Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Cycles of Enlightenment

Mild ones on the roof of the world in The Highest Pass.

* * The Highest Pass. Written by Adam Schomer. Directed by Jon Fitzgerald. Available on Netflix.

Anyone interested in India and who enjoys Top Gear-esque road adventures should be up for Jon Fitzgerald’s The Highest Pass.
           The eponymous pass is a road in northern India that boasts the highest stretch of “motorable” pavement in the world. This is above 18,000 feet, accessed first through dizzying Indian traffic, then breathtaking landscapes that seem to threaten avalanche with every switchback. Fitzgerald documents a trip upcountry by a handful of Americans, led by Anand Mehrotra, a 27 year-old Indian guru and avid biker. Awkwardly, most of Anand’s followers hunger not just for spiritual development, but for basic experience on motorcycles. The spectacle this film presents—of two-wheel novices risking their necks in a country where road rules seem optional—raises issues far more basic than spiritual enlightenment. As in, does anybody get killed?
          Largely told through the eyes of Schomer, this adventure is a purely elective affair. No one is delivering life-saving medicine to remote villages here. Instead, the entourage of LA-based model/actors, stunt men and graphic designers seek to find their “higher selves”, to step outside the trap of their constrained, materially comfortable lives. Anand himself suggested the trip, apparently in direct defiance of an astrological “prophecy” that he would die in an accident at the age of 27. Leading his pack of mild ones to elevations usually visited only by airliners, the smooth-talking guru dispenses the equivalent of spiritual comfort food to his followers as they bounce off truck fenders and gasp for oxygen. More than once, Fitzgerald and Schomer hint that Anand is nuts.
          On an obvious level, The Highest Pass seems like a over-produced vacation video. It takes some cynicism—but not much—to make fun of these guys, waxing karmic in their Maui Jim shades. Listening to them go on about “powering through adversity” as virtually the entire population of rural India “powers through” adversity they’ll never imagine is hard to take. But let’s be gracious: stunt men and model/actors are entitled to their shares of enlightenment too. While Schomer and his crew might seem like spiritual tourists, there are far, far worse kinds of tourists to be in this world. It may be painful to hear them talk, but the stunning Himalayan vistas captured by Dean Mitchell would be worth it, even with the sound turned off.
          The Highest Pass strays into questionable territory when the expedition reaches a pass blocked by a June snowstorm. Normally this would entail a two day delay. But Anand, who seems strangely impatient for a guru, insists on traversing the pass immediately, pressuring the Indian road crew to plow farther, faster. The bikers take on a degree of risk in this, which is their prerogative. But nobody seems to have asked whether it’s fair to the road workers, let alone anybody else following them down a prematurely-opened road, to expose them to increased risk of avalanche. Never mind karmic liberation—what about moral hazard?
© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Doctors Within Borders

Hoss and Zehrfield weigh their options in Barbara.

* * * 1/2  Barbara. Written by Christian Petzold and Harun Farocki. Directed by Christian Petzold. 

There’s developing a small but potent sub-genre of post-1989 European films about life behind the Iron Curtain. This column only selectively covers foreign cinema, but has already lauded two examples in The Lives of Others (2006) and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2008). Now we have Christian Petzold’s impressive Barbara, which was Germany’s submission for the 2013 Foreign language feature Oscar. The Academy did not include it on the list of final nominees, but that doesn’t mean you should snub it too. It’s better than 95% of the Hollywood scheiße up for any award that evening.
            It’s in the dark days of 1980 when Dr. Barbara Wolff (Nina Hoss) arrives at her new post in a provincial hospital in the north of the DDR (communist East Germany). She’s being punished, actually: for the crime of applying for a visa to leave for the West, she was imprisoned and then banished to the hinterlands, where she is regularly harassed by the Stasi (the east German secret police).
            Her suffering has left her bitter and all too eager to show her professional superiority to her smallville colleagues. Nor has she necessarily given up on her plans to escape, by any means necessary. As sketched in the smart and true script by Petzold and Harun Farocki, Barbara can only cope with her misery by minimizing her human contacts. But she doesn’t count on the instincts aroused by a young female patient in even more trouble (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), nor on meeting Andre (Ronald Zehrfield), a brilliant, compassionate physician who, once upon a time, was also run out of Berlin for his sins. The theme is familiar one for doctors in extremis: having to decide whether to live, or to save the lives of others.
            At a time when seriousness is only forgivable when it’s cut with quirkiness, Barbara is refreshingly retro. Told in a kind of patient sotto voce, it contains no gratuitous thespian fireworks, no “life is beautiful” funny-‘cause-its-true bullshit. The only responsibility Petzold seems have felt is to be true to his characters and their predicament. His leading lady, Nina Hoss, gives only what the character would, and when she gives more makes you feel the strain. Overall, this film has some of the authenticity and heft of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (The Marriage of Maria Braun, Berlin Alexanderplatz), except that Petzold is better at the craft of filmmaking at this stage of his career, and gives the impression (unlike Fassbinder) that he actually likes his characters.
            Indeed, the worst thing about Barbara is that it dismisses itself too quickly. It ends the end of a dramatic choice, but never resolves the question of how Barbara learns to live with her de facto imprisonment. After all, there are nine long years to go before the Wall comes down. It might have been nice to see her reaction to that sudden freedom, when a stroll across a certain field stopped having existential stakes, but just a stroll again.
© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Dial M for Meds

Rooney Mara on the couch in Side Effects.

* * * Side Effects. Written by Scott Z. Burns. Directed by Stephen Soderbergh. 

There’s a good chance you’re already on drugs. More than 10% of all Americans—around 35 million people—were on anti-depressants in 2011. The figure for women between the ages of 40-59 was 20%. And that’s not even counting other sorts of medications, such as ones for cholesterol (still the #1 most prescribed class), painkillers (#3), heart meds (#4), “anti-ulcerants” (#8), tranquillizers (#11), and sedatives (#20). In large part, the medicated nation envisioned by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World is already here, except that Huxley was a little naïve to assume there would be only one drug on offer.
            All those drugs and their picturesque side-effects naturally lead to a degree of anxiety. Our word “pharmacology”, after all, is rooted in a Greek word that meant both “remedy” and “poison.” Steven (Ocean’s Eleven, Sex, Lies and Videotape) Soderbergh’s new Side Effects trades deftly in this unease. Or more precisely, it starts to, until it veers off into a standard thriller territory.
            We meet Emily (Rooney Mara) as her husband (Channing Tatum) is about to get out of prison for insider trading. As often happens in these situations, she falls apart emotionally just as her ordeal seems to be ending. Desperately depressed, she turns to Dr. Banks (Jude Law) for help, who puts her on a series of meds to lift her mood. They ultimately hit on a new, not entirely tested drug that seems to help—except for the sleepwalking, sleep-cooking, and—to Dr. Banks’ shock—sleep-murder. The cops find her husband stabbed to death as Emily huddles in bed, unable to remember how he got there.
             The script by Scott Z. Burns (Contagion) sets up this promising premise, and primes it with some delicious complications. The doctor’s judgment, you see, may have been influenced by the fact that he’s being paid $50,000 to “evaluate” the drug, which means prescribing it to patients who might not entirely understand the risks. Banks, meanwhile, starts to have his suspicions about Emily’s story—whether there's more to her depression than it appears. Is he on to something or just rationalizing away his own responsibility?
            One of the possible side-effects of all this chemistry, Burns wants to suggest, is the shifting of responsibility, and therefore of guilt. In this sense Side Effects promises to be a pharmacological update on the classic Hitchcockian thriller, such as The Wrong Man, preoccupied with the question of culpability. But that’s only until the film shifts from being The Wrong Man and becomes Dial M for Murder—that is, to a more or less standard battle of wits between Banks, Emily, and Emily’s former shrink (Catherine Zeta-Jones).
            Not that the battle isn’t entertaining. Without giving away too much, Rooney Mara (who played the title role in the US version of Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) commands the screen even as she plays it listless and dejected; Jude Law manages to swing from “doing no harm” to toxic avenger without seeming wholly unsympathetic. Neither of these are easy tricks. Soderbergh, one of our most consistently versatile directors, is always in control.
            Yet there’s no escaping the feeling that there was a potentially terrific movie here that contents itself to be merely “good”. As depression goes from stigma to illness to existential condition, there are questions that deserve posing, much less answering. And if intelligent guys like Soderbergh won’t try, who will?
© 2013  Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Deadness

* * * Warm Bodies. Written and directed by Jonathan Levine, based on a novel by Isaac Marion. 

Corpse (Nicholas Hoult) meets girl (Teresa Palmer) in Warm Bodies.
Before the craze for the undead at the multiplex, you were most likely to hear about zombies in the context of philosophical thought-experiments on the nature of consciousness. That is, how do you know that other people have minds like you, if all you really know is their outward behavior? If a zombie goes through all the motions of being a person with a full inner life, but really has no mind at all, could you tell the difference? More disturbingly, what if your brain were set up to make you believe you are conscious, when you’re really just a zombie yourself?
            Not that Jonathan Levine (50/50, The Wackness) necessarily had any of that in mind when he made his zombie romance, Warm Bodies. Outwardly, this is just a twist on what has become a too-familiar genre. After the usual zombie apocalypse, we meet a dead-ender with a difference: known only as “R”—from a fragment of his forgotten name—the hero (Nicholas Hoult) is an ambulatory corpse with a full set of existential hang-ups. Bemoaning the monotony of being dead, R shambles around a wrecked airport, wondering if there’s anything more to post-mortem life. Mere teenage self-consciousness isn’t enough for this zombie to suspect he is, in fact, alive. He hungers for brains, yet he hungers for something more.
            “More” finally comes in the person of Julie (Teresa Palmer), a living, breathing female vaguely resembling Kristin Stewart, but with the spunk to wake the dead. Smitten at first sight, R doesn’t devour her but saves her life. She, in turn, becomes intrigued by her unusual savior, who lacks a pulse but seems more humane than her “shoot ‘em on sight” vigilante father (John Malkovich). Love, you see, has the effect of reversing the zombie plague—an effect that starts with R and spreads through other corpses that are still on the fresher side. “Don’t be creepy…” the zombie tells himself as he tries not to stare at her.
            True, in the abstract this sounds like B.S., and even worse, high-concept B.S.. But Levine’s script, based on Isaac Marion’s novel, is witty enough to distract from the wackness of its “love conquers death” theme. Instead of Night of the Living Dead, the classic he seems to have in mind is Shakespeare’s tale of star-cross’d lovers, compelled by their passion to defy their warring clans.  (If Julie = Juliet, then R obviously doesn’t stand for “Randy”). Levine even gives the couple a balcony scene.
            In short, the film is mildly hokey but also mildly clever. Indeed, the latent humanity of Levine’s walking dead raises bigger questions than a mere rom-com has any business asking. Instead of the usual raging virus, it’s the lack of real interaction that makes zombies of us all; in a flashback, Levine shows us the world shortly before its collapse, as the living ignore each other  in favor of smart-phones and tablets. The zombie next to you may not want your brains as much as he wants to squeeze in his next move on Words With Friends.
            Today’s zombie is just the horror equivalent of all the robots and replicants and cyborgs of science fiction, challenging us to define what it really means to be human. In most instances, the deep issues are never explored, because the humans always respond first by blowing zombies’ brains out. Sometimes the shooters even seem to enjoy it—a pleasure that, in a more reflective treatment, might prompt the question of who is really dead inside.
            For exhuming these and other  hidden themes, Warm Bodies isn’t wacked.
© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro