up with epigrams by Coleridge and Wordsworth, suggests a particularly literate episode of Top Gear—except with snotty food instead of Ferraris.
             I liked it, but my admiration has its limits. Sideways has a similar premise, but the guys there show their characters as much through doing things as through yammering about doing things. By the end, they arrive someplace, and they learn something. The Trip, by contrast, has an episodic feel, no doubt stemming from the fact that the film has been compiled from the ongoing BBC TV series. Yet for all its meandering, it’s also something of a still life, with “Coogan” and “Brydon” each stuck in their respective traps, unable to escape no matter how many miles they go.
            This, I suppose, is one reason why the road movie has such powerful resonance for Americans, but not so much in Europe. Here, we still believe the highway goes someplace new, as different as Los Angeles is from Philadelphia or New York. Over there, the road just goes outward, dwindling into rustic country lanes that promise nothing more than to bog us down in more details, more particulars. By the end of this trip, the characters can only head home to the ruts from whence they began.
            At least these sorry buggers get a free lunch out of it.
© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro