Saturday, October 31, 2009

Amelia: Celebrity Pilot Celebrated Obsequiously

There's something off about Mira Nair's sumptuously lugubrious tribute to Amelia Earhart, and it's apparent within the first few minutes of what really amounts to a nature film: we aren't going to learn a single new thing about the famous female pilot, notorious for her disappearance over the Pacific during an ill-advised round-the-world flight. Instead, we're in store for a slavish tribute film, all sepia and gold and weighted with studied authenticity and poetic flights of seagulls.

Sigh. I don't know about you, but if I were in the mood for this sort of fare, I'd take a Xanax and watch the Hallmark channel.

That may sound harsh, but the movie is a disappointment when you think about what could have been learned about Earhart's lifelong quest for celebrity and a woman's right to pilot the wide-open skies. Instead, all obstacles against her seem like mild plot points, meant to pass the time until the next luscious airborne nature shot. In the flight that makes her famous - the "first woman to fly across the Atlantic" - Earhart doesn't actually fly the plane, but simply goes along as a passenger (though she has an opinion or two about how to get off the ground). It's a promising setup: is this woman, who prides herself on her abilities, passing herself off to the world as a fake? But the question never seems to truly bother her (other than to give her motivation to do it again, for real this time)...and we're never given much insight as to why. Similarly, her husband, George Putnam (played by Richard Gere) gets portrayed as a suffering, saintly milquetoast, at first hungry to make Amelia a star but soon plying us with his earnest love for her while she has a perfectly understandable affair with the handsome head of aviation, Gene Vidal (played with ever-smiling insouciance by Ewan McGreagor). Somehow, one can't help but think that real life - let alone the life of the world's most famous female celebrity and feminist heroine - must be more complicated than this, and that emotions are never quite so one dimensional as to be so easily transformed for the convenience of the next adventure.

That isn't to say that Swank doesn't do a great job capturing Earhart's cadence and manner. Swank does, in fact, quite disappear into the role - don't be surprised if she doesn't earn an Academy nod for it this season. But her almost flawless performance, stuck as it is in the middle of this bloodless story, has the characteristics of still water: deep, dark, and practically invisible in the mist.

The movie really misses its best opportunity for drama when it gets to the depiction of the most famous part of Earhart's life: those last few hours as she departed New Guinea in her plane the Electra, headed for a tiny atol in the Pacific for refueling, before she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared forever. Rumor has it that Noonan was an alcoholic, and that the flight from New Guinea left with poor planning, not enough fuel and other problems. Given the danger of the flight and Earhart's otherwise professional attitude, there has always been much speculation about what happened when that plane left New Guinea and just how it disappeared before reaching its destination in the Pacific. But rather than go to the trouble of unearthing new facts, or even taking the chance of offering us a clearly fabricated but fascinating explanation (as, say, Oliver Stone might), Nair gives us an uneventful catalog of bad coincidences and timing. Nothing in the ultimate fate of the Electra tells us anything more about Earhart's character, her decisions, or even the meaning of her life (other than the standard spiel we get from Eleanor Roosevelt that she's an inspiration to women everywhere). While all this may, in fact, be the simple existential fate of this poor pilot, Nair isn't going for existentialism, either. Instead, the lack of meaning seems like simply an oversight: we're supposed to simply exalt in Earhart's courage at facing down the impossible, not wonder what drove her to it, or caused her to ultimately fail.

Watching this movie, then, is a bit of an exercise in frustration. The cinematography is beautiful, and Swank convinces us that we're really watching Earhart, and really seeing the magic of the skies that she was able to see. At the same time, in the end, the film feels like nothing more than a travelogue of her trips. But just like Earhart - if we're going to circumnavigate the world, we want to do more than simply go along for the ride.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Serious Man: Coen Brothers Get Seriously Good

Sometimes, movies based on a mathematical metaphor can get a bit too pat. In the hands of the Coen Brothers, however, there’s little worry – these boys are originals, and even the slickest “Big Bang Theory” physics set-up is handled with foreboding, mystery and style. It may seem at first that with this movie, and its focus on a nerdy, Jewish physics professor (and even a cast-member from "Big Bang"), the Coen Brothers have decided to capitalize on the success of Chuck Lourie’s up-and-coming sit-com about four science nerds (two of them Jewish) living at Standford, one of whom is dating a gorgeous blonde. But this film is about something much more than dorm-room dorks: at once more serious, as well as more darkly comic.

Lawrence Grupnick, the serious man and Jewish physicist in question, lives in the flat Midwestern landscape of 1967. I seriously relate to this man: he is, for all practical purposes, my father (which puts me in the position of Grupnick’s son, a Jefferson-Airplane listening Hebrew-School delinquent who is also a stand-in for the filmmakers). We children of second-generation Midwestern Jews who assiduously provided for their careers and families know exactly what Grupnick is going through: torn between the placid traditions of his parent’s faith, and the “new freedoms” of an America filled with cultures of all types (and people all around him taking advantage of such freedoms), this generation has to face modern troubles and heartbreak of divorce, drugs, and cultural integration for the first time. But with only their parent’s ancient culture to provide them with an inconclusive moral guidance, which seems impossible to translate to the modern condition, the immensity of their choices is nearly unbearable.

But back to the physics. When we first meet Lawrence, he’s explaining to his class the Schrodinger principal of uncertainty, and the story of Schroedinger’s cat. It’s the classic example of modern physics: The cat is in a box bombarded with one of Schroedinger’s modern uncertain particles. The particle is both in an “up” and a “down” state, until it’s observed. If the particle is “up,” it kills the cat. If not, the cat lives. So is the cat alive or dead? There’s no way to tell until you open the box. Or rather, the cat is NEITHER alive or dead, and your opening the box either kills it, or lets it live. That is: all is indeterminate, until you perceive it.

In response to Schrodinger’s idea that the grounding of reality was simply chance determined by our own particular efforts to observe, Einstein famously said, “God does not play dice with the universe.” This theorem of modern chance and perspective, however, is the central metaphor of the movie, and the Coen brothers proceed to set up a number of delicious Schrodinger experiments for Lawrence (including a beautifully directed pair of car accidents). Lawrence’s first test comes in the form of a Korean student who wishes to protest a failing grade. After the student leaves the office, Lawrence finds an envelope of money. He confronts the student. Did he leave that money as a bribe? How dare he accuse him, the student claims in his broken English. Such an accusation is defamation, and his father will sue. So he didn’t leave the money, Lawrence asks. Is grade passing, student queries back. I can’t change a grade, says Lawrence. Then it is mystery, the student replies.

A delicious scene of impossible choice is actually also how the movie opens: with a flashback to the old country in Prussia, and Lawrence’s ancestors. It’s a small bubba meissa (grandmother story) told in Yiddish. The husband invites a neighbor over for a drink after the neighbor helps him fix his cart. After he tells his wife about the visitor, the wife claims that the neighbor died three years ago, and the person the husband has invited is a dybbuck, an evil spirit. The husband protests, but then the neighbor is at the door. The wife pleads not to let him in, but he does. As the wife queries the visitor about his past (was he sick, did he die?) she decides to stab him with a kitchen knife to prove her case. He doesn’t die right away, but instead, staggers back out into the cold. Was he an evil spirit, as the wife claimed, or a real person who they’d just killed, in traditional Coen brothers way? That question now haunts Lawrence and his modern generation. How much of the wisdom of the old country is mere superstition, able to leave you nothing but dead…and how much is genuine wisdom, keeping at bay the evil of the world? Impossible to tell. It is mystery.

It’s at this time, when these stories start to come together, that you realize that the Coen’s are after something great and rare in film: a serious exploration of the presence of God in the world, the failing of traditional religion to leave modern Americans with a useful moral roadmap, and the ultimate meaning of life. I don’t mean “meaning of life” in a jokey, Hitchhiker’s Guide sort of way. I mean that the boys here are really going after the great existential questions: Is there a god, do our choices have meaning, how do we deal with life’s questions and tragedies? The last time a filmmaker went so deeply into these issues, and did it with a similar lighthearted, darkly comic touch, was Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. That was twenty years ago, and in combining the seriousness of a movie like No Country for Old Men with the deliciously ironic humor of a film like Hudsucker Proxy or Burn After Reading – but all with a bit more warmth for the characters – the brothers have produced probably their most integrated, if not their finest, work.

They’ve certainly learned a lot from filming the darkness of McCormack’s novel, and bringing that sense of foreboding evil into the ordinariness of the most ordinary: the middle-class Midwestern life. Every choice that Lawrence makes seems poised to bring down God’s judgment – and like Anton Chigurh, the assassin in Old Men, this is clearly the Old Testament god of wrath that Lawrence must contend with. It’s no coincidence that while going to erase that student’s F, Lawrence receives an ominous call from his doctor: or that the simple act of erasing a letter (letters, Hebrew, and numerology play a big role in this movie) is contrasted with the more literal potential erasing of a tornado barreling down upon a school playground. That last scene of the film: God’s wrath in the form of a tornado, and the American flag flapping weakly in the face of it, seems an odd and mysterious way to end the movie at first, but symbolically, couldn’t carry more weight. That tornado is Lawrence’s Old-Testament God, coming to pass judgment, and the even the new American freedoms tremble in the face of it.

Those freedoms are clearly exemplified in the central issue Lawrence must face: the fidelity of his wife, and how, as a man, he should care for his family (who does not seem to have much care for him). His wife not only tells him she wants a divorce – or a “get,” to use the traditional Hebrew, which many of Lawrence’s friends have humorous trouble contextualizing, at first – she adds insult to injury by asking Lawrence to befriend the man who is cuckolding him. The ensuing scenes of emasculation and Lawrence’s weakness in the face of it tip him dangerously close to a character with whom we have no sympathies. But Lawrence wins us back with his quest for guidance, framed as his attempt to visit three rabbis through the three major story acts: first the young rabbi, who carries no weight with him (but imparts perhaps the best advice Lawrence gets: that everything is perspective. Look at the parking lot, the rabbi says – and the parking lot, indeed, is where God finally appears). Then the older rabbi, whose stories about goyish teeth inscribed with Hebrew letters are just a tantalizing, seemingly meaningless mystery (but quite humorously told). Then finally – the oldest rabbi of all – the great Mishna – who won’t even see Lawrence, but who has a clear moral for his son: be a good boy. So it is that tradition is what we need, even if it has no real relevance any more, except to make us feel guilty. Perhaps the funniest moment of the movie – for me – comes when Lawrence’s son – a stoned bar-mitzvah boy – actually finds the wherewithal to read the Torah correctly. The Coen’s direct the scene as if the nachas generated by that simple act is a literal Big Bang: it seems to wash over the assembled audience and repair, in an instant, every transgression and everything that has gone wrong with Lawrence’s family (and every boy who’s gone through the bar mitzvah ritual will surely understand that joke).

The truth of these scenes, and the accuracy with which the Coens portray the Midwestern Jewish community, couldn’t be more heartfelt, and really, it’s a movie that many Midwesterners – Jewish, Catholic, or otherwise – will find familiar. Woody Allen’s brash New York Jews are fun, but they have nothing on the suppressed neuroses of my Midwestern roots, and this is really the first film I’ve ever seen that hits so close to home.

That the Coens are able to create such a rich texture of metaphor and culture – without much ever happening in the film (there’re a couple of untimely deaths, a few breasts, some minor crimes, a neighborly seduction, and an imagined murder) – gives this movie more of the feeling of really great literature, more than the early goofy Coen oeuvre. Which is to say, the movie may not be for everyone, but will bear fruit for the patient cinemaphile. Some people may be uncomfortable with the simple existential questions posed by that awesome and abrupt ending: has Lawrence really resolved things with his wife? With his job? With his health? And where exactly is that tornado headed, and for whom? These things seem to be left in God’s hands – or else, in the hands of random chance. Either way, like life itself, it is mystery.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Surrogates: Substituting B-Movie Plots for Story Telling

There seems to be a rash of movies lately about the oh-so-1990’s subject of virtual reality, or what this latest sci-fi film starring Bruce Willis as a future cop on the trail of a virtual reality killer, calls “Surrogates.” You know: plug into a substitute idealized android body that you control remotely with some fancy looking VR goggles and easy chair. The much awaited James Cameron sci-fi thriller, Avatar, also uses this same plot device, as does the recent Gamer (only in the case of Gamer, the androids were real, living convicts). The same idea is as old as the original "Star Trek" (the Harry Mudd episode with the Androids) and was given real attention in TV shows like "Wild Palms" and movies like Johnny Mnemonic and Virtuosity in the mid Nineties.

I’m not quite sure why this old sci-fi trope is suddenly so popular again. As it’s done in Surrogates, it definitely has a William Gibson, 1990’s feel – especially as this film delves into our pension for electronic communication and fascination with artificial reality. Like most of these films, the moral is simple: we're now so plugged in to the “net” that we've lost our ability to enjoy real life. But this time, the VR “chairs” and “goggles” used in this film seem hardly at all re-imagined from their 1990’s counterparts, and the story does little to update a theme that’s been well exploited ever since Jean Baudrillard wrote his treatises on hyperreality and movies like The Matrix turned the net into a well dramatized metaphor for modern electronic isolation.

In Surrogates, we have a kind of cross between I Robot and The Matrix – a vast volunteer matrix of metallic, human-looking artificial life forms that people can control remotely from the lazy comfort of their living rooms as they send younger, handsomer robotic look-alikes to work, play, and generally participate daily life for them. The robots are manufactured by, of course, an all-powerful corporation with vested interests and internal dissention. Life is seemingly sweet in this safe, accident-free virtual world until someone discovers a weapon able to short out a robot with enough power that it can kill its remote operator in his chair (it does so by “melting his brain,” just to make sure you get the point).

Enter Bruce Willis as Tom Greer, the cop with personal issues who’s assigned to track down the mystery of the killer. Now Surrogates borrows from its third major source – Majority Report – as the cop with a dead son gets lured into uncovering the conspiracy behind the killings, while simultaneously having to stop a deadly threat to the billions of surrogate users around the world.

While the set up to the concept is nicely done – there’s a kind of Paul Verhoeven style to the direction that tweaks our modern corporate sensibilities – the back stories about the dead son and the mysterious corporate founder fail to resonate as well as the movies they’re borrowed from. (James Cromwell even stars as the corporate font head, as he did in I Robot.) We get a kind of promising political allegory in the form of a revolutionary named The Prophet, who wants everyone to go back to the “unplugged” pre-surrogate lifestyle – a charismatic rabble-rouser whose moral righteousness in this film is the flip side of the villainous Flesh Fair organizers in Speilberg’s AI. But this interesting wrinkle in the plot is conveniently smoothed over in an effort to get to the movie’s more conventional pat ending. In effect, they seem to have substituted real writers with Hollywood surrogates who merely borrowed plot devices to fill in the steps in their fantasy.

It’s a shame, because a movie with a promising concept ends up delivering less than a TV show with a similar concept ("Caprica", based on "Battlestar Gallactica"), but more atmospheric character and backstory development. Really, the makers of Surrogates could have done better by committing more to one of to extremes – either a bigger budget, with better chase scenes, special effects, and explosions, or keep it to the B-movie budget they seem to have had, but develop more nuanced characters, and explore with a bit more care the themes of disconnection and loss. Instead, we get a movie about a people who live but a shadow of their lives, which is itself but a shadow of a movie.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Michael Moore's Capitalism: More Agit-Prop Than Love Story

But is that really so bad? In an age where corporations and governments have become their own slick propaganda machines, maybe Moore's project - being a carnivalist entertainer for the common man - is what those who study leftist art would call purposeful propaganda, art in service of a populist political message. It strikes me that having a propaganda machine like Moore fighting back for the workers is only...well, to use one of Moore's own overtly latent terms..."fair."

After refining his approach for over two decades: telling sob stories of workers crushed under the wheels of cruel corporations and government, while mugging and embarrassing the lugs who run them, all the while mixing in a Raffenstahllish montage of found footage and Dada-ist deconstruction intending to highlight the contradictions and absurdities of the enemy, Moore has become a master of the style...a style, at this point, ripe for a Saturday Night Live parody. But that's another story.

In Capitalism: A Love Story Moore, in a way, decides to go for broke - instead of simply tackling a particular leftist issue (such as failed intelligence of Fahrenheit 9/11 or the medical system in Sicko), he's decided to set his sights on the whole shebang, basically indicting the entire American "Capitalist" way of life.

What Moore spends most of his time on here is a heart-wrenching deconstruction of the mortgage-cum-banking-cum-bailout crisis of the past year; and when Moore sticks to his subject - such as interviewing a farm family loosing their house, following fired workers as they sit-in for the pay still owed them, or following neighborhood activists as they battle local police from evicting families, he's got his teeth into a subject that surely resonates with the times. His point that maybe this time, Americans who usually vote against their interests will get mad enough to do something about it, starts to feel like a movement in the making. And by tying back the moments in the news with his own personal family story of growing up in Flint, Michigan, Moore succeeds in making himself not just a strident spokesman, but another one of the families who've ended up on the losing side of the Republican revolution: and thus a voice we're more inclined to follow.

But in going for broke, Moore overreaches - throwing in unrelated stories about the corporate practice of taking out life insurance on young workers (known as "dead peasant" insurance); charting the Congressional vote for the bailout without examining the alternatives, and basically letting everyone off the hook for our fiscal mess - including not only those homeowners who bought into the refi-mania of the 'naughts, or who abandoned their homes when the payments got tough, thus fanning the flames of the crisis, but also favorite Democrats like Clinton and Obama - who don't neatly fit into his "us versus them" meme. This time, Moore wants to disparage the entire Capitalist system as, in his words, "evil" - to be replaced by...well, that word Socialism seems to be the alternative on offer, though Moore does little to explain it (and seems to intentionally avoid uttering the word). I grant you, it's not a far leap from our current fiscal mess to concluding that this whole Capitalist project is a dud. Yet Socialism is hardly a rejection of capitalism (Moore seems to buy into the Republican line, here), so what is it that he's really arguing for? Moore clearly cares little about such niceties as making sense - which makes his point here a bit of a mess. Moore, as we know, doesn't want to convince: he wants to break your heart, then hit you over the head with his assertions. But it's not just that the realities are more complicated than Moore would wish them to be, it's that this time, by aiming at an entire economic system, instead of just a particular crisis or two, his buckshot rarely hits the intended targets, and instead of the righteous anger he's going for all we emerge with is a sad shaking of the head, not just at the misery caused by the banking crisis but at the deep, deep misunderstanding of it that even lucid commentators like Michael Moore seem to have.

So my complaint about Moore's movie this time isn't that he's gone and done it again - rather, it's that he's missed an opportunity. There is plenty of blame to throw around in this mortgage/bailout mess - Moore bags a politician or two (Chris Dodd comes out looking less than pretty); and he nails the Goldman Sachs/Government conspiracy previously written about by Matt Tiabi. And it's worth being reminded that there are real lives being destroyed by this debacle. But what Moore leaves out is even more telling: little mention that Obama's cabinet is, surprise surprise, more of the same, or that it was Clinton who signed the bank deregulation bill, or - even more complicating - that the anti-AIG anger has now morphed into the anti-Obama, anti-government Tea Party movement, who has concluded just the opposite point: that it's not Capitalists who are evil, but Socialists. Perhaps these oversights are all part of Moore's strategic plan to get labor-leaning pols into higher office (Roosevelt is practically canonized at the end of the film). But the long passage on Reagan's war against the unions in the Eighties really feels like a stretch, and starts to betray Moore's real passion in this film: organized labor, and its ability to fight for worker's interests.

That's a worthy goal, and perhaps one worth fighting for, but really, it's tangential to the mortgage meltdown and the financial bailout. Then again, what Moore wants to do is achieve his dreamed-for worker's revolution, and in his mind, the bailout/meltdown is merely the spark he hopes will get the Peasants to rise. That's perhaps why it's more important for him to show angry AIG protesters and clear-cut enemies like Hank Paulson, than to really reveal the nuances of what just happened.

It's too bad, because I think a political propagandist like Moore, if he really focused in on the financial mess, could have helped do for banking reform and regulation what a movie like "Sicko" has apparently done for the health care reform initiative. This time, Moore takes aim at the entire capitalist edifice, trotting out his most strident and vague Troskyist anthems, and instead of launching a roar that has the potential to create a movement, all he gives us is a cris de cour: the yelp of a dog who's had his tail caught, and plaintive though he may be, seems to have lost his bite.