Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Not So Precious

Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and his band of fun-size Klingons

««  The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson & Guillermo del Toro, based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien. Directed by Peter Jackson. 

When the first installment in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy appeared in 2001, it was just two months since the shock of 9-11. Tolkien’s classic, though set in a Middle Earth of hobbits, elves and orcs, turned out to be perfectly in tune with the zeitgeist—a dark, sprawling epic about decent people preparing for an existential struggle against an utterly alien, implacable enemy. This surprising topicality, and Jackson’s sure control over his massive material, helped make the Rings movies both box office and critical successes. Nobody questioned why he needed three long movies to tell this story, and nobody minded waiting three years for the epic’s conclusion.
            The unexpected thing about Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is that this writer was bored not by the third year, but by the second hour. The main problem, alas, is more-or-less baked into the project: because The Hobbit was written before the Rings, and is set before the momentous events of the trio, Jackson is essentially giving us the appetizer after the meal.
            Indeed, the literary Hobbit is a different sort of work than the others. It’s a light book, almost whimsical in the telling, and it tells a story with stakes that are far, far lower. The story, about a band of merry dwarves who enlist the reluctant hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) to steal some treasure from a nasty dragon, clearly called for a different kind of tone. No existential struggle, no ancient evil. When characters are dubbed “Fili” and “Kili”, “Oin” and “Gloin” and “Nori” and “Dori”, we aren’t talking On the Beach, are we?
            Like in the other movies, there’s a lot of wandering over big landscapes here, and a few big action set-pieces that are, alas, never quite as involving. Once again, we break our journey in Lórien, the Elvish empyrean that looks like an all-inclusive five-star resort, and meet the enchanting Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), whom Jackson poses against the sunset like a piece of garden sculpture. There are a few compensations: Freeman is just fine as the modest, level-headed Bilbo, who hungers for an extraordinary life while suspecting he’s too far over (or under) the hill to pull it off. Unlike the eager-beaver Frodo, Bilbo is like a forty-five year-old struggling with the urge to join the Peace Corps. Ian McKellen is back as Gandalf, and is welcome merely for being exactly as he was before. We also get to see what a decade of additional development in motion-capture technology has done to make Gollum (Andy Serkis) an even more remarkable creation.
            But let’s clear away the pipeweed and face facts: in almost three hours, this movie gets through less than half of a book that was already light to begin with. In the annals of movie adaptations, this is unique—a script twice as long as the number of prose pages it adapts. If someone had turned the first half of The Little Prince into a ninety-minute cable TV event, it would not be as overblown a project as The Hobbit.
            For that, we get the set-up for what is essentially a heist story, but no actual heist. Instead, we’re expected to care naturally for a band of dwarves who look a little too much like fun-size Klingons. Add to that a few other dubious creations, such as a jowly Orc king who looks too much like a similar character in The Phantom Menace, and we have to wonder not only if Jackson believes we’re seen any other movies, but whether he’s seen any himself.
            The world feels different since 2001. Sauron is dead—shot in the neck by Seal Team Six. Mordor has a shaky but real democratic regime. There are still wars going on, but not so much fear that our struggle has existential stakes. Tolkien fans are, of course, delighted to see anything set in Middle Earth reach the big screen. The rest of us, however, have moved on, and are ready for a different take on the Tolkien universe. Jackson insists on sticking to the formula of the other movies, shoe-horning material from other Tolkien writings that have little directly to do with the dwarves or their quest. In a sense, Jackson disrespects The Hobbit by making it an excuse for a new series of highly lucrative Ring prequels. It seems it’s not only Smaug the dragon who covets treasure above all else.
            Early in The Hobbit Gandalf tells Bilbo “Every good tale deserves embellishment.” Perhaps—as long as we’re convinced there’s a good tale in the offing. Jackson hasn’t made his case yet.  
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

First Blood

Bordan and friend in Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome

«««  Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome. Created by Michael Taylor & David Eick. Based on the Syfy series Caprica and Battlestar Galactica. Available for streaming at www.machinima.com, and coming in February on Syfy.

After the demise of Caprica in 2010, there were ample grounds to doubt there was any life left in Syfy’s rebooted Battlestar Galactica. The mixed response to the original series’ finale, and the failure of creator Ronald D. Moore’s attempt to reach beyond Galactica’s core fanboy audience with his Caprica prequel, seemed to leave BSG without a plausible future or prehistory. The franchise was, in a word, fracked.
            Turns out series’ co-creator David Eick isn’t done trying. The pilot for the new BSG: Blood and Chrome was released online last month, and is available for steaming on Machinima.com and Youtube. Viewing it on a computer screen, chopped up in ten-minute increments, isn’t the ideal experience, but there are less rewarding ways to spend a couple of hours in front of a computer.
            Blood and Chrome is, to mangle a phrase, a “middle origin story”—an account of the early wartime career of the young man who would grow up to be Commander William Adama (Edward James Olmos). The setting is the thick of the penultimate Cylon War, as human civilization seems destined to be conquered by its silicon-based spawn. The young Adama (Luke Pasqualino) is fresh out of the academy and eager to kill the “toasters”, but his career path takes a detour when he’s not assigned to combat duty at all. Instead, he’s saddled with a cargo run that seems designed to take him as far from the action as possible. On board are his co-pilot “Coker” Fasjovik (Ben Cotton)—a short-timer with an allergy to risks—and a quiet, spooky engineer (Lili Bordán) who is clearly hoarding secrets.
            Obviously, the mission doesn’t stay far from the action for long. And suffice it to say that, as prequels to hit shows go, Blood and Chrome is a credible effort. Where Caprica seemed to actively disdain the action-packed, high-stakes drama of the original show, this one embraces the pressure-cooker intensity that gave BSG its addictive momentum. As for the mystic “prophecy” of the original, the classic rock tunes playing in people’s heads and hand-waving about “god’s will”, some might think B&C better for avoiding all that. It’s just fleeing and fighting here, folks, with just a dash of that third “f—ing” thrown in for variety.
            As several critics have noted, though, this makes for a strange pilot for a projected series. The education of the young, ingenuous Adama in the subtler arts of war is a promising prospect, considering what a master of unconventional strategy he is destined to become. But B&C is tied up almost too neatly for its own good. It’s as if its makers deliberately foreshortened its prospects. And sure enough, though the full pilot will air in glorious HD on the Syfy channel this February, there are currently no plans to make it an ongoing series.
            In the end, B&C can’t avoid the usual prequels’ dilemma: when you give audiences the apocalypse in the original show, there’s not much left for a follow-up except to fill in the blanks. Those blanks are more thrilling here than in the soapish Caprica. But we still know where all this is going. 
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Potemkin Lover

We can't see what Knightley sees in Anna Karenina.

««  Anna Karenina. Written by Tom Stoppard, based on the novel by Leo Tolstoy. Directed by Joe Wright

Criticizing a classic like Tolstoy's Anna Karenina can be tricky, given that those who decide these things have already pronounced its greatness. Everybody is entitled to an opinion, of course, but who is confident enough to say a book like Karenina is overrated without at least some fear of looking like an uncultured boob?
            Let my boobs show, then: reading this book, I was struck by just how little of it concerns Anna Karenina. Instead of focusing on the business at hand, Tolstoy dwells on a multitude of seemingly extraneous characters, only some of whom are interesting. There's too much time spent on agricultural economics and too little on psychology. When I put it down, I couldn't help feeling the old man really needed a good editor. Between this and that other great 19th century novel of romantic illusion and marital infidelity, I have to say I prefer Madame Bovary.
            The good news about Joe Wright's new version is that the limitations of a feature-film screenplay (120 double-spaced script pages vs. 600 densely-worded pages) forced writer Tom Stoppard to focus on Karenina herself. As the doomed affair between Anna Arkadyevna Karenina (Keira Knightley) and the feckless rake Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) takes center stage, Knightley's talent for suffering picturesquely can't be denied. Pretty faces, pretty costumes, the baroque opulence of Imperial Russia in the flush of its terminal rot—how can Wright miss?
            Yet miss he does. The problem starts with the decision to set the action more or less entirely on a theatrical stage, with transitions (admittedly, cleverly) indicated by shifts in camera angle, backdrop, location on the stage or out among the seats. It's the sort of thing we'd expect in an opus by Peter Greenaway or Derek Jarman, this conscious heightening of the artifice, reminding us at every turn that this is just a story, and the figures onstage merely characters. The idea seems apt enough in the abstract—the term "Potemkin village", referring to the political power of illusion, did originate in Russia.
            Problem is, the device isn’t applied just in the abstract. In practice, Wright (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement) takes it too far, making the ironic quotes around the "action" still more emphatic by indulging in outright silliness. The bureaucratic offices of Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen), for instance, are parodied in a goofy way we'd expect among the Oompa Loompas in Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. Goofiness and tragedy don't coexist so well: Karenina is, after all, one of the landmarks of realist fiction. Wright ultimately wants it both ways—to engage in Brechtian distancing and to make a traditional weepie out of Anna's plight. He ends up succeeding fully at neither.
            This Karenina might still have worked if we saw the heroine as Tolstoy belatedly came to see her—as misguided but sympathetic soul. The casting of Vronsky makes that impossible. With his butterscotch highlights and moisturized complexion, Taylor-Johnson looks like he belongs in a boy band more than the Czar's cavalry. Anna's decision to throw away marriage and motherhood for Vronsky might convince if we see what she does in him. Looking at Taylor-Johnson, we see only a One Direction music video. Falling so desperately for such a pouffed poodle makes Anna not tragic, but a ninny.
            It's a shame because Knightley—still young at 27—clearly has the chops to carry such hefty roles. She has the lines of a living John Singer Sargent portrait, but also enough fetching idiosyncracies, such as her faintly reptilian grin, to be interesting too. Like an instrument waiting too long to be played by a master, there's a world of potential in her sadly untapped in movies like Karenina, The Duchess, or Atonement. Knightley in a Jane Campion Madame Bovary, anyone?
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro


Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Hunger Games

Sharma and catness afloat in Life of Pi.
«««1/2  Life of Pi. Written by David Magee, based on the novel by Yann Martel. Directed by Ang Lee

The makers of Lincoln dared to make a long movie about counting votes in Congress. But Spielberg and Co. look positively timid compared to what Ang Lee risked in his wondrous Life of Pi. For Lee has not only made a $120 million movie about a kid floating around the Pacific with not much to do, and done it without any Hollywood stars. He made it with few recognizable faces at all, and what faces there are are the shade of brown usually kept in the background of exotic love stories, selling trinkets in the street. Yet Pi happens to be one of the best movies of the year.
            Yann Martel's bestselling 2001 novel concerns Pi (Suraj Sharma), an Indian boy with a peculiar way of looking at the world. Where his country is roiled by religious divisions, and his zookeeper father (Adil Hussein) is militantly secular, Pi practices a kind of radical syncretism, adopting any faith he claps his curious eyes upon. Hindu by birth, Christian by temperament, Muslim in practice, he needs all that faith when disaster strikes the ship carrying his family and all their zoo animals to Canada. Pi survives in a lifeboat, accompanied by a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan—and an adult Bengal tiger called "Richard Parker".
            Martel's survival story is an Aesop's fable as Aesop himself would have written it—that is, without sentimentality, red in tooth and claw. Inevitably, Pi's little ark very quickly becomes less populated as the animals get hungry. Keeping Richard Parker at bay in their tiny boat turns out to be the answer to Pi's pantheistic prayers, as caring for a pissed-off, ravenous, seasick cat gives him a larger purpose. Along the way Lee—following the novel faithfully—reveals a wider, deeper universe unwinding around and beneath their little refuge on the waves. The result is alternately harrowing, comic, and astonishing.
            The air of fable naturally invites us to read this story allegorically. The lifeboat is India, perhaps, divided by religion, caste, language and ethnicity, yet somehow poised on the doorstep of eternity. Or it is all of humanity, struggling to pull itself together before it topples into the abyss. Or the boat somehow reflects the state of Pi's own mind—a possibility suggested by Martel himself (more on that below). However you fancy taking Pi's relationship with Richard Parker, it sure beats conversing with a painted volleyball.
            It has been suggested that Pi was unfilmable before the advent of technology to envision rich CGI characters. The tiger is indeed rendered pretty convincingly here, albeit with something of a Narnia-esque flatness. That's a minor flaw, however, next to how Lee and screenwriter David Magee (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day) chose to present the tale's ending. As in the novel, Pi admits that the story he is telling may not be exactly as it happened; his account might well be a pleasant rationalization, the truth more bestial than bestiary. To avoid spoiling the ambiguity, suffice it to say that Pi presents one answer to Neo's dilemma in The Matrix, where the question of faith comes down to taking the red pill (and seeing how shocking the truth is) or the blue (and believing what you prefer to believe).
            "Which is the better story?" the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) asks his interviewer (Rafe Spall). "It's like that with [believing in] God." Pi's faith, in other words, is rooted in a kind of Jamesian pragmatism, where—all consequences being equal—a pleasant, empowering fiction is superior to an appalling, self-defeating doubt. Red pill or blue pill?
            But the question is hardly fair, since Lee has not bothered by visualize that other, less fanciful, but possibly more truthful story. He just has Sharma tell it straight to the camera. Like William James, Pi (and possibly Martel) seems to prefer the colorful version of his adventure because he invests more effort in presenting it. Meanwhile, the costs of not knowing what he leaves out of his version are unknown, and so never missed.
            Sixty-year years ago, Alfred Hitchcock released Lifeboat, a story set in similar circumstances, about a small group of survivors afloat in the Atlantic in war-time. Hitchcock's movie might have been more charming if some of his characters had four legs. But would it really have been better? 
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

How the Sausage Was Made

Man meets myth in Spielberg's Lincoln.

««« Lincoln. Written by Tony Kushner, based on the book Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  Directed by Steven Spielberg.  

Abraham Lincoln wasn't just a vampire-slayer. He did some other stuff most folks are only vaguely aware of today, such as "preserve the Union" and "deliver slavery into the dustbin of US history". According to historian and tenured talking head Doris Kearns Goodwin, he was also kind of sexy. Alas, the relevant question in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is not whether the man was sexy, but whether the passing of his legislative program was. And the answer is: "sort of."
            Based in part on Goodwin's book Team of Rivals, the script by Tony Kushner (Angels in America, Munich) focuses on a key episode in Lincoln's presidency. Just after he was re-elected, but before the south was defeated, Lincoln sought to push through a 13th Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery. Most of the House of Representatives was against it because it would vastly complicate reconstruction of the defeated states. Many Northern whites, while abhorring slavery, frankly weren't quite sure how the nation would accommodate millions of former slaves who would demand justice, jobs and, inevitably, the vote. This movie Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) is an abolitionist, but the soft-spoken kind. To get his amendment passed, he must pretend that it will hasten the end of the war that is hurtling to a close anyway.
            Lincoln is about nothing more than the legislative process in America—a messy, nearly-always dismaying spectacle that has famously been compared to sausage-making. ("You don't want to know too much about how either laws or sausages are made.") We are treated to nearly two and a half-hours of Presidential arm-twisting, as Lincoln entreats his opponents, bullies his clients, and calls in his political debts to get the job done. The saintly Abe isn't above bribery, handing out government sinecures through the unctuous services of one W.N. Bilbo (played with brio by James Spader). Lest the war end too early, he arranges for a Confederate peace commission not to reach Washington before the vote. It's a brave choice the filmmakers have made, to focus less on the cult of Lincoln than on the greasy cogs of a political machine he operated.  Politics, after all, is the profession we all love to hate, with the United States Congress polling lower than Richard Nixon at the height of Watergate.
            It all works largely due to a subtle, smart performance by Day-Lewis. The challenge he took on here can't be understated. Unlike, say, Anthony Hopkins’s Nixon or Meryl Streep’s Margaret Thatcher, Lincoln is universally beloved figure who comes loaded with hoary preconceptions that can't be avoided. The only comparable historical figure played regularly in movies might be Jesus Christ. It's far easier to play Jesus, in fact, as most people don't expect him to be a plausible human being. (Indeed, some people become angry if Jesus is played as a real person.)
            Here, Day-Lewis must steer a course somewhere between mythic and avuncular. He does it largely by being the only adult in the room—the person who supplies whatever the moment requires, whether it be a dose of tension-breaking humor or a blast of stem-winding passion. This Lincoln is great because he's a humble figure who makes other people realize their greatness.
            He's supported ably by Sally Field in the thankless role of Mary Todd Lincoln—who knows full well she’ll be remembered chiefly as a millstone around a great man's neck—and by Tommy Lee Jones, as a Republican congressman with an agenda and a very big secret. Otherwise, there are perhaps too many recognizable faces here (Good Night, and Good Luck’s David Strathairn, Deadwood's John Hawkes, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jack Earle Haley, et al.) in tiny roles. The casting gives the movie the air of a feel-good middle-brow TV miniseries where everybody wants to be seen but there aren't enough lines to go around.
            Day-Lewis and Co. collectively make us forget Lincoln is an unlikely kind of success. Talky to a fault, it features dialog of such Victorian orotundity that half of it is probably incomprehensible to the casual viewer. We might also wonder if the passage of the 13th Amendment really is the best moment to dramatize in a Presidency chock full of significant moments. Rounding up votes in Congress can be tough, but it is straightforward, and it is a contest where it is easy to keep score. The sustained effort of mature minds, of persistence in the face of almost unrelenting bad news, is harder to sell to audiences with attention spans measured in seconds, not years.
            One fault it does not have is one suggested in the pages of The New York Times by historian Kate Masur, who writes “Its disappointing that in a movie devoted to explaining the abolition of slavery in the United States, African-American characters do almost nothing but passively wait for white men to liberate them.” Never mind that the first two scenes in the movie feature black soldiers who are doing just that—fighting to liberate their people. Indeed, in one scene a black soldier is literally grinding a Confederate soldier’s face into the mud. It’s not surprising that specialists like Masur yearn to the see the fruits of their research reflected by Hollywood. No doubt many blacks didn’t “passively” wait for white to liberate them. But they did wait, largely for the outcome of a titanic struggle waged overwhelmingly by armies of whites fighting each other.
            No doubt this is a good Lincoln. It could have been an even better one, but the fault for that lies more with us than the material. 
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Pleasures of Bondage

Marlohe already knows what Craig is carrying in Skyfall

«««  Skyfall. Written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade & John Logan. Directed by Sam Mendes.

It’s been four years since the last Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, but it seems longer. This is because Solace didn’t feel like the real thing. For whatever reason that possessed them, its makers opted to make a “stealth” Bond movie, discarding many of the elements we’ve come to expect from the franchise (e.g., no Q or his gadgets, no Moneypenny, no “Bond, James Bond”, next to no use of the signature Monty Norman theme). Maybe they mistook Bond for Jason Bourne with a Saville Row tailor. Or maybe the works were hijacked by saboteurs from SPECTRE. Whatever the reason, it was a disappointing follow-up to the brilliant relaunch accomplished by Casino Royale (2006).
                The best thing about the new Skyfall is that it is wholly, unabashedly Bond. Not by accident does the film open with a spectacular motorcycle chase across the rooftops of Istanbul, last visited by the series in the classic From Russia, With Love (1963). The script by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan actually swings to the opposite extreme, ticking off all the boxes as it hastily restores all those missing pieces. We get a sleek new Eve Moneypenny in Naomie Harris; we are introduced to a new, whiz-kid Q (Ben Whishaw), and the Monty Norman theme may be used this time more heavily than in any Bond flick in years. Though Purvis and Wade wrote the “stealth” Bond scripts for Quantum and Royale, they obviously got the memo to return to the series’ roots.

                And, of course, we still have Daniel Craig, who may well be the best Bond since Connery but shows no sign of caring if you think he isn’t. A few years on from getting his “double-oh” license to kill, this Bond is already showing his age. Whishaw’s Q calls him a dinosaur of the analog world, the outmoded “meat-verse” of human intelligence. “I can do more damage sitting at my computer in my pajamas than you can do in the field,” the kid boasts. Of course, Bond has been going obsolete at least since the 1970’s. His might be the longest onscreen mid-life crisis in the history of movies. And yet he still knows to straighten his French cuffs after jumping aboard a moving train, and can still discern the make of the pistol tucked between a woman’s thighs—namely the thighs of French ingénue Bérénice Marlohe, too quickly gone from these proceedings.
                But there’s something too schematic about Skyfall’s dabbling in the psychohistory of Bond. As we learn more about 007’s roots on the wuthering moors, the whole thing starts to sound too Bruce Wayne-ish, too much the typical superhero back-story. Most preposterous is the not-so-subtle subtext of yearning for his lost mother in his relationship with boss Judi Dench. (Not by chance, it seems, that she’s called “M”, and his British inflection makes “ma’am” sound like “mom”.) This preoccupation with what makes Bond tick is just too American.  One of his enduring appeals, after all, is that he is the least psychological of heroes; he kills for a living simply for the sake of Queen and country and because he’s good at it. Isn’t that enough?
                 What finally saves Skyfall is the most basic of its prerequisites: a good villain. Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men, Vicki Christina Barcelona) is an ex-MI6 agent with a grudge against M (Judi Dench) that goes way beyond “disgruntled”. The scene-chewing Bardem plays him as a corrupted voluptuary, all homoerotic menace and fake bonhomie. “All this running around is exhausting,” he sighs. For a generation of older, pre-Bourne Bond fans, it is exhausting indeed. For our money, Craig and Bardem make it worth another go—but only barely.
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Hero and Zero

Washington is unstoppable in Flight.

«««« Flight. Written by John Gatins. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. 

They say you won’t be seeing Robert Zemeckis’ terrific Flight as an in-flight movie. Given the subject matter, it’s understandable, but still sad, for Flight is well worth seeing under any circumstances. We’ve spent the better part of a year watching Hollywood try to prove that scripts and characters aren’t enough to carry a movie—and juvenilize its audiences with effects pictures and too-clever cartoons. Flight is a reminder that there’s still room for functioning adults at the multiplex.
“Functioning adult” may be a generous way to describe William “Whip” Whittaker (Denzel Washington). Divorcee, estranged father, and gifted pilot, Whip can only get through his job with the help of booze and coke. Bad as that maybe sounds, it works for him: on the day we meet him, he coolly pilots a plane full of 100 passengers through a nasty storm before his first drink. Three vodkas later, he guides his flight to a crash landing, “Sully” Sullenberger-style, after a mechanical failure takes out his hydraulics. Instead of a hundred fatalities, there are only six.
So he’s a hero, right? In John Gatins’ sharp, wise script, we see the other, less sweet side of heroism, as his sudden fame brings scrutiny that threatens to rip the mask off Whip’s personal charade. He can land any plane, but can he avoid crash and burning his unlikely relationship with Nicole (the ethereal Kelly Reilly), a heroin addict and certified pistol who sees right through the creaking machinery holding him together?
This is an oddly character-driven drama for Zemeckis, the guy who’s given us Back to the Future, Polar Express, the CGI-gimmicky Beowulf and A Christmas Carol—and Forrest Gump, the movie that almost single-handedly made intellectual mediocrity a virtue in this American life. There’s such justice given to the sophistication of Gatins’ script, and such scope for Washington’s acting, that we have to wonder what other great films haven’t gotten made because Zemeckis has been so busy juvenilizing not only audiences, but himself. (His next project, alas, is a 3-D remake of Yellow Submarine.)
Washington is just about perfect for this role, and he does it in a way that is typically his. That is to say, Washington is not a great actor in the way Daniel Day-Lewis or Meryl Streep are, by utterly vanishing into their roles. Playing the blue collar hero in Unstoppable, or the haunted soldier he did in Uncommon Valor, he’s always pretty much himself. Much like Morgan Freeman, he somehow manages to be utterly believable as he assimilates his roles into his own particular personality. I bought him so much in this role, I want Denzel Washington’s voice to come over the intercom on my next white-knuckle flight.
It’s not a spoiler to say that Whip isn’t just an addict or a hero—he’s both. That’s easy to say, of course, but hard to get away with in practice. Notwithstanding anti-hero TV shows like Breaking Bad, we still tend like our categories neat, hero or zero. Joe Paterno is either a legend or a moral embarrassment; Barack Obama either saved our economy, or flew it into the ground. Admittedly, Flight gets away with this ambiguity because, you know, it’s Denzel in the pilot seat. Would this story have worked so well with an equally talented but less likeable actor in the lead? I’d like to give audiences enough credit to say “yes”. But I’d lying if I said I was sure. 
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Piece of Blue Sky

Phoenix and Hoffman defend the faith in The Master.

««« The Master. Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. 

That there’s never been a major Hollywood movie about L. Ron Hubbard is not an accident. As detailed in Jon Atack’s scary expose A Piece of Blue Sky, Hubbard and the Church of Scientology have been persistent, aggressive, and shameless in their use of the courts to intimidate their critics. Even the IRS has been in the organization’s cross-hairs at one point: a strategy that, as Bill Clinton has said in another context, “takes brass.” To take on that particular story too directly is to run the risk of nuisance suits, petty harassment, and even death threats. Hubbard himself wrote in 1960: “If attacked on some vulnerable point by anyone or anything or any organization, always find or manufacture enough threat against them to cause them to sue for peace.”
            But the rise of Hubbard from failed naval officer to Grade Z science fiction writer to prophet of his own religion is also a quintessentially American story. All at once, it reflects the popular myth of the entrepreneur, pulling himself up by his bootstraps, and the particularly American trait of innovating religious “technologies” as ingenious as any of the creature comforts of modernity. Whether we are speaking of Scientology or Mormonism or any of the other peculiarly American “faiths”, the distinction between inspiration and hucksterism can look awfully subtle. Declared Hubbard, “Writing science fiction for about a penny a word is no way to make a living. If you really want to make a million, the quickest way is to start your own religion.” By some accounts, he even wagered Robert Heinlein (or is it Isaac Asimov?) that he could—out of whole cloth. It might be said that Hubbard officially won when the IRS granted tax-exempt status to the Church of Scientology in 1993.
            This landscape of big American myths is familiar territory to Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia). His towering There Will Be Blood (2007) first mythologized, then deconstructed the kind of industrial titan (otherwise known as “job creator”) beloved of Ayn Rand and Paul Ryan. Religion figured in that story too, in the person of Daniel Day-Lewis’ nemesis, the boy-preacher played by Paul Dano. But Anderson takes on the cross-pollination of commerce and religion more directly in his latest, The Master.
            Observing the better part of valor, Anderson has prudently avoided making his film about Hubbard himself. But the veil is thin: like Hubbard, his “Lancaster Dodd” (Philip Seymour Hoffman) finds fertile ground for converts among men and women adrift in the wake of World War II. Instead of Hubbard’s Dianetics, Dodd has invented a science of psychobabble he calls the Method which, like Hubbard’s, involves a series of structured interviews (“auditing” in Scientology, “processing” here). Like his inspiration, Dodd is can be smart, charming, and even self-effacing. But he is also, like Hubbard, desperately thin-skinned, to the point of full-blown paranoia. If anything, Hoffman plays this crypto-Hubbard too sympathetically, never stooping to out-and-out contempt for the people he cajoles into signing “billion-year contracts” for all their money.
            Yet Anderson doesn’t think the key to understanding this story really lies with Lancaster Dodd. Instead, The Master is really about Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a Navy wash-out and devoted alcoholic who drifts from job to job until he impulsively climbs aboard Dodd’s flagship. From there, he simultaneously becomes the Master’s enforcer and persistent critic—he knows very well that Dodd is making up his religion as he goes along, but the privilege of “belonging”, even to an elaborate con, is too seductive to walk away from.
            Phoenix is terrific in this role. Not unlike the persona he adopted for Walk the Line, his Johnny Cash bio-pic, Phoenix fashions Freddie Quell by an almost sculptural twisting and rending of—well—himself. You’re never quite sure this is a plausible human being here, but Phoenix plays him, and Anderson shoots him in such searching, unflinching long takes, that it doesn’t matter.
            By making Phoenix’s character the touchstone of his movie, Anderson is saying that an “origin story” of a thing like Scientology (or indeed, any religion) misses the point. What gives the thing its power is not where it comes from, but how it is perceived, and by whom. Lancaster Dodd, though impressive and expansive and ingenious, is less important to the success of his endeavor than his smaller, meaner followers, like Freddie Quell. In this, Anderson undercuts the myth of the master entrepreneur as deftly as he did in There Will Be Blood.
            Plausible as all that is, it leaves a void in the center of The Master that dissatisfies. I like to think this was intentional—the narrative equivalent of the empty room in the center of the Temple in Jerusalem, where the less sophisticated imagined the Holy of Holies would lie. But there’s no escaping the suspicion that Anderson has pulled his punches here, for obvious reasons. Some sacred cows kick, and they kick hard.
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Extreme Impersonating

Papoulia performs a service in Lanthimos' Alps

««« Alps. Written and directed by Giorgos Lanthimos & Efthymis Filippou.  Directed by Giorgos Lanthimos. Coming soon to Netflix.

In some cultures it is customary to hire professional mourners at funerals. Nor is it unusual for living people to personify the dead in certain ceremonies, such as ritual dances. But Giorgos Lanthimos’ Alps takes the whole “playing the dead guy” idea to an interesting extreme. In the script by Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, a secretive business hires people out to take the place of the deceased for customers who have lost relatives. In a decaying economy such as Greece’s, it’s an unlikely but brilliant idea: a service job as recession-proof as death itself.
            The company calls itself the "Alps” because, as leader “Mt. Blanc” (Aris Servetalis) explains, the Alps are the archetypal mountain range, impressive enough to “stand in” for any other (this is nonsense, of course). But Blanc’s stable of impersonators indeed have the skills to play anybody’s dead wife, husband, daughter or son. And Lanthimos’ movie has a tone that is strange enough to perfectly match its premise.
             The ace of Blanc’s staff is Monte Rosa (Aggeliki Papoulia), a hospital orderly who confidently steps into the shoes of the wife of a lighting salesman. But her skill at shedding and taking on other identities has a cost, as she becomes obsessed with a teenage tennis player who dies after a car accident. She takes on the role of the dead girl on a freelance basis, not telling the strict (and occasionally violent) Blanc about the job. Her deep devotion to her work—call it “extreme impersonation”—becomes a problem in itself, as Rosa’s desire to resurrect the dead comes to overshadow her duty to assuage the family’s grief.
             In tone, Alps resembles some of Werner Herzog’s early films, such as Heart of Glass (1976), where all the actors were filmed in a state of hypnosis. Papoulia, in particular, is frightening in the way that “haunted crazy” can be more scary than “frantic crazy”. Working with a languorous, almost submarine deliberateness, she and Lanthimos find a zone where the usual rules of human interaction seem to be thrust into question. Under normal circumstances, there is indeed no reason to expect that anybody’s grief would be lessened by hiring a “stand in” for a loved one—but that’s a judgment rooted in our current practices. There have been weirder customs observed around the world.

             Alps opened in the US last year on two screens, and closed two weeks later. It’s not exactly joyous material, but it is quite possibly topical, considering the current state of the Greek nation. Modern Greece itself was always a kind of “stand in” for the ancient version that northern Europeans idealize. Arguably, Greece was let into the European Union more on the basis of its past glory than its present state. As Papoulia demonstrates here, there can be risks to allowing impersonators into the family.

© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Dream Weaver

Issova is animated in Surviving Life.

«««1/2  Surviving Life (Theory and Practice). Written and directed by Jan Svankmajer. Coming soon; visit the film microsite at http://www.athanor.cz/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=18&Itemid=17&lang=en
Czech animator Jan Svankmajer's bizarre and wonderful Surviving Life (Theory and Practice) starts with a rare thing: a director apologizing for his film. The movie you are about to see, he explains, is a "psychoanalytic comedy", though he grants there's not much funny about it. It was made using a painstaking process of stop-motion animation of still photos, but not so much for the surreal effect as because "we had no money, and it saved us on catering for the actors." And then the skin splits off Svankmajer's skull, and his cranium rolls off his shoulders and into a manhole.
            That's how it goes in the wide, weird world of Svankmajer (Alice, Little Otik), who surely has one of the unique sensibilities in world cinema. After starting off in the tradition of live puppetry in Prague, Svankmajer has gone on to produce a body of surreal visions that have beguiled audiences and influenced such talents as the Brothers Quay and Terry Gilliam. But where the Quays (who disavow Svankmajer's direct inspiration) tend to be goth and ghastly, there's always a gently whimsical element to Svankmajer's work. And where Gilliam aims for the droll, Svankmajer seems determined to make you think as much as laugh.
            His "psychoanalytic comedy" is the story of Eugene (Vaclav Helsus), a middle-aged office worker who is having recurring dreams about a beautiful young lover (Klara Issova). The dreams make him feel unfaithful to his plain, crabby wife Milada (Zuzana Kronerova), but he doesn't actually want them to stop--he only wants to control them, to make his subconscious love affair into a manageable thing. But Milada is on to his subconscious wanderings, and is determined to end them any way she can.
            On a visual level, Surviving Life uses two-dimensional "cut-out" animation to conjure up an interior world that is both quaint and grotesque. As his shrink (Daniela Bakerova) quizzes Eugene on the couch, portraits of Freud and Jung face off on the wall, pumping their fists when the analysis goes in a proper Freudian or Jungian direction, slugging each other when occasion provokes. Giant apples and orchid-vulvas and naked women with chicken heads march through Svankmajer's dream cityscape, which is like the London of Yellow Submarine's "Eleanor Rigby" sequence, but stranger. Prague's peculiar combination of baroque riches and east-bloc penury is as much a character as the actors here, a rich compost-heap of thwarted lives and dreams that, together, makes this something you've never quite seen before--and yet, somehow, you suspect you have.
            It is true that under the expressionistic surface is a fairly dated understanding of psychoanalysis, as if Svankmajer's reading on the subject ended sixty years ago. But Svankmajer's object here is satire, not some exposition of the latest trends in psychoanalytic theory.  And indeed, in its counter-intuitive, chaotic glory, the sardonic Life has more truth in it than the self-serious, pseudo-profound Inception, which envisioned the subconscious as nothing more than an elaborate first-person shooter game. Svankmajer knows this territory better, knows it is sticky and dangerous and more a bestiary than a computer program. There, anything is likely to happen except what Hollywood trades in--the expected. Surviving Life is Inception for smart people. 
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro