Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Life of Thor

A dicey moment on the raft in Kon-Tiki.

««« Kon-Tiki.  Written by Petter Skavlan & Allan Scott. Directed by Joachim Rønning & Espen Sandberg. At select theaters.
There was a time, not so long ago, when Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl was as familiar a name from the world of science as Carl Sagan or Jane Goodall. Generations of adolescents grew up reading Kon-Tiki, his bestselling 1950 account of his quest to prove the Pacific was first colonized by ancient Native Americans. Heyerdahl, though not conventionally trained, was one of the more popular figures from the heroic era of field anthropology, a gambler who put his own skin on the line for his theories.
          Alas, Heyerdahl’s mode of thinking—diffusionism on steroids, envisioning ancient Peruvians in Polynesia, ancient Egyptians in the Americas, etc.—hasn’t aged well. In this era of genetic analysis, spoilsports in lab coats easily debunk such theories without leaving their benches. His model of traditional cultures using the oceans as long-distance highways has also run afoul of the cultural particularism typical of modern academic anthropology, which tends to emphasize the uniqueness of cultures over their common heritage. This writer spend two years in Cornell’s Department of Anthropology without hearing Heyerdahl’s name uttered once.
          No surprise, then, that if Heyerdahl is to be rehabilitated, it’s not as a scholar, but as an adventurer of cinematic proportions. In Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg’s retelling of the Kon-Tiki voyage, the young Thor (Pål Sverre Hagen) might as well be Columbus discovering a new continent. When we first see him as an adult, he looks like a fresh, svelte Peter O’Toole towering over the swarthy natives, the Thin White Duke of participant-observers. Superficially, he might be mistaken for a great white European, come to teach the natives their real history. But in fact Heyerdahl was in Polynesia not to educate its people, but to learn from them. His theory of the peopling of the Pacific from the east, from out of the rising sun, took the natives’ oral accounts of their own origins more seriously than linguists and geneticists do today.
          Unable to sell his theory to New York publishers, Heyerdahl decides to prove a voyage from Peru to Polynesia is possible by constructing a traditional log raft and sailing all 4300 miles himself. With just a puny sail, and a crew of mostly green sailors (Anders Baasmo Christiansen as the panicky American, Tobias Santelmann, Gustaf Skarsgård and other rugged Nordics), his Kon-Tiki is literally at the mercy of wind and current. The script by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg pumps up the suspense with its storms and frequent visits from sharks, but not by much. Indeed, compared to the fictional exploits in Life of Pi, this is pretty tame stuff.
          Kon-Tiki is beautifully shot. What truly makes it worthwhile, though, is Hagen’s subtle performance as Heyerdahl. Though the filmmakers could have easily gone in a Herzogian direction, making him into monomaniac in a death spiral, Hagen strikes an interesting balance between beatific poise and ruthlessness. When Christiansen, playing the American engineer, begs to reinforce the balsa logs with steel wire, Hagen tosses the wire into the sea. And oddly, we neither pity him nor hate him for it. When he admits that he embarked on his epic voyage at sea without knowing how to swim, we see not stupidity, but a quiet, brave fatalism. He’s not crazy, but he’s definitely “all in”. Herzog may have cornered the market on explorers who never come home, but I’d rather go to sea with a guy like Heyerdahl.
© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro

Monday, May 20, 2013

Into Daftness

Zachary Quinto and Chris Pine get Trek-ish in Into Darkness.

««« Star Trek Into Darkness. Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof . Directed by J.J. Abrams. At area theaters.
It’s been four long years since J.J. Abrams re-launched the Star Trek movie franchise. This is a gap lengthier than the original TV series lasted on the air. Whatever the reason for the lapse, it had the effect of raising expectations for the follow-up. Trek, after all, was never meant to be just another popcorn actioner. The intelligence of the show’s themes, and how the characters embodied it, has done more than entertain several generations—it’s inspired them. Successful as #1 was in recasting the characters and updating the series’ look, would #2 finally manage to capture the qualities that made it worth reviving?
          In more than a word: no—and yes. Much like the first Abrams Trek, Into Darkness is entertainment at warp speed, a thrill ride with virtually no slack moments. Again, the script by Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof pits the inexperienced Enterprise crew against a powerful madman who presents an existential threat against America…I mean, the Federation. Since it’s impossible to summarize the story without spoiling it, suffice it to say that the villain “John Harrison” (Benedict Cumberbatch) starts out as something like an Oxbridge terrorist, but becomes a threat that is already very familiar to Trek fans. Indeed, the final twenty minutes or so of Into Darkness is outright homage to one of the seminal moments in the show’s history. It hard to see this as anything other than a big juicy bone for the fans, who are likely to watch it in states of transported bliss.
          On The Daily Show last week, Abrams (Lost, Super 8) admitted that he never really liked Star Trek until he was hired to remake it. Though this worried many fans, there’s an argument for entrusting the franchise to someone who won’t approach it in a haze of reverence, but force it to evolve. Whatever Abrams’ strengths and weaknesses as a filmmaker, he’s shrewd, and he knows his audience—or in Trek’s case, his two audiences. Into Darkness is more or less engineered to appeal first to the non-fans who will make it a hit, and second to the fans who will make it legit. By these limited standards, mission accomplished. If you’re not a fan of the show, add a half-star to this review and read no further. 
            But all is not fine in the Federation. The problems start with a script that, like a mirage, becomes less solid the more you focus on it. Too often Abrams & Co. opt for the "kinda cool" choice over the sensical one. Have the Enterprise hide out underwater from a planet’s Stone Age natives? That's kinda cool—until you recall that the ship can hide just as well in orbit, as it has for about 50 years of Trek history. Have Harrison escape from Earth by transporting straight to the Klingon home planet? Sounds kinda cool. But why invest in all those costly starships when you can just beam people around the galaxy? Indeed, why send the Enterprise to capture Harrison at all, when you can just beam a posse after him?
          Give Spock (Zachary Quinto) an ongoing love interest with Uhura (Zoe Saldana)? Sounds kinda cool—unless you remember that Spock's sex appeal has always been tied in with his torment, his loneliness among his human crewmates. Having him canoodle on the bridge with his girlfriend is cute, but it leaves him nowhere to go when he finally does break out of his emotional cage (as in the original episodes “The Naked Time,”, "Amok Time" and "This Side of Paradise"). Muddling Spock's character is doubly suspect because it apparently has much to do with giving Saldana's Uhura character more to do than declare "Hailing frequencies open". Since when in the Star Trek universe does Uhura’s love life get more emphasis than the rivalry between Spock and McCoy (played again by a sadly underused Karl Urban)?
          These bits of daftness are in just the first half of the film. The bigger problem is that we really didn’t wait four years for a homage that is merely Trek-ish. The 2009 film was likewise heavy on combat, but light on the humanistic themes that motivated Gene Roddenberry to create the original show. Chris Pine’s James T. Kirk was less a serious soldier-explorer than a jumped-up frat boy way out of his depth in a captain’s chair. We were willing to overlook these flaws, though, because Abrams had a lot on his plate then, making us accept a wholly new cast.
          This installment hardly begins to redeem that promise. Pine brings a whiff of gravitas to Kirk this time, but only a whiff, and never enough to get him ejected from the fraternity. There’s a hint of a serious theme in the way Starfleet responds to terrorism, choosing to take out Harrison by long distance bombardment, Al-Awlaki-style. But the thread is undeveloped, and ends up seeming more symptomatic of our times than reflecting on them.
          In this, Into Darkness is much like the crowd-pleasing but shallow James Franco reboot of the Planet of the Apes franchise—the effects are better, but the brains are left behind. And that’s no way to boldly go. 
© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Jay-Z Gatsby

Mulligan as Daisy in Buz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby

««1/2 The Great Gatsby. Written by Baz Luhrman & Craig Pearce, based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Directed by Baz Luhrman. At area theaters.
One challenge of making a movie of The Great Gatsby is that F. Scott Fitzgerald was a better filmmaker on the page than 99% of those who make films for a living. Consider a passage like this: “At the gray tea hour there were always rooms that throbbed incessantly with this low, sweet fever, while fresh faces drifted here and there like rose petals blown by the sad horns around the floor.” Here the novelist is not only evoking an immediate image, but also a soundtrack, a feeling, an existential impression of the age. In short, he’s doing everything a film might ideally do. A film of Gatsby is never an “adaptation”—it’s always a remake.
          Baz Luhrmann (Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet) has produced some memorable films over the years, but they weren’t memorable necessarily because they were good. The one he’s most known for, Moulin Rouge! (2001) was vivid and fresh and energetic, but also derivative, sophomoric, and hyperactive. Luhrmann makes films the same way an insistent drunk at a party keeps talking to you when you’re trying to pull away from him—he doesn’t take the hint, but just keeps talking faster, louder. This doesn’t sound like the best approach to material with the limpid, fragile beauty of Fitzgerald’s prose.
          Alas, Luhrmann runs true to form early on, making way too much of the Jay-Z-scored party scenes at Gatsby’s mansion. It’s the kind of Bacchanalian excess that is supposed to give us a feel for the times, but always feels the same whether set in the 1920’s, the 1780’s, or the first century AD. After all, there’s always the booze and the women, and don’t the period costumes come off anyway? In the novel, Fitzgerald disposed of those scenes with a few paragraphs of cutting description. They were never supposed to be that important.
          Perhaps the most welcome surprise of Luhrmann’s Gatsby is that, after the parties and the breakneck start, he defeats his own impulses and gives the material some space to breathe. Watching it, we get the impression that he believes the events depicted—the talky bits, even—have their own degree of interest, without need of punching up with intrusive cutting or musical cues. Luhrmann has given us something quite restrained, by his standards.
          Nor can the casting be faulted. As Gatsby, the 39 year-old Leonardo DiCaprio can pass for a man in his early thirties, and thanks to his work in Titanic and The Aviator, has the right odor to play the lover and the arriviste millionaire. Carey Mulligan certainly possesses the look and the chops to play the ethereal, tormented Daisy. Relative newcomer Elizabeth Debicki is statuesque and ravishing as Jordan Baker, professional golfer and (in the book) abortive love interest of Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire). And Maguire is himself, no more or no less.
          So why is this film so uninvolving? For starters, Luhrmann and screenwriter Craig Pierce unaccountably jettison the dalliance between Nick and Jordan. This not only drains their estrangement of consequence, but makes Carraway little more than an interested observer. While there’s much to mourn in the loss of innocence of a real, rounded character, the disappointment of a mere narrator doesn’t seem like much to care about.
          But the problem runs deeper. Why is it that in 2013, in the aftermath of a financial meltdown caused by the cupidity of Wall Street, Luhrmann can’t take lines like “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy-- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money of their vast carelessness…” and make them throb with more passion, more relevance? Like the careless rich Fitzgerald excoriates, Luhrmann had all the resources he needed to do anything he wanted-- $127 million, to be precise—yet couldn’t locate the one thing he needed that comes free: the outrage. For although Gatsby is remembered as the quintessential “Jazz Age” novel, it really is a deeply indignant book, a cri de coeur for an extraordinary man crushed by the dull, immoveable stupidity of those more fortunate than himself. No doubt Fitzgerald, hailing from a middle class Midwestern background, empathized deeply with Gatsby, and saw him as more than just a nice fellow who got a raw deal.
          They say that if you wonder if you’re in a class war, you’ve already lost it. With rich admirers like Luhrmann, this Gatsby never had a chance. 
© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Drone Wars

More heavy metal from Iron Man 3.

««1/2  Iron Man 3. Written by Drew Pearce & Shane Black. Directed by Shane Black. At area theaters.
“Drones better,” declares Ivan Vanko, the villainous Russian scientist played by Mickey Rourke in Iron Man 2.  Judging from the news lately, the Pentagon certainly seems to agree with Mickey Rourke—when fighting terrorists, “drones better” indeed. But who would ever expect that Tony Stark, the original Superhero in the Iron Mask, would ever come to share his adversary’s point of view?
          Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 finds Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) in a bad way. Still suffering the after-effects of his battle with inter-dimensional aliens in The Avengers, he can’t sleep, and he can’t find an all-night pharmacy in Malibu to fill a prescription for Xanax. A measure of healthy distraction arrives in the guise of The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a long-winded terrorist mastermind who looks like Osama Bin Laden run amok in a Chinese souvenir shop. But even after the Mandarin perpetrates a string of horrific bombings, PTSD Tony has a hard time getting motivated. “The Mandarin is a problem, but he’s not a superhero problem,” he declares. Things only start to get interesting for him with the appearance of Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a former Stark groupie who has morphed into a resentful rival. Killian, it seems, has found a way to “reprogram” human DNA to produce a private army of smoking-hot super-soldiers.
          Bullshit, you say? It’s bullshit on stilts, but next to inter-dimensional aliens it’s all pretty tame stuff. Shane Black, who made his name writing action scripts like Lethal Weapon, keeps things humming along fast enough for us not to notice we’re stimulated, yet vaguely bored, like one of those lab rats frantically pressing a button to enervate its own pleasure center.
          As usual in this franchise, it’s Downey Jr. who is the real draw here, raising shit-eating cockiness to new levels of appeal. His act was already getting old in episode 2, but Black and screenwriter Drew Pearce inject notes of vulnerability that take the series in a slightly different direction. Tony Stark’s technology has gotten so good, it appears, that the only weak link left is Tony Stark. Thus we are treated to the paradoxical sight of superhero battling his enemies from a safe distance, using a remote-control version of the Iron Man suit. Guys who personally defeat alien armies deserve to be cocky, but are drone pilots also entitled to victory struts?
          A slightly more cynical soul than I would note that Downey Jr.’s contract for more Iron Man movies is under negotiation. Considering that the actor knows that he represents 90% of what its good about the franchise, odds are that he will drive a hard bargain—so hard that the studio may see fit to recast Tony Stark or drop the role entirely. Not by accident, it seems, does number 3 begin to portray the Suit as its own autonomous character, backed up by a motley (and highly collectible) gang of Iron Teammates. But if Robert Downey Jr. is expendable, what hope is there for the rest of us?
© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Downstream Color

Lofland, McConaughey and Sheridan are on the waterfront in Mud.

««« Mud. Written and directed by Jeff Nichols. At area theaters.

We’re on the eve of superhero season, but it’s still sometimes true that ordinary folks are the subjects of movies. Director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Shotgun Stories) delivers a timely reminder of this fact with his poignant, understated Mud—a film whose very title proclaims its ordinariness.
          Don’t be fooled: Nichols is a rising star, and Mud is not ordinary at all. This is the story of two 14 year-old boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) who live and play around the river country of southern Arkansas. During their ramblings they encounter a stranger hiding out on an island with little more than a pistol and the shirt on his back. Mud (Matthew McConaughey) is on the run after shooting a man who offended the honor of his girl, the lovely and remote Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Fired up with romantic (and hormone-fueled) illusions of their own, the boys make a deal to help Mud escape into the sunset with his lady love. Trouble is, the kin of the man he killed have gotten word that Mud is hiding somewhere close, and they’ve hired some independent contractors to exact Old Testament justice.
          When it comes to telling stories, hacks dwell on plot, the merely talented on character, but masters think about setting. Nichols is definitely shooting for the master class: Mud is full of slow, quiet moments that flow as deep and powerful as the stream it’s set upon. While some reviewers have compared the story to Huck Finn, the comparison shouldn’t be taken too far. Nichol, unlike Twain, isn’t interested in the lighter side of his weighty themes. Instead of farts of satire, Mud delivers a long, slow soak in bayou atmosphere.
          Not that he neglects his characters. Young actors Sheridan and Lofland are terrific here, striking the perfect balance between precocious worldiness and boyhood dreams. McConaughey, who can sometimes come off on the smug side of the river, delivers a remarkably warm, appealing performance. Indeed, the only disappointment is the short shrift given to Witherspoon’s character, who remains a cipher as she lounges at the local motel, alternately waiting and not waiting for Mud to rescue her from the consequences of her choices.
          As authentic as Mud feels, it’s not exactly true to the lives of most 14 year-old boys in America. Instead of outside having grand adventures, most of them are more likely to be found on their couches, having significant relationships with their Xboxes. Getting to the next level of Assassin’s Creed is more likely to appeal to them than helping some colorful vagabond redeem his lost love.
          In this, at least, the comparison to Twain is fitting: Nichols’ script, like Huck Finn, is about an old order on the edge of extinction. In the book, it was the slave-holding south; here, it is growing up with old-time masculine values, predicated on chivalry and violence and devotion to their fathers. Alas, today’s downsized dad is likely to be his wife’s dependent. Like Ellis’s mother here (Deadwood’s Sarah Paulson), most parents in 2013 are content to say “good riddance” to youths misspent in swamps and junk-yards. But when progress also brings disconnection, it exacts a steep price.
© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro