Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Don't Buy This For a Dollar

Joel Kinnaman is spam-in-the-can in Robocop.

«« RoboCop.  Written by Joshua Zetumer. Directed by José Padilha, based on the 1987 film. At area theaters.
Mitt Romney once declared that "Corporations are people, my friend." Deplorable as this legal fiction seems to many of us, our post-Citizen's United reality is worse: not only are corporations people, they're increasingly the only "people" who count. When it comes to electoral clout, political pull, legal muscle or any other measure of influence, the United States no longer comprises 320 million human beings. The real population is about 16,000—the number of businesses the Census Bureau defines as "large" because they have more than 500 employees.
          This was hardly news in 1987, when Paul Verhoeven's original Robocop wafted like a breath of fresh air into the summer silly season. The story of a slain cop (Peter Weller) reincarnated as a law-keeping cyborg not only delivered action, visual kicks, and terrific villains in Ronny Cox and Kurtwood Smith. It also served up a helping of smart, dead-accurate satire on corporate culture and the media. Subsequent boardroom malpractice and the dumbed-down content of our airwaves have shown the Edward Neumeier/Michael Miner script to be not only ridiculous, but prophetic. RoboCop's success at the box office ($110 million in 2014 dollars) also proved that popcorn movies don't have to be formulaic or pre-sold to find a big audience.
          In short, releasing a RoboCop remake without the wit makes about as much sense as remaking West Side Story without—you know—the sing-y parts. Yet this is what we've got in Brazilian director José Padilha's update. Apparently he didn't get the memo: the original was satire, not a superhero origin story.
          Virtually every choice the little-known Padilha (Elite Squad) makes represents a pulled punch. When hero cop Alex Murphy dies in the original, Verhoeven makes us expire with him, presenting his demise in the form of truly harrowing point-of-view shots; by contrast, Padilha and writer Joshua Zetumer have their Murphy die in a simple car-bombing, observed (not felt) as if through a security camera. Joel Kinnaman is a bland, Swedish meatball of an actor who feels like the second or third option after the director's first choice wasn't available. In place of Cox ("Who cares if it works?") and Smith ("Take a look at my face, Dick!"), the remake gives us Michael Keaton as one of those tech CEOs who, like Reed Hastings or Mark Zuckerberg, prefers casual-neat to suit-and-tie. Keaton may have started out as a stand-up comic, but there's nothing remotely witty—or scary—about his performance. And while Padilha had good sense in his casting of Abbie Cornish as Murphy's wife, Cornish goes wasted here, despite having one of the strongest onscreen presences in Hollywood.
          The best part of this RoboCop comes early, before RoboCop himself appears. In an ersatz "news" segment, the Pentagon's latest models of combat robots are presented winning hearts and minds in occupied Tehran. Things quickly go bad, but mouthy conservative pundit Samuel L. Jackson spins the mayhem as proving the drones are necessary. (Lack of mayhem would, of course, prove the same thing, that the drones are doing a heck of a job.)
          RoboCop's mediocrity is perhaps not all the filmmakers' fault. In 1987, the prospect of combat robots and cyborgs was far enough in the future to afford a certain freedom in satirizing them. Now that they're just over the horizon, there's an uncomfortable feeling that the joke may soon be on us.

© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Past Imperfect

Bejo and Mossafa go digging in The Past.

«««« The Past (Le passé). Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi. At select theaters.

Nothing is easy when it comes to the films of Asghar Farhadi. If their emotional power makes them sometimes hard to watch, and their persistent complexity hard to summarize, they're also hard to dismiss from one's mind. Many viewers in the West found this out when his last film, A Separation, earned wide attention (and the first Oscar for an Iranian film) in 2012. Farhadi is up to the same, brilliant tricks in his latest, The Past.
          This one is set in a suburb outside of Paris. Marie-Anne (The Artist's Bérénice Bejo)
welcomes her Iranian soon-to-be ex-husband Ahmad (Ali Mossafa) to town on the occasion of signing their final divorce papers. It's supposed to be a legal formality, maybe mixed with a little wistfulness, but matters soon become more complicated. Marie-Anne has conceived a child by her current boyfriend, Samir (Tahar Rahim) the French-Arab owner of a dry cleaning business. Samir, in turn, is still married to Céline (Aleksandra Klebanska). Céline lies in a coma after attempting suicide--an act that may or may not have been provoked by knowledge of Samir's infidelity. That, at least, is the assumption of Marie-Anne's teenage daughter (Pauline Burlet), who is determined to sabotage her mother's engagement.
          This may sound like the stuff of genuine soap-opera, but The Past feels like nothing of the kind. As Ahmad is drawn into the travails of the woman he once abandoned, the film becomes a kind of archaeological investigation of acts and feelings whose consequences are never what they seem. In Farhadi's script, no momentous revelation supplies the final word. Each leads only to new puzzles, new layers of significance, that will frustrate viewers seeking faster, more conventional drama.
          A social conservative, Iranian or otherwise, can find much to deplore in these characters' "European" disregard of traditional arrangements--the affairs, the out-of-wedlock pregnancies, the toll on the lovers' small children. Yet the modernist in Farhadi sees no easy solutions in the arbitrary strictures of the past, either. As in A Separation, there are only the inevitable passions that come with living with others, and the compromises we make to navigate them. In this, the melancholy and patient Ahmad, obliged to surrender his husbandly prerogatives, yet sift through his ex-wife's emotional wreckage, seems to stand in best for Farhadi himself.
          Following the silent-era antics she mastered for The Artist, Bejo shows mastery at a miniaturist's scale here. (She won the 2013 Best Actress Award at Cannes for this role). Farhadi likewise draws detailed, believable performances from the children in the cast (Burlet, Elyes Aguis, Jeanne Jestin). In a season of strong performances, you will not see a better acted/directed film this year, which makes its omission from the Best Foreign Language film Oscar nominees for 2013 especially puzzling.
          In snubbing Farhadi, the Academy at least has something in common with the mullahs in Iran, who forced his countrymen to cancel the Tehran celebration for his 2012 Oscar win. Whether they're wearing Rolexes or turbans, swine have trouble savoring pearls.

© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Labor of Love

Mignogna boldly goes where others have gone before.

««« Star Trek Continues. Executive producers Vic Mignogna, Michael Bednar, John Broughton & Steven Dengler. Available for streaming on YouTube.

Everybody knows the original Star Trek went off the air sometime during the first Nixon Administration. Or did it?
          You'd be excused for pondering this if you've gotten a look at Star Trek Continues(STC), a fan-produced reincarnation of fundamental Trek to end all fan-produced series. Initially funded via a Kickstarter campaign (or, more aptly, a "Kirkstarter" campaign), and licensed strictly on a "not for profit" basis, STC makes no pretension to update the show for the benefit of modern tastes. Unlike a certain other big-budget revival, there's no Baz Luhmann-style hypercutting, no Marvel-inspired action, no conspicuous lens flare. Instead, executive producer and star Vic Mignogna and crew have lovingly recreated the look of the original show, right down to the details of lighting, camera angles, and fight choreography. They resurrect the original incidental music, and insert "commercial breaks" in all the places you'd expect in 1966. Insofar as modern conveniences (such as computer-generated effects) are used, it's only to return to basics, to tell human-scaled stories as efficiently as possible. Watching it, it's as if no time has passed since Trek's early years as a low-budget stepchild of a begrudging network. Words like "uncanny" and "spooky" come to mind. 
          The original show was supposed to take place during a five-year mission of pure exploration. Unlike in the J.J. Abrams movies, Kirk, Spock and Co. never returned to earth in their own time. The goal was far out, but unfulfilled, as the show was cancelled after its third season. An entire fan literature was inspired by wondering, "what happened in the last two years?" STC aims to answer that question. 
          The point of all this isn't (just) pop idolatry. As Star Trek originalists, STC's creators plausibly demonstrate that the heart of franchise never lay in spectacle, but in putting compelling characters in service of grand humanistic themes. In the first full episode, Pilgrim of Eternity, an old adversary returns to show the appeal and pitfalls of religious belief. In Lolani, the Enterprise crew faces a "Dred Scott" dilemma as a seductive alien slave (Fiona Vroom) takes refuge aboard the ship. Number 3 is still in production, but will no doubt treat similarly broad themes.
          As a fan-made product, STC might be excused for the uneven quality of its writing and acting. But the shortcomings are not as short as you might expect. The humor often comes up as corny--but so did many of the yuks in the original show. As Kirk, Mignogna channels his inner Shatner, while giving the character a degree of gravitas wholly missing from Chris Pine's big screen version. (Mignoga is 51, Pine is 33). As Spock, Todd Haberkorn is less compelling than Zachary Quinto, but thankfully lacks Quinto's unaccountable, apparently permanent pissed-off sneer. Larry Nemecek's McCoy just reads as "crotchety older dude", but STC scored a coup in casting Chris Doohan, the son of original "Scotty" James Doohan, in his father's iconic role.
          No doubt, it takes affection for the original show to see any virtue in STC. Labors of love--like love itself--can entail blind devotion. But at least this love is true.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Smell of the Psychosphere

Harrelson and McConaughey rock the bayou in True Detective.
«««« True Detective.  Written and created by Nic Pizzolato. Directed by Cary Fukunaga. On HBO Sundays at 9pm, and on demand.
It goes without saying that there are too many cop/detective shows on television (but there, I said it anyway). Thanks to that low signal-to-noise ratio, a show has to be pretty damn remarkable for viewers to take notice. For all the merely "pretty good" policiers out there, that's bad news.
          HBO has now given us something better than "pretty good" in Nic Pizzolatto's True Detective, which is now midway through its initial eight-episode run. There's a reason for the generic-sounding title: True Detective is an anthology series, with different casts tackling different cases each season. First time out, we have Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as a pair of detectives investigating a bizarre ritual-murder case in rural Louisiana. And like a flathead catfish on a 3/4-ounce leadhead jig, this writer is hooked.
          Pizzolatto, a Louisiana native, was a novelist and academic before he got into television. The particular feel of Detective—its neo-noir sense of setting, its gumbo of literariness and ominous seediness—is no doubt traceable to that background. Perhaps equally important, Pizzolatto is the show's only writer, giving it a consistency of tone reminiscent of the best crime fiction. That consistency is bolstered by the fact that the show has but a single director, Cary Fukunaga (Sin Nombre, 2011's Jane Eyre). This is not creation-by-committee.
          McConaughey and Harrelson play a pair of seriously mismatched colleagues on the trail of the kind of killer/exhibitionist reminiscent of Se7en or Twin Peaks. McConaughey's Rust Cohle is a former narc who spent a little too long operating undercover. After losing his child—and then his marriage—to a freak accident, he's acquired a worldview so bleak he makes Schopenhauer look like Pollyanna. “I got a bad taste in my mouth out here,” he says as the two cops make their rounds. “Aluminum, ash, it’s like you can smell the psychosphere.” Confronting a tent-full of Christian revivalists, he diagnoses Christianity as a kind of memetic cancer, a communicable mental illness.         
          Harrelson's Martin Hart, by contrast, prides himself on being a regular guy's guy, a family man not likely to be carried away by Rust's neat forensic theories or philosophic chatter. As we get to know him, though, we see that his allergy against introspection makes a good defense against the fact he isn't such a good family man after all, as his tormented wife (played by the brilliant and lovely Michelle Monaghan) is coming to realize.
          Playing the haunted genius, McConaughey has perhaps the more obviously juicy role. But in fact they are both halves of a classic pairing of character types, the "man of action" partnered with the "man of the mind", that has a pedigree going back to Kirk + Spock, Aubrey + Maturin, and even (in a more satiric vein) Don Quixote + Sancho Panza. McConaughey is indeed terrific here—and with his performance in Dallas Buyer's Club, clearly the actor of the year. But together, he and Harrelson make this version of True Detective one of the most fascinating character studies to come along in a long time, big screen or small.
          As its inaugural season is only half-way done, it's impossible to say if the show will finish on as high a level as it started. No guarantees that subsequent seasons, with different stories and different casts, will be anywhere as good. But for now, let's savor being in Pizzolatto's psychosphere.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro