Thursday, September 27, 2012

Total Reboot

Thirlby and Urban anti-star in Dredd.

«««  Dredd.  Written by Alex Garland, based on characters by John Wagner & Carlos Ezquerra. Directed by Pete Travis.

You'd be excused for thinking the world needs another "Judge Dredd" like it needs another Romney campaign reboot. As you might recall, the dystopian comics hero last reached the big screen in Sly Stallone's instantly forgettable 1995 opus. Indeed, the only thing this writer can remember about that movie was the catchphrase Stallone mumbled before he shot a guy: "I am the law!" That he was, but Stallone's failure kept one of the most long-lived comics heroes off the screen for a generation.
            But these days we're more likely to leave a child behind than a superhero franchise. For the new Dredd, the producers have gone in a different direction--this is not a star vehicle at all, but an anti-star vehicle. Karl Urban, who had sizable but not star-making roles in Lord of the Rings and Star Trek (he played the new McCoy) plays the Judge this time out. And surprise--not only is Urban the law, he's also the bomb in director Pete (Vantage Point) Travis' taut, plain vanilla actioner.
            The original Dredd came right out of the tradition of 1970's urban angst that also spawned Escape from New York and Robocop in the '80's. He's a cop in the futuristic hellscape of Megacity One, struggling to maintain law and order against a rising tide of crime, drug addiction, and general scumbaggery. There's so much crime, in fact, that there's no time for legal niceties--Dredd is cop, judge, and executioner in one heavily-armored package. A "trial" comprises one question, "How do you plead?", after which Dredd will either blow you away or whisk you off for confinement in a "hypercube". Sounds harsh, but come to think of it, it's actually more due process than a terrorism suspect in Pakistan gets in a drone strike.
            On the theory that the best way to challenge a borderline sociopath is to give him a girly-girl to cope with, Dredd receives a rookie partner in "Anderson" (Olivia Thirlby). Anderson has special powers--not to be revealed here--but one of them clearly is not thawing out the grim Judge, who takes little note of her gender or her fragile sort of good looks. Extrajudicial killings are one thing, but Dredd draws the line at off-color remarks in the workplace.
            The Judge is troubled by another woman too, an ex-prostitute turned drug kingpin named Ma-Ma (Lena Headey). Headey was Queen Gorgo in 300 and Queen Cercei in Game of Thrones, but she does not rule here. Though the filmmakers give her a nasty facial scar, and she makes a go at seeming freakish, she's just not scary enough to be a compelling villain. Nor does Alex Garland's script help with all its logical lapses--such as Dredd seeking evidence to bust Ma-Ma after she's already given him ample probable cause by, you know, trying to kill him.
            What makes this movie work is Urban himself. Though he never removes his helmet in the entire film, he seems to pack more expression into the lower half of his face than Stallone managed with his entire jacked physique. There are no cute catchphrases here, no superstar preening. Urban accomplishes what Peter Weller did in the original Robocop with even less than a whole disembodied face to work with. This may be the best performance by a chin in movie history. In the tradition of rock-hard performances by the likes of Wayne and Eastwood and Craig's 007, Urban earns his place.
            This Dredd is what it is, and that's no more than it needs to be. In an era of baroque, overblown creations like The Dark Knight Rising, there's virtue in this kind of simplicity.

© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

This American Schmo

Ambrose and Birbiglia have different dreams in Sleepwalk With Me

««½  Sleepwalk With Me. Written by Mike Birbiglia, Joe Birbiglia, Ira Glass & Seth Barrish. Directed by Mike Birbiglia & Seth Barrish.

Matt Pandamiglio (Mike Birbiglia) has stress. He’s got Abby, his terrific girlfriend (Lauren Ambrose). He’s got parents (James Rebhorn and Carol Kane) eager to help him on his journey of self-discovery. He’s got a degree of talent that reveals itself intermittently when he does what he loves, stand-up comedy. So why does he have stress, given all these assets? Sleepwalk With Me, Birbiglia’s debut feature, doesn’t seem to know.
            Instead of reasons, the movie is more interested in symptoms—namely Matt’s problem with sleepwalking. Indeed, it’s not just walking in his sleep that ails him, but full-blown acting out of his dreams. After he falls off the bedroom dresser in the belief that he was mounted the Olympic medal stand, Abby gently advises him to see a doctor. Matt agrees—until he decides he’d rather get a sandwich instead.
            Sleepwalk was one of the hits at this year’s SXSW and Sundance festivals. No argument here against the fact that it is a small, charming, easy-to-watch comedy. To a generations of boomerang kids, Birbiglia might as well be the poster child, painfully self-aware (but without self-understanding), burdened by expectations, more educated than wise. Unlike Woody Allen or Albert Brooks, there’s nothing specific about his neurosis, no ethnic tics that might peg him to some cultural context. He might as well be from anywhere, from any class. As such, he’s perfectly relatable.
            And then there’s Ambrose, who played the ingénue in the much-missed HBO series Six Feet Under, and has been too long away from view. Her character here is a confection of gorgeous red hair and vivid blue eyes and the kind of patient devotion better men than Matt can only dream of earning. She’s the soul of the film, even though screenwriters Birbiglia, Ira Glass et al. leave her largely underwritten. Typical is how Sleepwalk glides over the key confrontation between Abby and Matt, as they decide whether to get married (she wants it, he doesn’t). Birbiglia jump-cuts through the scene in gimmicky fashion, more or less telling his audience “yadda yadda yadda, you know the drill.” Yeah, we know the drill, but isn’t seeing it this time, with these characters, the whole point?
            Judd Apatow has enthusiastically endorsed this film, which says a lot about what’s right and wrong with it. Apatow has made a career out of giving us the well-tempered egoist, the child-man who can’t grow up and doesn’t see much reason to try. Birbiglia likewise presents his self-involved alter-ego as a fait accompli—a schmo’s gotta go what a schmo’s gotta do. Matt doesn’t want to marry Abby, period, and Birbiglia isn’t going to waste time on any stinkin’ introspection.
            That might be OK for Apatow, but it’s surprising that Ira Glass’s name is attached to such an unreflective tale. For if you expect anything out of Glass’s storytelling program on NPR, This American Life, it’s reflection. Glass will keep his fans and Birbiglia will live another day onscreen. But here, at least, they deliver less than meets the eye.
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Where There's Smoke, There's Debt

Payback asks, how much does BP owe the future?

«««  Payback.  Written and directed by Jennifer Baichwal, based on the book by Margaret Atwood. Available on Netflix.

With the nation hurtling toward a so-called "fiscal cliff" at the stroke of midnight, December 31, it looks like 2013 will be a year as preoccupied with debt as 2011. Indeed, it's high time--though not necessarily for the reason Tea Partiers and deficit hawks worry about. For as Jennifer Baichwal's topical documentary Payback notes, the apparently simple notion of debt, of the conditions and consequences of one party owing something to another, is actually quite complex. You might even argue that it's apparent simplicity is key to its unquestioned ubiquity. Like most matters of ideology, it masquerades as something as natural as breathing. But when we ask what it really means to be a borrower or a lender, and what should count as assets we have borrowed--intentionally or not--it doesn't look so straightforward after all.
            Payback is based on the essay Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth by the Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid's Tale, Oryx and Crake). Much of it (and admittedly, the less compelling parts) presents Atwood reading from her book in public, or engaged in at-home proofreading in a comfy chair in her office. In that sense, it suffers from the same preachy awkwardness you might expect when your coolest aunt takes you aside to straighten you out on a few things. The intervention may be hard to stomach, but at least you can't fault her motives.
            Baichwal illustrates Atwood's discussion with imagery from a disparate instances of "owing" and "paying back". We hear from the protagonists in a real-life family blood feud in Albania, where an entire family is confined to its home out of fear of retribution by another. We get a glimpse at a clash between labor and capital in the Florida tomato market, as farmers are forced to consider what--if anything--they owe the migrant workers who pick their fruit. We get an ex-con tormented by guilt because he traumatized a Holocaust survivor during a drug-hazed burglary, and evocative footage of a 19th century debtors' prison, now abandoned and crumbling to ruin. And we get a perspective on the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, for which the company has paid $20 billion in damages and fines, but still got away relatively cheap. For what dollar value can be placed on a region that helps clean and drain half a continent?
            As Atwood notes, debt is not just a matter of economics. Insofar as all members of a society are enmeshed in systems of mutual obligation, it is essential to sociality itself, in all the ways it functions. We see debt as moral issue, of debtors being subordinated to creditors in a sense that is both specific ("We owe China  a trillion") and vague ("It makes me uncomfortable to borrow from China"). But insofar as, say, China's development depends on US consumption of the stuff they make, who exactly is more beholden to whom in that relationship?
            Baichwal likewise ponders the question of what our entrepreneurs and "job creators" owe their stakeholders. What do they owe to the environment they depend upon, and to future generations that have to cope with the consequences of their acts? Though verging on the didactic, she does it better than President Obama did recently, in his awkwardly phrased "You didn't build that" speech.
            Many conservatives view humans as entering the world with a clean ledger, owing nothing to the world that birthed, educated and sustained them. To this way of thinking, a clean environment is a luxury, something pretty to put around a productive society. But as drought driven by climate change showed our farmers this year, the environment is no longer a passive frame, but an increasingly grumpy partner. Atwood and Baichwal rightly wonder what we owe that partner to keep it from becoming not just grumpy, but an obstacle.
            Payback strains a bit in visualizing some profound and very un-photographable concepts. Those seeking a deeper, more historical view of the subject should read David Graeber's Debt: The First 5000 Years and, of course, Atwood's book-length treatment. Baichwal does us a service in raising questions, though, and for that we owe her thanks.

© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Hearts and Heads

Antoinette (Diane Kruger) plays favorites in Farewell, My Queen

«««  Farewell, My Queen. Written by Benoît Jacquot & Gilles Taurand, based on the novel by Chantal Thomas. Directed by Benoît Jacquot.

One of the challenges of making historical fiction is knowing where to put the history and where the fiction. Too much of the former, and the story becomes a term paper; too much fiction, and the very premise of insight into the past is undermined. When it's done right, the genre can appear to transcend both history and fiction, putting sinews on dry facts, and giving mere characters and incidents the gravity of lived events. So how close does Benoît Jacquot's Farewell, My Queen come to the ideal?
             The film is about a well-worn subject: the last days of Queen Marie Antoinette at Versailles. Unlike Sophia Coppola's recent, much-maligned foray into the subject (Marie Antoinette--booed at Cannes in 2006), Jacquot's film tells the story not from the royal vantage, but through the eyes of a lowly servant, Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydou), the Queen's reader. If this were a war film, it would be called a "grunt's eye" view of battle.
            The conceit isn't exactly original, but it can be powerful. Like its heroine, the story is free to bow in and bow out of historical events, making us "flies on the wall" sometimes, and locked out at others, desperate for scraps of conversation heard through keyholes. Unlike Coppola, Jacquot needs not presume he knows what happened in the Hall of Mirrors on July 14, 1789--he needs only tell the story of what, for Sidonie, was a mostly ordinary day, albeit with ominous rumblings in the distance she is not equipped to understand.
            Jacquot works the device handily. Sidonie is as earnest a servant as she is unpolished, an expert in the Queen's literary tastes who can't keep help from tripping over her skirts on the palace's slippery floors. In her relatively brief scenes with Antoinette (Diane Kruger), we see she is no repressed prole, but deeply in love with her mistress. Meanwhile, Kruger plays the Queen not as a "let them eat cake" fashion victim, but as a slyly manipulative performer, a celebrity who pretends to be just another member of her own entourage. Her heart really belongs to Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen), a minor noblewoman who might be even less popular with the people than the Queen herself. Sidonie is allowed to believe she shares her mistress' confidence, but she's in for a shock when the Queen reveals her true priority--to save "her" Polignac at any cost.
            Enjoying this film more or less demands you come to it knowing the historical context.  Anyone with a hazy grasp of the Revolution is likely to be frustrated by Jacquot's habit of following Sidonie on her mundane rounds. More literal-minded viewers might wish Jacquot had dropped the strict POV and just told Antoinette's story in straightforward bio-pic style. But of course, this is a French film, and these events are already so familiar to the French that a "straight" retelling would never do. This is not to say that its history is perfect: where Jacquot makes Antoinette's taste seem decidedly same-sex, the Queen actually spend much of her romantic passion on Count Axel von Fersen, a Swedish hunk who is never mentioned here.
            But there's no disputing that Queen is formidable both in conception and performance. Seydou is sad and lovely as she alternates between state apartments and the grim cells of the servant class, belonging entirely to neither. Diane Kruger, a German, seems like an odd choice to play the French queen, until we remember that Antoinette was actually an Austrian princess. Kruger is arguably too conventionally beautiful for the role, too Vogue to be plausibly royal. Yet her performance here is even better than her surprisingly good spy role in Inglorious Basterds. In Troy and Copying Beethoven she was feather-light. But like Antoinette herself, Kruger seems determined to prove we've underestimated her.  
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro