Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Ninnies Strike Back

All hail the rule of the ninnies in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

««½ The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.  Written by Simon Beaufoy & Michael Arndt, based on the novel by Suzanne Collins. At area theaters.

Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games series is a lot like Mount Rushmore. For its prominence on the planetary cultural scene, its triumph of impact over art, it's something one remotely admires instead of loves. Missing the movie based on the sequel, Catching Fire, just wasn't an option for a father of an eleven year-old daughter. Having liked the first movie—more or less—this critic resigned himself to the sequel with a prayer: Dear Lord, how bad could it be?
          Fortunately, prayers were unnecessary. Catching Fire has many of the same flaws as the first movie, but also a minor surprise: a faint hint of world-weariness, of consciousness that winning, at games or otherwise, can have costs almost as great as losing. The villains in Collins' book have truly awful classical-inspired names like "Claudius Templesmith" and "Plutarch Heavensbee", but she missed an obvious Romanism for her title: Hunger Games: Pyrrhic Victory.
          The sequel finds Collins' heroine, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) living in a big, state-provided mansion after her survival in the 74th Hunger Games, a gladiatorial contest between the subjects of the tyrannical rule of the Capital. Katniss, though embarrassed by her special treatment, has become a folk hero to the proles. With an aversion to sharing the stage verging on the Putinesque, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) wants her dead. To that end, he enlists Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to engineer her on-camera demise in the 75th anniversary Games—a special "all-star" edition pitting previous winners against each other.
          Once again, Jennifer Lawrence brings more authenticity to the character of Katniss than any big-budget, tent-pole movie like this really deserves. Whether going it alone, as she did in the first movie, or juggling allies Survivor-style here, she's rarely not compelling, rarely standing safely outside the somewhat contrived, half-baked dystopia Collins has conjured.
          Trouble is, that contrivance is still there, and doesn't improve with familiarity. Somehow, we're supposed to be afraid of a regime populated by pouffed ninnies like Elfie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks in pancake make-up) and "Caesar Flickermann" (Stanley Tucci with radioactively brilliant teeth). Somehow, everybody is supposed to travel around the Capital's continent-sized domain in Obama's high-speed trains, with aircraft kept oddly beyond consideration. Collins can't decide if her dystopia is ancient Rome without the glory, or pre-Revolutionary France without the culottes.
          Like The Empire Strikes Back, Catching Fire doesn't end as much as set up the first scene in the next movie. Judging from the audience's reaction, they seem more than willing to follow Katniss anywhere. How bad it could it be?
© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro       

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Shipwreck Kid

The old man (Redford) and the sea in All Is Lost.

««« All Is Lost.  Written and directed by J.C. Chandor. At select theaters.   
When it comes to dire adversity, there are two kinds of people in the world: people who scream fuck! right away, and people who do it later—or maybe never. In J.C. Chandor's chamber work All Is Lost, Robert Redford plays a nameless man on a solo voyage across the Indian Ocean. He's not only all alone on his little yacht, he's the only human being in the film. There's barely any dialog (or even monolog). When his boat is crippled in a collision with a stray shipping container, does he ever get around to uttering that choice four-letter word? Since that's one of the pleasures of this strange little film, I won't spoil it here.
          At a time when less is not more at the movies, Lost is a refreshing return to minimalism. Mostly, the "action" is comprised of Redford peering ruefully at his damaged vessel, breaking out various tools, and laboriously making repairs. But Nature—which one supposes qualifies as the only other character here—undoes his patient efforts every time, until this resourceful man is stripped of all his comforts, his tools, and his hope.
          The advertising for the film shrieks about "pulse-pounding suspense", but don't believe it. The suspense in All Is Lost isn't the "pulse-pounding" kind. Instead, it's of a more cerebral variety—the kind where there's an unexpected noise, and Redford (and we) are left to ponder what else has gone wrong. The lack of dialog will inspire some—alas, wrongly—to call Lost a silent film. On the contrary, Chandor depends heavily on sound effects—the wind, the patter of raindrops, the tell-tale rip of a sail off-screen—to tell his story. There have been few films in recent memory that have depended on sound so completely. (So much the worse for most of us, then, that we'll see All Is Lost in a multiplex, with the bass-lines from Thor and The Hunger Games pounding through the walls.)
          If rebirth through adversity is more or less unavoidable in this life, then the real theme of this film is solitude. Here, even more so than in Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity, the filmmaker prefers to pare down his story to essentials—and what he regards as "essential" is the lone individual. There's no cutting away to the wife/husband/kids/mission-control, sweating out the ordeal from long distance, as we'd see in more conventional thrillers.
          On the surface, the convention seems reasonable, to see individuals as significant only in relation to other people. As Chandor and Cuarón suggest, though, framing the struggle that way shifts the emphasis from another, equally-important connection: how the individual sees him- or herself. As the planet becomes more noisy and crowded, with friends and relatives never more than a status update away, that internal report may be the most endangered relationship of all.
© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Beautiful Creatures

«««1/2  Dallas Buyer's Club.  Written by Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. At selected theaters. 

Leto and McConaughey survive in Dallas Buyer's Club
To paraphrase the guy mentioned in that Maroon 5 song, we don't always get what we want, but sometimes we get what we need. In the middle of the debate over Obamacare, America has gotten a health care drama--- Jean-Marc Vallée's Dallas Buyer's Club. Safe to say there have rarely been movies this strong about a guy just trying to fill his prescriptions.
          The script by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack is based on the true story of Ron Woodroof—an electrician, part-time rodeo cowboy, recreational drug user and all-around party animal. In the summer of 1985 he gets the news that he is HIV-positive, with only a month to live. But instead of taking this as a death-sentence, Woofroff takes his diagnosis in the spirit of a barroom dare, swearing that no "faggot" disease is going to end him.
          Trouble is, the only drug shown to have any effectiveness against the virus is AZT, and that is only available in clinical trials. Forced to seek treatment in Mexico, Woodroof discovers there's a world full of anti-viral drugs that are not FDA-approved. Getting illegal drugs over the border has never been a problem for determined entrepreneurs, of course, and the dying Ron is very determined indeed. 
          Dallas Buyer's Club is a pet project of Matthew McConaughey, who has been fighting for years to get it made with various others in the lead. It's fortunate that he took the role himself, because it may be his strongest yet. Though a gifted survivor, McConaughey's Woodroof was little more than a two-bit hustler before misfortune elevated him to a sort of folk-hero. His fellow AIDs sufferers were never more than "fruits" and "tinkerbells" to him; his pursuit of casual sex with women after getting his diagnosis verged on the criminal. Though he establishes a "buyer's club" to import medications for himself and hundreds of other desperate patients, his motives were never strictly philanthropic. It was always about the money. McConaughey sugar-coats none of that, but in his hands we don't care. Whether for the greater good or sadly misspent, Woodroof's life was lived to the fullest while he had it. In a year that has already seen great performances by the likes of Robert Redford (All is Lost) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), this may be the performance of the year.
          Almost as memorable is Jared Leto as "Rayon", a transvestite Ron meets in the hospital and—despite his flamboyance—befriends. Oozing glamor even as he wastes away, Leto may single-handedly bring back the glam-rock esthetic with this performance, albeit with a shabby edge.
          If there's anything to object to about Dallas Buyer's Club, it's the way it buys into the sort of casual contempt for government that is too common recently. Those of us of a certain age remember the height of the HIV epidemic in the eighties, when activists like Larry Kramer would appear on TV, hair on fire and screaming about the "murderers" in the FDA. That uncorking a stream of quack drugs on a population of desperate people would likely kill them faster, and make others unconscionably richer, seemed lost on these guys. Instead of a public health crisis, they saw it as a Manichean struggle between angels and devils, with the federal agency staffed by little Eichmanns just yearning to keep miracle cures from the people. Sound familiar?
          On another level, it's more than ironic that a lifelong homophobe like Ron Woodroof gets to be the hero of the AIDs crisis. There's a long, sad tradition of similar "cause" movies, where some terrible wrong only gets fixed when the white (or in this, case, the straight) guy gets involved. Would we have cared as much for Ron Woodroof if he was actually gay? Would his crusade have seemed as appealingly muscular without the gay-bashing? Though there's much to like in Dallas Buyer's Club, you won't find the answers to those questions there.
© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The End of the Game

Ender (Asa Butterfield) plays the game.

«« Ender's Game.  Written and directed by Gavin Hood, based on the novel by Orson Scott Card. At area theaters.

Full disclosure: I haven't read Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game. Though widely acclaimed, its pulpy, "repelling the next alien bug invasion" idea already sounded tired during the Reagan Administration. Matters have gotten worse since then, as the premise has become the object of disaster-epic (Independence Day), cheeky political satire (Starship Troopers) and outright farce (Mars Attacks!). The only way to make an un-ironic version of Ender's Game now is to hope nobody saw those other movies.
          Bad news: they did.
          Director Gavin Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Tsotsi) appears to have shut his eyes and hoped for the best in his adaptation of Card's book. Special effects notwithstanding, this is one of those rare movies that is so entirely sealed off from its cultural context that it could have premiered anytime, in any decade. For one (minor) instance: the characters in this supposed distant future make reference to "e-mail", which seems about as likely as people in 2013 still calling their automobiles "horseless carriages."
          For those non-fanboys out there, Ender's Game is about Ender Wiggen (Asa Butterfield), a gifted "tweener" who is recruited by Earth's military government to command the human fleet against the dreaded alien bugs, known as the Formics. It appears that only children are agile in mind enough to command huge battle-fleets—which I guess makes interstellar generalship like women's gymnastics. In any case, Ender is regarded as Earth's last, best hope by the Academy's ranking gray-hair, Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), who clashes constantly (and tediously) with the resident shrink (Viola Davis) over whether Ender is really, truly, absolutely ready to save humanity. No points for guessing if he is or not master of his own "game."
          The centerpiece dramatic device here is a zero-gravity gym where the space cadets engage in mid-air laser-tag games. This may have sounded pretty cool in 1985—when  laser-tag wasn't available to play in most strip-malls—but the idea seems even more derivative now, after watching Harry Potter prove himself in similar fashion. Quidditch in space is still just quidditch.
          Though predicable and dull, Ender's Game is topical in one sense: it endorses the superhero principle, the idea that what we need is a singular, individual savior to solve our problems. It is true that most Western literature extols the role of the individual in society—in fact, the emergence of the individual in history pretty much is what Western literature is all about. But today's taste for superhero stories arguably goes beyond that. At a time when our problems seem so intractable, and our politics so dead-ended, we yearn instead for someone extraordinary, someone above the usual checks and balances, to swoop down and "fix it" for us. And lest he or she become a Caesar, we further prefer them to go away, back to the Batcave or the Fortress of Solitude, until we need them again.
          I suppose even forlorn hope is better than no hope at all. One problem with waiting for superheroes, though, is that it invites everyone else to stand around and watch, as the entire population of New York did at the climax of The Avengers. Worse, it excuses the fact that most of our problems are not fixable by individuals at all. They're systemic problems, having to do with how things are arranged and done by masses of people. Letting Ender Wiggen control all our drones gets us some notable "kills", and doesn't require us to change hearts and minds in Pakistan. Imagining Superman flush away greenhouse gases from our atmosphere is gratifying, and absolves everybody from changing the cars they drive. Superheroes do us favors, but are favors really a substitute for justice?
© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro