Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Paranormal and Revolutionary Activities

Tea House (1914) by Aleksey Isupov, 
from the Savitsky Collection.

*  *  * (out of five stars)  The Desert of Forbidden Art. Written and directed by Tchavdar Georgiev and  Amanda Pope. 

* * 1/2   Paranormal Activity 3. Written by Christoper B. Landon. Directed by Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman.

The suppression of a single significant artistic voice is a tragedy. The suppression of an entire generation of voices is a cataclysm. The record of the Soviet Union in this regard is whatever is worse than “cataclysm”—the deliberate, systematic, and pitiless purging of whole fields of artistic endeavor, liquidated because they had no place in the regime’s ideological narrative of “liberation” (that’s doublespeak for “enslavement”). In Tchavdar Georgiev and Amanda Pope’s extraordinary documentary The Desert of Forbidden Art, (available now on Netflix) we get a glimpse of what the world missed under Stalin and his cronies.
            Much of the art that never saw the light of day under the Soviets has landed in an remarkable museum located not in Moscow or St. Petersburg, but in the provincial town of Nukus, Uzbekistan. The museum, formally called Karakalpakstan State Museum of Art, is the brainchild of an extraordinary collector named Igor Savitsky, a failed painter who devoted his life to preserving the artistic legacy his nation would not. Over the course of decades, Savitsky collected some 40,000 paintings, prints, and other pieces of visual art, funding his acquisitions with tacit help of certain individuals in the regional government of Karakalpakstan. The paradoxical result is that one of Russia’s greatest collections of Russian avant garde art isn’t in Russia. A hypothetic equivalent might be encountering one of the world’s best collections of Monets, Manets and Renoirs not in Paris, but in a second-tier regional capital in southern Algeria.
            Indeed, many of the banned, imprisoned, or otherwise ignored artists had some connection with that poor, remote region, where European and central Asian cultural crosscurrents met and intermingled. So while the Savitsky’s cause was worthy just in a moral sense, the film very clearly shows that this is emphatically not a case of artworks celebrated because they were suppressed. In paintings by Alexander Volkov, Alexander Nikolayev, and Mikhail Kurzin, we are looking at the Goyas and Gauguins and Daumiers of their time. With stunning vividness, they demonstrate that principle—dangerous to the Soviets’ highly Russocentric ideology—that there was much the country’s “backward” Islamic underbelly could teach their overlords in Moscow.
            Aesthetically, The Desert of Forbidden Art is a revelation. But it also shows that an individual like Savitsky—a man who was, quite frankly, a nobody—could make a profound difference, even in the face of the worst tyranny in a century of tyrannies. 

*  *  *
I’m still a fan of Oren Peli’s 2007 Paranormal Activity, a faux home-movie creep-fest about a suburban couple tormented by a demon. Like demons, sequels are can be hard to get rid of, though you can try to ignore them (as this critic did Paranormal Activity 2 last year). The original Activity, after all, was the essence of a sleeper: a low-key, atmospheric horror at a time when virtually nothing was being left to the CGI equipment between our ears. Boosting the budget—and the expectations—doesn’t seem to add much to this particular premise.
            Great word of mouth drew me into Activity 3—a prequel set back in the 1980’s, when the haunted Katie (Katie Featherston) was first visited by her personal demon. At first, young Katie (Chloe Csengery) isn’t really frightened out by her new friend, whom, in a possible reference Tobe Hooper’s infamous 1982 haunting movie, Poltergeist, she calls “Toby”. Mom (Lauren Bittner) is content to indulge the “imaginary friend” thing, but live-in boyfriend and video geek Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith) is determined to get all those bumps in the night securely on tape. Katie’s fate is not exactly a matter of suspense here, as she obviously lives on to appear in the other movies. Poor Dennis and his honking, ‘80’s-vintage tape deck? Not so lucky.
            Though there too many cheap shots, there are also a few genuine jolts. A scene where “Toby” makes creative use of a sheet—Halloween ghost style—is creepily funny, and niftily shot by directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who (or more precisely, have their character Dennis) mount their camera on an oscillating fan. The fundamental conceit of the Paranormal series—mating primitive video with the visceral kick of modern sound technology—still packs some power. But the script by Christopher B. Landon takes the story in a vaguely Rosemary’s Baby-ish direction that undoes the beguiling simplicity of the original.
            At the risk of spoilers, nothing more specific can be said about how this movie doesn’t relate to what is supposed to come later. Suffice it to say that coming out of PA 3, we’re not relishing our survival—we’re scratching our heads. And while “Toby” himself might thrive on confusion, that’s not the best place for horror to live.
© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro  

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Old Gringo

Sam Shepard makes a legal withdrawal in Blackthorn.

* * 1/2  Blackthorn. Written by Miguel Barros. Directed by Mateo Gil.
The only desert in Europe that looks anything like the American Southwest is in Spain, near Almeria in the lee of the Sierra Nevada mountains (the original Sierra Nevadas, that is). Sergio Leone made his spaghetti Westerns there in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and it’s another reason why—in the addition to the obvious historical connections between Spain and the old West—that the Spanish have a bigger stake in this quintessentially American genre than, say, your typical Belgian. Little surprise, then, that a Spanish director and a Spanish screenwriter have taken up a challenge Hollywood probably would never accept today—to make a credible sequel to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
            More properly, Blackthorn is an “alternative history”, the premise being that Butch (real name, Robert LeRoy Parker) survived that 1908 gunfight with the Bolivian army. In the script by Miguel Barros, Butch (Sam Shepard) has lived out the twenty years since his alleged death in quiet semi-retirement under the alias “James Blackthorn”. By 1927 he’s hankering for home, and decides to cash in his Bolivian property for a ticket out. Along the way, however, he runs into a shifty Spanish geologist (Eduardo Noreiga) who costs him his bankroll, but offers in compensation a stash of loot he stole from a crooked mining company. His bridges burned, Blackthorn has no choice but to hope the Spaniard is telling the truth. (Hint—he is, but only in part.)
            To get any enjoyment out of Blackthorn you ought not expect anything remotely as fun as George Roy Hill’s original, Paul Newman/Robert Redford Butch Cassidy (1969). Although that film was on equally shaky historical ground, it became a classic for its unique combination of romping fun and piquant wistfulness for the end of the West’s heroic era. Director Matteo Gil (who wrote the scripts for Agora and Vanilla Sky) nails the wistfulness, for sure, but Blackthorn is more a low-key slog than a romp. The gristled, copiously maned Sam Shepard, who perhaps resembles Mr. Mephistopheles from Cats more than either Newman or the historical Butch, has undeniable presence. His performance, however, is no more fun than one of his celebrated post-modernist plays (e.g., Buried Child, True West). The sole exception: a wry scene where Blackthorn, the career bank robber, makes a legal withdrawal from a Bolivian bank.
            Even if they preferred to turn the normally talkative Cassidy into a taciturn old goat, Gil and Barros could have made his temporary sidekick, Noreiga, a bit more colorful, a bit more than just a desk jockey who goes stealthily corrupt. They need not have gone for the full, scene-chewing Eli Wallach, but some basis for camaraderie, some reason for the old Butch to ride again with a worthy partner, might have made Blackthorn more engaging. As it is, they don’t, so it isn’t.
            There are moments of undeniable visual poetry here. The locations in the Bolivian high country, and in the towns Butch himself might have known, are stunning, evoking the U.S. west but also unique in their way. Gil deploys them beautifully, suggesting by topography alone that Butch’s heyday is not exactly gone, but transformed. He also offers up some flashbacks to the better-known episodes from the boys’ pre-Bolivian days, with Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as the young Butch, and the ravishing Dominique McElligott as an updated, swashbuckling version of Etta, the distaff corner of the amicable love triangle played by Katherine Ross in the ’69 version. These scenes are too brief to amount to much, but they do suggest that, in the right hands, a reboot of the full legend could be non-embarrassing after all.
            No question that Gil and Barros have channeled the spirit of the old Butch. His final reckoning with the Spaniard, who stands in for the old aristocratic kleptocracy, is fully in the spirit of the outlaw’s Robin Hood ethic of only stealing from one-percenters like Mr. E.H. Harriman of the Union Pacific Railroad Company. It’s just too bad Blackthorn doesn’t give us the jam with the bread.
© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Wings of Woman

Margot Robbie is ready for take off in Pan Am.

* * (out of five stars) Pan Am. Created by Jack Orman. On ABC, Sundays at 10pm.
The old Eastern Airlines used to call itself “The Wings of Man”, but that might just as well have been the slogan of America’s unofficial flagship carrier, Pan Am. At a time when air travel was still largely the prerogative of the well-to-do, Pan Am exemplified the privilege and exoticism of the early air age. Headquartered in a massive New York skyscraper that literally sat athwart the symbol of old-style travel—Grand Central Terminal—Pan Am inaugurated many of the standard features of the business, including pressurized cabins, jet engines, wide-body aircraft, and computerized reservations. When American GIs flew commercial from Vietnam, they were booked on Pan Am. Such a powerful symbol of American enterprise aloft did it become that when Stanley Kubrick wanted a corporate logo for his fictional space shuttle in 2001, Pan Am’s blue globe was the logical choice. Alas, the airline itself never lived to sell trips to space, filing for bankruptcy in 1991.
            Pan Am was “the wings of man” is another, spicier sense, for it had some now-notorious criteria for employment as flight attendants (or, as they were once known, “stewardesses”). These women had to be younger than thirty-two, single, and adhere to certain standards of appearance, including mandatory corsets and weight limits.  Going “wide-body” was a discipline-worthy offense. That, and the rule against marriage, were clearly designed to appeal to the airline’s core customer—the businessman with the martini and the skinny tie, probably married himself, but desperately attuned to possibilities of sexual adventure on the road.
            The gender politics sound antediluvian, but as ABC’s new series Pam Am tries to show, the job had its compensations. As one of the show’s “core four” characters, Christina Ricci’s Maggie, tells a beatnik friend, “You may not have to see the world to change it, but I do.” That’s the premise of the series, and its potential appeal—to show how, in what seems like a career posing as eye-candy, some women seized the opportunity to educate themselves, and maybe muss the skinny ties of the patriarchy in the process. “How do you keep ‘em down in the typing pool when they’ve seen Paris?” Pan Am wonders. Better shows have been based on less.
            Three episodes in, though, the theory still sounds better than the reality. The show has its retro appeal, to be sure: like Mad Men, it finds poignance, and even some charm, in the pre-ironic futurism of the early sixties. In the pilot episode, the Pan Am building (with its rooftop heliport, now defunct) and the Pan Am Terminal (now the Delta Terminal) at JFK get the full CGI treatment, restored to their antique glories like the Forum in Gladiator. The glamor takes off as the four girls (Ricci, Margot Robbie, Karine Vanasse and Kelli Gardner) cross the terminal like cat-walking models, their tight sky-blue uniforms set off with crisp white gloves. In this, someone has clearly done their homework—nobody, except maybe the 1970’s Avon Lady, ambulates so unnaturally without training, hips swinging and arms cocked upward like a swan boat in skirts.
            But it’s obvious that Pan Am is not Mad Men as soon as the characters open their mouths. When someone declares, “They’re a new breed of woman! They just have an impulse to take flight. So don’t ground ‘em!”—the phrase on the nose doesn’t really cover the awkwardness. As HBO and the other premium cable networks have shown, though the CGI and the period-perfect details can be fun, there just no substitute for the writing. This series is going nowhere without it.
            The major networks reportedly got a deluge of concepts for similar “gurl power” shows after the publication of Hanna Rosin’s much-discussed Atlantic Monthly 2010 article “The End of Men.” In it, Rosin charts the decline and fall of the American male from his position of dominance in almost every field of endeavor, to his current state of wretchedness, where he lags behind his sisters in his prospects. “Is the post-industrial society simply better suited to women?” asks The Atlantic. The question is rhetorical, because with the decline of US manufacturing, construction, defense—in short, all the fields where males have tended to predominate—the men have disproportionately suffered. True, the guys still control the upper echelons in government and big business, but as Rosin argues, the glass ceiling is showing some cracks. Pretty soon the historic role reversal will be complete, with the “house-husbands” staying home to raise the kids and their wives out running the world. Our fascination with the early ‘60’s therefore presents a “two-fer”—a way for downsized men to indulge their nostalgia for the gin-and-tonic patriarchy, and for women to revisit the dawn of the Age of Woman. Mad Men, after all, is as much about Peggy and Joan as it is about Don Draper.
            Rosin’s thesis has struck a deep chord, but it may still be wrong. While it may be true that, for instance, more women are getting college degrees than men now, it’s also true that college degrees aren’t exactly the keys to the executive washroom anymore. If women are gaining in the workplace, it’s because the workplace is a lot less rewarding that it used to be. If women are more highly valued for their “consensus-building” social skills, maybe it’s because “get along, go-along” types are a lot easier to serve pink slips than alpha males.
            What Rosin sees as a historic shift in gender relations is really just the cherry on top of a shit sundae of bad economic prospects. To adapt a phrase, of the two genders, the female is the best-looking horse in the glue factory. So what’s worse than a job as a glorified waitress obliged to wear a girdle? Maybe no job at all.
© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro            

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Nazi-Hunter

Chastain and Worthington, washed out in The Debt.

* *  1/2 (out of five) The Debt. Written by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman & Peter Straughan. Directed by John Madden. 

You can feel the taboo emanating from the tight knot of memes comprising “genocide,” “Nazis”, “Jews” “terrorism”. and “Israel”. But like any taboo object, handling it is perfectly safe when done according to the proper procedures. At the movies, Stephen Spielberg did it quite effectively in Schindler’s List (1993), but this bought him no credit against the howls of outrage that greeted Munich (2005), when he dared suggest a degree of moral ambiguity in Israel’s campaign for vengeance against Palestinian terrorists. (To my mind, Munich is the more courageous work.) For the most part, the sanctimoniousness surrounding these issues just forces everyone to put the whole mess in a special category of non-polite conversation, which has the ironic effect of making it easier to forget.
              I wouldn’t call John Madden’s The Debt a particularly courageous work. I wouldn’t necessarily call it “good” either, at least in any consistent sense. Its quality, like its courage, comes intermittently. Based on a 2007 Israeli film of the same name, it is the story of three Mossad agents who, in 1965, attempted to kidnap a former SS concentration camp doctor, a certain Dr. Bernhardt (Jesper Christensen), from Soviet-occupied East Berlin. By all public accounts, the mission resulted in Bernhardt’s death, elevating the agents, Rachel, Stephan and David (Helen Mirren, Tim Wilkinson and Ciarán Hinds) to the status of national heroes.  But thirty years later, disturbing stories that things might not have gone as reported have surfaced. David steps in front of a moving truck rather than face the possibility that Bernardt is not dead after all, and Rachel finds she must go into the field again to redeem a decades’ old lie.
            Though Mirren is biggest star, the film spends most of its time in a long flashback to 1965, following the travails of the agents’ younger selves (Jessica Chastain, Marton Czokas and Sam Worthington, respectively). The flashback has the appropriate feel to it, with the cold, perpetually gray atmosphere of an old-time Cold War espionage thriller. The flame-haired Chastain (The Tree of Life) is literally the only splash of color, and it is she, not Mirren, who becomes the heart of the movie. As Bernhardt has gone into practice as a gynecologist (alas, ex-Nazis never become something neutral and boring, like ear, nose and throat men) Rachel must pose as a patient in his office. Her visceral, barely-concealed disgust at putting her feet in the stirrups for him, and the way Christensen ups the creepiness factor by playing the scenes with pure bland geniality, is The Debt’s one notable horror.
            When dealing with this kind of thing, dispensing justice to Nazis, there is indeed some courage in suggesting the truths behind Israel’s formative myths—like America’s—are not as simple as we’d all like to believe. But The Debt throws it all away with a final encounter between the nonagenarian Bernhardt and the septuagenarian Rachel whose preposterousness is exceeded only by its clumsiness. Think  of your grandmother in a blood-soaked brawl with a department store mannequin. Or, if you prefer, don’t.
            Director Madden, responsible for such middle-brow favorites as Shakespeare in Love and Mrs. Brown, isn’t exactly known for edgy drama. To get away with a truly subversive portrayal of Nazi-hunting takes a braver talent, someone like John le Carré. But not even le Carré would necessarily get away with it unscathed.
© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro