Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Love Me Three Times

More peripatetic love in Richard Linklater's Before Midnight.

«««1/2 Before Midnight.  Written by Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy & Ethan Hawke. Directed by Richard Linklater. At selected theaters.

It's been 18 years since Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) spent that night wandering Vienna in Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise, talking and flirting and falling in love. Their yak-fest wasn't everyone's cup of tea, but for many of us that film hit the sweet spot between intelligence, erotic possibility, and wistfulness. Because of that, or perhaps because it prefigured the current "hook-up" culture, Sunrise became one of the touchstone films of its time. It's not universally nameable, to be sure, but it's one everybody seems to remember ("You know, that movie where the guy talks the girl into getting off a train with him? Yeah, that one…")
          The trio continued Jesse and Celine's story in 2004's Before Sunset, reuniting them after circumstances prevented them from redeeming the promise of their one night together. Jesse was in Paris promoting a book he wrote on that experience; Celine showed up to get her copy signed. The result was another dance of postponed desire, picking up pretty much where it left off nine years before. Except that there was no vague promises to meet up again in the future: Jesse, married to someone else but smitten as ever with the mercurial Celine, impulsively skipped his plane home.
          Now we have Before Midnight and what feels like the final installment in the couple's story. Almost a decade later, they're now married, with twin daughters. Jesse has moved to Europe, but is feeling remorse for his intermittent relationship with the son (Seamus Davey-Kirkpatrick) he left behind. Celine, feeling "fat and forty", is lovely as ever and every bit as talented at thinking her way out of happiness. Approaching the end of an idyllic summer-long vacation in Greece, the consequences of Jesse missing his plane nine years before have returned with a vengeance. For, as Linklater shows, while it's all well and good to make sacrifices for the sake of love, sacrifice is rarely just a "one and done" thing. It keeps having effects that demand fresh sacrifices.
          Delpy and Hawke's names are on the screenplay for good reason: most of this film (and the other two) are dialog, and the words need to fit the mouths that say them. Once again, Linklater and his stars have crafted what amounts to a concerto for two instruments, by turns harmonious, discordant, and funny. In Sunrise their by-play was a dorm-room discourse, the problems more theoretical than real. Here, Linklater, Delpy and Hawke adeptly recapture the couple's characteristic rhythm while making their problems deeper, more urgent. "Sometimes I think I'm breathing oxygen and you're breathing helium," Celine complain of Jesse's way of deflecting her frets with humor. "What makes you say that?" he replies in a put-on falsetto. She's simultaneously charmed and exasperated.
          To cop a line, the problems of two people don't amount to a hill of beans in a world of super-heroes and giant, rampaging monsters. Or maybe those are the only kinds of problems that really matter. In this case of Jesse and Celine, another sequel ("After Midnight?") sounds like a good way to find out.
© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro

Sunday, July 14, 2013

What's Sauce for the Goose

Sumner and Gerwig play in Frances Ha.

«««1/2 Frances Ha. Written by Noah Baumbach & Greta Gerwig. Directed by Noah Baumbach. At select theaters.

Imagine "Frank". He's a single 27 year-old living in New York, pursuing a vaguely artistic career with no realistic chance of success. He lives paycheck to paycheck, using credit to live just a little bigger than his means. He's got a girlfriend, but nothing too serious—a relationship with some chick definitely isn't worth messing up a primo living arrangement with his best (guy) friend. In short, he's a classic slacker, another of a lost generation of males who see no particular reason to grow up, to whom romance is definitely secondary to "bromance". Judd Apatow has made himself a handsome career rhapsodizing guys like him.
          Imagine further that Apatow has nothing to do with any of this, and that "Frank" is actually Frances (Greta Gerwig). Now you've got the gist of Noah Baumbach's amusing, subtly subversive Frances Ha. Amusing, because like Baumbach's best-known other work, The Squid and the Whale, it combines great sensitivity and compassion for his characters with an almost absurdist ear for social relations. And subversive, because it holds that what's sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose. There really isn’t yet a female equivalent of the word "bromance" ("gynomance"?), but that's what the script by Baumbach and Gerwig is getting at.
          Being the epitome of character-driven comedy, Frances depends on lot on the blonde, lissome Gerwig pulling off her portrayal of Frances in a way that's sympathetic, not pathetic. She does it brilliantly. Ditzy but proud, she's endearing because she's screwed by circumstances, and endearing because of her own shortcomings, but mostly she's just adorable. She's certainly more appealing to watch than Seth Rogen, who's played pretty much same kind of character elsewhere.
          The most significant figure in Frances' life is her friend Sophie (played by Mickie Sumner, Sting's daughter), who has a secure career and a worrisomely serious relationship with a guy named "Patch" (Patrick Heusinger). To Frances' mind, a mere "Patch" is no substitute for the real thing, which is the storybook "us against the world" partnership she shares with Sophie. That Sophie herself is conflicted about her soon-to-be conventional life only makes their separation more painful.
          Are we about to see a rash of other "gynomances"? Considering that we've already seen the birth of the female slob comedy (Bridesmaids) and the female buddy-cop comedy (The Heat), it seems likely. Real females might mature faster than males, and be more honestly in touch with their limitations, but they're just as vulnerable to the whims of a brutal job market that makes slacking seem so appealing by comparison. As long as the girl slackers are as likeable as Gerwig, I'm in. But the female equivalents of Seth Rogen or Jason Segel? Not so much.
                                                                           © 2013 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Gone Fishing

The crew goes down in Europa Report

«««Europa Report. Written by Philip Gelatt. Directed by Sebasti├ín Cordero. Available now on demand on iTunes. Opening in selected theaters on 8/2.

We're living on the eve of a new golden age of exploration. The Mars rovers, for example, have turned that planet from a point of light in the sky to a real landscape, a place both alien and vaguely like southern Utah. In exactly two years, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft will visit Pluto, the last planet (technically, "dwarf" planet) in our solar system to be seen up close. Meanwhile, astronomers are busy cataloging hundreds of worlds beyond our solar system—an impossible dream for the entire lives of most of you reading this review—including some that appear capable of sustaining life
          We're living on the eve of a new golden age of exploration, but you'd never know it from our movies. Instead, Hollywood is determined to recycle old superhero franchises, vampires, zombies, and 60's-era TV shows. Star Wars is about to get new episodes, but since when has Star Wars been remotely concerned with, you know, the stars? Even the rebooted Star Trek seems disinterested in actually in going where no man has gone before, preoccupied as it is with duels against arch-terrorists. Instead of awe and excitement, the prevailing mood in Hollywood movies seems to be gloom. Knights are always "dark knights", Thor is stuck in "dark world", soldiers are always "winter soldiers", and the starship Enterprise is hurtling "into darkness".
         
In this dour environment Sebasti├ín Cordero's low-budget Europa Report comes as a welcome splash of light. Made with less money than Stanley Kubrick spent in 1968 on 2001: A Space Odyssey, it's the story of a polyglot crew of a privately-sponsored expedition to Jupiter's "ocean moon". Cordero himself is a newcomer from Ecuador, and Report features no stars—unless you count District 9's Sharlto Copley as an up-and-comer.
          To overcome his budgetary limitations, Cordero opts for the "found-footage" premise used in The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, Chronicle, and perhaps most relevantly, the not-so-bad Apollo 18. It's a conceit that is showing its age, but combined with the detailed realism of the treatment (reportedly contributed by NASA), the final product is perhaps the most visually convincing put on film at any price.
          According to the script by Philip Gelatt, the "Europa One" mission was conceived to explore the possibility of life in the ocean thought to exist under the moon's icy crust. As far as private space tourism has advanced lately, going all the way to Europa is a wildly risky investment—it's a two year trip just to get there, with a miles-thick ice cap to drill through to reach any water. Sure enough, the interplanetary fishing trip starts to go bad when a solar flare fries the ship's communications gear, leaving it cut off from Earth. The crew (Daniel Wu, Michael Nykvist, Christian Camargo, et al.) elect to keep going—and why not? Captain Cook explored the Pacific on voyages just a long, with smaller ships, without ever getting technical advice or Daily Show reruns sent up from home.
          Authenticity aside, Report is structured in pretty standard fashion, with the crew members falling one-by-one to the consequences of their choices. What is refreshing about it, though, is the way it restores a sense of idealism—of purpose worthy of sacrifice—that went out of space movies since Alien envisioned its crew of low-brow, for-hire space truckers in 1979. The idea of exploration as an expression of the best in ourselves almost qualifies as innovative, especially in the context of a "private" venture, with nary a national flag to be seen. When the ship is launched, their employers don't reiterate the terms of their contracts—they serenade the crew with The Blue Danube. All that's missing is the preserved head of Richard Branson wishing them good luck and godspeed.
          The film obviously could have benefitted from somewhat more than a mini-budget. At times, we yearn not just to see the actors responding to some off-screen threat, but to actually see what's going on. But the solar system is still a better place with smart indies like Europa Report in it.
© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Real, Traditional, Marriage

The Hendricksons have dishes to pass in Big Love.

In recognition of the Supreme Court's recent decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act, I'm posting this review of HBO's Big Love from 2010. For the record, I support the Court's decision, but wonder if our journey is just starting. In May 2012, Joe Biden credited the sitcom Will & Grace with "educating" the American public on our common humanity with gays and lesbians. Will Big Love be seen one day as the Will & Grace of plural marriage?

The HBO series Big Love is not for everybody. In a time when mere gay marriage—that is, between just two people—qualifies as a white hot issue, asking an audience to sympathize with a family of fundamentalist Mormon (FLDS) polygamists in suburban Salt Lake City takes a certain amount of faith. The gamble seems to be paying off so far: the series began its fourth season last month.
      The show is the saga of the Hendricksons, an outwardly ordinary Utah family where small businessman Bill (Bill Paxton) has no fewer than three better halves. Wife number 1 is eminently presentable but passive-aggressive Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn); number 2, Nicki (Chloe Sevigny), grew up on the compound of a hardcore FLDS sect and, with her belligerent self-sufficiency and taste for prairie skirts and ruffled blouses, had trouble fitting into suburbia. Number 3 is Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), a live-wire whose sunny disposition is undermined by the indignities of being the most recent to arrive. The quartet, surrounded by its penumbra of kiddies, lives in three adjacent houses that look separate from the front, but share a common yard in the back. Together they uphold the "Principle" (that is, of plural marriage), but in the face of the mainline Church of Latter Day Saints official disavowal of polygamy in 1935—and Bill's public profile as owner of a chain of home improvement stores—they don't make their lifestyle too obvious.
      Big Love is unique, but like any other soap opera, it is overloaded with events and crises, many of which seem ripped from recent headlines from Texas and Arizona. Suffice it to say that over the last three seasons Bill, who began as one of the surplus "Lost Boys" cast out of his FLDS compound, has risen to the role of benevolent patriarch, protecting his domestic ark against assaults from without and within. One of the best aspects of the show is how it portrays the four-way politics of plural marriage as complex, but not as hopelessly fraught as critics of polygamy assume. Like the members of any family, the Hendricksons test each other, disappoint each other and, on occasion, support each other without conditions. It helps that their faith is unshakeable, but pragmatic: one of the current plot strands follows Bill and Barb's travails in starting up a "Mormon-friendly" casino on a nearby Indian reservation.
      Fascinating as it is on its own terms, Big Love raises uncomfortable questions for people on all sides of the current culture war over "traditional marriage." In their zeal to defend customary (straight) monogamy, conservatives too readily forget that ancient Israel was full of polygamists, including Abraham, Esau, Jacob and Solomon (who, you recall, had no fewer than 700 wives and 300 concubines). All of these Biblical sister-wives were, by necessity, also married to people of the same sex. So what qualifies as real traditional marriage?
      For those who want to support expanding the legal definition of marriage, the implications are also provocative. For if consenting adults of the same sex have a right to marry, what about the rights of three or more adults who likewise wish to plight their troth? Who are you and I to tell such people that their arrangement is illegitimate? And as long as the persons concerned are of legal age, why should the government have anything to say about it? The constitutional stakes are even higher when religious beliefs are—FLDS members, after all, believe that having multiple wives and legions of children are necessary to enhance their afterlives in Heaven.
      Critics of plural marriage tend to argue that however difficult the union of two people can be, holding three or more people together is even harder. But this is a practical argument, not a moral one—nobody has the right to bar a couple from marrying because they think they're bound to divorce. And indeed, the affairs of human beings can be wilder and weirder than our imaginations suppose: sometimes, with the right combination of personalities, three or four actually is more stable than two.
      For now, we have Big Love. Tomorrow, the fight over legalizing the Principle may not be confined to fiction.
© 2010 Nicholas Nicastro

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Z is For Zzzz

Zombie hordes on mass transit in World War Z.

««World War Z. Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard & Damon Lindelof, based on a novel by Max Brooks. Directed by Marc Forster. At Regal Cinemas.

If you want to know why you shouldn't worry about a real zombie apocalypse, think of it from an evolutionary point of view. Zombies are usually presented as "undead"—animated corpses. But if it is really possible to run a human-sized body without such expensive features as a circulatory system, immune system, digestion, etc., wouldn't Mother Nature have evolved zombie creatures already? Seems like a lot of bother, having a beating heart, seeking food, drinking water—in short, being alive—when none of that is strictly necessary, yes? (Stories about living people infected with "zombie" viruses, as in 28 Hours Later and I Am Legend, are exempt from this objection…but not from others.) 
          These were the kinds of thoughts that occurred to me while I watched Marc Forster's zombie-war epic World War Z. In short, my mind wandered, because it was not much compelled by what was on the screen. You might even say it shuffled along aimlessly, leaving brain-droppings like a zombie shedding body parts.
          For those who haven't heard, WWZ is a mash-up of at least three genres: zombie horror plus race-against-contagion forensic investigation story (e.g. Andromeda Strain, Contagion) plus combat movie. Brad Pitt stars as Gerry Lane, an investigation jack-of-all-trades for the UN, who trades his forensic services for the privilege to keep his wife (The Killing's Mireille Enos) and kids safe from the zombie hordes. In search of the source of the virus, Lane travels from Korea to Israel to Wales in a prop-driven C-130 aircraft—a painfully slow (<400 mph) way to circle the globe, given that the humanity is in a death-race for its very existence. Fortunately, his plane (normal range: 1000 miles) only has to refuel once in his 20,000-mile odyssey.
          But whatever. WWZ real problem is that it is a $200 million mega-epic that produces no more chills and thrills than far smaller, humbler zombie flicks. For those extra millions, we get a glimpse at the planetary-scale mayhem that low-budget flicks usually consign to fake news reports—human waves of the undead swarming over cities, overwhelming all resistance. Seems the only countries that hold off the plague are North Korea (because they've removed the teeth of every citizen) and Israel, because of its vaunted security wall. When Lane arrives in the latter we get the film's most eye-popping spectacle: thousands of (presumably Palestinian) zombies dog-piling to the top of the wall, blissfully oblivious to the Israelis' superior firepower. It's a scene we suspect won't make it into the version of WWZ shown in Jerusalem, for fear of giving the Arabs ideas.
          But it's not nearly enough. A big part of the problem is that Brad Pitt, a not-untalented actor, is given virtually nothing to play here. He's just the dutiful father and good soldier in emergency mode. Nor is Enos, who has a unique look and plenty of chops of her own, given much to do other than fret and wait.
          From the moment George Romero reinvented the zombie horror genre in 1968's Night of the Living Dead, his zombies weren't meant to be just monsters. They were metaphors. As played out in Romero's subsequent films, and some of the more intelligent ones by others, the real subject was not soulless people, but the society that makes them soulless. In corporate bastardizations like WWZ, the system is never the problem, and all those plague victims are cockroaches, fit only for stomping. Indeed, there's a shot late in the film of massive piles of zombie bodies being triumphantly incinerated—a spectacle that, with just a small tweak of political context, might have pleased Heinrich Himmler.
          Not that WWZ is a fascist film. It's just too soulless for that.
© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro