Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Conspirator: History Lesson for Modern Politics

I’m a big history fan so I couldn’t resist seeing Robert Redford’s The Conspirator – about the trial of Mary Surratt, one of the accused southern conspirators who helped plan the assassination of President Lincoln and assist John Wilkes Booth's daring escape.

The movie starts out as any good historical drama should: on the battlefield, with union soldiers hunkered down in a bunker taking heavy artillery. One of those soldiers - Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) - protects his wounded buddy, Nicholas (Justin Long), while waiting for help to arrive.

I would have loved to have gotten more texture about the war, but this scene is meant for one purpose only: to establish Aiken’s bona fides as a war hero and Union loyalist. It lasts a few minutes and that’s all.

Next we’re swept forward to the evening of Lincoln’s assassination. Those who aren’t history buffs may forget that the assassination wasn’t simply the actions of a lone, disgruntled southern actor taking out his anger on the President. It was a carefully planned coup involving several players that targeted not just the President, but the Vice President and Secretary of State as well. The conspiracy is well underway and we get to see with great fanfare the re-enactment of that fateful evening, including Booth’s ill-fated leap to the stage shouting “Sic Semper Tyranus!” (thus always to tyrants) as well as that botched attempts on Vice President Jackson and Secretary of State William Steward. The evening of the assassination is fascinating, with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) taking control and closing off the city to hunt down the conspirators. This, it seems to me, is real drama.

Unfortunately, writers James Solomon and Gregory Bernstein only want to give us the barest bones of what happened, since their real interest is getting us as quickly as possible to Mary’s trial, and setting up Aiken as her reluctant defense attorney (just as we saw with the British in the HBO "John Adams" mini-series, Mary’s best defense is to have an unassailable paragon of the other side - a Union war hero - represent her, even if he’s at first loath to the task). Booth is hunted down and killed, but the other members of the plot are rounded up and tried. One of those members – John Surratt – can’t be found, so his mother (who runs the boarding house where the plot was hatched) is accused instead, and brought before a military tribunal to stand trial.

And this is where history ends and modern metaphor begins. The calamity that is the assassination of Lincoln and simultaneous Southernist attacks on the Executive Branch of US government is portrayed with all the terrorist coordination of 9/11 (even the idea of synchronizing the attacks for maximum terror seems thoroughly modern) – and the trial of Mary Surratt is clearly a stand-in for our own Guantanamo Bay and military tribunal of prisoners of war. The principals even get to argue the same great debate that we hear on our Sunday talk shows: should justice come swift and hard to rally a shocked and scared nation (Stanton), or must we hold to our values and the constitution even in the face of terrible crimes (Aiken)?

Though the trial of Surratt is factual and the situation a clear parallel, I sincerely doubt that any such discussion in 1865 took place with so modern a phraseology about constitutional values and travesties of justice. Putting the script into an archaic idiom would probably not have helped matters any, as the movie is singularly focused on examining this fine point of legal debate. Still, listening to this script, one cannot help but feel the words dovetail more with 2011 television than eighteen century dialect.

Aiken eventually turns around – no longer loath to represent a woman he believes to be guilty, he soon becomes her most ardent defender, even when it threatens to undo his reputation and end his relationship with his betrothed. This transformation is pre-ordained by the Sunday Schoolhouse nature of the plot, so little time is spent demonstrating Aiken’s change in attitude, it simply comes about when the script demands it.

What disappointed me about all this was how interesting the event itself was, and how thoroughly period the costumes (what I love about historical drama), and yet, all that is but background for what’s essentially a courtroom morality play. I would have loved to have opened up this story and really found out more about the conspiracy, the passion of defeated southerners, and the peculiarities of eighteenth century Washington. Instead we get a kind of "West Wing" in top hat and tails, and the metaphor for Guantanamo Bay and modern-day terrorist trials is all we can focus on.

Though clearly there are parallels between the plot to kill Lincoln and our own 9/11 (the movie points out all of them, even a kind of eighteenth century version of the Terrorist Alert system), I would like to point out to the writers that there are differences, as well. For one, Mary Surratt was an American citizen. For another, we had already been in a long war of brother killing brother that had resulted in the deaths of more Americans than anything since. For a third, the terrorists of today have at their disposal the ability to obliterate millions of people in the blink of an eye. In 1865, it was difficult for anyone to travel more than ten miles in a single day. I mention all these because the movie fails to really let us understand the peculiarities of its generational dilemma and let us draw the conclusions about today for ourselves.

I also mention it because, perhaps unintentionally, this movie has me sympathizing just as much with the older “hang-em-all” Secretary of War as the young man impassioned with constitutional values (perhaps you can also credit this to a gusto performance by Kline, who illustrates Stanton's hard-headed reasonableness all too well). In a way, it’s also an old man versus young man argument: young men can afford the luxury of preserving their ideals; old men have to be satisfied with merely preserving the peace. It’s no surprise if I tell you Mary Surratt’s eventual fate, but I have to say, I wasn’t even convinced by this movie that she was wronged.

Which to me speaks to the movie’s core problem. It wants to both be a historical intrigue as well as a cautionary liberal's morality tale about suspending the constitution in times of war. The lessons from one, however, aren’t as simple as the lessons from the other. I loved this movie when it surprises even itself with the messy, complicated character that history – when really understood – inevitably provides. But when it lapses into modern day liberal bromides, it’s as boring as a Sunday morning sermon.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Hanna: A Reverse Fairy Tale

This stylish assassin drama by director Joe Wright (The Soloist, Atonement) tells the story of Hanna, a teenage girl raised in the woods by her spy father, and who comes of age by evading the U.S. international spy network in order to solve the mystery of who she is.

With a stand-out performance by Eric Banna (as the father), a deliciously arch villainess by Kate Blanchett (as Marissa, the head spy out to get Hanna), and an intriguing mix of girlish deadliness by Saoirse Ronan (as Hanna), the movie features strong principals and a decidedly Brothers Grim atmosphere of scary woods, carnivalesque cities, and even a wonderfully atmospheric appearance by the Big Bad Wolf.

The script is a bit thin on substance – Hanna’s father toughens her up in the isolated woods in order to release her into the world where she will be a super-assassin, capable of simultaneously disarming tourists with her smile and disabling armed grown men three times her weight with a single karate chop. The rest of the script, the CIA chases after her through various exotic locales (again, remnants of the Bush administration here, as the new “cold war” thematic center on Arabian deserts and underground interrogation centers), while Hannah befriends a British family on holiday as a kind of cover, and learns what it means to be a real girl.

What the script lacks in substance, however, the filmmaking more than makes up for in style. Wright’s wide landscape shots give you no familiar objects – so when Hannah first escapes into the desert, for instance, she could well be in Arizona as much as Afghanistan. Similarly, such context is stripped from conversations and city locales, so what we’re seeing could be happening ten years ago as much as today. Even though Hannah’s final destination takes her to Germany, it’s the Germany of fairy tales and goblins, a landscape ripe with visual metaphor, which Wright exploits to the hilt (going so far as to include a scene of one of Hannah’s friends hanging upside down from his Disneyfied mushroom house ceiling, shot through with arrows like a modern day St. Sebastian).

The sensibilities behind this film don’t feel American as much as European – arch, disco-fied, with an undercurrent of political critique (Marissa, for instance, has a perfectly eerie Texas accent). Perhaps the best thing in this film is the music, which features none of the usual rock choices and instead choreographs Hannah’s violence with house rhythms and classical strings. With the music and the heavy visual symbolism, the whole the production has the air of an early 1990’s German art video.

That may be too much style and too little substance for some people. For me, I was fascinated by Blanchett's Marissa – a vulnerable bully, master spy, and wounded, surrogate mother – who chases after Hanna with ruthless efficiency, and masters just the right amount of Texas twang. She's one of our greatest actresses and it’s worth ten dollars to get to see her do her stuff. When you find out who Hanna really is and why Marissa  is after her, it’s all a bit far-fetched/familiar, and something of a let down. But Marissa does get her comeuppance with one of the most interesting Brothers Grim visual metaphors in the movie.

Daybreakers: The Vampire Cure

Vampires seem to be a dime a dozen, these days, appearing everywhere as neophyte apprentices, seductive neighbor boys, thirsty roommates, and assorted background rabble. So I was unusually intrigued by Daybreakers, an austere movie of the vampire ilk, which gives an interesting twist to the steadfast genre.

For what Daybreakers does well is extend vampirism to its logical conclusion: vampires have fed so ravishly on the human population – turning their victims to vampires in the process – that there are hardly any humans left, and the vampire population is starving. The world as we know it has been replaced by a population of vampires – us, really – doppelgangers who inhabit our lives and have adjusted to working at night, shielding their windows, keeping their fangs in check, and ignoring the suffering of other starving vampires around them. In all other respects (or maybe I should say, in those respects), they are just like us. Or rather, too much like us, for in all their speeding subways and frenzied greed, it’s a stinging critique of modern society.

To make matters worse, vampires cannot drink vampire blood – to do so turns them into bat-like monstrous creatures – another interesting twist on the blood/disease metaphor of vampire lore. With other options running out, however, more such deformed creatures are haunting the suburban vampire neighborhoods, breaking into homes and running amuck, before the vampire Army shock-troops can come in and “eradicate” the problem.

Amongst all this despair of a dying society is a young intrepid scientist, Edward Dalton (played with end-of-world ennui by Ethan Hawke), who thinks he might have – naturally – a cure. Or rather, not so much a cure as a palliative, a substitute for human blood that will allow the vampire population to go on. Edward works – again, natch – for a “major vampire pharmaceutical company” which produces vamp taste treats like B negative, and treats its human subjects with about as much care as we treat our lab animals.

What happens is that Edward stumbles upon what looks like might be an actual cure; nevertheless, the forces of society around him and the company he works for still conspire to track him down, eradicate the cure, and preserve their profits. It’s great social critique stuff – the kind that college notebooks are doodled full of – and even though a spaced-out Willem Dafoe and too sincere Claudia Karvan as one of the last remaining humans galumph along with a deadened Hawke through the second act with comical b-movie sincerity, the cool blues and washed out Magritte landscapes of the vampire city are really well thought out, striking just the right note of modern despair.

The movie also delivers some really good splatter and an especially pleasing closing scenario of what might happen when an army full of vampires begins turning, one by one, back into humans. Those who want their vampire flicks to deliver some great gory climax won’t be disappointed.

As someone routinely unimpressed by the genre, then, I felt this move was worth singling out. B-movie horror has been done so much it could be one of the hardest movie genres to do originally any more. Adding a gloss of sly, social critique - and a few flaming vampires flying acrobatically through the air - is one way to freshen up that tired blood.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Source Code: A Post-9/11 Groundhog Day

Yes, I know it's a film critic cliché, but after seeing the Jake Gyllenhaal helmer Source Code I just can't help myself. The movie is clearly a cross between --

Groundhog Day and Speed
Groundhog Day and Die Hard
Groundhog Day and Body of War
Groundhog Day and Groundhog Day
Groundhog Day and Unstoppable
Groundhog Day and World Trade Center
Groundhog Day and 12 Monkeys

Ok, that's enough.

The film, which stars Gyllenhaal as Afghanistan vet Colter Stevens, has a simple (if convoluted) enough premise: Stevens is being sent repeatedly on a mission into the last eight minutes of memory of a train passenger who is riding on a train destined to blow up at the hand of a terrorist's bomb. Inside the memory (or "source code," if you will), Steven actually assumes the identity of the man whose body he inhabits and whose actions he controls, and can change the course of events through his own decisions and investigations.

This makes Stevens' actions in Source Code not so much an actual memory retrieval as a kind of scientifically / magically justified version of the Groundhog Day premise, in which a period of life can be relived over and over again with different actions, until one learns enough about everyone around to actually get the desired outcome right.

Groundhog Day is a much beloved Eighties cult classic premise, so this re-interpretation for our terrorized generation seems timely and about right. Unlike the comedic Groundhog Day - which focuses on self actualization in the face of loneliness - Source Code takes on more existential questions such as destiny and duty in the face of meaninglessness and death. Even if the science is nonsensical and the ending predictable, one has to commend it for at least attempting to be deep.

It's also a competent action thriller, with some deft dialogue to keep things moving. Stevens is guided in his missions by an aloof but clearly sympathetic captain Goodwin (played with engaging emotional tenor by Vera Farmiga) who speaks to Stevens in his "source code" chamber from a video monitor on the wall (hence the Twelve Monkeys comparison). The coded dialogue between these two helps keep the tension on edge. ("The qualifications for this mission are very narrow," Goodwin carefully replies when Stevens asks why he was chosen.)  Meanwhile, inside his eight minute loop, Stevens learns not only where the bomb is laid but where the hearts of the passengers are as well, and - like Bill Murray in the earlier version - uses that knowledge to enchant his world and empower himself.

Jeffery Wright - as Dr. Rutledge, the scientist conducting these weird experiments - seems to ultimately have something other than Stevens' best interests in mind, however. So it falls to Goodwin to help Colter on to his Good Win within the memory/time-travel that is / isn't the source code. That ending wraps things up a bit too neatly (and in one of those sci-fi mind benders that are impossible to sensibly unwind), giving the movie the feel of old B-movie sci-fi, the kind where a scary aliens, which is clearly a man in a costume, walks onto the set in the last thirty minutes to knock everything down. It's a bit of a shame since the thriller scenes leading up to that are not only quite competent and involving, they're also emotionally relevant, signaling cultural events as recent as the Giffords' shoooting in Tucson or the everyday inconveniences of urban mass transit. This isn't a movie gunning to entertain a specific demographic at the expense of another (a la Tony Scott or Jerry Bruckheimer), but one that seems to have a direct line into the average American of any stripe, and their anxieties about war, people, and everyday life. In his investigation into who might be the bomber, Colter starts by profiling an Arab American; clearly, we know he is on the wrong trail right away, even though the guy looks jittery. Yet his assumptions capture a sentiment that only the most insouciant (or dishonest) of us can say they never had, especially in those days right after 9/11. The film neither castigates not rewards Colter for his mistaken assumption, but simply lets him move on from there to dig deeper. Such is the cultural evenness which this thriller is charged with investigating, and which underlies its most interesting moments.

So I enjoyed this movie, despite it's heavy borrowing, it's repetitive premise, and it's scientific mumbo-jumbo. Brilliant, it is not, but neither is it entirely dumb. Maybe it's simply adrenalin candy for the urban class.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Cedar Rapids: Midwest Naivete on Speed

Both a vehicle for Ed Helms and a deadpan parody of Midwestern sensibilities, Cedar Rapids has a little bit of that feeling of weak coffee and ham – that is, like the Midwest itself, it’s unpretentious, somewhat naive, and a bit flat, but nevertheless kindhearted, strangely insightful, and sincere, the last perhaps to a fault (since I hail from Ohio I believe I’m allowed to say such things).

Helms plays Tim Lippe, an extraordinarily innocent thirty-something insurance salesman from Brown Valley, Wisconsin. (If they could have named the town “Bumblefuck” and gotten away with it, I believe they would have.) Lippe has a somewhat girlfriend being played magnanimously (and a bit matronly) by Sigourney Weaver – that is, he believes she’s his girlfriend but we know otherwise – and he’s never left his hometown before. When his company's star insurance salesman dies from accidental masturbatory asphyxiation, it’s not only an embarrassment for the town, it leaves Tim as the only salesman who can travel to Cedar Rapids for the annual insurance convention to win the coveted Double-Diamond Award for his neurotic boss.

We’ve seen these near-autistically naïve characters a lot lately, and especially from the casts of "Saturday Night Live" and "The Daily Show." Steve Carell in Dinner for Schmucks, or Will Ferrell in Elf come to mind. I believe these all go back to the Bill Murray golf caddy character from Caddy Shack, with a good dose of Chauncy Gardener thrown in for heart. The basic set-up is always the same: Innocent is goofy but good, comes to big city where he’s made fun of and ridiculed, then turns the tables on the bullies and loses the ostensible prize, but shows his buddies what real friendship is, learns his heart’s desire and wins it after all. These movies always seem to be made by cynical Hollywood or New York folk who probably themselves come from such humble backgrounds and have left them behind long ago. There’s always a sense of embarrassment and resentment at the naïve fucks (excuse the coarse coastal color), no matter how much the innocent hero learns or the friends come to appreciate the softer emotions in life. These movies often feel to me like sublimated rage at the idiocy of small-town manners, gilded in a tale of an elevated naïf. But then again, maybe that’s just a cynical ex-Midwestern New Yorker talking.

Cedar Rapids follows the same basic formula; however, one gets more of a sense of actual care for the Midwest characters. Not all these Midwesterners are naïve nor innocent – in fact, Cedar Rapids surrounds Ed Helms with a cadre of other notable Midwest types, including the party boy, the bad girl, the upright Black dude, the prostitute, and the Christian hypocrite. Not all of these are that original, but they are diverse and they do give the movie a broader feel of real Midwest parody.

Compared with Brown Valley, Wisconsin, Cedar Rapids is the big city, and the rickety, two-story hotel where the conference takes place the equivalent of Disneyland. I really enjoyed this reduced, reoriented perspective; watching the characters go through their convention antics and hotel cut-ups really felt like watching a scene inside a snow globe. Despite the sex, the drugs, the backstabbing, and the malfeasance that takes place, none of it feels all too serious since these people, when you get down to it, can’t help but like each other.

I’m not sure I’m the greatest fan of Ed Helms, though. He does right by the character – bringing that expected combination of naïveté and pluck. But he doesn’t really carry the lead as he should. He's surrounded by a cast of pros - including John C Reilly, Anne Heche, and Sigourney Weaver - who are able to modulate their performances from one to five while Helms stays on a constant 4. By the end, the gentle irony underpinning the film gets trampled by the "Daily Show" stock approach. I'm a critic who hates criticizing actors, especially comics, who have it tough enough. But I can't help but feel in the hands of another actor, this film might have delivered better on its promise of gentle ribbing and insight. Instead, the movie hovers half-way between indie character sketch and cheap Comedy Channel shtick. In the end, I think which type of film you think this turns out to be depends largely on how much you can overlook Helms in the lead.