Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Road: Distilled Despair, With A Hope Chaser

It's as if someone had taken every human moment out of 2012 - Roland Emmerich's apocalyptic disasterfest - and put them into this movie, another end-of-times story, this one penned originally by Cormac McCarthy, which focuses so intensely on how one man and child deal with a world dying by inches at the end of an apocalyptic event, that it lacks even a single CGI disaster scene.

Which isn't to say that the movie doesn't have its own cinematic moments of gray-on-gray beauty: a broken freeway spanning an abyss, a business tower in flames, a mall in destruction. What haunts these scenes are their little familiarities, carefully composed and delicately photographed, as our ordinary world is painted black: a washed out billboard, tilted telephone poles along a residential street, an ATM sign in a vandalized movie theater. But where 2012 gave us an irrepressible orgy of irrelevant specifics, The Road is a lazy, meandering journey of desperate vagueness: we're never told what caused the apocalypse and why only a few survivors remain. All we're told is that if they want to live, they need to be ever vigilant, looking out for scraps of food and wary of bands of ruthless, roving cannibals. Their main asset seems to be stupid luck. And how they got here seems to be irrelevant: whatever's caused this condition of complete despair and has put this father and son on a road of survival is merely the human condition, and our own human failing.

The Road starts us in medias res: a disheveled old man and a young boy wake up in rags along the road; they are obviously running from something in a desolate landscape of burned trees and destroyed cars. Through flashback we're filled in with some of the missing pieces, though not all - the young boy is the man's son, who was born soon after some apocalyptic event destroyed most of the exterior world: killed the animals and vegetation and scorched the earth. The man and his wife lived on scraps, holed up in their home, for several years after - but eventually, as life became too tough, as neighbors turned menacing in their search for what little food remained, the wife decided it was better to leave this world than to continue suffering its cruelties. But the man refused: and now, faced with nothing but evil and despair, he must protect his son from roving bands of cannibals, and try to keep them both alive in a dying world.

That's heady stuff, and this isn't necessarily a film for those looking for some holiday cheer. There isn't far one can go with complete destruction, but McCarthy isn't after the entertaining nihilism of say, a Mad Max movie, or the clever spiritualism of M. Night Shyamalan. Instead, this is a religious metaphor about a test of faith: when everything is stripped from him - not only his own life, but the entirety of humanity - can our hero continue on - does he have the strength not to take his own life? There is even a Hieronymus Bosch-like scene of hell, in the basement of a house (that a man like this should have known better than to enter), where cannibals are keeping their naked captives to gnaw on for supper at their leisure. Meanwhile, the man and his son roam the empty world that's become a kind of purgatory - a mere waiting place between the memory of their former life, and death. (So maybe it is a holiday movie after all?)

This is truly a movie carried by the sets and the acting - both of which are superb, with Vitto Mortensen drawing us into the character from the first few scenes. Most of the movie is spent wandering, simply trying to survive and find food, and the man is haunted by dreams of his former life. The true inheritor of this world, however, is the son, not the man - the son who confesses to his father that it's really he that has to worry about everything. Despite the man's wariness, the son hasn't lost his basic sense of human kindness, and eventually, one realizes that even in this desolate half of a life, the son will be the one to create a new civilization.

It's only when we get to the end of the movie - which is too rushed to fully tie everything together that it's trying to - that we find out where those elements of civilization come from: from the hope of human kindness kept alive inside, even in the most dire of circumstances. The irony is that the father must extinguish his ability to trust, if he's to keep himself and his son alive, even if his son's only hope is to maintain his ability to judge human nature, and know who to trust. At the end, we realize that if only the father had been able to risk trusting someone as well, they might have both been saved.

This movie, which was slated for release last year, and then pushed back, is clearly meant to be Oscar bait. It's a dark horse, to be sure, but what it has going for it is a very Christian moral, laid out simply and starkly. I'm not convinced (the movie does too neat a job delineating between the opposing forces, when I believe the reality would be the dynamics of the shades of gray), but it sure is effective story telling. When I left the theater, even the big men in the audience weren't afraid to admit they'd been crying.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox: At Least Fairly Good

Fantastic Mr. Fox, a stop-animation movie adapted from Roahd Dahl's children's book by unconventional auteur Wes Anderson, tells the story of Mr. Fox, a fox-about-town going through a fairly typical mid-life crisis. Now that his wife is a mom, and they have a pup to raise, he's vowed to settle down and stop the dangerous occupation of chicken snatching: but Mr. Fox yearns for his daring days of old, and to perform just one more glorious caper. Unfortunately, his caper goes up against three of the meanest farmers in the neighborhood: the imposing trio of Boggis, Bunce, and Bean.

This simple story has been rewritten by Anderson to focus, more than the original fable, one thinks, on Anderson's typical obsesssion with the existential despair of small family moments. Hence the character of Christopherson - Mr. Fox's nephew, who comes for an extended visit during Foxy's schradenfreud, becoming a rival to Ash, Mr. Fox's nerdish pup.

Let me say here that I've never been a big fan of Wes Anderson (his movies have never really gelled for me), but in working with Dahl's material, I think he finally here finds his voice - and the merging of eccentric fairy tale with existential family dynamic and the endearing quality of decidedly low-tech stop-animation produces just the right combination of quirky introspection.

The best thing in the film, by far, is the catchflung animation and the whimsical way in which the tale is told. By one small example: in explaining the complexities of the animal sport of Whackbat, a crickety thing with several layers of intricate complexities, we're presented with a non-sensical litany of quick rules performed in a monotone by Owen Wilson, all to comic effect. The joke is even better in the second go-around when Ash spontaneously performs his own real-life (stop-time life, whatever) Whackbat impression while getting his father Foxy and Dad's accomplice Kylie out of a tough life-threatening spot with farmer Bean. Seeing it all done with cute stuffed animals makes it even more entertaining.

By the way, that Bean is a determined sucker who pulls no punches in trying to hunt down Foxy and his hoard of animals. The relentlessness is a bit dark for younger children, but does a good job of capturing the heightened drama of adolescence and its sense of irreversibility. That is to say, I've always found existentialism to be a bit of a juvenile philosophy - lacking the stern conviction of nihilism, the formal rigors of phenomenology, or the literary complexities of a full-blown moral universe. But it does suit well a young mind struggling with the unfairness of life and searching for a reason to enjoy it all anyway. That seems to be the focus of the tale here: as much that Ash discovers his own inner fox despite his father's favoritism for his cousin; as it is Mr. Foxy freeing himself from the stultifying shackles of civilization to re-ignite his youthful, foxy nature. What Anderson is saying, apparently, is if you just stop all that worrying, your sleek animal nature will save the day.

Call it "Old Dogs" meets "New Tricks." Like a kid who wants a good excuse to skip school, the story labors laboriously to explain why rakish irresponsibility is cute, and good for an old fox. Mr. Fox's pontifications on the subject hardly make sense, but never-you-mind: it's really more Wes Anderson's movie than it is Roald Dahl's, which means it's really not at all about being a good husband or father or any kind of believable leader: it's just about growing up an awkward child, being challenged, and overcoming odds. Even the sly Mr. Foxy is just a big kid at heart, eager to be appreciated. I, for one, find the animation and writing thoroughly entertaining most of the way through, so I think this time, the kid deserves his due.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

2012: Emmerich's Apocalypse on Steroids

What, one must ask, does Roland Emmerich have against the world? In his debut blockbuster, Independence Day, he blew up New York, LA, and Washington. Apparently that wasn’t enough, so he topped that with the 2004 disaster flick, Day After Tomorrow, in which a new ice age descends upon North America, freezing the inhabitants and sending the entire population of the U.S. fleeing to Mexico.

Now, he’s decided that decimating a few continents isn’t enough, and this time, it’s the entire world that has to go. In 2012 – which basis its end-of-the-world mythology on the Mayan Long Count calendar, which predicts the end of this “cycle” of time on an upcoming winter solstice of December 21st, 2012 – the end of time is precipitated by hot spots on the sun that somehow send mushy mutating neutrinos into the earth’s core, destabilizing the crust and causing world-wide havoc. If you thought the science of Day After Tomorrow was half-baked, this time Emmerich doesn’t even bother putting it in the oven; we’re essentially given a few lines of cartoon-level excuse for plausible explanation, and then off we go on the usual scientific / government / everyman race to outlive the giant whatever.

This movie has obviously been guided by an invisible studio hand, or at least someone whispering in Emmerich’s ear saying “forget trying to explain why it’s happening, just get to blowing stuff up.” Blowing stuff up is what Emmerich does really well, and it’s truly unfortunate that we have to plod through the entire first act of a way-too-long movie to get to the visual popcorn. No one in this movie – most especially the hero, played by the always cynical seeming John Cusack, a divorced father who discovers that the world’s expiration date is sooner than anyone realizes while taking his kids on a camping trip to Yellowstone – is someone we especially want to root to see survive, but we’re all for seeing more scenes of buildings crashing and national parks exploding.

In fact the scene at Yellowstone, where the North American “cauldron” erupts in what looks like a tremendous atomic explosion, is probably the emotional heart of the film and perhaps the only moment that is based on some actual real science (except, of course, that everyone who survives that episode would have in reality been toast – but that’s a minor point in an Emmerich adventure). This type of possibly-plausible nature unhinging man, and how we would react in the ultimate disaster scenario, is the type of cinematic thrill that we want from our popcorn movies, particularly in a post 9/11 world where our imaginative play about natural disaster seems like another useful form of risk preparedness.

The second act of Emerich’s film – as Cusack and his makeshift family rush to narrowly escape an endless series of disasters of Biblical proportions as they try to find the ships designed to save a few select members of mankind - delivers that adrenaline rush in spades, making it a film that really ought to be seen in a theater, especially in digital projection with the best sound (and fresh popcorn). Unfortunately, the first and third acts don’t live up to the spectacle of the second, and
the sagging on both ends tends to really almost sink this movie (pun intended).

The main problem is that none of these characters are very likable – to the extent that they even bother to depart from stock disaster types. It’s hard to imagine why governments would want to keep the end of the world a secret, but the decision in this film to hide what’s happening to the world, while limiting survivorship to a greedy cabal of the filthy rich and well connected feels both extremely timely, and massively disappointing. I suppose that Cusack is supposed to represent the one everyman who’s able to muscle his way into this super secret sect of rich bastards, but really, he’s not much better (he’s hardly a great dad and has few likable qualities), and in the end, with six billion people being sent to oblivion, one figures that there MUST be more interesting stories to follow than this. The obsession with the super rich begins to feel not like a critique of our cracked and seething present (which perhaps it was mean to be) but rather the opposite: a celebration of political cynicism and a paean to the Darwinian triumph of greed. The fact that some of the super rich may be left behind to die like the rest of us feels more like post-Goldman-Sachs-Great-Recession revenge fantasy than the trenchant moral dilemma that Emmerich hopes to build his wishy-washy third act around.

All of which is to say, the movie wants us to root for all the entirely wrong things, and that leaves me with a profoundly sick feeling in the end. There’s really a problem of scale, here, because when you are telling a story about the destruction of six billion people – neigh, the destruction of the whole of human civilization – there are issues larger to deal with than even a single, puffy, puppy, or the size of the bedrooms on the arc. I care not that the ineffectual President decides to stay behind and buck up the troops (how Richard the Third of him), nor do I care whether or not five thousand completely undeserving and biologically suspect Russian heiresses and Saudi oil barons are going to get saved from oblivion at the last minute. And certainly one must ask why these are these are the only people we have left at the end. One would think that if one wanted to repopulate a ravaged planet, there would be better specimens to do it with than this – where are the beautiful youth, the braniac scientists, the artists and philosophers, or at least the celebrities and NFL athletes? Not that I’m a fan of Eugenics, but just about any other method of selecting survivors –world-wide lottery, race to the finish, a “name that tune” contest – would have produced better results than this. The government doesn’t even bother to save a squadron of highly trained marines, which one would have thought would have surely come in handy in the Flood.

Which is another way of saying that the movie posits the end of the world without any of the cultural context that would have made it interesting – or personally moving and frightening – let alone remotely realistic. There are no reporters telling stories, no attempts at aid and comfort, and aside from a brief phone call between a clarinet player and his son, no review of personal stories of lives in the balance. Instead what we have is this narrow focus on a single man’s series of chase scenes and narrow escapes, while his exit route is manipulated by a secret set of self-absorbed politicians: a mashup of When Worlds Collide with James Bond. The movie really misses a chance to try to be about something more than simply cultural suicide. Like a Bond chase at its most daring, the film has its breath-sucking moments of wonder. But in the end, after all their stupid decisions, ineptitude, arrogance, and bad planning, you hardly think these people even deserve to survive – and given that they’re all that’s left, that’s truly a shame. And it’s sort of sad to see that as Emerich has gotten bigger in the scope of his destruction, his feeling for humanity has gotten smaller.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

An Education – Learning About Life and Love in 60’s Britain

This lovely little movie from director Lone Scherfig and screenwriter Nick Hornby (“About a Boy”) follows the education of Jenny, a smart and charming 16-year-old schoolgirl in Britain in 1961. Jenny’s fatal flaw is that she’s pretty and charming as well as brainy: normally one would say she was blessed with all the gifts, but in the early Sixties in Britain, only two fates can await a girl such as Jenny, and both are equally terrible: marriage, or Oxford.

Jenny’s life is a fairly dull routine of nagging from parents, homework, playing the cello, and English class, when one day a handsome stranger drops in her lap: played by Peter Sarsgaard, David is a suave, Jewish real estate mogul with an answer for everything and a way with enticing people. He manages to entice both Jenny and her parents: first, to let her accompany him to a concert in London (where she meets his friends and confidants, Danny and Helen); later, to a weekend at Oxford (ostensibly to meet CS Lewis, although David knows no such person – and likely never went to Oxford either) – eventually, David sprites Jenny off to a weekend in Paris, all under the rubric of giving the girl a proper worldly education. Naturally, such an education involves both the ways of the flesh as well as, well, the usual: art, wine, classical music, dog races, sports cars, sarcastic banter, and casual thievery.

Everyone falls for David, it seems, except the dour women who work at Jenny’s school, who are charged with maintaining the moral standards that will produce proper English women: Jenny’s English teacher, a Cambridge girl herself, who’s set her hopes on Jenny, as well as her headmistress, played with sturdy severity by Emma Thomson, who believes that rakes like David are on earth for one purpose only: to lead girls of dubious morals like Jenny down the road to inevitable damnation and ruin.

Films of quiet coming-of-age like this live and die by the characters and dialogue, and this is what makes An Education such a treasure. Carey Mulligan, who plays Jenny (keep an eye out for her in the upcoming Wall Street 2), imbues the character with the rare combination of charm, naivetĂ©, and fashionable wit that all works quite well to enthrall us with the young girl. Jenny is such a bright and beautiful thing that we are endlessly fascinated watching her interact with her friends, her parents, and her ostensible fiancĂ© and his friends. She never misses just the right observation and has the appropriate thirst for life. The movie purportedly is about the charms of David, but it’s Jenny who charms the audience and carries us through the film.

The rest of the cast is also quite marvelous – including Alfred Molina as Jenny’s father, a bit of a hard-case shut in who cares terribly for his daughter but has trouble finding the right way to show it; Emma Thomson, of course, in that star turn as headmistress: she sees all too clearly where Jenny is headed, and has little sympathy for the girl. But Rosamund Pike, who plays a supporting role as the girlfriend of David’s friend Danny, is also equally essential in this film (you may remember her as the icy double agent Miranda Frost in Die Another Day). She’s Jenny’s foil – a woman who’s thoroughly followed these rogues down the garden path – and her lack of education and sardonic attitude is quite perfect. She brings a million beautiful different bemused expressions, always giving us just the right delicious punctuation to the points of life that Jenny is learning.

My only quibble with the movie is that the ending to which Jenny and David is headed seems to me, well, a bit too pat: the lesson Jenny learns from David is really rather thorough, and all a bit too neatly tied up. One might argue, as well, that the film’s essentially conservative message – that good girls don’t mess around and instead save themselves for Oxford – feels, as well, a little bit one-sided. Clearly, Jenny’s generation is on the verge of an entire revolution, and in a few short years, Jenny’s London would become Swinging London of lore, and her merry band of rogues would in fact seem a bit quaint.

But this is 1961, and the movie does capture that time of transition well – as it does Jenny’s youth. Jenny, like many of us, has her first encounter with someone who has the power to completely determine the future course of her entire life. That encounter is always a powerful lesson, and a key moment of any young person’s life that the movie captures with care and feeling. The scene when Jenny’s father talks to her through the door – admitting that he knew all along that David was lying about CS Lewis, but that he trusted his daughter more – is staged perfectly, and played with just the right insight and drama. If it does nothing else, the enjoyable film reminds us of how much even the smartest teenager has to learn.