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