Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Once Again Into the Smaug

Dragon meets hobbit (Martin Freeman) in Desolation of Smaug.

«« The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.  Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson & Guillermo del Toro , based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien. Directed by Peter Jackson. At area theaters.         
According to the chronicles of Middle Earth, Bilbo Baggins' journey to Mt. Erebor takes place 3,063 years after the Fall of the kingdom of Númenor and 1,340 years after the foundation of the Shire. These are eternities of time. Yet they feel like nothing compared to having to sit through Peter Jackson's interminable trilogy of spectacles based on J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit.
          The problems with opus #2, The Desolation of Smaug, are pretty much the same I described for #1 (An Unexpected Journey, 2012, see review here). This is essentially a heist story—a caper wherein a band of semi-silly dwarves and their hairy-footed companion attempt to steal a precious jewel from Smaug, an avaricious dragon. Far from the sprawling, Manichean struggle of Lord of the Rings, events of The Hobbit were never meant to have cosmic stakes. But instead of giving the story its own tone and look, Jackson adopts the same portentous approach to he took for his Rings movies. He's like a chef who serves the appetizer after the main dish, and finding you liked the pasta sauce on the entrée, ladles it on your salad too.
          And then he repeats the mistake, in triplicate.
          The new trilogy at least benefits from another decade of development in CGI. The set-piece for this episode, the encounter with the eponymous dragon, is splendidly realized, with the giant sauropod appearing from beneath what looks like a landfill of treasure. The beast is voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems as ubiquitous as Sauron these days but characterizes him with all the silky menace envisioned by Tolkien.
          Strangely, the figure of Bilbo (Martin Freeman) seems lost here, as if Jackson, in 161 minutes of running time, couldn't find time for him. No surprise, considering that Jackson and his co-writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro are busy rationalizing the return of Legolas (Orlando Bloom), one of the most popular characters in the Rings movies. What Bloom (or his distaff sidekick Evangeline Lilly) are doing here is a mystery, given that they are neither in the book nor anything but peripheral to the script. It's a mystery, unless mowing down legions of hapless, disposable orcs is reason enough. (Wanna bet we'll see Viggo Mortensen in the next episode?)
          Jackson also invests much time in the shoe-horning material presaging the return of the bad guy, Sauron, from those other movies you saw already. It shouldn't be a spoiler by now to reveal that Sauron will be defeated. So what's the point of breaking the momentum from Bilbo's quest—which (for all we know) still hangs in the balance—in favor of a battle for which we already know the outcome?
          The answer, of course, is that the question is irrelevant. The Hobbit is less a story now than the latest productions of a media franchise that exists for no other sake than to keep going. Indeed, it's a franchise in the same sense as Harry Potter or The Olive Garden—an experience that fulfills certain expectations regardless of whether they are "good" or "bad". Let the critics carp, say the fans—we're off for the Middle Earth equivalent of unlimited bread sticks.         
@ 2013 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Flyover Redemption

Forte and Dern are cold in Nebraska.

««« Nebraska.  Written by Bob Nelson. Directed by Alexander Payne. At selected theaters.      
Sixteen years ago the Coen Brothers made Fargo, an off-beat, serio-comic thriller set in you-know-where, North Dakota. Though Hollywood elites loved it, awarding it Oscars for Best Picture and Best Actress, it drew criticism for how it portrayed the good folks of the upper Midwest. Namely, it made them into cartoony, hapless rubes. Settling in to Alexander Payne's Nebraska, I got the feeling I was in for something similar—that is, for Fargo-style regional caricature, albeit without the Coen's wit.
          The script by newcomer Bob Nelson concerns Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an ornery, tactiturn 70 year-old who believes he's come into a million dollars when a sham magazine sweepstakes offer comes in the mail. No longer permitted to drive, he sets off on foot from his home in Billings to collect his "fortune" in Lincoln, Nebraska. He's rescued from the side of the interstate by his youngest son, David (Will Forte). After Woody's third or fourth escape attempt, the latter decides to drive him there, figuring at least he can spend some quality alone time with his dad.
          David gets more than he bargained for when they stop in Woody's old home town. The story of his imminent fortune gets around quickly, making Woody a local hero among his distant family and childhood buddies. Things go sour when the inevitable demands for payback on old "loans" start coming, and David, like many adult children, learns how broad an undiscovered country his parent's life is to him.
          Payne, by using the title Nebraska, is promising to deliver something folksy, gritty, unvarnished—in other words, the cinematic equivalent of Bruce Springsteen's sound in the classic album of the same name. Phedon Papamichael's sparse black and white cinematography befits those expectations. Yet (and notwithstanding Payne's own Midwestern roots) there's a whiff of bicoastal condescension in how the film presents people and places hollowed out by economic irrelevance. The old folks here behave exactly as every urban hipster expects on a visit with his flyover grandparents—conversations conducted in monosyllables, the idiot cousins left behind (Tim Discoll and Devin Ratray), the old men dozing in front of football games as Grandma bastes the turkey in the kitchen. Were Nebraska presented with the smells appropriate to its story, we would get the odors of moth-balls and soiled Depends. If people really lived in a state of such hopelessness, walking seven hundred miles to get a million bucks doesn't sound so crazy after all.
          But then something surprising happens. First, June Squibb turns in a feisty, appealing performance as Woody's long-suffering spouse. Second, and more profoundly, Payne slowly erects a touching father-son story on Will Forte's boyish ingenuousness. While Woody is a constant disappointment, Forte portrays David's need to build a relationship with him with such sweet subtlety that he redeems the whole film, clichés and all. Forte's performance is all the more impressive that he was a SNL cast member for ten years, but Payne never lets him be funny.
          Bruce Dern's acerbic, unsentimental performance is getting the lion's share of praise for this film, but don't be fooled. It comes off as under-realized because it is a character actor's performance in a lead role. So how exactly is Woody, a coarse, cynical man who seems to value nothing but booze, supposed to be fooled by a obviously bogus sweepstakes offer? Word is that Bryan Cranston was up for the role of Woody, but Payne chose Dern instead. He's fine, but it's frightening to think how good Nebraska could have been with a truly commanding actor like Cranston in the lead.
          Even on its own, quieter terms, this film is not as successful as Payne's Sideways, which was more touching and, incidentally, hilarious. But it does fashion something true out of what seems like unpromising material. For those willing to risk dozing off in their armchairs, Nebraska ends up a fine place to go.
@ 2013 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Ninnies Strike Back

All hail the rule of the ninnies in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

««½ The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.  Written by Simon Beaufoy & Michael Arndt, based on the novel by Suzanne Collins. At area theaters.

Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games series is a lot like Mount Rushmore. For its prominence on the planetary cultural scene, its triumph of impact over art, it's something one remotely admires instead of loves. Missing the movie based on the sequel, Catching Fire, just wasn't an option for a father of an eleven year-old daughter. Having liked the first movie—more or less—this critic resigned himself to the sequel with a prayer: Dear Lord, how bad could it be?
          Fortunately, prayers were unnecessary. Catching Fire has many of the same flaws as the first movie, but also a minor surprise: a faint hint of world-weariness, of consciousness that winning, at games or otherwise, can have costs almost as great as losing. The villains in Collins' book have truly awful classical-inspired names like "Claudius Templesmith" and "Plutarch Heavensbee", but she missed an obvious Romanism for her title: Hunger Games: Pyrrhic Victory.
          The sequel finds Collins' heroine, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) living in a big, state-provided mansion after her survival in the 74th Hunger Games, a gladiatorial contest between the subjects of the tyrannical rule of the Capital. Katniss, though embarrassed by her special treatment, has become a folk hero to the proles. With an aversion to sharing the stage verging on the Putinesque, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) wants her dead. To that end, he enlists Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to engineer her on-camera demise in the 75th anniversary Games—a special "all-star" edition pitting previous winners against each other.
          Once again, Jennifer Lawrence brings more authenticity to the character of Katniss than any big-budget, tent-pole movie like this really deserves. Whether going it alone, as she did in the first movie, or juggling allies Survivor-style here, she's rarely not compelling, rarely standing safely outside the somewhat contrived, half-baked dystopia Collins has conjured.
          Trouble is, that contrivance is still there, and doesn't improve with familiarity. Somehow, we're supposed to be afraid of a regime populated by pouffed ninnies like Elfie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks in pancake make-up) and "Caesar Flickermann" (Stanley Tucci with radioactively brilliant teeth). Somehow, everybody is supposed to travel around the Capital's continent-sized domain in Obama's high-speed trains, with aircraft kept oddly beyond consideration. Collins can't decide if her dystopia is ancient Rome without the glory, or pre-Revolutionary France without the culottes.
          Like The Empire Strikes Back, Catching Fire doesn't end as much as set up the first scene in the next movie. Judging from the audience's reaction, they seem more than willing to follow Katniss anywhere. How bad it could it be?
© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro       

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Shipwreck Kid

The old man (Redford) and the sea in All Is Lost.

««« All Is Lost.  Written and directed by J.C. Chandor. At select theaters.   
When it comes to dire adversity, there are two kinds of people in the world: people who scream fuck! right away, and people who do it later—or maybe never. In J.C. Chandor's chamber work All Is Lost, Robert Redford plays a nameless man on a solo voyage across the Indian Ocean. He's not only all alone on his little yacht, he's the only human being in the film. There's barely any dialog (or even monolog). When his boat is crippled in a collision with a stray shipping container, does he ever get around to uttering that choice four-letter word? Since that's one of the pleasures of this strange little film, I won't spoil it here.
          At a time when less is not more at the movies, Lost is a refreshing return to minimalism. Mostly, the "action" is comprised of Redford peering ruefully at his damaged vessel, breaking out various tools, and laboriously making repairs. But Nature—which one supposes qualifies as the only other character here—undoes his patient efforts every time, until this resourceful man is stripped of all his comforts, his tools, and his hope.
          The advertising for the film shrieks about "pulse-pounding suspense", but don't believe it. The suspense in All Is Lost isn't the "pulse-pounding" kind. Instead, it's of a more cerebral variety—the kind where there's an unexpected noise, and Redford (and we) are left to ponder what else has gone wrong. The lack of dialog will inspire some—alas, wrongly—to call Lost a silent film. On the contrary, Chandor depends heavily on sound effects—the wind, the patter of raindrops, the tell-tale rip of a sail off-screen—to tell his story. There have been few films in recent memory that have depended on sound so completely. (So much the worse for most of us, then, that we'll see All Is Lost in a multiplex, with the bass-lines from Thor and The Hunger Games pounding through the walls.)
          If rebirth through adversity is more or less unavoidable in this life, then the real theme of this film is solitude. Here, even more so than in Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity, the filmmaker prefers to pare down his story to essentials—and what he regards as "essential" is the lone individual. There's no cutting away to the wife/husband/kids/mission-control, sweating out the ordeal from long distance, as we'd see in more conventional thrillers.
          On the surface, the convention seems reasonable, to see individuals as significant only in relation to other people. As Chandor and Cuarón suggest, though, framing the struggle that way shifts the emphasis from another, equally-important connection: how the individual sees him- or herself. As the planet becomes more noisy and crowded, with friends and relatives never more than a status update away, that internal report may be the most endangered relationship of all.
© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Beautiful Creatures

«««1/2  Dallas Buyer's Club.  Written by Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. At selected theaters. 

Leto and McConaughey survive in Dallas Buyer's Club
To paraphrase the guy mentioned in that Maroon 5 song, we don't always get what we want, but sometimes we get what we need. In the middle of the debate over Obamacare, America has gotten a health care drama--- Jean-Marc Vallée's Dallas Buyer's Club. Safe to say there have rarely been movies this strong about a guy just trying to fill his prescriptions.
          The script by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack is based on the true story of Ron Woodroof—an electrician, part-time rodeo cowboy, recreational drug user and all-around party animal. In the summer of 1985 he gets the news that he is HIV-positive, with only a month to live. But instead of taking this as a death-sentence, Woofroff takes his diagnosis in the spirit of a barroom dare, swearing that no "faggot" disease is going to end him.
          Trouble is, the only drug shown to have any effectiveness against the virus is AZT, and that is only available in clinical trials. Forced to seek treatment in Mexico, Woodroof discovers there's a world full of anti-viral drugs that are not FDA-approved. Getting illegal drugs over the border has never been a problem for determined entrepreneurs, of course, and the dying Ron is very determined indeed. 
          Dallas Buyer's Club is a pet project of Matthew McConaughey, who has been fighting for years to get it made with various others in the lead. It's fortunate that he took the role himself, because it may be his strongest yet. Though a gifted survivor, McConaughey's Woodroof was little more than a two-bit hustler before misfortune elevated him to a sort of folk-hero. His fellow AIDs sufferers were never more than "fruits" and "tinkerbells" to him; his pursuit of casual sex with women after getting his diagnosis verged on the criminal. Though he establishes a "buyer's club" to import medications for himself and hundreds of other desperate patients, his motives were never strictly philanthropic. It was always about the money. McConaughey sugar-coats none of that, but in his hands we don't care. Whether for the greater good or sadly misspent, Woodroof's life was lived to the fullest while he had it. In a year that has already seen great performances by the likes of Robert Redford (All is Lost) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), this may be the performance of the year.
          Almost as memorable is Jared Leto as "Rayon", a transvestite Ron meets in the hospital and—despite his flamboyance—befriends. Oozing glamor even as he wastes away, Leto may single-handedly bring back the glam-rock esthetic with this performance, albeit with a shabby edge.
          If there's anything to object to about Dallas Buyer's Club, it's the way it buys into the sort of casual contempt for government that is too common recently. Those of us of a certain age remember the height of the HIV epidemic in the eighties, when activists like Larry Kramer would appear on TV, hair on fire and screaming about the "murderers" in the FDA. That uncorking a stream of quack drugs on a population of desperate people would likely kill them faster, and make others unconscionably richer, seemed lost on these guys. Instead of a public health crisis, they saw it as a Manichean struggle between angels and devils, with the federal agency staffed by little Eichmanns just yearning to keep miracle cures from the people. Sound familiar?
          On another level, it's more than ironic that a lifelong homophobe like Ron Woodroof gets to be the hero of the AIDs crisis. There's a long, sad tradition of similar "cause" movies, where some terrible wrong only gets fixed when the white (or in this, case, the straight) guy gets involved. Would we have cared as much for Ron Woodroof if he was actually gay? Would his crusade have seemed as appealingly muscular without the gay-bashing? Though there's much to like in Dallas Buyer's Club, you won't find the answers to those questions there.
© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The End of the Game

Ender (Asa Butterfield) plays the game.

«« Ender's Game.  Written and directed by Gavin Hood, based on the novel by Orson Scott Card. At area theaters.

Full disclosure: I haven't read Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game. Though widely acclaimed, its pulpy, "repelling the next alien bug invasion" idea already sounded tired during the Reagan Administration. Matters have gotten worse since then, as the premise has become the object of disaster-epic (Independence Day), cheeky political satire (Starship Troopers) and outright farce (Mars Attacks!). The only way to make an un-ironic version of Ender's Game now is to hope nobody saw those other movies.
          Bad news: they did.
          Director Gavin Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Tsotsi) appears to have shut his eyes and hoped for the best in his adaptation of Card's book. Special effects notwithstanding, this is one of those rare movies that is so entirely sealed off from its cultural context that it could have premiered anytime, in any decade. For one (minor) instance: the characters in this supposed distant future make reference to "e-mail", which seems about as likely as people in 2013 still calling their automobiles "horseless carriages."
          For those non-fanboys out there, Ender's Game is about Ender Wiggen (Asa Butterfield), a gifted "tweener" who is recruited by Earth's military government to command the human fleet against the dreaded alien bugs, known as the Formics. It appears that only children are agile in mind enough to command huge battle-fleets—which I guess makes interstellar generalship like women's gymnastics. In any case, Ender is regarded as Earth's last, best hope by the Academy's ranking gray-hair, Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), who clashes constantly (and tediously) with the resident shrink (Viola Davis) over whether Ender is really, truly, absolutely ready to save humanity. No points for guessing if he is or not master of his own "game."
          The centerpiece dramatic device here is a zero-gravity gym where the space cadets engage in mid-air laser-tag games. This may have sounded pretty cool in 1985—when  laser-tag wasn't available to play in most strip-malls—but the idea seems even more derivative now, after watching Harry Potter prove himself in similar fashion. Quidditch in space is still just quidditch.
          Though predicable and dull, Ender's Game is topical in one sense: it endorses the superhero principle, the idea that what we need is a singular, individual savior to solve our problems. It is true that most Western literature extols the role of the individual in society—in fact, the emergence of the individual in history pretty much is what Western literature is all about. But today's taste for superhero stories arguably goes beyond that. At a time when our problems seem so intractable, and our politics so dead-ended, we yearn instead for someone extraordinary, someone above the usual checks and balances, to swoop down and "fix it" for us. And lest he or she become a Caesar, we further prefer them to go away, back to the Batcave or the Fortress of Solitude, until we need them again.
          I suppose even forlorn hope is better than no hope at all. One problem with waiting for superheroes, though, is that it invites everyone else to stand around and watch, as the entire population of New York did at the climax of The Avengers. Worse, it excuses the fact that most of our problems are not fixable by individuals at all. They're systemic problems, having to do with how things are arranged and done by masses of people. Letting Ender Wiggen control all our drones gets us some notable "kills", and doesn't require us to change hearts and minds in Pakistan. Imagining Superman flush away greenhouse gases from our atmosphere is gratifying, and absolves everybody from changing the cars they drive. Superheroes do us favors, but are favors really a substitute for justice?
© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Peculiar Institution

Fassbinder and Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave.

«««« 12 Years a Slave.  Written by John Ridley, based on the memoir by Solomon Northup. Directed by Steve McQueen. At selected theaters.
There are a lot of things Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave isn't. It isn't self-consciously hip, like Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained. In its unstinting portrayal of plantation slavery in the southern US, it isn't easy to watch. Yet despite the multiple scourgings, hangings, rapes and other indignities it portrays, it never feels exploitative, never indulges in Gibsonian pleasure of self-flagellation. What it is, in fact, is the most compelling treatment of its subject since Roots---and maybe longer. 
          The "hard to watch" part deserves emphasizing. Based faithfully on the real-life memoir of Solomon Northup, a free black from Saratoga, New York, Slave withholds none of the horror as it shows the enterprise of human trafficking that operated in the antebellum period. Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is an educated family man, and a talented musician, who is lured to Washington D.C. in 1841 on the promise of a job. After a night of hard drinking, he wakes up in chains. Protesting that he is a free man, he is savagely beaten, and informed that he is an escaped slave from Georgia. His past is erased, and his name changed. Before long he's smuggled out of Washington into the deepest of the Deep South, where he languishes as a field slave for a dozen years.
          One of the film's most trenchant images, among many, is of Northup crying for help from a basement cell as McQueen's camera rises to reveal the incomplete U.S. Capitol building. There, in one shot, is the essence of what became Martin Luther King's message more than a century later: that slavery was not just immoral, but a standing indictment of a nation that failed too long to uphold its own ideals.
          Nigerian-descended Briton Ejiofor (Children of Men, Redbelt) is terrific as a man too busy holding together the tatters of his dignity to think about vengeance. At no point does he not command the screen, even in the presence of a powerhouse cast that includes Michael Fassbinder, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch and Brad Pitt. No doubt his performance will make him a major star. Also notable is Lupita Nyong'o's performance as Patsey, as a girl who discovers the consequences of being the object her master's guilty desires. To Northup's enduring stoicism, Nyong'o is a bare nerve, delighting in her little privileges as strongly as she suffers their costs.
          But make no mistake: the real revelation here is the British-born McQueen. His best-known previous work, 2011's Shame, had its moments, but gave no hint of what he was capable of. From start to finish, 12 Years is the work of a director in complete control, tightening his hold on his audience like Solomon Northup tightening the strings on his violin. To perpetuate the metaphor, the film feels like a recital by a master soloist, staged in a spare room for just a small audience. Over 133 minutes, it unfolds with the logic of a terrible theorem, never flinching from the results. By the time Pitt appears, playing an abolitionist who excoriates Fassbender on the abomination of human slavery, it feels not like a moralistic lecture from another century, but a long-denied affirmation that 2 plus 2 does, in fact, equal 4.
          Northup's book was one of the better-known slave memoirs of the 19th century, though its impact tends to be overshadowed today by Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin. Picking apart the movie's portrayal of slavery would be hard, given that Northup's experience was well-attested. Still, it is interesting that in the scene where Paul Giamatti's character sells Solomon to his first "master", Northup is sold for a price of $500, a considerable sum at the time that would be equivalent to about $12,000 today. Rational folks making a $12,000 investment today—or back then—rarely throw such serious money away on frivolous cruelties. It's for that reason that the film is almost compelled to portray Northup's last "owner", Fassbender's Edwin Epps, as a drunken lecher and sadist.
           No doubt there were slave owners who were insane. But in a way, this is letting the institution of slavery off too easily. The deeper damage of all those generations of slavery was not done by the occasional sociopathic master, but by the regular, everyday institutionalization of human suffering. It wasn't necessarily the whippings, but the slow wearing-down of dignity. Every night a slave went to sleep in bondage, thankful to have his belly full of his owner's food, was its own kind of beat-down.
          But these are quibbles. 12 Years a Slave may well count as the definitive movie about its subject for a long time. For an institution with such a consequential legacy, that's saying a lot.

© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Ant, Boot

Abdi and Hanks are equally at sea in Captain Phillips.

««« Captain Phillips. Written by Billy Ray, based on a book by Richard Phillips & Stephan Talty. Directed by Paul Greenglass. At area theaters.

Before the killing of Bin Laden and the fall of Kaddafi, the happy story of the Obama era was the rescue of Captain Richard Phillips. After sailing too close to pirate-infested waters off the horn of Africa in 2009, Phillips’ freighter, the Maersk Alabama, was boarded by four armed Somalis. Following procedure, the captain and his crew frustrated the pirates’ plan to take the vessel and its crew for ransom. Phillips himself ended up on a lifeboat with the raiders, who were ultimately confronted by the Navy SEALs. For the sakes of movie fans who might be current events-challenged, I’ll say no more about the circumstances of the ending, except that it was met by widespread relief at home—if not so much in Somalia.
            Now we have Captain Phillips, a dramatization of the incident from Paul Greenglass. In addition to a couple of Bourne movies, Greenglass made United 93, another ripped-from-the-headlines dramatization. Greenglass knows all the tricks and tropes of the Hollywood action mill, but also has a way of bringing a clean, taut, unsentimental approach to portraying real events. Interestingly, Phillips doesn’t resemble United 93 so much as another hostage drama rooted in real life, Dog Day Afternoon. In other words, it’s not such a happy story after all.
            Lest you think the showdown-at-sea premise isn’t iconic enough, Phillips is played to Tom Hanks—a guy who pretty much represents America itself in films like Apollo 13, Saving Private Ryan, and Forrest Gump. With his character stuck between his blue collar roots and his white collar overlords, Hanks doesn’t play it iconic, going instead for a hard but sturdy dignity. He already knows guys like him are surviving on borrowed time. Putting a gun to his head seems almost a clarifying act, making refreshingly obvious the economic forces that compelled him to sail too close to Africa, just to save a few bucks for his bosses.
            The script by Billy Ray makes the very same point about the head Somali pirate, a wisp of guy called Muse (Barkhad Abdi). He’s smart, he’s dirt poor, and he’s got bosses too—the gun-toting kind—who force him to keep going farther out into the Indian Ocean, hunting for bigger and bigger pay-offs for the “company”. “I made six million dollars last year,” he boasts to his hostage. To which Phillips replies, “If that’s true, what are you doing here?”
             Therein lies the difference between Captain Phillips and the typical post-911 hostage drama. Abdi plays his character of such maniacal conviction that you know he’s equally a hostage, trapped by the circumstances of a national tragedy. If our country was made lawless by civil war, and other nations took advantage of our trouble by pilfering our resources at sea, is there any doubt the boat-loads of American crackers—sorry, “freedom fighters”—would be out in the water in speed boats, taking matters into their own hands?
            And so when the Navy arrives, it’s already intervening in something far more ambiguous then a “hostage situation.” Greenglass gives the SEALs all due credit for pure, efficient lethality—perhaps too much credit, as the real event was far messier than he makes out. Like at the end of Dog Day Afternoon, we’re left with the feeling that not all positive outcomes equate with justice. As Samuel L. Jackson says in The Avengers, it’s a case of “ant, meet boot.”
© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Station to Station

Bullock surviving in Gravity.

«««« Gravity.  Written by Alfonso Cuarón & Jonás Cuarón. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón. At area theaters.

We've seen better days on the final frontier. The space shuttle is now a museum piece. We can find no national consensus on what NASA's next mission should be. At a time when access to space is essential for national defense, global climate monitoring, and not getting squashed by space rocks, NASA has been downgraded to a "non-essential" service. As of this writing, almost the entire agency is shut down, a pawn in the ongoing budget follies in Washington.
          But all is not lost. Into these dark times comes Alfonso Cuarón's magnificent Gravity, a vivid reminder that leaving the planet still has the potential to blow minds. Budgeted at a fraction of a real space mission—only $100 million—this movie may inspire the most kids to become astronauts since the glory days of the space race.
          Thanks to Star Wars and Star Trek, we tend to think space travel is old hat. Of course, we're wrong: with the sound effects and laser beams and spacecraft zipping around like WW2 fighter planes, neither of these (and Star Wars in particular) have anything to do with the reality of living and working in space. More than any movie since Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Gravity gets the experience right, in all its strange and haunting glory. Space really is, like, another world.
          The script (by Cuarón and his son Jonás) is a concerto for two instruments. Sandra Bullock is rookie astronaut Ryan Stone, on her first shuttle mission to service the Hubble Telescope. She and veteran flyer Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are on a spacewalk when things go terribly, fatally wrong. Nothing more need be said about what happens, except to say that Cuarón (Children of MenY Tu Mamá También) has spared no effort in getting the details right. From the seamless simulation of zero gravity to how astronauts "hear" sounds through the vibrations in their suits, it's hard to believe Gravity was not actually shot in orbit.
          Equally important, Cuarón goes into space only with the stuff he needs. This survival story has no extraneous exposition, no spoon-fed sentiment, no manufactured love interest beyond, perhaps, a few hints. We never see guys with pocket-protectors sweating it out back in Mission Control. Like in Children of Men—and unlike the jump-cutting norm--- Cuarón is stingy with montage, preferring to present the action in a series of masterful long takes. We might be tempted to call his approach "minimalist", except that the film never feels like the least Cuarón could do. Sometimes his camera soars, Kubrick-style; sometimes it flits into the character's helmets, literally looking through their eyes. The film is full of details that should reward second and third viewings, on the biggest screen you can find.
          Clooney is Clooney here, the modern incarnation of rough-hewn movie warhorses like Gary Cooper or Burt Lancaster. His appeal is definitely post-feminist, however, as his character is a supporting one only, dedicated to empowering his partner. The star is really Bullock, as she develops her post-ingenue legacy of quirky vulnerability wrapped around an iron core.
          Critics like this one have often complained that the potential of movie CGI is theoretically limitless, but depressing in practice. Though filmmakers can now visualize absolutely anything they want, they too often resort to the same old dragons, hobbits, and terminators. With GravityCuarón has at last given us something truly new. Let's hope that, unlike NASA, he's on the cusp of a beginning, not an end.
© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Go Speed Racer

Hemsworth and Brühl (right) rev their engines in Rush.

««1/2  Rush.  Written by Peter Morgan. Directed by Ron Howard. At area theaters.

Give the makers of Rush credit for one thing: they know that mere excellence isn't enough to make compelling sports drama. Periods of dominance by any one figure or team are boring. It's rivalries that really sell tickets, from baseball (e.g., Yankees vs. Red Sox), tennis (Federer vs. Nadal), or basketball (Lakers vs. Celtics). Chances are that nobody today dwells too much on who won the Formula One World racing championship way back in 1976. But in Rush, director Ron Howard and Co. bet that you'll will care if you know that the title was contested by two bitter rivals, British prodigy/playboy James Hunt vs. his Austrian frenemy, Niki Lauda. Like Achilles and Hector—or Maverick and Ice Man—it's the struggle for supremacy that makes the story, not the prize.
          Some sports have had their movie classics, but auto racing isn't one of them. Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan hope to defy that history by making a rarity among big-budget Hollywood opuses: an unabashedly character-driven drama. Chris Hemsworth (Thor) plays Hunt pretty much to his reputation: a sunny, likeable guy who was a daredevil on the track and a womanizing booze-hound away from it. That he had any time for racing was a miracle in itself, given that British Airways stewardesses were delivered en masse to his hotel rooms, and he reportedly slept with five thousand different women in his forty-five year lifetime (assuming he started at fifteen years old, that's a brand new lover every other day, sports fans). Of course, this is a Ron "Opie" Howard movie we're speaking of here, so Rush is happy to wink, wink at the sex and drinking, but overlook Hunt's heavy use of weed and blow—sometimes mere moments before he climbed behind the wheel.
          Daniel Brühl's Niki Lauda is actually far more interesting. The scion of a Vienna banking dynasty, the real Lauda defied his family to take up racing. He was notoriously prickly character, brilliant with cars but flummoxed by people. Where Hunt laughed in the face of danger, Lauda got out his slide rule, endeavoring to limit his risk to 20% "and not one percent more". His social skills were questionable, but never his grit: after a fiery crash in Germany that seared him outside and in, he was back in the cockpit a mere six weeks later, racing to hold off Hunt for the world championship. Though this is his first major role, Brühl got the hardest job—making us care about someone even his closest colleagues called an "asshole."
          Rush fails to reach top gear, but it isn't the fault of the leads. From Cocoon to Apollo 13 to The Da Vinci Code, words come to mind to describe the Ron Howard aesthetic, such as competent and workmanlike. This is particularly unfortunate given the gut-wrenching spectacle that auto racing could present, in the right hands. In his classic boxing drama Raging Bull, Martin Scorsese did not just settle for a compelling character, but re-imagined the sport visually, from the inside out. By contrast, Howard never shows us something new. He never even gives us a plain, uninterrupted view of what it's like to steer around a Formula One track for more than four seconds, resorting instead to cliché, MTV-style jump-cutting. Stylistically, there's nothing here that Tony Scott didn't do two decades ago in Days of Thunder.
          It's tempting to think that Ron Howard the director, who grew up before America's eyes acting in shows like The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days, simply can't think his way out of his middle-brow box. Perhaps that's unfair to his intelligence. In any case, Rush doesn't take the checkered flag.
© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, September 18, 2013


Rachel Mwanza and Serge Kanyinda serve to live in War Witch

«««1/2  War Witch.  Written and directed by Kim Nguyen. Available on Netflix.
With the prospect of dying in action, permanent disability, PTSD, depression, and coping with a huge, faceless bureaucracy, being a military veteran from a First World country is daunting enough. Now imagine you are Komona, a girl kidnapped from her village by a rebel army in war-torn Congo. After watching many of your neighbors machine-gunned or hacked to death, the invaders force you to shoot your own parents to spare them an even more painful death. They take you away to a remote base, where you are overworked and underfed. Your captors hook you on a kind of psychotropic tree sap to keep you under control, and program you to love your assault rifle as your new mother and father. You are kept as the private concubine of your commanding officer, who forces you to bear his child. Imagine further that you are only twelve years old.
          Grim as that all sounds, it's just the set-up for Kim Nguyen's searing War Witch (French title: Rebelle). The film was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 2012. While it was passed over for Asghar Farhadi's A Separation, what the Canadian-born Nguyen has done here deserves second place to nothing—and not only because its premise is about as dark as it gets. It's also remarkable for the humane moments that, ironically, give the grim ones even more power.
          It should go without saying this is not just fiction. Many Americans are familiar with the problem of child soldiers in Africa and Asia through the dubious "Kony 2012" tornado that rose and faded on social media last year. As in Nguyen's script, these conflicts are waged not just AK's and machetes, but with the kind of "black ops" that seem more appropriate to the 16th century, not the 21st. Here, Komona survives her ordeal partly because she has a supernatural ability to sniff out government ambushes before they're sprung. Her supreme commander (Mizinga Mwinga) hails her as his "war witch"—a rare honor, except that he's killed two of his previous witches for failing to deliver victories.
          As Komona, Rachel Mwanza realizes what any director of this kind of material dreams about: a performance that is as frank and natural as it is free of obvious craft. Having discovered Mwanza living on the streets of Kinshasa, Nguyen cast her as his lead despite the fact that she couldn't read or write. It was an inspired choice. Mwanza commands the screen both by her understated presence and by her spare narration, addressed to the yet-unborn child conceived through her rape. She's not good just in the harrowing parts, either: the film's middle section, where Komona finds a measure of happiness with a young albino boy (Serge Kanyinda), has its own gentle power, in large part due to Mwanza's scabby kind of innocence. To Nguyen's further credit, after the cameras stopped he made arrangements for his star's education until the age of eighteen.
          War Witch isn't pleasant viewing—but it just may be essential to any understanding of how deep "awful" can truly go. All war may be Hell, but even Hell has its levels.
© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro