Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Mother of Reinvention

Cate Blanchett is blue in Blue Jasmine.

«««1/2  Blue Jasmine. Written and directed by Woody Allen. At area theaters.

Fun fact: the last year Woody Allen did not release a film was a generation and a half ago, in 1981. Predictable as Christmas, his movies always start the same—the black screen, the olde-timey jazz, the same typeface for the titles (“Windsor EF-Elongated”). For better or worse, Allen is nothing if not consistent.
A few times—mostly back in the 1970’s and ‘80’s—his formula was the signature of true classics (Annie Hall, Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanors, et al). More often that consistency has come across as lack of inspiration, as his string of latter-day disappointments shows (anybody remember Whatever Works? To Rome With Love? Scoop? Anything Else? Melina and Melinda? Or the truly execrable Small Time Crooks?) As soon as this critic has been ready to finally, utterly, completely give up on Woody Allen, he suddenly delivers a flash of the old magic again (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris). Following him is like being in a marriage than has gone stale, in hope of catching some inkling of the person you once fell in love with.
            That person is back again with Allen’s charming, perceptive Blue Jasmine. It might also be called his “San Francisco movie”, for like in Barcelona and Paris, Allen seems to have drawn inspiration from getting away from his beloved Manhattan. Not that this film shows any particular affinity for the Bay Area itself. Aside from using it as a pretty backdrop, Allen is more interested in California’s mythic significance, as a place where easterners go to reinvent themselves. Or at least to try.
Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) is a Manhattan socialite whose world imploded after her banker husband (Alec Baldwin) was unmasked as a white-collar criminal. Used to dinners at Le Cirque and yachting off Saint-Tropez, she is now a pauper, forced to move in with her sweet , not-rich, adopted sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Jasmine’s life is a wreck, but she still has an odor of success about her that many find irresistible. Awkwardly, though she has no money, she can’t stop behaving rich, treating Ginger with the same borderline contempt she did when times were good. Nor is she shy about communicating her disapproval of Ginger’s working-class boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale).
            It would be easy to hate Blanchett’s character for her pretensions and her meddling. Indeed, that seemed to be upshot when Diablo (Juno) Cody sketched a broadly similar character in Young Adult (2011). But Allen has something grander and more romantic in mind for Jasmine—something of the sympathy we reserve for great, self-immolating 19th century heroines like Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina. We love her as we pity her, and we pity her as we scorn her foolishness.
Allen finds an able collaborator in Blanchett. Sometimes regal, sometimes pathetic, always magnetic, she delivers the kind of portrait that would be career-making if Blanchett’s career were not already made, over and over again. Her performance is doubly unique here because, unlike many other actors directed by Allen, she refuses to come off as an imitation of Woody himself. She’s neurotic, to be sure, but not with all the nebbishy hand-wringing. To paraphrase Tolstoy, while a certain sameness to all well-adjusted people, the unhappy ones are all miserable in their own ways.
A firm believer that character is destiny, Allen shows a certain skepticism of changing ourselves merely by changing coasts. Jasmine, after all, is a careerist who happens never to have worked a real job. Focused only on the next gainful phase of her life, she never seems to consider typical Left Coast avocations like yoga or Buddhism or para-sailing. One of the pitfalls of change is changing into something even more like yourself.
Maybe that’s why Allen will go on making his one film a year, with the same credits and the same old timey jazz, regardless of whether his critics yawn or cheer. At least this time, they’re applauding.
                                                                                             © 2013 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Are You Not Entertained?

A meeting of minds in Blackfish.

«««1/2  Blackfish.  Written by Gabriela Cowperthwaite & Eli B. Despres. Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite. At select theaters.
It's easy to feel morally superior to people in the past. We tend to be less attuned to things we tolerate now that future generations will look upon with horror. Those benighted folks back there in the past, after all, will inevitably become us. Case in point is Gabriela Cowperthwaite's devastating new documentary, Blackfish
          The film concerns a particular entertainer at SeaWorld Orlando. A veteran of the theme park's live animal shows, Tilikum is a six ton male orca ("killer whale") who has killed three people in his checkered career. By all evidence he's not a rampaging monster. Like most orcas, he's intelligent, sweet-natured, and eager to please his trainers. In that discrepancy lies Cowperthwaite's problem: what is it about the way Tilikum was procured, housed, and treated that has made him liable to deadly spasms of violence?
          In a sense, the answer is as obvious as the fable about the fox carrying the scorpion across the river ("Why did you sting me?" asks the fox as they both drown. "It's in my nature," replies the scorpion.) Like tigers and lions, orcas are the top hunters in their world, and nobody makes exposes about big cats who turn on their trainers. It's in the nature of apex predators to sometimes kill.
          But Blackfish dives deeper. Bred over millions of years of evolution to range over wide swaths of ocean in tight, socially-cohesive groups, captive orcas are forced to live among strangers in comparatively tiny enclosures. Where female offspring in the wild spend their entire lives beside their mothers, captive-born orcas are regularly (and painfully) separated from their parents. Indeed, Cowperthwaite catches SeaWorld personnel systematically misinforming visitors about orca biology and psychology, maintaining that they live longer in captivity (they don't), and that wild whales regularly mutilate each other (which they seldom do). Their motive is not hard to guess: SeaWorld makes millions of dollars a year on its orca shows, and millions more in putting males like Tilikum out to stud.
          More dismaying is the way the park treats its human employees. Tilikum's trainers in Florida were allegedly kept in the dark about the whale's role in the 1991 death of a young trainer in Victoria, British Columbia. Accidents like the death of Dawn Brancheau in 2010 were blamed on the employees, who were no longer around to defend themselves. Cowperthwaite cuts contemporary interviews with the fatuous "party line" former trainers were paid to deliver in front of audiences. Looking back, the ex-employees cringe. In the end, the film is as much about the rendering of human beings into profit-making commodities as it is about the abuse of animals.
          This film is not so much an expose on its subject as an evisceration. For viewers who care about animals, it's difficult to watch. Anything as effective at wringing emotions from its audience as Blackfish deserves some scrutiny in its own right, and Cowperthwaite does commit some distortions of her own. Though she rightly observes that there are no documented instances of wild orcas killing humans, there have indeed been attacks, including the sinking of a 40-foot yacht off Galapagos in 1972, and a surfer bitten so severely off California he needed 100 stitches. One of her "experts" asserts that wild orcas have language—an extraordinary claim not supported by any reputable linguist or comparative psychologist. That claim is part of a pattern of anthropomorphism in the film—a likening of motives and emotions between humans and a species about as alien to our experience as any mammal can be.
          SeaWorld, after refusing to take part in what they perceived as an exercise heavily biased against them, did issue an eight point rebuttal. They argued that—unlike the impression Blackfish leaves on most viewers—the park doesn't sponsor the capture of wild orcas, and hasn't in thirty years. They claim never to punish their animals (engage in "negative reinforcement")—an impression that, again, a na├»ve viewer might gather by the casual use of the word "punishment" in the film. Nor was Tilikum's captive life quite as lonely as Cowperthwaite makes out: he had pod-mate named Taima (who died in 2010) with whom he was "friendly", as well as a grandson named Trua who is an occasional companion now.
          Then there's the question of proportion. Blackfish inevitably leaves the impression that the practice of keeping orcas for entertainment is a serious issue—or else why make the movie? Yet out of a worldwide population of 50,000 to 100,000 whales, a grand total of only 45 were in captivity as of June, 2013, with only 32 of those on display. Granted, if the practice is morally wrong, numbers don't matter. But when it comes to mobilizing attention, there are arguably bigger problems (such as the ongoing, wholesale decimation of Africa's elephants) to invest precious public sympathy than a few dozen captive orcas.
          In the background is the larger question of the moral standing of zoos and aquariums. That's too big an issue to cover here, but it would be a shame if the practices of for-profit corporations like SeaWorld got legitimate research institutions painted with the same black brush. SeaWorld itself helped save Keiko, the star of Free Willy, from his dismal prison in a theme park in Mexico City—a story Cowperthwaite doesn't bother to tell.
          To her credit, Cowperthwaite fairly observes that such places were instrumental in getting people to care about creatures like orcas (and elephants, and apes, etc.) in the first place. After all, not everybody can afford to travel to Puget Sound or Iceland to observe wild orcas. Much as their practices are questionable, SeaWorld and other parks have had a role to play in reconciling humans to the other species on this planet. Time will tell if they've done that job well enough to make themselves obsolete.
© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

To Have and Have Not

This guy gives the most memorable performance in Elysium.

««1/2  Elysium.  Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp. At neighborhood theaters.

"Do you think I like breathing this air?" asks the priggish CEO John Carlyle (William Fichtner) in Neill Blomkamp's Elysium. He objects to the very air on planet Earth because, by the late 21st century, the entire planet has become a shantytown, a prison/toilet for the teeming billions who represent the vast majority of human beings. One percenters like Carlyle have meanwhile decamped for Elysium, an orbiting gated community where the air is fresh, there is no disease, and the people are diverted by an endless series of cocktail parties.
          The South African director's last film, District 9, was a breath of fresh air when it arrived in 2009. The story of a very different sort of alien invasion, it was witty and topical and perhaps the most effective piece of sci-fi-themed political satire since the original Robocop a generation earlier. Expectations for this follow-up were therefore pretty high. Unfortunately, there turns out to be nothing particularly original about Elysium. Instead of a breath of fresh air, we get something like the air on a jetliner—breathable, but stale.
          The hero is Max (Matt Damon), a small-time criminal lately down by law. He's just trying to go straight, but that's a tall order when he's being profiled by the police, and the police are all robots. The best scenes in Elysium show Damon's dealings with robo-cops and silicon parole officers, struggling to cope with their machine literalness yet keep his cool ("Are you being hostile or abusive? Would you like some drugs?"). Unfortunately, all these scenes were given away in the coming attractions.
          What's left is little more than the usual summer action-salad. Max is irradiated on the job, so he makes a deal with some gangsters to get himself smuggled to Elysium and its miraculous (and apparently cost-free) medical care. Standing in his way is Kruger, a borderline psychotic mercenary (Sharlto Copley) in the employ of Elysium's defense minister (Jodie Foster). Much of the film comes off as a set-up for the inevitable mano y mano clash between Max and Kruger, which is perhaps the least interesting direction Blomkamp could have taken his premise.
          To be sure, the film features some terrific production design. We can only admire the dedication that moved Blomkamp and his crew to breathe human fecal dust for two weeks as they shot in the world's largest landfill, outside Mexico City. Copley—the lead in District 9, and lately seen in Europa Report— speaks in an almost impenetrable Afrikaans accent, coming off as a seriously addled safari guide. He isn't exactly scary, but he is a unique presence.
          Foster, on the other hand, is completely wasted as every Tea Partier's imaginary caricature of Nancy Pelosi. Nor the idea of futuristic economic apartheid exactly original, forming the basis even for young adult epics like The Hunger Games. Blomkamp needed to do something more with it, but opts instead to condescend to the audience, given them a ten-buck theme park ride instead of the intelligent satire of District 9.
          In the end, Elysium comes off like an underwhelming remake of some 70's sci-fi opus we never saw. Like Logan's Run or Rollerball, the original would have been something with way worse special effects, less action, but a lot more substance.
© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro

Monday, August 5, 2013

If It Ain't Broke

Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is winning in Breaking Bad.

«««« Breaking Bad.  Created by Vince Gilligan. Sundays at 9pm on AMC, starting August 11.

Whoever said evil is "banal" never watched AMC's Breaking Bad. Whether this month's final run of eight episodes are good or bad (signs point to "good"), the show's legacy as a contemporary classic is secure. With it, series creator Vince Gilligan has joined David (The Sopranos) Chase, Matthew (Mad Men) Weiner, David (Deadwood)  Milch and a few elite others to become one of true storytelling auteurs in broadcasting.
          It was five years ago—though it seems longer—we were first introduced to Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a mild-seeming high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with Stage III lung cancer. Facing a mountain of medical debt and with little left to lose, Walter decides to put his knowledge of chemistry to work synthesizing crystal meth. Partnering with a former student and ne'er-do-well meth-head Jesse (Aaron Paul), Walter bumbles his way through the art and politics of the drug trade. Almost against his own expectations, he and Jesse prosper. Through the show's first five seasons, this reasonable, mostly-decent individual evolves into a creature barely recognizable to his wife (Anna Gunn) and, more disturbingly, to himself—yet all the while never losing the sympathy of the audience. Apparently, the last half-season will tell the tale of what Walter reaps for the bumper crop of sin he has sown.
          Like any mad scientist, Walter's rationality is his super-power and his curse. His skill with chemistry allows him to fashion MacGyver-esque solutions to his various problems with crazed junkies and nosey cops, but also leads him farther and farther from any sort of redeeming humility. Early in the series, he jokingly gives himself the alias "Heisenberg" after Werner Heisenberg, the physicist who promulgated the "uncertainty principle" that limited what we can inherently capable of knowing (and, one presumes, of controlling). But by the crest of his criminal ascent, Walter is using his alias to strike terror into his competitors—no inside joke intended, and no room for uncertainty left.
          Like all the best series, Breaking Bad is not just addictive from the very first episode. It also contains layers of complexity that reward second and third viewings, and which a mere two-hour feature film could never touch. The comparison with one of those weighty 19th century novels is more apt than most of us realize. The novels of Charles Dickens, for instance, were never stand-alone products, but the literary equivalents of TV series, coming out in the form of eagerly-awaited installments. Nor do the novels of Dostoevsky have anything over Breaking Bad as tales of moral transformation set within a perfectly observed social canvas.
          Unlike series like Mad Men or The Wire, Bad is primarily driven by character, not some exhaustively rendered setting. Nor should it best described as an ensemble piece, like The Sopranos. Though Gunn, Paul, and Dean Norris (as Walter's DEA-agent brother-in-law) are all terrific, Cranston's Walter White is really at the core of what makes this show so compelling. While we occasionally look(ed) for redeeming signs of humanity in Tony Soprano and Don Draper, Walter's corruption is perhaps the most compelling moral arc in the history of television. The show's message—that rationality and the best of intentions can still have deeply problematic outcomes—isn't new, but the truth rarely is.
          When someone has gone beyond the point of no return, is there really no way back? Stay tuned. 
© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro