Tuesday, August 26, 2014

One Country for Old Men

Eenhoorn and Nelson happily tread water in Land Ho!

««« Land Ho!.  Written and directed by Aaron Katz & Martha Stephens. At selected theaters.

Sooner or later, you end up seated on a plane, bus or train next to someone who is 1) much older than yourself, and 2) chatty. And it inevitably happens that, expecting an ordeal, you get surprised—your seatmate is actually pretty interesting, and more than a little cool for their age. If you haven't learned something by the end of the trip, you at least feel a little chagrined at expecting the worst.
          That's pretty much the impression left by newcomers Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens' septuagenarian road movie, Land Ho! It's another departure in the growing genre of similar films (Sideways, The Trip, Eat Love Pray, the upcoming Trip to Italy) premised on the notion that, sometimes, you need to go away to find yourself. It's become a formula as familiar as the old Bing Crosby/Bob Hope "Road to…" movies, except instead of G-rated hijinx and tunes, we get cuisine, scenery, and personal growth.
          The travelers this time are Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson) and Colin (Paul Eenhoorn). Mitch is a doctor who recently retired under vague circumstances. An unapologetic sensualist, he's a charmer so sincere in his vulgarity that it's hard to fault him. He pairs uneasily with widower and former brother-in-law Colin, a soulful ex-concert musician long ago forced to give up his art for a desk job. Out of little more than loneliness, Mitch cajoles the bereft Colin into accompanying him on a trip to Iceland, promising spectacular landscapes, juicy lobsters, and lots of lovely Scandinavian ladies.
          The chemistry between the two leads—bird-dogging clown vs. mopey artist—is reminiscent of Sideways, except perhaps running at 33rpm instead of 45. (If you don’t get this reference, youngsters, ask your grandparents.) As a virtual newcomer, the seventy-two year-old Nelson is unpolished and stunningly authentic. He's a guy who naturally charms the camera. Eenhoorn, a veteran from Australia, seems crafted by comparison, but no less compelling in his ruefulness.
          Nothing of much urgency seems to happen as we travel with these guys, and it doesn't much matter. Iceland, after all, is famous for its "Golden Circle", an itinerary that puts you back exactly where you started—hopefully a little wiser for the journey.
          How Land Ho! combines character and landscape is perhaps the most surprising thing about it. Iceland's moody starkness almost insists on Bergman-esque treatment—two pilgrims on the edge of mortality staring out into a gray, eternal sea. But Katz and Stephens chose to see Iceland as it really is, as one of the geologically newest pieces of real estate on earth. In that sense, this is no valedictory for old men, but the birth of something too young to have a name.

© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Waiting for Augustus

A few days ago, Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy set a box office record for an August opening weekend of $94 million. That's on top of $713 million earned worldwide by the latest Captain America, $707 million for The Amazing Spider Man 2, and $739 million for X-Men: Days of Future Past. The $2 billion-plus bonanza is just for 2014. Next year we're due for another Avengers opus, something called Ant Man, and the first attempt to resurrect Fantastic Four since way, way back (in 2007, that is). With these kinds of numbers, Marvel's deep catalog, and the fact Hollywood prefers to package familiar, pre-sold properties that don't require much explaining to sell, it appears we're very far from "peak-Marvel".
          Arguably, all this is a quintessential American success story. Marvel Comics Group, which Stan Lee launched in its modern form in 1961, began as an upstart challenger to then-dominant DC, owner of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.  Marvel revolutionized the genre by introducing more complex, troubled characters that resonated well with audiences in the latter '60's and early '70's. Shortly after, Star Wars revolutionized Hollywood by pioneering both the "event" movie and the special effects epic. From there, it probably was only a matter of time before the Age of Movie Comics dawned.
          It's an inspiring story, and from the box office numbers it's clear audiences like what they've seen. Yet Marvel (along with DC's movie properties) are only the tip of this cultural iceberg. They typify a way of telling stories that studio elites increasingly love: the superhero archetype, where everything depends on some gifted individual who transcends all limitations. Before they green-light a movie, studio developers typically ask: "What about this figure that makes him or her indispensible? How are they uniquely capable?" Examples of this mentality in action—the Star Wars movies, the Jason Bourne movies, the Mission Impossible movies, the 300 movies, the resurgent 007 series—are not hard to list. Even Guardians of the Galaxy, which is supposed to present an ironic take by making heroes of a handful of misfits and criminals, is rendered "superhero-ish" in its big reveal at the end (which I won't spoil here).
          True, it's in the nature of archetypes that they've always been around. Trouble is,  this one arguably never been more dominant than now, and that surge in popularity suggests a few troubling things about us.
          The flip-side of needing superheroes to solve our problems is that ordinary folks become—and in practice are almost encouraged to be—useless. In the Thor movies, the heroes are literally gods, in the path of whom ordinary mortals don't stray. At the climax of The Avengers, as New York City is under attack by aliens, only six people fight back while the rest of humanity stands around and watches. Both the Marvel and DC-derived movies are full of scenes like this, with the regular folks consigned to varying degrees of passivity.
          What is it about our contemporary problems that make superheroes so appealing? It's tempting to look at the raft of intractable worries we face, from arrested organs of government to planetary climate disruption to economic upheavals on a globalized scale, and conclude that many of us have simply given up hope that ordinary people or institutions can handle them. In a sense, we all seem to be waiting for our Augustus Caesar—a colossus who will bestride our world and single-handedly set it right. That this rescue, like that of our Roman antecedents, would come at the expense of our unquestioning compliance is, well, the price of the ticket. (I suggest Augustus here because, with his rise, the Romans finally turned away from the challenge of governing themselves.) Behind fantasies of super-powers lies the fear of powerlessness.
          Compare this with the kinds of stories Americans used to prefer. In virtually every old movie about war, and in modern throwbacks like Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan, it's the average Joe under extraordinary circumstances that rises to the occasion. In Ryan, Tom Hanks is not only not able to fly, teleport himself, or control metal objects with his mind—he was a rather unremarkable English teacher from Pennsylvania. Steven Spielberg's film was released sixteen years ago, but it seems almost inconceivable now, a curio of bygone, weirdly can-do times. At today's multiplex, it is only the hobbits of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies, who save Middle Earth despite their preference for comfy chairs and pipe-weed, that faintly echo that ideal. But of course, nobody goes to Jackson's movies just for the hobbits.
          A world where only superheroes can change anything is a world doomed never to change. But that's where we seem to be now in our collective imagination: stuck, passive, and waiting for someone with "a very particular set of skills."

© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro