Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Attachment Theory

Ellar Coltrane grows up in Boyhood.

««« Boyhood.  Written and directed by Richard Linklater. At selected theaters.

Making movies under normal circumstances is hard, but apparently not hard enough for Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, Waking Life). For his latest, Linklater decided to present a family epic told over twelve years by literally shooting it over twelve years—by gathering his cast once a year to shoot a few scenes at a time. Cut together, Boyhood depicts the coming of age of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as the actor literally grows up before our eyes.
          It's probably not necessary to review how many ways the project could have gone wrong. Not only Coltrane but the entire cast (Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, the director's daughter Lorelei) grows and changes over the course of the story, and if any one of them suddenly wasn't available the entire premise would have been undermined. With audiences keyed into this unique opportunity—and no chance to go back in time for reshoots—Linklater could not re-cast any of the parts.
          The making of Boyhood was not only a high-wire act, it was a high-wire act that took twelve years to perform. That the film reached theaters at all is a small kind of miracle. Like an author who managed to write an entire novel without using the word "the", it's the kind of self-imposed handicap that earns automatic "stunt points."
          That said, a conceit is still just a conceit. The buzz around how the film was made can threaten to distract from the more important question—was it worth it?  Does shooting a coming-of-age story this way bring anything to it that wouldn't otherwise have been possible? In this regard, Boyhood is less successful. To the degree that it is good, it's because of the light, understated touch Linklater has shown in his other, conventionally-made films.
          Linklater's script traces the story of Mason, his single mother (Arquette), sister Sam (Lorelei Linklater), and the errant, mercurial father (Hawke) who is in and out of his life. Starting from the age of six, Mason goes through an utterly familiar but still touching series of small crises—the temporary friendships, the unwanted moves, the bad marriages to would-be fathers who inevitably disappoint. As played by Coltrane, Mason is a quiet kid who grows up into a reflective, taciturn young man with no burning interests (except, perhaps, photography). Linklater wisely presents his changes seamlessly, letting events such as elections—or the electronic gadgets Mason is playing with at the time—track the passage of time.
          Family drama naturally lends itself to drama. But keeping the way it was made in mind, Linklater wisely keeps the emphasis on continuity—the fascination of watching some things change as others don't at all. Though there are disruptions in his life, Mason keeps the air of interested bystander, as if storing up impressions for some future art project. Despite how much we see of Coltrane's personal development, Boyhood is really the sentimental education of a young storyteller like Linklater himself.
          The restrained tone fits the circumstances of Boyhood's making, but it doesn't soar. When we think of the truly memorable depictions of growing up male in American movies—Stand by Me, Robert Duvall bouncing a basketball off young Michael O'Keefe's head in The Great Santini—they tend to cut more deep than broad. In this sense, Boyhood is daring only in conception.
          Of course, when he cast Coltrane as a child, Linklater had no idea if he would grow up to be a good adult actor. In fact, the character is so passive it's hard to tell if he was written that way, or Linklater was tailoring his demands to the kid's talents. Suffice it say that Coltrane grows up to resemble a full-scale version of Peter Dinklage, albeit without Dinklage's out-size charisma. For what it's worth, I actually prefer Linklater's other longitudinal project—his conventionally-made "checking in" with lovers Jesse and Celine every decade in Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight.
          Coltrane and Linklater earn more than stunt points in Boyhood. But like Patricia Arquette complains in the film, I can't help wondering why there wasn't more.

© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Why the Caged Bird Sings

Shilling and Aduba rock beige in Orange Is the New Black.

«««1/2  Orange Is the New Black.  Series created by Jenji Kohan, based on the book by Piper Kerman. On Netflix.

There's long been talk of the "two Americas". Discussion has gotten more urgent recently as the issue has gone beyond income disparities—the two Americas increasingly seem to be living in a different mental universes. When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, affluent Americans wondered why the city's poor didn't simply take their SUVs to Baton Rouge for juleps and crawdad étouffée. As images of stranded residents of the impoverished 9th Ward appeared on CNN, many gentlefolk were shocked to discover that, yes, there are poor people in America.
          The reasons for this empathy deficit are complex, but the media deserve part of the blame. After all, previous generations were brought up on TV series like All in the Family, Good Times, Chico and the Man, The Waltons, Welcome Back Kotter et al. These were shows set among America's less affluent that, using drama or comedy, put a sympathetic face on the have-nots. But it seems that, at some point, network programmers decided that viewers didn't want to be depressed by tales from the far side of the tracks. Instead, they opted to flatter our aspirational ideals—to promote the fantasy that, as Mario Rubio recently enthused, "We have never been a nation of haves and have-nots. We are a nation of haves and soon-to-haves." The urban poor have become all but invisible in prime-time entertainment. If people of humble means do appear, it is more likely as objects of contempt—your Al Bundies, Honey Boo-Boos and "Duck Dynasties" etc. In short, characters who, through their grotesqueness, seem to deserve their fate among the under-class.
          Bad as this situation has become, let no one blame Jenji Kohan (Weeds). Her series Orange Is the New Black (now in its second season on Netflix) can be read in many different ways, but it is one of the few hit shows that actually acknowledges the existence of "those people". It takes them as more than types, putting contexts to their particular problems. In sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, usually perceptive fashion, it humanizes the not-soon-to-haves.
          For those who may just have come out of prison, Orange is set in a medium-security womens' penitentiary. Newcomer Piper Chapman (Taylor Shilling) is a rare bird in this cage: a young, attractive white woman sentenced to hard time on a drug charge. The series' first season stuck more or less close to Piper's "fish out of water" story, tracing her adaptation to a place without access to NPR, decent bagels, or (indeed) to Netflix. An offhand remark about the food gets her put on an involuntary hunger strike by the inmate in charge of the kitchen, Russian matron "Red" Reznikov (Kate Mulgrew). Being seen as one of the "good ones" by the assistant warden (Michael Harney) only earns her more mistrust from her majority-minority sisters. Along the way, in a series of mordant flashbacks, Kohan reveals the seriocomic backstory of Piper's conviction—the "there but for the grace of God" circumstances of a love affair with the wrong person (Laura Prepon). If that isn't enough, she's trying to hang on to a mostly loyal, largely baffled boyfriend (Jason Biggs) on the outside.
          The tone of Orange is indeed seriocomic—a M*A*S*H-like mélange of gallows humor, pathos, and toilet jokes. (A particular detail of female urinary anatomy—unknown to almost all the women—figures prominently in a second season episode.) It's absurd because Piper, like Hawkeye Pierce, obviously doesn't belong there. But as the first season develops and increasingly in the second, as Kohan reveals the back-stories of the black, Latina, and low-caste whites around her, it seems nobody else belongs there either. The scary, aptly-named "Crazy Eyes" (Uzo Aduba) turns out to be the adopted black daughter of a well-meaning but clueless white couple; "Pousey" (Samira Wiley) a military brat whose sexual identity brought trouble to her father's career; the scabrous Gloria (Selenis Leyva) a store-keep who undertakes welfare fraud to earn enough to escape her physically abusive husband. In short, the faces that "naturally" seem to populate our prisons are, like Piper, victims of circumstance as much as their own bad choices.
          In a society where we prefer to pretend that institutional barriers don't exist—that individuals get exactly what they deserve—this isn't a popular message. It works here because Kohan and her writers' stick to their guns, and because this is one of the strongest ensemble casts in television.
          Of course, the hook of Piper Kerman's book is just the opposite, a remarkable story because "person like me" is rarely incarcerated. I haven't read it, but on some level the show does seem chagrined to need the character of Piper Chapman to connect with a mostly white audience. Be that as it may, Orange is a refreshing return to a more nuanced, compassionate—and possibly more constructive—portrayal of the people Mario Rubio forgot.

© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Political Animals

Another open-carry patriot in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
«««  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.  Written by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, & Amanda Silver. Directed by Matt Reeves. At area theaters.

I’m confused: why is the latest installment in the Planet of the Apes franchise (for convenience, POTA) called the Dawn, when the last one presented the Rise of POTA? Shouldn’t the Dawn always come first? And will future episodes sow similar confusion? Will the Decline of the POTA precede the Day? Will the Gloaming of the Planet of the Apes come before the Noon? And will any of us still be around when Hollywood gets tired of bringing us to the POTA? Probably not, as long as we well-trained primates keep returning the box office for more simian treats.
          Snark aside, Matt Reeves’ apish opus is far from the worst of the series. In fact, it rectifies some of the problems with the past installments. Where Rupert Wyatt’s 2011 Rise was entertaining, it failed to replicate the urgent topicality of the best of the Apes films, the Rod Serling-inspired dread of the perilous delicacy of civilization. While it was visually light-years ahead of Roddy McDowell in a latex mask, it was decades behind in the maturity of its themes. The original Planet of the Apes (1968) was made at a time when grown-ups went to the movies to see stories relevant to adults. The rebooted versions are fundamentally for adolescents—or adults so juvenilized by a diet of adolescent fare they don’t know the difference.
          Reeves’ Dawn at least has a few Serling-esque social anxieties on its mind. The story opens with humanity decimated by a virus unleashed by the anti-Alzheimer’s drug James Franco concocted in Rise. The super-intelligent apes that emerged from that research have built a city-state for themselves in Muir Woods, across the Golden Gate from San Francisco. Being super-intelligent, they’ve evolved a cultural style that combines the handy rusticity of Swiss Family Robinson with the comradery of Burning Man. “Ape no kill ape,” the resident sage, an orangutan named Maurice, teaches the kids. He and the apes’ leader, Caesar (Andy Serkis in a motion-capture suit) wonder whether their human creators are finally extinct.
          But people aren’t gone. In fact, if Caesar looked across the bay he’d see one of their settlements—a vaguely medieval keep in the ruins of the big city. Unlike the remnants of humanity in The Matrix, these folks are too busy scratching and surviving to host subterranean raves. Instead, their leader (Gary Oldman) sends out a team of scouts (including Jason Clarke and Keri Russell) to activate an old hydroelectric station. Alas, the dam is on ape territory.
          The resulting clash seems inspired by the worst of the old Apes’ series, Battle for the POTA, but informed by a couple of generations’ worth of intractable ethnic strife. Like the Israelis and the Palestinians, or Sunnis and Shiites, the apes and humans share an interest in peaceful coexistence, if only the debate wasn't hijacked by extremists on both sides. Caesar would just as soon let the humans have their cushy electric gadgets, but he’s opposed by Koba (Toby Kebbell), a former inmate at a chimp research lab with a grudge against his old tormentors. Meanwhile, across the Bay, Clarke seeks a meeting of minds while Oldman sees Caesar’s crew as nothing more than animals. No credit for predicting where that attitude gets him.
          In short, Dawn is much, much better than Battle, and more intellectually ambitious than Rise. Where global nuclear annihilation was a live nightmare in 1968, Reeves’ movie has downsized its themes for an age of asymmetrical conflict between mutually uncomprehending tribes. For maybe the first time since Charlton Heston shook his fist at the Statue of Liberty, an ape film takes seriously its role to reflect the anxieties of its age.
          But there’s not much deeper than that. Like a smart tenth grader who knows how to get an A from a prickly teacher, Reeves and Co. do what’s required and no more. So how exactly do a few hundred apes in a town hewn from logs take over the entire Earth? How is it that writers Bomback, Jaffa and Silver did their research on social hierarchy  and reconciliation among real apes, but somehow believe chimps and gorillas brachiate limb-to-limb through the trees (which is a gibbon-ish thing to do, actually)?
          Maybe the most depressing thing about this primate-on-primate conflict is that so much depends on the Gandhi-esque character of Caesar. Where “great men” can cut through the knots lesser ones tie around themselves, in most ethnic blood-feuds the necessary MLKs, Lincolns and Mandelas stubbornly refuse to show up. In that sense, movies and history are the same: if we’re have to wait for individual greatness, the haul is sure to be a long one.

© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Sushi Bar at the End of the World

Tilda Swinton assigns the proles their station in Snowpiercer.

«««1/2  Snowpiercer.  Written by Joon Ho-Bong & Kelly Masterson. Based on Le Transperceneige, by Jacques Lob & Jean-Marc Rochette. Directed by Joon Ho-Bong. At selected theaters.

It’s not hard to see the appeal of the premise behind the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige (“Snowpiercer”) by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette.  It features not one but two of our favorite cultural themes: the end of the world, and the gulf between rich and poor (e.g. The Hunger Games, Elysium, and a seemingly endless number of other pop epics). In the French version, after the climate is wrecked by a failed attempt to reverse global warming, the remnants of humanity survive aboard a 1,000 car-long train that performs an endless loop of the continents. Why a train, you ask? Well, the story is French, and as George Will recently complained in a widely-read, widely derided op-ed in Newsweek, don’t those Eurosocialists love their trains?
          The movie version turns out not to be French, but the handiwork of Joon Ho-Bong, the visionary South Korean who gave us the post-modern monster epic, The Host. It also happens to be one of the craziest summer movies in recent memory—a rat-bag of action, spectacle, and trenchant social commentary that somehow—like Amtrak—manages to get somewhere.
          Bong wisely trims the novel’s train of 1,000 cars to a few dozen, and the action to a rising of the steerage class against their betters up front. For on this polar express, your station in life is measured by your proximity to the source of all sustenance—the Engine, which is perpetual and—not without reason—seen as divinely powered. Insurgent leader Curtis (Captain America Chris Evans) is pure tail section, where people survive in squalid, cramped quarters eating nothing but protein paste. (In other words, like customers on Spirit Airlines.) The proles are kept at bay by Tilda Swinton, who is wigged and dentured like the worst librarian in the world. As she oppresses the masses, she dispenses choice bits of rail-derived religious ideology, admonishing them to “keep their station.” Snowpiercer may be a rare summer movie with a political edge, but the edge isn’t exactly keen. In fact, it’s more like a bludgeon.
          The movie is little more than a decent actioner as Curtis’ rebels start their march toward the head of the train. Where Bong really hits his stride is how he visualizes the contrast between steerage and first class. The insurgents pass through increasingly opulent, baroque surroundings (a car full of hot tubs; an aquarium car complete with sushi bar) that look vaguely Kubrickian, the bastard spawn of Clockwork Orange and the last twenty minutes of The Shining.  At its best, the thing feels like freewheeling satire where literally anything can happen.
          Snowpiercer doesn’t sustain this level of craziness. In the end, it devolves into the kind of conspiratorial hand-waving of too many modern political thrillers, where the idea of a genuine uprising against injustice just isn’t believable to most viewers.  After leading his people from bondage, the modern Moses won’t be idolized—he’ll be subpoenaed.
          Still, Bong deserves credit for at least suggesting that evil can be not just a personal quality embodied in villains, but an aspect of a system. In the middle of the summer stupid season, that almost qualifies as genius.

© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Truth, But No Reconciliation

The Agatas ask a lot of questions in Ida.

«««½ Ida. Written by Pawel Pawlikowski  & Rebecca Lenkiewicz. Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski. At selected theaters. (In Polish w/ English subtitles)

Things are looking up in Poland recently. Of all the former Soviet satellites, Poland is widely regarded as a success story. Its economic and political example is one of the biggest (and under-reported) reasons why the people of Western Ukraine threw out their Kremlin puppet and aligned with Europe. For Poland—a nation that vanished from the map more than once in the last few centuries—to serve as inspiration to anyone is faintly miraculous.
          But as Pawel Pawlikowski 's lovely Ida shows, the ghosts of the nation's recent past aren't so easily left behind. The script by Pawlikowski  and Rebecca Lenkiewicz focuses on the original sin of 20th century Poland: the German occupation during WWII, when the nation's Jews were all but annihilated by the Nazis, sometimes (but not always) with the connivance of the Poles themselves.
          A generation after the war, under the Communists, young Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska) is a novice about to take her vows as a nun. Before taking that momentous step, she is instructed by her mother superior to visit Wanda, her aunt and only living relative. Wanda (Agata Kulesza) is a court judge with a hanging reputation and a habit of partying hard and drinking harder. She pointedly refused to take custody of Ida as a child, which makes for some awkwardness as her adult niece makes contact with her for the first time. But that's nothing compared to what Wanda blurts just a few minutes after their meeting: Ida, the aspiring nun, is actually Jewish. Her parents—including Wanda's sister—disappeared under mysterious circumstances during the war.
          As Pawlikowski  and Lenkiewicz show, there was little taste for digging up recent history in Poland during the Communist era. Commemorating the crimes of the Fascists had a certain propaganda value, but of recalling Polish complicity—let alone Soviet war crimes—there was not much of an upside. Wanda, suppressing her first instinct to send her niece packing, helps her learn the whereabouts of her parents. They're a very odd couple indeed, the worldly judge and the beatific novice, as they travel the countryside, asking questions the locals would prefer not to hear.
          Ida is a practically perfect piece of work. Shot in limpid black and white, it is a concerto for two instruments suggesting great depth beneath its spare surface. The Agatas are from different halves of the universe, Trzebuchowska with a dignity livened by an Eve-like sensual curiosity, Kulesza with a moral despair Roman Polanski would appreciate, and sigh over.
          It's only practically perfect because it bites off more than it can chew about an era much more ambitious films have failed to rationalize. Pawlikowski raises questions about the Poles who initially helped Ida's family hide from the Nazis that he never bothers to answer. In a film where the words "Nazi" and "German" are barely uttered, that's a heavy burden of guilt to place on the Poles, if only by default. With the film running only eighty minutes, there seems to have been plenty of time for it to make its moral case clearer.
          Pawlikowski gets one big thing right, however: for too long, it served the purposes of both the Communists and certain anti-Semitic Poles to make Poland seem like nothing more than a Jewish graveyard. His Ida is a fictional reflection of a real phenomenon among young Poles, thousands of whom are rediscovering their hidden or forgotten Jewish roots. For them, the Holocaust is becoming something that happened not to a distant and extinct "them", but to a living, breathing "us".

© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro