Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Good Vibrations

* *   Hysteria. Written by Stephen Dyer & Jonah Lisa Dyer, based on a story by Howard Gensler. Directed by Tanya Wexler
Pryce, Everett and Dancy prepare to explore inner space.
Bill Clinton was criticized for asking what the meaning of "is" is, but there’s powerful use in defining our way out of certain awkwardnesses. Consider the antique malady known as hysteria—the supposed excess of "wombiness" in women that led to symptoms like anxiety, lethargy, and moodiness. For centuries, the condition was widely diagnosed in lonely, dissatisfied females, and the preferred treatment was direct massage of the genitalia by the lubed-up digits of a doctor. Though the procedure often led to what was politely known as "paroxysms", to the housewives, spinsters, nuns and grandmothers involved there was nothing sexual about it. As their doctors assured them, proper female pleasure--strictly defined--was only possible with the introduction of the male member. By the late 19th century, some well-to-do women were indulging in these therapeutic paroxysms several times a week.
            There's a good movie in the absurdity of all this. Unfortunately, Tanya Wexler's Hysteria isn't it. Even for an experienced director (which Wexler, in her first major feature, is not), finding the right tone for this subject couldn't have been easy. The easiest choice is to make a joke of it--- always tempting when matters of sex are broached in Victorian circumstances. But there are real issues here too, having to do with centuries of ignorance, suspicion and outright repression of women's bodies. Wexler wants to hint at these things too, but ends up with a movie that is neither particularly funny, nor particularly meaningful. Watching it, we feel mildly stimulated, but never enough to bring us to a state of pleasure.
            The story concerns one Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), a young physician so earnestly progressive in his craft that he talks himself out of several jobs. Desperate, he ends up in the practice of Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), a specialist in the kind of prestidigitation prescribed for hysteria. Granville turns out to have the magic touch, too, but long hours at what Dalrymple calls “exacting, tedious work” leaves him with the horse-and-buggy equivalent of carpal tunnel syndrome. Looking into the abyss of unemployment again, Granville turns for help to his friend Edmund St. John-Smythe (Rupert Everett), an idle-rich, barely-closeted homosexual with a passion for the new science of electricity. The offspring of necessity is “Granville’s Hammer”, the first “electro-vibrator” for home use.
            Wexler seems to had in mind a movie much like The Road to Wellville (1994), the quirky history of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg as interpreted by T. Coraghessan Boyle. That wasn’t a particularly good movie either, but at least featured a crazed performance by Anthony Hopkins as the celebrated breakfast cereal pioneer. Dancy’s Granville, by comparison, is a pretty sticky wicket, so dully conventional that we wonder if he’s ever had a paroxysm himself. The reason for the flat portrayal is obvious, of course: if the doctor derived any pleasure from his work, he might seem creepy. And between creepy doctors and dull ones, most of us go with the latter.
            What fireworks there are in this movie are provided by Maggie Gyllenhaal as Dr. Dalrymple’s eldest daughter, Charlotte. She’s supposed to be an enjoyably spunky suffragette, but Gyllenhaal comes off more screechily annoying than appealing. Somehow, the straitlaced Granville is supposed to find her unconventionality more attractive than her quiet, brainy sister Emily (Felicity Jones). But in the game of movie expectations, Gyllenhaal is actually the more predictable choice. And by having her disparage the work of her father and Granville, the script manages to do exactly what the Victorians did—marginalize and dismiss female sexuality. Hysteria is one of those strange cases where a movie implores us to take seriously a subject it doesn’t take seriously itself.
            The best part of this movie comes during the closing credits, when we get images of antique vibrators through history. Some of these look like real power tools, so chunky and lethal-looking they should have STANLEY printed on their sides. Then, as now, serious work demands substantial tools. 
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Chariots of the Slobs?

* *  Prometheus. Written by Jon Spaihts & Damon Lindelof. Directed by Ridley Scott.
Noomi Rapace kicks a hornet's nest in Prometheus.
Considering Hollywood's fixation on "origin stories", would anybody want to tell the prehistory of the highly lucrative Alien franchise? Silly question. But here's an even sillier answer: an origin story that where the marquee creature—the multi-jawed, gut-busting alien—hardly appears at all. By analogy, imagine an origin story about a certain superhero that dwells for an hour on the politics and culture of the planet Krypton. Imagine it gives another hour to the lonely struggle of a certain scientist to get his planet to save itself. Envision this movie gives us a glimpse of the infant Superman, being loaded into his Even-flo space-pod--and then it's over. Imagine that movie, and you'll get a pretty good idea of the relationship between Prometheus and the other films in the Alien series.
            The fact that Ridley Scott himself, the  maker of the original 1979 Alien, made Prometheus has generated fairly high expectations. In films like Blade Runner, Gladiator, and Thelma & Louise, Scott has earned visionary status; his films look like nobody else's, which is saying a lot in an industry that rewards conformity. Alas, the gap between the "prequel to a modern icon" and Scott’s final product apparently scared the hell out of somebody. The fact that Prometheus is the Alien origin story--the very reason 20th Century Fox backed the project in the first place--was therefore, paradoxically, played down in the pre-release run-up. Next to John Travolta's taste in massage providers, it’s been the worst-kept secret in Hollywood.
            Now we have Prometheus and, unfortunately, it turns out not to be visionary stuff at all. The script by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof is set in the late 21st century, when a husband-and-wife team of archaeologists (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green) discover evidence that an extraterrestrial civilization had a hand in the origins of humankind. The ancient astronauts—so-called “Engineers”—are traced back to a certain moon orbiting a planet around in a distant star system, to which an expedition to mounted by a certain familiar-sounding industrial conglomerate (the “Weyland-Yutani Corporation”). The explorers include the archaeologists, a spooky cougar (Charlize Theron), a too-polite replicant (Michael Fassbender), and the gang of space-truckers typical of the Alien movies. There they discover a creepy pyramid, and inside that, evidence that the Engineers were once cooking up more than human beings. Much more.
            Now this “ancient astronauts” premise isn’t exactly fresh. It was already familiar in 1968, after 2001: A Space Odyssey and the publication of Erich von Däniken’s bestselling Chariots of the Gods?. More recently, it was played out in Battlestar Galactica, both old and new. Indeed, it seems like the kind of thing we see dramatized every other week on the Discovery Channel, in almost as vivid, portentous fashion as in Prometheus, and with about the same breezy obliviousness for all scientific evidence to the contrary. (Here, Spaihts and Lindelof dismiss centuries of evidence of Darwinian evolution with a single, throwaway line--but doesn't everybody?)
            Worse, the movie fails to answer the riddles it poses itself. It's never a good sign when, after a movie ends, we're left wondering "now why did he do that in the beginning?" or "why did the Engineers bother to leave their return address again?" or "how exactly were the aliens the result of all this?" The scripts have never been the draw in even the best of Scott's movies (Blade Runner, in particular, had more than a few plot holes). But  if Scott and Co. were determined not to premise all this on encountering the marquee creatures themselves, they had to make an old idea compelling. To put it plainly, they don’t.
            One thing in common about the best of the Alien movies--Scott's original and James Cameron's Aliens--was that they both took their time to 1) set the mood, and to 2) introduce the characters. Alien is a haunted house story, its mood of imminent dread built up with lots of small, crafted moments. So deliberate is Scott's pace that the opening title, A-L-I-E-N, takes a couple of minutes to materialize on the screen. Aliens was a war movie, where the fight pays off because we get to meet (and bid farewell to) each grunt in the platoon, and the monsters themselves don't appear until more than an hour in.
            By contrast, Prometheus feels rushed. With the exceptions of Rapace, Theron and Fassbender, most of the characters are given only token development. It's hard to care much for any of these anonymous slobs. Indeed, there's one good scene between the captain (Idris Elba, otherwise known as "Stringer Bell" from The Wire) and Theron, involving an indecent proposition and a concertina once owned by Stephen Stills. But that bit of humanity just whets the appetite for a meal that never comes.
            Visually, Prometheus is light-years beyond the other films. Like a master composer inventing variations on his best-known work, Scott plays on the striking design motifs he pioneered in '79. Now as then, he generates suspense just out of production design, as those familiar H.R. Giger biomechanicals are gradually revealed. Yet one unavoidable consequence of the CGI revolution is that this kind of vividness just doesn't seem that hard anymore. The problem with being able to visualize anything is that, sooner rather than later, we've already seen everything.
            Rapace (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) is no Sigourney Weaver. She doesn't take over the screen in that way that seemed so risky in '79, before female action heroes became the cliche they've become today. Instead, the show is stolen by Fassbender, who plays the robot with a silky passive-aggressiveness that feels like a knife in the back--albeit a knife with a velvet handle.          
           More Fassbender and more Stringer Bell--and less von Däniken. That would have been a prequel worth busting a gut over.
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Kind Hearts and Squirrel Guns

***1/2  Bernie. Written by Richard Linklater & Skip Hollandsworth. Directed by Richard Linklater. 
Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) wants to seduce you.

Since the timely demise of HBO’s Six Feet Under there’s been an alarming lack of stories about funeral directors. Richard Linklater’s Bernie doesn’t really count as “major” in any respect, but it fits the bill for off-beat entertainment from the nation’s broad, surprisingly creepy heartland. Like an embalmed corpse in sweet repose, it would be easy to overlook. Don’t.
            Linklater has made his name with accomplished, almost anthropologically-detailed films about the pains of growing up (Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise). He did release a straight documentary recently (Fast Food Nation), as well as a Hollywood crowd-pleaser (The School of Rock). But it’s fair to say that Bernie is like nothing Linklater’s done before: a narrative-documentary hybrid about people about as far from his usual slackers and dirtbags as he could get.
            The eponymous anti-hero is Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), the assistant director at a funeral home in Carthage, Texas. In the mid-90’s, the real-life Bernie had become a local legend in his job—an accomplished mortician, a canny casket salesman, a caring and sincere consoler of the bereaved. Always in good voice, he sang sweetly during memorial services. He led the church choir, and directed the productions of the local musical theater troupe. His selfless generosity made him so popular among the good folks of Carthage that they overlooked a fey, swishy demeanor that did not exactly fit the ideal of manhood in east Texas. He was especially beloved of the blue-bottle widows who represented the overwhelming majority of his clients.
            Things began to go seriously wrong for Bernie when he took up with Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), the town’s richest widow. Universally despised, Marjorie was the kind of person who couldn’t bear to suffer her misery alone when she could just as well spread it around. Bernie was stubborn in his positivity, wearing down Marjorie’s usual suspicion with acts of compassion above and beyond the call of duty. Alas, he didn’t bargain on Marjorie’s equally toxic, equally stubborn nature. With a combination of lavish gifts and feigned helplessness, she made Bernie her manager, her manservant and, by the end, her bitch. So when Marjorie’s body was discovered stashed in a garage freezer, the question is not whether Bernie murdered her, but whether it was the result of a calculated plan—or an act of desperation.
            Linklater based his script on a 1998 Texas Monthly newspaper article written by co-screenwriter Skip Hollandsworth. Instead of telling Bernie’s story in a conventional narrative, he incorporates interviews with the real citizens of Carthage. Together, these folks steal the show (if it’s possible for a dozen people to steal a show collectively) in a way even more impressive than the “witnesses” Warren Beatty presented in his otherwise dramatized Reds (1981). When a self-promoting district attorney named Danny Buck (played here by an actual actor, Matthew McConaughey) brings Bernie to trial for first-degree murder, Linklater gets to try the case again in front of the same local audience, arousing the same passions on either side. True, there are some things left out of the true story—for whatever reason, Linklater opts to play down Bernie’s apparently homosexuality. But the result is still enthralling, in that special way a car-crash on your own street can be.
            MacLaine and McConaughey are both good in less-than-sympathetic roles. Jack Black is a revelation as Bernie—sincere and artificial, ridiculous yet slyly seductive. He’s a phony, but no more so than anyone must be in a small town, where living together calls for more guile than in the big, anonymous city, not less. If there’s any justice in the world, he’ll have been remembered for an Oscar nomination this year. But that’s the question Bernie poses, isn’t it—whether there’s any justice in the world?
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro