Archive for May 2014

Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia

May 25, 2014

GoreVIt’s a little unnerving to see a sentimental portrait of a rigorously unsentimental man. Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia profiles the writer and historian in his painful autumn years, shuffling the new footage with archival clips of Vidal from the days when he was all but inescapable on TV, the literary equivalent of Carl Sagan (and equally parodiable). We see the Vidal of the ’60s and ’70s in varying degrees of slimness or paunch, intellectually limber and grinning when he sniffs rhetorical blood in the water, but then we always return to the octogenarian version, sodden with wrinkles and disappointment. He’s as sharp as ever, but the grin is gone. For one thing, nobody’s left to cross swords with him; his media adversaries have fallen one by one. William F. Buckley, Norman Mailer, even the relative whippersnapper Christopher Hitchens — all gone. Vidal outlived his enemies and his friends, finally excusing himself from the room in 2012.

This documentary, which numbers Vidal’s nephew Burr Steers among its producers, tries gamely to fit an 86-year life into an 89-minute film. What we get is unavoidably Gore’s Greatest Hits. The Vidal/Buckley verbal shoot-out is here; Norman Mailer snarling at Vidal (and everyone else, including the studio audience) on The Dick Cavett Show gets a short clip; Vidal clowning Jerry Brown while running against him for the California U.S. Senate seat is probably the comic highlight. Brown sits there, scowling and furious, while Vidal more or less makes the very notion of Jerry Brown seem absurd. (It made me want to seek out Gary Conklin’s documentary on this episode in Vidal’s life, Gore Vidal: The Man Who Said No.) Essentially, the movie is a feature-length A&E Biography, from back when A&E still aired such things and not, say, Duck Dynasty.

Unadventurously directed by Nicholas Wrathall, the movie opens with Vidal standing at his own tomb — shared with longtime partner Howard Austen — and reaches a climax of sorts when, after Austen’s death, Vidal moves out of the Italian villa they also shared. Having lost his slice of paradise, Vidal seems to long for the grave. What does Wrathall have to say about any of this? Nothing. The film is carelessly structured; it began as a couple of filmed interviews and then grew into a feature. It hasn’t been shaped to tell any particular story. It seems to exist only because Wrathall had the footage. It certainly isn’t as radical as Vidal’s own words often were and are. I suppose Wrathall might say that his film will lead people to Vidal’s writing, though Vidal himself might bitterly counter that (a) nobody watches documentaries and (b) even if they did, nobody reads books either.

That was why Vidal valued his TV appearances: he knew he could get some splinter of his ideas across to a much bigger audience than would read his essays or even his historical novels. (Of course, that was back when writers still showed up on TV.) Vidal was often called cynical, but, having grown up around politics, he was simply a realist who knew how politics work. He was also a class traitor, a rich white man who was calling out income inequity decades before Occupy Wall Street. The film trots out some loyal talking heads to testify on Vidal’s behalf, including the fallen angel Hitchens, whom Vidal excommunicated when Hitchens supported the Iraq War. By the time Hitchens sat for Wrathall’s camera, he was gaunt and bald from chemotherapy, and delicate sad-bastard piano music plays as Hitchens laments that he hasn’t seen Vidal in years (oh, come on; Vidal and Hitchens would have found this noxiously trite). Soon he would be dead, presumably never having gotten absolution.

The Hitchens anecdote sketches Vidal as a cold cod, a grinch whose heart was four sizes too small. The movie runs some standard diagnostics on him: he hated his mother and lost his one true love, athlete Jimmie Trimble, at age 19 in World War II. The price of being an intellectual titan, the movie seems to reassure us, is going about a long, loveless life with a Trimble-sized hole in it. (Trimble, I guess, is Vidal’s Rosebud.) Wrathall approaches Vidal humbly, hat in hand, his head as empty as his hat. He doesn’t quite know what to make of Vidal; the man was simply bigger and more complex than one trial-size documentary can capture. It is nice to see vintage clips of Vidal the verbal samurai, but we have YouTube for that. The danger with this sort of movie is that our affection for the man will rub off onto the film. But Vidal himself, if he were sizing up this film, would have known how to separate one from the other.

Advertisements

Godzilla (2014)

May 18, 2014

godzillaWe begin with a perhaps naïve question: What, if anything, does Godzilla mean to us today? Surely he means something different than he meant to the Japanese sixty years ago, when he made his screen debut as Gojira. For the Japanese audience, Gojira was a radioactive Jungian shadow. For us, driving blithely to the multiplex as the ice caps melt, Godzilla means … warm-weather spectacle, I guess. The new Godzilla pays some visual homage to various worldwide disasters of recent years, but what are we supposed to think or feel about the catastrophes? Nothing, because our thoughts and feelings are perfectly irrelevant. Things will happen, nature will balance itself, the planet may be fine but a great many forms of life on earth may come out in the wash. It’s Noah all over again, appending “zilla” to “the wrath of God.”

According to the new film, Godzilla and the gigantic creatures he battles (known as “MUTOs”) were not born in the crossfire hurricane of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The MUTOs are ancient animals that feed on radiation; Godzilla is an ancient animal that feeds on the MUTOs. We, therefore, are not complicit in creating them, though our many nukes do attract the MUTOs, who seek somewhere nice to chow down, mate, and spawn. A certain nihilism darkens this Godzilla and puts it within atomic-breath distance of the original Gojira. Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim last summer declared boisterously that the apocalypse was cancelled, thank you very much, and that we would band together to punch monsters in the face. Godzilla ’14 bends over backward trying to find stuff for its human characters to do besides take shelter or die. Here, the apocalypse may be averted, but cancelled? — well, it’s not even on the bubble.

For a long time — longer than some viewers may like — we get trembles and intimations of the monsters, nothing more. Then the big guy shows up, and his prolonged roar has a cleansing chthonic power. That sound, like an especially intense thunderstorm, seems to rip the very atmosphere open sharply. Godzilla is here to fight the monsters, though not on our behalf; he really doesn’t care if the MUTOs’ deaths benefit us, nor does he fret if he inadvertently kills several thousand of us while chasing his prey. To the extent that Godzilla doesn’t actively pursue our destruction, he’s on our side. We and our big buildings — well, actually tiny buildings, comparatively — just get in his way.

Depending on the theater at which you see Godzilla, and in which format (2D or 3D), you might not get what you came for. In several of the fight sequences, director Gareth Edwards films the action from a human’s-eye street level, or shows it on TV monitors, or shuts doors on it. This you-are-there gambit is witty. But later, when Edwards’ camera pulls back to give us a full-on view of the carnage, much of it is obscured by smoke or rain or the darkness of night. Poking around online, I find that some viewers are reporting that it’s hard to see what’s going on, and others haven’t had a problem at all, so it could be projectionist apathy specific to certain theaters. Your best bet might be to take in Godzilla at a reputable IMAX venue.

I enjoyed what I could see of the monster mash, and I see that I haven’t talked much at all about the puny humans. Well, each actor represents something via one note. Bryan Cranston is Paranoia and Panic. His soldier son Aaron Taylor-Johnson is Stoic Heroism, while Taylor-Johnson’s nurse wife Elizabeth Olsen is Worry and Nurture. Ken Watanabe shuffles through every so often, repping Quiet Resignation, accompanied by Sally Hawkins, who Stands Around Pointlessly. Actually, the entirety of humanity Stands Around Pointlessly here and in most other Godzilla films, but human audiences are assumed to be so narcissistic as to need human characters to watch onscreen while waiting, and waiting, for the star to come in for his close-up.

Neighbors

May 11, 2014

20140511-211738.jpgLast month, Seth Rogen turned 32. That’s about the age that an overgrown boy starts taking on the responsibilities of a man, while sorely wishing he didn’t have to. In the amiably dirty comedy Neighbors, Rogen is Mac, a new father to an adorable baby daughter. Mac and his wife Kelly (Rose Byrne) are both happy to be parents, but a large part of them resists the idea that their lives need to change now. They met in college, and they’re still college kids at heart and in bed (though they seem to prefer sex everywhere in the house except the bed). Kelly stays at home with the baby while Mac drifts through a generic cubicle job, getting stoned on break whenever possible.

When the frat Delta Psi moves in next door to Mac and Kelly, the couple actually don’t object in principle. The guys seem friendly enough, if a bit too legendary for their epic parties. Mac and Kelly might co-exist peacefully with them, even attend their parties regularly, if they didn’t have to get up in the morning to go to work and look after the baby. They’re welcomed to the first-night blow-out, and they get blitzed (it’s a good thing the baby seems to sleep through the night easily). After that, though, it’s back to the grind, and when they call in a noise complaint on the second night, the frat leader Teddy (Zac Efron) is hurt. Not angry — just hurt.

The nice thing about Neighbors, which made me laugh pretty consistently, is that nobody is the good guy or the bad guy. The frat boys like their fun but aren’t terribly vicious. Mac and Kelly try to short-circuit the frat, and go too far on several occasions. It’s certainly a more good-natured comedy than the inept 1981 film of the same name. People talk to each other in this movie, and try to understand each other. The commercials emphasize the slapstick, but the verbal barbs, many of which sound improvised, keep a certain level of wit in play (my favorite, regarding a frat pledge wearing a blocky pair of camera-equipped glasses: “He looks like J.J. Abrams”). And there’s a useful symmetry in the notion that Mac and Kelly devolve to frat-like behavior themselves, while the frat boys have to embrace responsibility, or at least simulate it.

Comedies generally aren’t cinematically exciting. If they make us laugh, they don’t have to be. But more recent comedy directors like Edgar Wright, Wes Anderson, and Nicholas Stoller (who directed Neighbors) bring welcome visual brio. The party scenes in Neighbors have some of the candy-colored skankiness of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. As in his Get Him to the Greek, Stoller wants to make each scene lively and eye-catching, while within the engaging frame the actors seem to be given license to riff, to deepen bonds between characters — the conflicts as well as the affections are credible. Neighbors could have been a lazy beer-fart comedy in the Adam Sandler mold, but, like Teddy, it knows it has to work to earn that spot on the wall next to its ancestors.

Which, ultimately, it does. The original text, of course, is Animal House, which aside from its performances and a couple of sequences involving Belushi hasn’t aged all that well. There’s also Old School, which I have trouble recalling outside of Will Ferrell’s breakout work as an overgrown frat boy who gets a little too into it (I love his grief-stricken funeral tribute to an elderly frat bro: “You’re my boy, Blue!”). Neighbors seems to have more going on under the hood, including the post-Bridesmaids insight that women can be as debauched as men. The key to the movie is the big fight Mac and Kelly have over the fact that neither of them wants to be a responsible adult. Kelly doesn’t want to be the nagging wife familiar from every comedy (i.e. Leslie Mann in many of her husband Judd Apatow’s films), and so she isn’t. She agitates to be a person, not a type. She’s ridiculous, but so is everyone else, ranging from Lisa Kudrow as the headline-obsessed college dean to Hannibal Buress as the cop who keeps answering the noise complaints primarily because it seems to amuse him. Believable, individualized people and playful filmmaking are rare in big-studio American movies just now; we’ll take them where we find them.

Joe

May 4, 2014

20140504-211138.jpgDavid Gordon Green, it appears, has sweated out whatever troglodyte fever inspired him to detour into grossout comedies. Hailed as a successor to Terrence Malick (or at least a skilled acolyte) for his 2000 debut George Washington, Green in recent years had fallen in with a bad crowd of dudebros, hitting his nadir with the stoner romp Your Highness. As if putting away childish things, though, Green has rebounded with the seriocomic Prince Avalanche and now the grim Southern gothic Joe. The Malick influence obtains here, too, showing us what it might be like if Malick’s camera caressed the swamplands and itinerants’ detritus of Texas instead of its suburbs and plains. Green, however, gives us more finely-etched characters than Malick can. Adapting a Larry Brown novel, Green and scripter Gary Hawkins hang out in the morning chill and evening swelter of the rural south, observing without comment.

Nicolas Cage, sweating out his own schlocky fever, plays the eponymous Joe as a man weighed down by his own past (violence, prison time) and his temper that keeps threatening to make his past the present. Joe supervises a crew of men who poison trees so that new ones can be planted — a perhaps too on-the-nose metaphor for godforsaken communities like Joe’s, plundered and abandoned and financially butchered. A local 15-year-old, Gary (Tye Sheridan), emerges from the woods and asks for a job on Joe’s crew. Gary seeks money almost as much as he needs a reason to get out of the house, away from his out-of-it mother and his vicious drunk of a father.

Gary Poulter plays the father, Wade, a backwoods boogeyman whose veins seem to be pumping with cold acid; he beats Gary, steals from him, and later does even more irredeemably beastly things. Poulter was one of several actors in Joe who have no previous film credits; a homeless man, he was found by Green on the streets of Austin, and died there before the film was released. If Poulter only had this one performance in him, it was a stellar one to come in with and go out on. Wade is vile, but Poulter somehow locates the sad humanity in him. We’re seeing the wreckage of too much booze crossed with too many bad brain chemicals — the man Gary will probably never be but Joe is ever vigilant against becoming. Two other inexperienced actors — Aj Wilson McPhaul as a sympathetic sheriff and Brian Mays as Joe’s right-hand man on the crew — bring effortless authority and reality to the movie. Joe is full of amazing camera faces, such as a homeless man (Elbert Hill Jr.) who unfortunately crosses paths with Wade. As in George Washington, Green deftly casts local non-actors for the authenticity — the palpable sense of having lived hard — they offer.

Does the movie really need the stinky psycho Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins), who has a grudge against Joe and ultimately joins forces with Wade? It threatens to tip Joe into conventional thriller territory, and surrounding Joe with mean men he wants to differentiate himself from is sort of gilding the lily. It gives Cage fresh raw meat to chew on, though, and he consistently underplays. We don’t catch him cartoonishly straining to keep a lid on his rage, as in Wild at Heart or the Ghost Rider movies. Cage here is closer to the ballpark of Nick Nolte in Affliction, forever haunted by the ghost of his own DNA.

Joe isn’t flawless — I’d file it on the “poky but compelling” shelf — but it’s a real movie, for grown-ups, fighting for table scraps in a marketplace dominated by spider-men and x-persons. It arises from a genuine wounded artistic sensibility; it respects talk and sadness and the irresolution of life. It’s also a man-cave movie, where women are whores or drunks and innocence is represented by Gary’s nonverbal sister, though they’re also seen to be living inside an apocalyptic reality created in large part by corrupt and violent men. (What I said about Cormac McCarthy’s The Counselor also holds true here: Joe isn’t a feminist work but it really isn’t masculinist either.) Thematically the movie is simplistic but sound — sometimes the two go together — and Green, along with ace cinematographer Tim Orr, finds the beauty in the squalor in which these people love and hate and work and kill. It’s a work of quiet substance.