Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Encumberbatched

Benedict Cumberbatch cracks the code in The Imitation Game.

««1/2 The Imitation Game. Written by Graham Moore, based on the book by Andrew Hodges. Directed by Morten Tyldum. At selected theaters.

The appearance of high-gloss bio-pics about scientists is the best evidence yet of the peaking cultural cachet of nerdiness. Along with the Stephen Hawking story in The Theory of Everything, we now have The Imitation Game, Morten Tyldum's account of the brilliant, sad career of British mathematician Alan Turing.
          The "human interest" hook with Hawking is his lifelong struggle with the disease that has left him a prisoner in his own body. Turing led the team that broke Nazi Germany's Enigma code—a key step in assuring Allied victory in World War II; he also laid much of the theoretical groundwork for modern computer science. But he was a closeted gay man at a time when homosexuality was a crime in Britain. His punishment for "indecency" is widely supposed (but never proven) to be the reason he committed suicide in 1952. That outrageous contrast—the genius and war hero unjustly persecuted merely for whom he loves—has made Turing a secular saint in these times.
          From a certain point of view, whether Hawking is crippled or Turing a victim of homophobia shouldn't really figure in our interest in them. Turing's work for British intelligence is said to have shortened the war by two full years and saved 14 million lives. Hawking has made seminal contributions to our understanding of the universe. In a better kind of world, such towering intellectual achievements would alone be enough to make these men fascinating. But we don't live in that world, and the story of saving 14 million lives isn't necessarily worth telling without the subsequent, tawdry downfall. Nerdiness may be cool, but ideas still aren't.
          The irascible Hawking would no doubt tell us where to stick our "human interest" for his plight—he prefers to be remembered for his science, not for being a disabled scientist. No doubt Turing would also object to going down in history as "that mopey gay codebreaker."
          The Imitation Game is a well-crafted work of reverential biography that takes absolutely no chances with Turing's complex legacy. The script by Graham Moore presents him as the usual genius with precious few social skills, alienating everyone around him as he almost single-handedly drags Britain to victory. Benedict Cumberbatch—who seems to be everywhere these days—is poignant and convincing in the lead. While Keira Knightley seems to be here purely as evidence of Turing's orientation (as in "anybody not interested in her must truly be gay"), she's also fresh in a way none of the other actors (Matthew Goode, Downton Abbey's Allen Leech) manage.
          Unfortunately, everything about The Imitation Game seems tailored not to upset anyone. Turing's identity as a gay man is invested entirely in a chaste schoolboy crush he had on a fellow student—an experience he likely had in common with a good number of not-so-gay English males at the time. Tyldum never risks rattling the teacups by presenting the adult Turing in the act of being intimate with an adult man. In that sense, the movie seems every bit as uneasy with homosexuality as the benighted era it depicts.
          For American audiences, there should be an extra level of ambivalence attached to Turing's career. After his team cracked the Enigma code, the British government didn't trust their American allies to keep that fact secret. Turing was obliged to lie to his US counterparts, keeping them in the dark about technology that might have saved thousands of American lives. Of course, when there are American Oscars to win, Tyldum dares not touch any of that.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Blitzkrieg on Stupitude

Man on a roll in The Colbert Report.

««««« The Colbert Report. Monday thru Thursdays at 11:30pm on Comedy Central. Ends December 18.

The most important cultural event this month not involving Benedict Cumberbatch is the finale of Comedy Central's The Colbert Report. Since its debut in 2005, the show has arguably outdone its parent, The Daily Show, as the benchmark in late night fake news. Colbert (who, unlike his TV incarnation, pronounces the "t" in his last name) will air his last show on December 18, before taking over Late Night on CBS next year.
          For those very late to this party, Colbert's show is an impeccable parody of Fox blowhards like Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck. His alter-ego "Stephen Cobert" is one of those gut-level patriots who is proud to think with his red, white and blue balls instead of—you know—that gray and white stuff between his ears. Where Jon Stewart's main mode is self-deprecation, Colbert's character revels in the perfection of his ignorance. His interviews with guests are couched as ambushes by the forces of righteousness, predicated on "nailing" people—which he loudly celebrates whether he has accomplished it or not. And it's all been done on a consistently high level for more than 1340 episodes.
          The comparison with Stewart is key to appreciating how great the Report has become in its nine years. Though The Daily Show gets credit for epitomizing a broader trend toward satirical news, it is not, strictly speaking, satirical. Stewart's sharp, funny, and quite often true commentary is always delivered from a distance. That distance might be moralizing, or exhortatory, or just plain mean, but it is always there. What Stewart does is best described as clever snark, not satire.
          The only truly satirical material in The Daily Show are the reports from its staff of fake "correspondents", who impersonate the self-importance and showmanship of network field reporters. Colbert (along with Steve Carell, Ed Helms, John Oliver, Samantha Bee and many more over the years) came out this fine tradition, and has arguably raised it to true art.
          Make no mistake—I'm a fan of Stewart. Fact is, though, you can see the range of his comic repertoire in about a week. By contrast, it's taken almost a decade just to sample Colbert's full menu. Within a single episode, he'll veer from deep-fried pomposity to vacillating schoolboy to weepy narcissist. He'll pour scorn on bears, shake his fist at Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, put the British Empire "on notice". Where Stewart plays the comedic equivalent of a kazoo, Colbert works with a full symphony orchestra.
          The end of the Report will leave a big hole in our weeknights. So big, in fact, that it's hard to believe some version of "Stephen Colbert" won't make regular appearances on the new Late Night. We'll find out next year.
          The real legacy of late-night satire won't be told in 2015, but during the next Presidential election, and the one after that. On the plus side, Stewart and Colbert continue to be wildly popular among younger viewers (and a quite a few older ones too), and their shows have become major sources of news for whole segments of the voting population. Viewers who watched Colbert's comedic take on campaign finance laws were shown to be objectively better informed on that critical issue than viewers of Fox, CNN or any other major outlet.  A 2007 study found regular viewers of Stewart's and Colbert's show to be better informed on all issues than viewers of the PBS Newshour (surprising) and Bill O'Reilly (not surprising).
          Trouble is, none of this is necessarily translating into greater voter involvement. Both Comedy Central shows extensively covered the 2014 midterms, but turnout was dismal, the worst in 72 years. So the question becomes: is making the news funny an incentive to participate in the political process—or a substitute for it?
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Frozen

Unbearable whiteness in Force Majeure.

«««« Force Majeure. Written and directed by Ruben Östlund. In English and Swedish. At selected theaters.

'Tis the season for family vacations, which at their worst make business travel feel good. The obligation to have fun—the staring at kids at tables staring at screens—the hours of extra time with people you spend your life with anyway—these are the wages of the labor of making "quality time". Not for nothing do many adults feel they need a vacation after returning from a family getaway.
          All this is usually the stuff of comedy, but Swedish writer/director Ruben Östlund takes it to a very different place in his superb Force Majeure (original title: Turist—a word that needs no translation from the Swedish). At a posh ski resort in the French Alps, father Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), mother Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and the kids (Clara and Vincent Wettergren) hit the slopes for some determined memory-making—but something is off. The dynamic in the family feels stitled, brittle, and not just because of its Nordic reserve.
          The problem is brought to a head when, from a restaurant balcony, they witness an avalanche crash down the mountain, almost reaching the hotel. Alas, "almost" is too close for Tomas, who grabs his iPhone and runs away, making no effort to save his wife or kids. When the snow stops swirling, he returns to finish his lunch. But Ebba and the kids definitely noticed his quick exit.
          All this happens very early in Östlund's film, leaving much time for the impact of this abandonment to sink in. Tomas denies it at first, attempting some pettifoggery about respecting "different points of view" on what happened. But Ebba is hard in her way, and doesn't let him wriggle off the hook.
          Östlund is a deliberate storyteller, and a sly one. He's at his best in those awkward moments before anything is said, but everything is already told. By any conventional standard his scenes go on too long, until they seem to cut deeper than they ever promised at the start. He wrings a searing performance from Kuhnke, as a man stripped not only of his values but his manhood. Kongsli gives a likewise brilliant, paradoxical turn as a compassionate wife and mother who is also forced into the role of relentless Fury.
          Östlund is an exponent of precise creation of visual environments in post-production. Here, his visual rigor extends to very décor of the resort, which affects that bland kind of euro-modernism that promises nothing and nourishes less. Like Kubrick's creepy Overlook Hotel in The Shining, its spirit is personified by the help—in this case an impassive custodian who smokes and stares and, it seems, passes judgment.
          Like the avalanche, the unraveling of this family is easy to see coming—until it goes to an almost overwhelming extreme, and you want to grab your phone and run away. But nobody left the theater the day I saw it.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro

Sunday, November 23, 2014

A Fish With a Bicycle

Hilary Swank gits r done in The Homesman.

««1/2 The Homesman. Written by Tommy Lee Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald & Wesley A. Oliver, based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout. Directed by Tommy Lee Jones. At selected theaters.

In a political landscape dominated by arguments subtle enough to fit on bumper stickers, one of the oldest is "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle." First coined by Australian writer-activist Irina Dunn, it's a classic and maybe the most silly, because five million years of evolution attest to the fact that, yes, most women do need men.
          The question haunts Tommy Lee Jones' new anti-Western, The Homesman. I say "anti-Western" because the movie focuses not on the conquest of the frontier, but a retreat from it. Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) is a "fish without a bicycle" type—an intelligent, resourceful woman perfectly up to busting the sod on her Nebraska farm and setting a fine dinner table when she aims to. Unmarried but seeking, she approaches men not as a romantic suppliant, but as an equal with a business proposition. So formidable is Miss Mary Bee that she volunteers for a task none of the men in her town will touch: to escort three deranged frontier wives (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, and Sonja Richter) through hundreds of miles of lawless territory to Iowa, where they will find rest and refuge from their clueless husbands. On the way, she rescues claim jumper George Briggs (Jones) from the end of a lynch-rope, but at a price of helping her accomplish her errand of mercy.
          Novelist and "Cowboy Hall of Fame" member Glendon Swarthout (The Shootist, Where the Boys Are) crafted an interesting premise when he wrote the book in the 1980's.  The movie rights were owned for years by Paul Newman, who never was able to get the project made. The Homesman then became a passion project for Jones, who directed this version himself.
          There's no question that the film has all of the elements it needed to succeed. Foremost is Hilary Swank, who has made a career of playing women struggling against the petty limitations of gender. No less impressive here as she was in Boys Don't Cry or Million Dollar Baby, she gives Mary Bee a dignity that reads as almost Lincolnesque, but with a core of vulnerability that makes her strength all the more appealing. She makes an interesting match with Jones' gristled anti-hero, who makes a career of traversing his own kinds of boundaries. They're different enough—and share enough—to be good dance partners.
          Jones has shot his film sparely, as if trying to distill some kind of classically tragic essence. In this context, the three damaged women they escort become a kind of mute chorus, responding to what they see in the only rational fashion insanity deserves.
          So why isn't The Homesman better? Perhaps more than any other recent film I can think of, it goes off the rails in one fell swoop, with a turn in the plot that shouldn't be spoiled here. Suffice it to say that Swank's character needs men after all. She departs the story in a sudden fashion that is neither sufficiently prepared for, nor adequately explained. Swarthout might have done so in the book (which I haven't read), which Jones may have lived with long enough to believe was clear enough. But on the screen, it isn't—at least without a goodly amount of post hoc rationalization.
          It's a shame. Though the Western is often thought of as a spent genre, it is a quintessentially American one, big enough to contain themes that are still relevant. Those gunslingers and cowboys were the original superheroes, the Indians the original "others" who turn out not to be so alien. (Star Trek, incidentally, was originally sold as a "space Western"). The story of women in the West is a vast, largely unexplored universe. Jones may have finished this journey, but he missed an opportunity by leaving its soul behind.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

They Came for My Neighbor

Bodnia and Bernal duel in Rosewater.

««« Rosewater. Written and directed by Jon Stewart, based on the book Then They Came for Me by Maziar Bahari & Aimee Molloy. At area theaters.
           
Most of America knows what The Daily Show host Jon Stewart did two summers ago: he went to the Middle East to direct a movie. His subject is the ordeal of journalist Maziar Bahari, who was imprisoned by the Iranian regime after covering street protests against the 2009 election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Bahari's plight was directly connected to The Daily Show, as footage of a kidding interview with correspondent Jason Jones was used as "evidence" that Bahari was a spy for the CIA. Considering that Bahari's appearance was used against him, Stewart apparently felt that making a movie about his case was the least he could do.         
          The result is Rosewater, and it can at least be said that Stewart did not spend his summer vacation in vain. Based on Bahari's memoir Then They Came for Me, this is a well-wrought, definitely non-satirical account of one man's ordeal inside a modern police state (no, not the one Fox News accuses Obama of running—a real police state). In a characteristically chilling scene, Bahari's interrogator (Kim Bodnia) collects Bahari (Gael García Bernal) from his childhood bedroom in his mother's house—literally from a sound sleep. "We are here now," he announces, as if they both knew it was inevitable. From there he is packed off to Tehran's infamous Evin prison.
          Bahari's "crime" was to videotape troops shooting protestors during the post-election demonstrations. After presenting his arrest, Stewart flashes back for the background—Bahari's life in London with his British wife (Claire Foy), his arrival in Tehran to cover the elections, his encounter with a highly schizoid Iranian society, half its people gazing in hope to the West, the other burning with resentment for half-imagined national humiliations. By the time Stewart circles back to Evin, he abruptly narrows his focus on the two rooms Bahari knew for 118 days—his bare cell, and the office where he was interrogated. Most of the latter he endured wearing a blindfold, knowing his tormentor only by his voice and his rosewater cologne.
        Stewart is a competent director largely because he seems to have watched a lot of other movies. While his portrayal of Bahari's confinement is vivid, it doesn't exactly break new cinematic ground. Bernal, likewise, is earnest and relatable, but not characterized very strongly. The impression overall is that Stewart is a frustrated progressive—he believes in both government and journalism, but yearns for both to more often achieve their ideals. It's a point many critics of The Daily Show miss, that its snarkiness and cynicism is only an act, barely hiding an almost dewy-eyed humanism.
        That Rosewater is non-satirical doesn't mean it lacks humor. Stewart gets a few yuks out of the Iranians' ignorance of American culture ("The Sopranos, that is porno, yes?"). When Bodnia invites Bahari to call his wife, he advises him to "dial 9" to get an outside line.
        That little snap of absurdity, that you need to dial 9 to call out of Evin Prison, is pure Jon Stewart. No argument that Rosewater has its heart in the right place. A little more bite, though, would have made a memorable film out a merely admirable one.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Fault in Ourselves

McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and David Gyasi in Interstellar.

«««1/2 Interstellar. Written by Jonathan Nolan & Christopher Nolan. Directed by Christopher Nolan. At area theaters.

Why don't more people find spiritual fulfillment in space science? One particular virgin birth has sparked millennia of devotion, but the births of whole solar systems elicits little more than a shrug. A one-day supply of oil lasted eight in the Hebrew temple, but nobody worships a Mars rover designed for 90 days that has lasted ten years.
          The obvious answer is that the miracles of human religion are really all about us, in the most personal sense. The universe is awesome, but it surely doesn't revolve around our little corner of the galaxy, or the race of hairless apes in temporary residence. The Crab Nebula doesn't give a shit about you, your life choices, or whether you're a good parent to your kids. Better an imaginary friend who lives in the sky than the apparently indifferent reality.
          Christopher Nolan's Interstellar is a lot of things—an engrossing space adventure, an homage to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, another notch in Matthew McConaughey's current streak of terrific performances. Maybe most significant of all, though, is that it's an attempt to present a vision of a universe that is both scientifically plausible and congenial to human hopes. It's a tough goal—maybe even impossible without a goodly amount of sentimental cheese. But it's fun to watch him try.
          The script by Nolan and his brother Jonathan opens on Earth in the near future. The planet is suffering from a vague ecological crisis, an epidemic of "blight" that is destroying the food supply and sucking up the world's oxygen. Mostly it just looks like global warming—but of course that's a politically toxic subject, so the movie presents it as another dust bowl. (Incidentally, crop failures are a predicted effect of climate change, as agricultural pests get to move into areas formerly too cold for them.) Troublingly, Americans chose to blame science and technology for the problem, instead of looking to them for solutions. Perhaps the film's most entertaining scene is early on, when former astronaut Cooper (McConaughey) learns that his daughter's school teaches that the Apollo Moon landings were a hoax. "Better we concentrate on this planet," says the teacher, "instead of wasting our time on useless machines." Cooper's response is less than diplomatic.
          NASA—now an underground organization—has a rescue plan: utilizing a wormhole that has miraculously appeared in our solar system, they send survey missions to habitable worlds in another galaxy. Cooper agrees to help, but must pay a steep cost. The mission will take him away from his family for years, perhaps decades. His daughter (Mackenzie Foy, played later by Jessica Chastain and Ellen Burstyn) is angry at his abandonment, but you can't stop a guy with the Right Stuff.
          "Miraculous" is the key word here, because Interstellar follows 2001 in imagining there's Someone out there tinkering with our fates, ineffable and omnipotent and certainly not riding a cloud or sporting a white beard. The film's combination of enormous scale, intimate emotions, and mystical hand-waving doesn't "jell" by any means. It is occasionally quite touching, though, as McConaughey is convincing as the dedicated, guilt-wracked father.
          Along with the shadowy "aliens", Nolan pays tribute to Kubrick in other ways, such as the monolith-like robot that comes along for the mission, and the torus shape of Cooper's spacecraft. In spirit, though, Interstellar more closely follows the conceit of Carl Sagan's Contact—that beings clever enough to cross gulfs of space necessarily must be benign. (Others, such as Stephen Hawking, aren't so sure of this.)
          If you're not disposed to believe in a universe invested in our survival, the movie won't convince you otherwise. It is possible, though, that some similar kind of illusion will be necessary to make humanity finally a multi-planet species. The Church of the Crab Nebula awaits its apostle Paul.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Fifty Shades of Black

Tessa Thompson stirs the pot in Dear White People.

««« Dear White People. Written and directed by Justin Simien. At selected theaters.

Depending on where you stand, we Americans either don't talk enough about racism, or we never stop talking about it. There's no shortage of solemn calls to "have a national conversation about race." But when conservation does start, it too often devolves into lecturing, hectoring, shaming—everything but listening. Many blacks justly see whites as oblivious to the enormous challenges of their lives, subject to a system of institutions and attitudes that preserve white privilege. Many whites, demographically downsized and economically squeezed, laugh at the notion of being "privileged" in a society where the only truly advantaged color is green.
          Justin Simien's Dear White People won't solve any of this. It does manage to do the next best thing, though: to enact real conversation about race, instead of just overlapping monologs. It is largely for this reason that it was one of the big hits at the Sundance festival last year.
          It's important to acknowledge first what Simien's movie isn't. It isn't a "Spike Lee joint" like Do the Right Thing (1989) or Lee's black college movie School Daze (1988). Both of those films covered similar territory, but along with the politics Lee showed great affection (or nostalgia) for the deep heritage of black culture. Simien has little of Lee's visual flair, and none of his brotherly sentimentality; his "black community" as really just a collection of individuals, each with bitterly conflicting agendas. Dear White People isn't laugh-out-loud funny. It is sharp, though, with moments of dialog that snap and cut like icicles. In short, where Lee made poetry, Simien is more of a prose satirist.
          His script concerns the simmering racial scene at fictional "Winchester University". Biracial student Sam White (Tessa Thompson) runs a campus radio show called "Dear White People", where she knowingly stirs the pot of racial anxieties in the college's white majority. ("Dear white people—it is no longer OK to call us 'African-Americans'," she announces. "If you're afraid just saying the word 'black' will make you seem racist, then you probably are racist.") Among her peers are Coco (Teyonah Parris), an ambitious blogger with a reactionary bent, Troy (Brandon P. Bell), scion of the school's first African-American dean, and Lionel (Tyler James Williams), a writer and gay man whose social alienation is equal-opportunity. Simien sets his characters in motion in and around the staging of a campus Halloween party that supposedly celebrates "the end of racism" by inviting white partygoers to don black-face, act gangsta, and quaff "purple drank" (an event Simien based on real occurrences at various, mostly-white colleges).
          To say Sam, Troy et al. object to all this is both to state the obvious and do it no justice, because it's just about the only thing they agree on. Simien's complex, conflicted souls, black and white, give him scope to air the anxieties of both sides. Stereotyping and lumping—respectively the bread and butter of prejudice—are hard to sustain when Simien insists on treating his characters with such tender specificity. Here, race colors everything, but can never be separated from issues of power, privilege, and personality. And nobody is just a victim.
          It's become a truism to say that race is a "cultural construction". Indeed, it is often declared as if mere awareness of this fact will set us all free. But people have deep cognitive need of their "constructions". It's hard to say what will eventually replace the defining power of skin color in a post-racial America—but Simien has gone the farthest so far in exploring the possibilities. It will be interesting to see where he goes next.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Furious Basterds

Pitt and Co. pause on the way to Berlin.
««1/2  Fury. Written and directed by David Ayer. At area theaters.
The heart of David Ayer's  Fury is right in the first shot. It is 1945, with the coup de grâce about to fall on Nazi Germany. A lone figure on horseback rides out of the mist, looking oddly archaic in what we've been told is a movie about World War II. The rider turns left, passing a knot of deserted, burning tanks—until an American GI jumps out and kills him. Then the American (Brad Pitt) gently untacks the horse and sets it free.
          So there it is: Ayer sees these guys in tanks as the inheritors of knightly chivalry—but also its murderers. There's truth in this theme, both in how armored soldiers saw themselves and how they (and the machine gun) ended three thousand years of cavalry dominance on the battlefields of Europe. There's a bitter sort of beauty in how Ayer envisions it. Trouble is, he has no idea how to make the rest of Fury as evocative as these first few minutes.
          Pitt is Sgt. "War Daddy" Collier, a veteran tank commander who aptly summarizes the arc of his story by saying "I started this war killing Germans in Africa. Now I'm killing Germans in Germany." As portrayed by Pitt, he's exhausted by his war but also savors it, as if he knows nothing else in his life will compare to it. He's promised the men under his command (including Shia LaBeouf as a Bible-quoting gunner and Logan Lerman as a quaking greenhorn) that he will bring them home alive—an absurd but perhaps necessary lie. His boys even start to believe it, until their "War Daddy" tells them they must stand alone to defend a strategic crossroads against an entire German battalion.
          Americans have a particular talent for seeing themselves at the Three Hundred at Thermopylae. We're always the intrepid band of defenders against the barbaric hordes—even when we're really more like the Persians, gifted with overwhelming force. Steven Spielberg got away with this conceit in the final thirty minutes of Saving Private Ryan, largely because what came before was so magisterial we'd have gone with him anywhere. Ayer, alas, is no Spielberg. Despite a few inspired moments, Fury never gathers enough momentum to blast through the clichés of this genre. Of course the rookie learns to kill; of course the guys feel victory in their grasp but their humanity slipping through their fingers.
          Few Hollywood films about World War 2 find themselves in truly new territory. With the possible exception of the Western, no genre is so thoroughly picked-over, so challenging to present in a new light. Spielberg, and to a lesser extent Quentin Tarantino (Inglorious Basterds) came the closest recently—and they are two of our most naturally gifted filmmakers. Ayer, whose directorial credits so far include a few undistinguished cop dramas (Street Kings, End of Watch) has a way to go to enter that company. Though Fury makes a credible run across the battlefield, it still ends up a burning wreck in the end.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Burning Bed

Rosamund Pike is a revelation in Gone Girl.

«««1/2  Gone Girl. Written by Gillian Flynn, based on her novel.  Directed by David Fincher. At area theaters.

The nation is in the midst of an apparently endless debate over the right of gays and lesbians to marry. The conservative argument against gay marriage is it somehow "ruins" the institution. But given its manifest problems, given that its legal advantages could readily be enshrined in civil unions, why would anyone fight for the right get married at all? The rest of America already seems to be going the other direction: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for the first time in history, more than 50% of American adults are now single. Given the demographic trends, our LGBT brothers and sisters seem to be rushing onto a sinking ship.
          David Fincher's Gone Girl is ostensibly just a Hitchcock-style thriller about a man suspected of killing his wife, but its point isn't crime and punishment. Its real subject is the central conundrum of marriage—that the imperfect, constantly evolving natures of individual human beings can or should be bound in an institution that involves the concept of "forever". It should come as no surprise that the script by Gillian Flynn (based on her 2012 novel) has more on its mind than twists and thrills. Even Hitchcock's films were rarely just about what they were about.
          Nick (Ben Affleck) is a magazine writer of less-than-certain income. This is dangerous territory when you're married to Amy (Rosamund Pike), a beautiful woman from a privileged background and very high standards for the kind of man worthy of her lifetime loyalty. Their romance was so storybook at first that neither could believe it ("We're so cute I want to punch us in the face," she says). Nick's unemployment soon leads to money problems, and the strains that can lead to infidelity. But his problems really start when, one ordinary afternoon, Amy disappears from their home. There's sympathy for him at first. As the façade of their marriage begins to crack, public suspicion inevitably shifts to Nick, who likewise begins to suspect he never really knew his dearly beloved at all.
          Gone Girl is a smart thriller with enough kinks in its plot to make nearly two-and-a half-hours go by very quickly. In the tradition of the genre's best, it not only keeps us all guessing, but uses that uncertainty to force audiences to see the characters in constantly new ways.
          Director Fincher (Seven, Fight Club, The Social Network) is a master craftsman who knows how to propel a story, and knows how to get good performances from his leads. Even as his character seems more and more like a shit-heel, Affleck retains that movie-star superpower that keeps him likeable. Rosamund Pike—a British actress who has flitted on the edges of stardom for well on a decade—is nothing less than a revelation. Catnip to men, burning with an intelligence she has no good use for, this character is the most compelling femme fatale since Linda Fiorentino twisted all those men around her little finger in The Last Seduction (1994).
          Ultimately, there may be one or two twists too many in Flynn's script to make sense. By the time this becomes obvious, though, Gone Girl has really become about something more important than solving a mystery.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Skeletons Out of the Closet

Wiig and Hader get serious in The Skeleton Twins.

««« The Skeleton Twins. Written by Mark Heyman & Craig Johnson. Directed by Craig Johnson. At selected theaters.

Craig Johnson's The Skeleton Twins sounds like a Tim Burton movie, but it isn't. It stars Saturday Night Live alumni Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, but it isn't an overblown skit like A Night at the Roxbury or Austin Powers. Here's what it is: a spare, well-wrought drama about a pair of mismatched siblings who happen to be indispensible to each other. Insofar as it's about a couple of damaged people trying to find a way forward, it's much like Silver Linings Playbook—except without that film's "love conquers madness" magical thinking. Depending on your inclination, you can take it either as an amusing movie about depression, or a grim kind of comedy.
          Wiig and Hader are Maggie and Milo, twins who parted in mutual distaste a decade earlier. When Milo attempts suicide after a bad breakup, the equally glum Maggie plays the dutiful sister, inviting him to recuperate with her. More out of embarrassment as need, Milo accepts. Of course, by inviting her brother into her house Maggie is also inviting the past, which inevitably up-ends the rapport they forgot they shared.
          It should come as no surprise that sketch comics like Wiig and Hader are capable of delivering plausible, touching performances. They were part of the strongest SNL casts in the last decade or two, and anybody who can wring laughs out of the occasionally paper-thin writing on that show has to be talented.
          True, there's an element of waiting for the punch-line here—the suspicion that Wiig must inevitably come forth wearing doll baby arms, and Hader lapse back into playing "Stefon". It's an inevitable risk when any of Lorne Michaels' crew attempts a dramatic role. (Everybody remembers the lonely Bill Murray of Lost in Translation, but what about enlightenment-seeking Bill Murray in 1984's The Razor's Edge?) Newcomer Craig Johnson keeps a lid on Wiig and Hader's broader antics, but lets them off the leash enough to let laughs become the currency of their relationship. It's a real accomplishment that he found the right balance.
          This film has come while many are still puzzling over the suicide of Robin Williams. That such a wrenching contradiction is possible—that a man with such irrepressible instincts to amuse others could be so inwardly miserable—came as a surprise to many of us. But as The Skeleton Twins shows, while laughter can be part of happiness, it can never be the entirety. "Laughing until it hurts" is a cliché, but laughing because it hurts is close to the truth.
          That said, this writer will be looking forward to the deleted scenes on this movie's DVD edition. We can only hope Wiig didn't forget the baby arms there.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Less Than Zero

Waltz and Thierry add it up in The Zero Theorem.

«« The Zero Theorem. Written by Pat Rushin. Directed by Terry Gilliam. At selected theaters.


Full disclosure: I've never been much of a fan of Terry Gilliam's work as a director. Not his gonzo animations for Monty Python—those were terrific. I'm speaking of features like Brazil, Twelve Monkeys, his Baron Munchausen movie, which overflowed with the kind of visual flair schoolboy critics take for great profundity, but were actually pretty vacuous at their cores.

          I therefore give Gilliam some backhanded credit for the premise of his latest. For The Zero Theorem is literally a story with a vacuum at its core, about a man in search of proof that the universe is governed by nothing but a self-cancelling equation. In a year with movies about Steven Hawking (The Theory of Everything) and Alan Turing (The Imitation Game), this is another movie about math.

         It's the very near future, where London is a ringing, buzzing mess of floating animated billboards and constant surveillance. Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) is some kind of cryptologist-prole whose job is to crack mathematical puzzles for a conglomerate controlled by a boss known only as "Management" (Matt Damon). Not fulfilled in his work "crunching entities", he aspires to be allowed to telecommute from home, where he can be present to receive a particularly important phone call (writer Pat Rushin apparently forgot that you don't need to be home to get a call anymore, though there are cell phones everywhere in the movie). Management finally relents, but on one condition: Qohen must attempt to crack a virtually insoluble problem called "the Zero Theorem", proving that the Universe is a purposeless accident.

          There are some fun ideas in the movie. Apparently, there will be soon be a "Church of Batman" for us to seek redemption in. There will also be an "Occupy Wall Street" department store. Mathematical innovation in the future is not an exercise in broad theorizing, but literally exercise: employees solve teeny, tiny pieces of complex puzzles by pedaling stationary bikes. As he embarks on his new project Qohen is gifted with a call girl companion (Mélanie Thierry) who seems determined to rouse him from his metaphysical funk by any means necessary, including some picturesque cock- and brain-teasing.
          But the fun is thin on the ground, and Qohen (played by Waltz with a spiritual constipation that is truly Teutonic) never becomes more than a mope. The motives of Management are muddled, with Gilliam apparently unable to afford Matt Damon's services for more than couple days of shooting. The motives of Thierry's character—the stereotypical "hooker with a heart of gold" who falls in love with her john—are worse than muddled. Tell me again: how does sending in a beautiful woman in a latex nurses' uniform help a straight man concentrate on the evening's problem set?
          Sometimes it seems like Gilliam wants to get at something. Rushin's script occasionally sounds like a parodic answer to The Matrix, with Qohen as "the One" elected to challenge the evil mainframe. Other times, Gilliam seems inclined to say something about religion. But all these gestures seem abortive, dropped as if from the sheer exhaustion of crafting a consistent theme.
          "Crunching entities" turns out to be pretty dreary work.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro    

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Farewell to the Boss

James Gandolfini's final role in The Drop.

««« The Drop.  Written by Dennis Lehane, based on his short story. Directed by Michaël R. Roskum. At area theaters.


By the time James Gandolfini died in 2013, he had only begun to explore his limits as an actor. It was clearly a question that was on his mind: after playing the archetypal modern gangster on The Sopranos for eight years, only one of the roles left in the can after he died was in a straight-up mafia flick. That single exception was a supporting turn in Michaël R. Roskum's The Drop.
          The reason he chose it turns out to be straightforward. Unlike The Sopranos, The Drop has a small-time focus, centered on only a few characters in and around a minor watering hole in Brooklyn. The hero is Bob (Tom Hardy), a seemingly slow-witted barkeep with a long and mysterious connection to his cousin, "Uncle" Marv (Gandolfini). Marv's bar is one of the places the mob uses to collect its cash pay-offs in the neighborhood (thus a "drop"). The guys manage to keep their noses clean until a pair of gunmen pull an ill-advised robbery—leaving Bob and Marv on the hook for the lost money.
          The story (based on Dennis Lehane's short story "Animal Rescue") is full of unspoken history wrapped in a layer of outer-borough grit. Gandolfini's interest in it comes clear about midway through, when he complains that he was once a player, "a guy to be feared"—but no longer. It's tempting to think Gandolfini saw Uncle Marv as one version of Tony Soprano's future, after losing his family and all his power. Lonely and irrelevant, terrified he's becoming just another "jerk-off", he's a guy liable to desperate gambles.
          The Drop is a latter-day Sidney Lumet film that feels about as Brooklyn as Flatbush Avenue. This is remarkable in that virtually none of the principals are actually from Brooklyn or anyplace else in America. Hardy is Australian, Noomi Rapace is Spanish/Swedish, Matthias Schoenaerts and director Roskum are Belgian. (Gandolfini and writer Lehane are from New Jersey and Massachusetts, respectively—both about as foreign to Brooklyn as Belgium.) Would a typically Brooklyn director, say Spike Lee, have produced something equally authentic about the working-class neighborhood of Marollen in Brussels? Qui sait?
          For his part, Hardy has mastered that particularly Brooklyn tilt of the head, that way of looking a guy in the face without overtly confronting him. Though the obvious comparison is to DeNiro, there's something Brando-esque about Hardy's presence that bodes well for the future. (Hardy will play Mad Max in the upcoming Road Warrior remake.)
          When The Sopranos ended in 2012, many fans were disappointed by David Chase's decision to close with no ending at all. At least with respect to Tony Soprano, The Drop presents one version of what might have been.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro    

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Sweetest Songs, Saddest Thoughts

Brydon and Coogan peruse the stones in The Trip to Italy.


««« The Trip to Italy.  Written and directed by Michael Winterbottom. At selected theaters.

If paradise is a place where all the cooks are Italian and all the comics are British, then The Trip to Italy, Michael Winterbottom's sequel to his 2010 road comedy The Trip, is a slice of Heaven.
          It wouldn't have taken much for this writer to sign on for another culinary tour. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play characters named "Steve Coogan" and "Bob Brydon" extremely well—arguably better than anyone else could. Like on road trips taken by you and me, their by-play is a salad of idle gossip, in-jokes, movie quotes and impersonations, including a bout of "dueling Michael Caines" that, even in rehash, is bloody hilarious. Like the original, the sequel has been assembled out of episodes of the BBC's The Trip TV-series. Though director Michael Winterbottom is given script credit, much of the dialog feels (as in The Trip) deftly improvised.
          The new movie finds Coogan and Brydon going in different directions professionally. Coogan (who co-wrote and starred in the hit Philomena) has achieved serious success in America, but faces a stretch of unemployment after his TV series is cancelled. Brydon, as a somewhat better-read Rich Little, is less known but on the upswing after landing a part in a Michael Mann film. In a late summer with a decidedly "mid-life" feel to it, Coogan joins Brydon on a tour of restaurants in Italy that will (he claims) end up anthologized in a book.
          The food is, of course, only a pretext; neither Coogan nor Brydon even bother to take notes on what they've eaten, or ever so much as chat up a chef. Their real passion is literature—specifically, the Romantic poets, whom they argue over and quote as vigorously as Al Pacino movies or the music of Alanis Morrisette. Alas, these guys are more bitch-and-moan than sturm und drang. When they board a rubber dinghy to begin their tour of the Gulf of Spezia (where Percy Shelley drowned), they worry, "This isn't the actual boat, is it?"
          Much as they seem to circling around the same three subjects of poetry, women, and career, these lads have clearly gone some distance since their last trip. Last time both were hungry most of all for mainstream success. Now that Coogan's ship as come in, and Brydon's is about to, there's a whiff of letdown in the air, of questioning whether "making it" in Hollywood has landed them in a good place after all.
          There's much chatter on the web that the inevitable next chapter will be a Trip to America. But that would almost be redundant. America—and the values it represents abroad—already looms large over these movies. The poets Coogan and Brydon idolize are more than sources of fancy verse to recite and impress the chicks. The dejected Keats had a lovely, wind-swept gulf of drown in. We have an ocean of cultural mediocrity.

© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro