Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Days of Future Past

Tom Cruise tends the ruins of planet Teegeeack in Oblivion.

««1/2 Oblivion. Written by Joseph Kosinski, Karl Gajdusek & Michael Arndt, based on the graphic novel by Joseph Kosinski & Arvid Nelson. Directed by Joseph Kosinski. 
This is Tom Cruise’s world; you just happen to live on it. That fundamental truth is nowhere more literal than in Joseph Kosinski’s apocalypse salad, Oblivion. For a celebrity of Cruise’s self-styled magnitude, what could be a more appropriate co-star than an entire planet, conveniently emptied of all other faces?
          As you may already know, the script (based on a graphic novel by director Joseph Kosinksi) is set in the late 21st century, after Earth has been devastated by an interplanetary war between humans and invading “Scavengers”. The remaining radioactive dust-heap is watched over by a fleet of autonomous drones, which in turn are serviced by “Tech 49”, otherwise known as Jack (Cruise). He’s supported by Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) a porcelain-smooth redhead who serves as Jack’s mission controller and, as need arises, his bedmate.
          Jack and Victoria’s posting is lonely, but almost over; in two weeks, they head to humanity’s new home on Titan, the moon of Saturn. She’s stoked to leave. He’s got doubts, however—he has troubling “memories” of life on pre-war Earth, which he supposedly wasn’t alive to see. And then there are the ruins of that era, the wrecked bridges and skyscrapers and stadiums of a lost, golden age. Jack’s got a bad case of what the Germans called ruinenempfindsamkeit—that semi-romantic, semi-perverse attraction to ruined places that often afflicts people who don’t actually have to live in disaster zones.
          Now we don’t necessarily expect technical rigor in Hollywood confections like Oblivion. It doesn’t take Neil deGrasse Tyson, however, to observe that even this radioactive husk of an Earth---which still can boast liquid water and breathable air—is more habitable than cold, poisonous, distant Titan. Kosinski would have us believe that Jack and Victoria oversee a network of huge fusion reactors for turning Earth’s oceans into energy. But of course, water is everywhere in the solar system (e.g. comets, asteroids, moons like Europa and Callisto), so bothering with the conquest of Earth just for the water doesn’t make much sense.
          The film itself isn’t taking its flimsy premise very seriously. Jack soon discovers that the planet isn’t as empty as he assumed: God, appearing in his usual guise of Morgan Freeman, is also there, leading the resistance to the final exodus. The script by Kosinski, Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt ransacks various not-so-old sources, like Independence Day and I Am Legend. But the surface visuals, not the logic, are the appeal here: the drones, for instance, look more like sleek, high-end Swedish washers than plausible killing machines. Riseborough’s character, who has the ultimate stay-at-home job as Jack’s air-traffic controller, still bothers to dress up in tight dress and heels when sweatpants and a pony-tail would do.
          This writer will admit he also has a serious case of ruinenempfindsamkeit. Nice as New York and Washington DC look now, they won’t be truly poignant until their grandeur is moldering and toppled. Special effects technology has come a long way since we saw the Statue of Liberty at the end of Planet of the Apes, or that vine-choked Lincoln Memorial in Logan’s Run. Oblivion works best as a kind of calendar spread of imaginary devastation, the modern descendant of the fake ruins that graced the estates of nobility in the 18th and 19th centuries.
          There are doctoral theses to be written about the connection of the current zeitgeist, dogged by climate change and doomsday pandemics, and movies like this, which speak of the future in the past tense, and memories as the only measures of our humanity. With more poetic treatment and a less self-satisfied star, Oblivion could have been more than just watchable. The script for Blade Runner, after all, also made no sense. But real heart goes a long way.
© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Truth and Consequences

Ryan Gosling breaks bad in The Place Beyond the Pines.

«««The Place Beyond the Pines. Written by Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio & Darius Marder. Directed by Derek Cianfrance. 
There’s been a lot of talk lately about the impact of gun violence in our society. Unfortunately, much of that talk has been fatuous, dishonest or both. But whatever side of the issue we line up, it’s hard to deny that the debate has been focused primarily on the short term, on what happens “in the moment” and just after. As the current epidemic of suicides among our military veterans shows, much of the psychological impact—and the body count—can strike well after the physical violence ends.
          Flawed though it is, Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines at least deserves credit for adopting a wider, multi-generational perspective. Based on a script by Cianfrance (Blue Valentine), it starts as the story of Luke (Ryan Gosling), a little-speaking loner who does motorcycle stunts for a travelling circus. His act—and the metaphor for his rootless life—involves him speeding in tight little circles inside a steel ball. He yearns for more when he discovers that a woman from his past (Eva Mendes) has given birth to his son. Quitting the circus, he tries to support his new family, but finds his prospects limited in “the place beyond the pines” (as the Mohawk once called the site of Schenectady, NY). Before long he’s using his riding skills to rob banks.
          At the risk of giving away too much, the story abruptly shifts focus to Avery (Bradley Cooper), a rookie cop who earns hero status after being wounded in a shootout with Luke. Being the toast of the department has its own dangers, though, as the hero is tempted to go crooked by a corrupt detective (Ray Liotta). How he handles that challenge has, in turn, devastating effects on his son (Emory Cohen), who comes around to having a strongly coincidental but consequential relationship with Luke’s grown-up son, Jason (Dane DeHaan).
          On the surface, Pines sounds like just one damn thing after another. When it comes to actors with Gosling’s kind of magnetism, it seems foolish to drop him from the story---or perhaps just brave, as Hitchcock once demonstrated by discarding his star Vivian Leigh just an hour into Psycho. There are strong performances here, but no message, no self-conscious moral about the wages of the characters’ bad choices. As in life, there are merely consequences that unfold whether we choose to learn the lessons or not.
          In this, Pines represents the antidote to the romance of the gun epitomized recently by Tarantino’s Django Unchained. In the latter, learning to shoot was tantamount to liberation, and everything in the story seemed to lead to the paroxysm of gunplay where ultimate justice would be served. But in Cianfrance’s world, there is no ultimate justice, the gunplay comes off confused and too soon, and the characters are imprisoned, not liberated, by its consequences.
          No movie ever solved a political argument. But it’s safe to say that until we collectively find Cianfrance’s theme as compelling as Tarantino’s, nothing will change about the problem of guns in America.

© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro       

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Five's Company, Six a Crowd

The girlfriend experience in Evil Dead

«« Evil Dead. Written by Fede Alvarez & Diablo Cody. Directed by Fede Alvarez. 
If the effect of Sam Raimi’s 1981 The Evil Dead had to be described in one word, it wouldn’t be “scream”—it will be “hoot”. Like many low-budget cult favorites, it’s memorable not for its technical polish, premise or writing. Instead, it’s more about the goofy energy, the unapologetic, balls-out determination to be the one guy at the party with the lampshade on his head. So when the prospect of a slick, updated remake of a campy, deliberately unpolished cult masterpiece comes up, we have to wonder, “why”?
          Silly question, when the perfume of a lucrative franchise is in the air. Thus we have Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead, a modernized, bigger-budget return to the old haunted bungalow in the woods (the definite article in the original title, alas, seems to have been severed from the rest of the body). As before, five twenty-somethings go up for a weekend at a dilapidated cabin, unaware that the resident demon has other plans for them. To the age-old question, “Why don’t they just get out of there?”, screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno, Young Adult) has a convenient answer: one of the women, Mia (Jane Levy) is an addict, and their weekend is an intervention. No matter what happens, declares brother David (Shiloh Fernandez), they’re not going to let his little sis leave the premises—cat carcasses and spell manuals sheathed in human skin notwithstanding.
          Cody contributes some plausible dialog, and Uruguayian-born Alvarez shoots his mayhem better than a first-timer might be expected. There aren’t many jolts, but there are enough dismemberments and projectile-vomitings to keep the proceedings lively. Trouble is, along with the low-rent special effects of the original (which included, I believe, a corpse gushing actual oatmeal), the update exorcises most of the fun. All the 2013 actors are better, but none have the appeal of the young Bruce Campbell, whose square-jawed mug shouts “camp” as loudly as Leslie Nielsen’s. Where the original has become dated that charming way that big hair and Mom jeans now have, the remake is unimaginatively current. Alvarez and Cody would have done better to keep the story set in the early ‘80’s, where at least they could have derived some period humor.
          Having become bored by the appearance of the third or fourth blood-licking ghoul, it occurred to me that in both this and the original Evil Dead the three females are the first to turn bad. Seems that Diablo Cody missed another opportunity here, as this story can easily be read as a fantasy of male dread of certain womanly bodily functions. “Don’t trust anything that bleeds for three days and doesn’t die,” goes the old saying, which might as well apply to demonic possessions of permanent and monthly types. When it comes to some remakes, even regurgitated oatmeal can look good by comparison.
© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Shadow of a Context

India (Mia Wasikowska) confronts her past in Stoker.

«« Stoker. Written by Wentworth Miller & Erin Cressida Wilson. Directed by Chan-Wook Park. 
Where you come from doesn’t necessarily define who you are, but it helps. Case in point: Chan-Wook Park’s Stoker, a psycho-sexual thriller that follows in the footsteps of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943). I haven’t seen any of Korean-born Park’s other films, but I’m told they are erotic and stylized, with scissors usually featured as instruments of murder. Sure enough, the shears are unsheathed in Stoker, as are Park’s penchants for fancy, computer-assisted transitions. What’s wrong with this film has less to do with what it has than what it lacks.
          Like Shadow of a Doubt, Stoker is about a young woman (Mia Wasikowska) who is discomfited by the arrival of a long-lost relative. Here, uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) comes to live with India and her mother (Nicole Kidman) after the accidental death of her father (Dermot Mulroney). Charlie comes on as worldly and dripping with erotic menace, like a sexualized version of her missing father. He’s also strangely solicitous of the approval of his niece. India soon discovers that Uncle Charlie isn’t what he seems, though what she does with that knowledge is more bizarre and perverse than Hitchcock could have gotten away with in ‘43.
          One can’t fault Park for his classic inspiration. (According to IMDB, he decided to make films after seeing Vertigo.) Nor is his cast---with Wasikowska and Kidman filling in after Carey Mulligan and Jodie Foster left the project—anything like second-string. He dresses up Wasikowska a bit too much like Wednesday from The Addams Family, or perhaps more to the point, like a Korean schoolgirl. And sure, Goode’s teasing grin is creepy in the wrong way, like a man who is positive he can talk a mother and daughter into a kinky threesome. There’s a tone of indefinite dread that gets monotonous, but at least it’s consistent.
          The problem with Stoker is a general emptiness at its core. Park, who was born and educated in South Korea, has no particular feel for the affluent Connecticut places and people he depicts here. In apparent compensation, he presents it as precious and over-designed, a version of American life much like a Restoration Hardware catalog. I was tempted to watch the credits for the order numbers.
          How could it have been otherwise? Foreign directors are often brought on to Hollywood projects because they’re expected to bring some visionary quality with them. But aside from how to dance Gangnam style, nobody would expect some guy who spent most of his life in Bridgeport or Willimantic to have any insight into the psychosexual mores of Pyeongchang-dong district in Jongno-gu, South Korea. We might expect such a feat only if we see this American life as “default” culture, as something universally accessible. Trouble is, US culture—including US sexual culture—is every bit as idiosyncratic as anyplace else’s. And some things don’t translate easily. 
© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro