Nymphomaniac (V2)

No more wounds

Read my writeup of Nymphomaniac: Volume I here.

nymphomaniac2The second film (or rather, the second half of one long film) in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac duology, sees the exeunt of Stacy Martin as the young version of Joe, which means we get to see Charlotte Gainsbourg do more than sit in a poorly lit room.  What the film unfortunately does, however, is remind us that it’s made by a cynical filmmaker who loves to smash sandcastles after hours of careful building.  I never thought he could do worse than his slow-burning and nightmarish destruction of Earth in Melancholia, but at least that film did not operate under the pretense that things might end up okay.

From the start of Volume II, things I picked at in the first volume begin to make sense.  Joe becomes tired, much as I did, of Seligman’s constant allegorical digressions, but soon realizes that it’s because he cannot relate to the content of her stories.  He reveals that he’s a virgin and considers himself asexual, which makes him the perfect audience for her chronicle.  He recognizes some serious iconography in the story of her first orgasm – apparently, when she was twelve and on a field trip, she spontaneously levitated and had a vision of Valeria Messalina and Babylon the Great (two promiscuous mythological figures with rather sexist story trajectories, even by Christian standards).  This is important because Joe went through life assuming that these were separate versions of the Virgin Mary judging her for her transgressions, but they actually represented the great schism of the Church, after which the Orthodox (Eastern) side focused on redemption, while the Western church became obsessed with suffering.  What a motif.  “The concept of religion is interesting,” he says, “just as the concept of sex is interesting.  But you won’t find me on my knees in regards to either.”

Such indulgent dialogue is fine when it’s so delicious.  But the question of whether von Trier’s synthetic framing devices for the film mean something, or leastways whether we’re supposed to take them seriously, is soon answered.  Yes, dummy, he seems to tell us.  Don’t you remember who I am?  I made Antichrist! Seligman, in a broad commentary on epic storytelling, uses his own personal experience (texts, mathematics, etc.) to form an understanding of the story, just as an audience to anything would.  But as it should be, that’s without bringing his own opinion into it: he makes himself an impartial witness by claiming to be Joe’s inverse.  As such, he continues to play the part of observer and listener, and when he stops protesting the aforementioned “preposterous coincidences” in Joe’s story, that means we’re supposed to stop too.  But when von Trier introduces such an obvious plot device as Chekhov’s Gun, everything we thought we were onboard for becomes exasperating.

Where the first film is about character depth, this one is more about plot and overt themes.  So much so that summing up its events is reasonably easy: After Joe’s enjoyment of sex vanishes, she still hungers for it.  She and Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf) accidentally conceive a child together, and after three years, Joe’s frustration has become so great and her sexual demands so high that Jerôme suggests she sleep with other people to satisfy her mood (while of course remaining a family with him and their son, because that usually works out).  Her exploration becomes increasingly violent, culminating in her visiting K, a menacing (not a word I thought I’d ever use to describe Jamie Bell) sadomasochist who viciously abuses women who volunteer, but never has sex with any of them.  Joe asks what he gets out of it.  He says it’s none of her business.  Convenient for not having to make him a real character – on that note, why doesn’t Seligman ask Joe why she uses the letters of the alphabet in the place of the real names of everyone but Jerôme?  We even get his surname, which we don’t even get for Joe.

Joe loses her family after prioritizing her visits to K over taking care of her son, and her employer demands that she seek counseling under penalty of losing her job.  There’s a bit of narrative whiplash here in terms of how we’re meant to view Joe: in Volume I, we never saw her as someone who needed to “get better,” or someone that we were supposed to “take care of.”  Now, we see her admit that she has a sickness.  The psychologist (Caroline Goodall) tells her to remove anything from her life that reminds her of sex.  In the next shot, her apartment is completely empty, and her mirror painted over.  Thankfully, she soon lambastes the therapy group, claiming that she loves herself and that she’s not like the rest of them, who have used sex to fill some hole (a word that gets deliberately repeated throughout both films) in their lives.  The next image, beneath a rocking Talking Heads soundtrack, shows Joe tossing a Molotov cocktail at a parked car and walking away like an apathetic action hero.  Did this really happen?  Seligman stops the story.  “Wait,” he says.  “I didn’t get that part.”

Joe backpedals.  She becomes an enforcer for a debt collector named L (Willem Dafoe), who respects her “qualifications” (i.e. she understands the desires of men, and knows how to hurt people).  Okay.  We get it.  Natural empathy is nonexistent to Joe.  But now we get a narrative manifestation of a theme, and in a story about a character, it’s too jarring.  Then we remember von Trier’s obsession with self-loathing, and that his films’ examinations of paranoia and depression carry an unequivocal undercurrent of cynicism.  Suddenly, in a film we can’t imagine an ending for, things don’t seem so rosy.  L suggests that Joe find a “successor,” and recommends P (Mia Goth), a fifteen year-old daughter of criminals.  The girl moves in with Joe, and their relationship soon grows, as it must, into a sexual one.  But where Volume I would have seen Seligman asking Joe if she knew she was interested in women (i.e. deepening her character), Volume II sticks to forward action.  P wants to work in debt collection too, so Joe brings her to work.  Finally, the Law of the Inevitable Coincidence takes over, and it’s particularly sad because we know it’s coming: one of the men Joe must extort is Jerôme (now played by Michaël Pas, which is off-putting after seeing LaBeouf in the role for 3+ hours).  What follows, which includes P’s betrayal of Joe, makes little sense because we haven’t gotten to know her very well, and ends where the first film begins: with Joe lying in the alleyway after a beating from the two people she actually has feelings for (and notice what P does to her in this scene.  “P.”  Get it? Hardy har, Lars).

Joe has never looked at the whole story like this before.  Look what she has in front of her: all of the most important parts of her life, compartmentalized in some truly dazzling (and above all, logical) ways.  There’s some sort of epiphany, maybe.  She wants to be who she is while pruning the parts of her that make happiness impossible.  She remembers seeing a lone, deformed tree at the top of a mountain.  We remember her father (Christian Slater) and his allegory about the lone, beautiful ash tree.  How the souls of trees look like the souls of people.  We remember Yggdrasil.  This really could end gently and nicely (not “happily,” mind you).

But then we remember something we forgot: it’s Lars von Trier.  The final thirty seconds of the film, while not undoing absolutely everything that came before, bring cynicism to the surface.  It’s pretty revolting, albeit awarding Joe with the agency she’s never had.  All at once, Seligman’s various “misunderstandings” about Joe’s story become the manifestation of horror that lurks in all of von Trier’s films, and in a much more personal way than a rogue planet bashing into Earth (although, in its actual physical movement, it is a bit like that).  We are reminded of Selma’s execution in Dancer in the Dark, of the destruction of Dogville at the hands of Nicole Kidman and James Caan.  None of those hurt quite like this.

Nymphomaniac is a fascinating character study, which is why the plot-centric nature of Volume II’s latter parts is so difficult.  The rare interruptions now come as reliefs rather than annoyances, even as Joe begins to point out that Seligman is beginning to jump the shark with his digressions.  The nonsensical parts of the story increase, and are pointed out less often, then eventually not at all.  For example, why would Willem Dafoe’s character seek Joe out?  Why would he care if she obtained an apprentice?  Why would he recommend this particular disturbed teenager?  How has Joe “heard of” K?  Why does he take her in after being so sure that S&M is “not for [her]”?  Why does Marcel (Joe’s son) completely disappear?  Why has Joe read all of Ian Fleming, but never heard of Poe (though it’s notable that James Bond, a character she idolizes, is a sex addict in the novels)?  The answer is the House of Cards Plot.  It all happens because it has to in order for the plot to reach a convenient point.  In this case, it works if the journey was all worth it.  I guess I’m still unsure whether von Trier is haranguing Joe or rooting for her.  Let me say this another way: if the writer is indifferent about the character, none of it means anything.  Maybe it doesn’t matter where Joe goes from here.  Just that she got to this point.

I could have watched a third volume if the ending of this one allowed for it, but similar to Joe when the tiny blot of sunlight outside the apartment signifies dawn, I am exhausted, and I have to be done.

Nymphomaniac: Volume II (2014); written and directed by Lars von Trier; starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, and Mia Goth. 

 

Lucy

The Great Transhuman Empire

lucyHere’s a fact.  The name Lucy was given to the first “person” we know about: a 3.2 million year-old hominid, whose discovery proved that our taxonomic family was bipedal before our brain size increased, shedding further light on human evolution (i.e. which primates we came from).  Here’s a fact about that Lucy: she used 100% of her brain capacity, and so do I, and so do you.

Ignoring the film’s issue of presenting urban legend as science (see here), Lucy lists between human drama and sci-fi goofiness, occasionally trying to remake Akira and 2001: a Space Odyssey in its structure and imagery.  The title character, played by Scarlett Johansson, is a grad student abroad in Taipei.  Her boyfriend of one week is worried that his employer, who overpays him for simple courier services, is up to something devious, and tricks Lucy into making today’s delivery in his place.  Of course, this is the day his employer, Mr. Jang (Choi Min-sik) is expecting the delivery of a volatile drug that he and his identically black-suited mooks will sell for a fortune in Europe.  Jang decides to use Lucy as a drug mule, sewing a package of the drug – a tiny blue crystal – into her stomach.

While she’s being held, Lucy is assaulted by a bored henchman, who accidentally ruptures the package inside her and releases the drug into her bloodstream.  Just like that, she knows Kung Fu, how to use a handgun, how to navigate the city on her own, and how to fearlessly use violence and intimidation to get people to do what she wants.  She escapes captivity, has the package removed from her abdomen, and finds out what it is: CPH4 (made up by Besson, at least as far as its name), a synthesized version of a substance that pregnant women produce to help a fetus grow.  Apparently, when you ingest a whole bunch of this as an adult, you gain telekinetic abilities and all sorts of insight into how the universe works, as well as gradually losing your humanity in the process.  Lucy, who somehow knows what’s happening to her, phones her mother and reveals that she now vividly remembers details of her infancy, including nursing.  She then launches a solo attack on Jang, whom she inexplicably refuses to kill after decimating his security force and reading his mind in order to glean the whereabouts of the other three drug mules (she needs more CPH4 to continue transcending her own abilities).

Meanwhile, Professor Samuel Norman (Morgan Freeman) lectures a French university on what might happen if humans could harness a larger percentage of their cerebral capacity (I feel compelled to again point out that this is all nonsense; humans use one-hundred-percent of our brains at all times, and Besson should be embarrassed not only for perpetuating a dangerous myth, but for insisting that he spent years on this film’s “science” before even writing a script – Freeman delivers his lecture while his facial expressions tell us “Everything I’m saying is bullshit, and so can you!”).  With her newfound omniscience, Lucy discovers his research, reads all six-thousand pages of it in seconds, and hashes over the meaning of life with him.  Through a few conversations made up of profound tripe, they decide that the purpose of existence is to pass on knowledge, and Lucy devises a way to allow humans to finally learn to “use” their lives once she’s gone.  As she travels from country to country, memory to memory, era to era, she keeps French police captain Del Rio (Amr Waked) around as a “reminder” that she’s human (How so?  Because he’s handsome?), all the while being stalked by the Korean gangsters she left alive for plot convenience.

What works about the film is Scarlett Johansson.  The bad science and derivative story don’t get a pass, but with Johansson’s voice, what could have been a tough sit becomes pretty engaging, even in a universe where the highest of minds produce philosophical drivel that wouldn’t impress a mildly well-educated middle-schooler.  But carry the film as Johansson might, a character needs to be characterized.  She almost is, but the plot gets in the way far too early, and the effects of the drug cause Lucy’s personality to become increasingly stoic and robotic.  But we still root for her, and it’s hard not to when her opponents are essentially the Devil (I mean, come on; does anyone imagine that Mr. Jang and his seemingly regenerative mooks have actual home lives?).  The biggest difference between she and her Akira predecessor, Tetsuo, is that Tetsuo’s inferiority complex and lack of control led him to transmogrifying legions of people into puddles of gore at the wave of a hand, whereas Lucy would rather leave them in suspended humiliation as she casually leaves the room in stiletto heels, taking their prized MacGuffins with her.

As for the rest of the cast, Waked shows some real versatility as the bewildered-but-capable police captain, and Choi, prolific as he is, turns it off to play a villain who has to be menacing no matter what he’s doing.  The Professor character, maybe, should have been played by someone other than Morgan Freeman.  Nothing against him; quite the opposite – a thin character’s thinness is made even more obvious when a famous actor, known for complex and intense performances, is relegated to inhabiting it.  The result is, “Hey, there’s Morgan Freeman doing something,” not “Hey, this film needed this character.”  In fact, the whole thing would have been passable if Lucy had gained the powers from the drug the exact same way, but without including the brain-capacity angle.  Think of how much room there would have been for characterization without all the big-headed pontificating and fake jargon.

The real emotional apex occurs when Lucy, in the 2001 part of the film, briefly travels back to the time of the primordial Lucy, who is busy drinking from a river.  Present-day Lucy extends her finger, and old furry ape Lucy reciprocates, recreating Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, but with two women (not to mention at least one person who actually existed).  I love that this can happen in a film, and that this film can outsell Dwayne Johnson’s leviathan-esque biceps.

Lucy (2014); written and directed by Luc Besson; starring Scarlett Johansson, Choi Min-sik, and Morgan Freeman.

Nymphomaniac (V1)

House of Usher, House of Cards

nymphThere’s a meta layer to Nymphomaniac in which director Lars von Trier allows character Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) to comment on the nature of the film’s narrative.  He complains that a story being told to him by Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), which makes up the entire film, is full of preposterous coincidences.  She replies by implying that he’ll get more out of it if he simply believes in it.  Is von Trier, mischievous as he is, commenting on the concept of stories and storytelling in general, on the idea that nonfiction is a weave of lies and truths just as love, as Joe tells us, is nothing more than “lust with jealousy added?”  Or is this an unfortunate cop-out, wherein the filmmaker tells us he’s going to show us what he wants to, and our choices are to either enjoy/learn from it or have a bad time?  You don’t necessarily have to choose one while watching the film, but shortly into it, you do have to accept that the parts of Joe’s herstory that are most heavily featured (and more so the parts that are skipped) are chosen with almost no justification by Joe (and by extension, von Trier), and that the film’s most preposterous coincidences are not the things that happen in Joe’s stagy, melodramatic tale, but the ways in which she and Seligman segue into them, the unlikely-to-the-point-of-absurdity observations that trigger the transitions.

The film opens as Seligman, a polite bachelor, finds Joe unconscious and badly beaten in the street.  He takes her in when she refuses an ambulance (your first House of Cards moment), gives her a blanket and something to drink, and asks how she ended up in this situation.  She claims that it’s her fault because she’s a terrible human being.  But there’s an ostentatious quality to this statement.  Joe wants Seligman to ask, as von Trier wants of his audience, what she means so that he (and we) can prove her wrong.  She says she’ll need to start at the beginning, and promises that it will be long (to be precise, four hours and two films).

She starts with her fascination with sex, and how it began when she was two years old.  This comes as no surprise, but only because of the film’s title.  If it were called something else, say, “Joe’s Story,” would this really feel like an organic way to begin?  Would Joe believe that a middle-aged stranger is automatically interested in her lifelong sexual escapades?  Maybe she sees an opportunity to work through something.  Or maybe this is just what von Trier is interested in about her.

First, she’s certain she’ll convince him of how bad a person she is when she relates a story of how, as a teenager (now played by Stacy Martin), she and a friend referred to as “B” (Sophie Kennedy Clark) dressed as hookers and had a contest to see how many male train passengers they could seduce in a single night.  The prize was a bag of candy, so of course, it wasn’t about the prize.  At least not for Joe, who engages in these sexual encounters with absolutely no joy.  So what is she after?  She’s a self-diagnosed addict, so I’m not asking about the past.  What is she trying to achieve by relating these stories?  Is there actually anything to discover?  Seligman, a conveniently well-read man with a wide net of interests and knowledge, tells her that nothing on the train was her fault, because one cannot blame an addict (even after she sexually assaults a married man – it’s interesting to observe that she has such power over a man twice her size and more than twice her age).  The numbers three and five keep coming up in her supposedly unrelated side-stories, and Seligman recognizes them as Fibonacci numbers.

Here’s what I mean about the transitions.  The Fibonacci thing, okay, it’s in Seligman’s nature (as a loner and a thinker) to make these connections, to dig previously undiscovered meaning out of stories and literature.  But the challenge on our part is whether any of these connections actually mean anything in the context of the story we’re witnessing.  Joe remembers the train story after noticing a colorful fishing lure hanging on Seligman’s wall.  He’s not much of a fisherman, but knows a lot about it, and once caught a big fish with that very lure.  Fishing imagery intermittently pops up during the scenes of young Joe and B luring men to them.  Not only that, but present-day Joe and Seligman’s voiceovers explain the imagery to us.  Aesthetically, it’s fun, but we actually don’t need any of it in order to create this metaphor for ourselves: young girls in skimpy outfits are essentially fishing lures for men, who are essentially dumb fish.  Later, Seligman brings her a plate of rugelach (a Jewish pastry), and happens to serve it with a cake fork.  Lo and behold, Joe used to know someone who ate rugelach with a cake fork, and she has very strong feelings on the “unmanliness” of the practice.  This brings her to one of the most significant characters in the story, Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), who helps her lose her virginity, and then appears at increasingly unlikely points in the story – he just so happens to be interim boss at her first job and hires her on the spot, and then happens to be present when Joe finds a torn-up photograph of him in a random park.  Here’s the thing about Jerôme: he’s the only guy she does not indulge herself with as a young adult, which makes him the single important man in her story (aside from her father, played by Christian Slater, whom I’ll get to).

Another transition: Joe notices that Seligman has been reading (or rather, “re-acquainting [himself] with”) Edgar Allan Poe.  Joe has never heard of Poe, and Seligman’s chosen detail about the writer is that he died of severe delirium after attempting to tear himself away from his own addiction (in Poe’s case, alcoholism).  This reminds Joe of her father, who died of cancer, but experienced delirium in his final days, shouting for his wife, flopping around on the floor of the hospital (not unlike a fish) until the point of being straitjacketed, and so on.  Again, it makes sense for Seligman to make this connection with what he has, but the fact that the book happened to be sitting in plain view of this exact person, who he didn’t know would be there, is more than a little tough to believe, not because the film’s thematic stuff is too heightened or because I don’t believe such an encounter could happen, but because of how complex it is, and how reliant on these themes the film’s story is (and von Trier makes sure to have Joe and Seligman explain them until you get it – another example involves Joe going on long walks, intercut with images of a lion pacing in a cage, only to then have Joe state in a voiceover, “I was like an animal in a cage”).

Wait.  Joe has never heard of Edgar Allan Poe?  For all her knowledge of mythology, religion, sport, numbers, she hasn’t heard of the inventor of detective fiction, one of the first well-known people to try to write literature full-time, the guy who gets over-quoted and over-reported-on ad infinitum?  House of Cards again – she doesn’t know him because if she does, then the next important part of the film can’t happen, even if it defies all logic.  Remove one card, the house collapses.  But she’s got a lot more in common with Poe than she thinks, besides their rhyming names.  Seligman doesn’t mention it, but curious/careful viewers and readers may remember that shortly before Poe died, he was found barely conscious in the street, and incoherent about how he ended up in such a situation.

Volume 1, the halfway point, ends with a revelation about Joe that mirrors a common belief: that sex addicts cannot perform or become aroused by someone they actually care about.  Joe is told that the secret ingredient to sex is love, and when her more-than-coincidental reunion with Jerôme happens, she tries.  And she feels nothing.

Nymphomaniac is a film wherein it cannot possibly all mean something.  But it’s about the thought that it could, that there is something to discover in the disjointedness of the past.  It’s sometimes over-explanatory, sometimes artistic for the sake of being artistic, and visually sexual for the sake of shock, but beyond the gloss, it’s challenging, and not for its run time (Volume I is actually under two hours).  A lot feels at stake, even when the only present action is a late-night conversation between strangers.  Charlotte Gainsbourg continues to dominate difficult scenes and dialogue, and Stellan Skarsgård retains his ability to make himself someone we would want to spill our secrets to.  Stacy Martin, though, steals the movie.  She has all of the difficult physical scenes, does all the naked acrobatics with the film’s legions of homely men, and shows serious dramatic chops in her scenes with Christian Slater (who gives one of the greater performances of his recent career, at least that I’ve seen, in a character who does little but give his daughter allegories about how beautiful she is, which may or may not have contributed to her present problem).  It’s a film about failure, self-possession, self-deception, and taking walks.  It has the wrong title.  It’s also a film that made me listen to Rammstein.  Twice.

Read my writeup of Volume II here.

Nymphomaniac Volume I; written and directed by Lars von Trier; starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stacy Martin, Stellan Skarsgård, and Christian Slater.

 

 

 

 

 

Pompeii

A new way of looking at Carbonite

pompeii-movie-still-13There’s not much reason to write about Pompeii.  It’s a formula action movie, and its plot is a facsimile of Gladiator (which is itself derivative enough).  Its dialogue is laconic, unoriginal, and plot-driven, and the cast is an ensemble of stock characters.  But I’m interested in Mount Vesuvius, particularly the eruption that wiped out an entire population of people who had no idea what was happening, and whom we know almost nothing about.  I’m interested in the imagining of who those people could have been, an impetus for filmmaking that seems extremely genuine on director Paul W.S. Anderson’s part.

Milo (Kit Harington), also known as “the Celt,” is the sole survivor of a tribe of horsemen needlessly slaughtered by those damned Romans, led by Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland).  Milo is now everyone’s favorite gladiator, which means that the politicians hate him.  He shares the main narrative with Cassia (Emily Browning), Pompeii’s equivalent of a princess, who is a bit more vocal about her contempt for Rome than her reticent parents (played by Carrie-Anne Moss and Jared Harris) are.  Corvus comes to Pompeii under the pretense of helping improve the conditions of the city, when he really wants to marry Cassia, even threatening to have her parents killed for treason when she refuses.  What must happen from here?  Cassia and Milo must become drawn to one another.  Corvus must antagonize Milo, but not recognize him until a pivotal moment.  Milo must cause a scene in the Amphitheater that gets everyone talking, and then lead the remaining gladiators (which includes champion Atticus, played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) to freedom.  The slave must defeat the corrupt politician, and the forbidden love must be allowed to bloom.  You know the formula.  Hopefully you’re tired of it, and not as hopelessly addicted to it as are so many seekers of casual entertainment, who can barely stomach the thought of real characterization (read: they don’t know what it is).

But the most interesting character is Mount Vesuvius itself, a plot device that not all other action period pieces have.  It’s fascinating to see the reactions of Pompeii’s citizens, most of whom think their Gods are punishing them for violating one silly tenet or another.  This is where the film’s characters are really defined: how they behave when an active volcano is about to devour their entire world.  Cassia, Atticus, and Milo want to evacuate as many people as possible; Ariadne (Jessica Lucas), Cassia’s servant and friend, wants to stay by Cassia’s side instead of saving herself (which yields results you can guess at); Graecus the slaveowner (Joe Pingue) wants to get out of town without a second thought for anyone else; and best of all, Corvus, along with his right-hand man Proculus (Sasha Roiz), is just petty enough to stay in a doomed, collapsing city to settle a score with Milo, even though no one’s ever going to know about it.

I can’t help but like Kit Harington, with all of his pouty brooding.  What unfortunate situations his characters find themselves in.  What loss they experience.  Emily Browning is another find.  There’s a lead actress there, and one who’s able to play tender drama and badass heroism together.  I want these two to win, even when the film’s poster essentially shows them about to die.  On the other hand, Carrie-Anne Moss, once a leading action hero herself, hard-bodied and kicking butt and doing it with Matrix-era Keanu Reeves in an elevator, is relegated to the role of the ill-fated mother (her voice role as Aria T’Loak in the Mass Effect games is a revelation; why are filmmakers forgetting that she was Trinity?).  Akinnuoye-Agbaje still plays the aloof tough guy with a code, and does considerable justice to whom his character may have been.  Sutherland phones it in, and as monstrous as his character is supposed to be, he’s nothing compared to Eva Green’s deliciously evil warrior-woman in the otherwise mediocre 300 sequel earlier this year (a film whose anachronisms and embellishments make Pompeii look like a documentary).

The film is worthwhile if you know a little bit of the history.  Anderson’s stimulus is an image of two real-life people, discovered in the excavation of Pompeii, who were entombed in the mountain’s pyroclastic flows, creating casts of their exact body shapes when they died.  The casts were later filled with plaster to create the now-famous molds of people in their final poses.  It’s romantic to think that these two may have been heroic lovers and not simply citizens holding each other in shared terror, but these people (along with another cast of a man believed to be from North Africa) inform the film’s characters, and how fantastic it is to think that these people can be immortalized this way.  Even if we’re just making up stuff about them and using their made-up story to satisfy adolescent boys on a weekend, maybe more people will become interested in the historical narrative.

Pompeii (2014); written by Janet Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler, and Michael Robert Johnson; directed by Paul W.S. Anderson; starring Kit Harington, Emily Browning, Jessica Lucas, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje.

 

 

 

Rob the Mob

The future ain’t what it used to be

robmobRaymond De Felitta’s Rob the Mob fictionalizes the early-’90s Bonnie/Clyde tale of Tommy and Rosemarie Uva, two ex-cons who accidentally contributed to the apprehension of twenty-plus members of various New York City crime families after burglarizing Italian social clubs.  In a film, an audience has to be able to at least sympathize with the protagonists (read: understand why they do what they do, not necessarily root for them), so there’s plenty of highfalutin contrivance as far as Tommy and Rosie’s motivations go.  But at heart, it’s a Non-Mob movie and a love story, and the fact is, no audience wants to spend time with criminals who remind us of real criminals.

Tommy (Michael Pitt) serves an eighteen-month sentence after robbing a flower shop.  Trying to go straight, his girlfriend, Rosie (Nina Arianda) gets a job at a debt collection agency, probably one of the only businesses hiring in NYC in ’91, and eventually gets Tommy a job there too.  But Tommy is more interested in the trial of Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, the notorious Mafia hit man whose testimony moved federal crosshairs towards Gambino-family boss John Gotti.  When the couple begin receiving paychecks for fifty dollars, they realize a “plan B” is in order.  Tommy procures an Uzi, and decides to stop robbing small businesses and instead go for Italian social clubs, which consist of “old guys playing cards,” and where weapons are not allowed.  He learns from Gravano’s trial which clubs are Mob-run.  When Rosie, the pragmatic one, suggests that this might not be a great idea, Tommy cites his father’s abuse at the hands of the Mob as further reason to brutalize them (it’s an unnecessary addition whose purpose is to make sure the audience thinks of Tommy and Rosie as good guys, and it brings back sad memories of Oliver Stone’s unforgivable revisions to Quentin Tarantino’s Natural Born Killers script).

The narrative stays with Tommy and Rosie until they rob their first club, and then, as it must, the scope gets wider.  We meet Big Al Fiorello (Andy Garcia), a fictional, composite mafioso on whom the feds are keeping a close eye.  He still technically runs things, but he spends most of his time with his grandson, playing games and sharing the secrets of cooking rice balls.  Oddly enough, Al is the gentlest, most morally sound character in the film, and when he reveals the circumstances of how he ended up a mobster in the first place, we really don’t want the feds (played by Samira Wiley and Frank Whaley) to catch him.  The third piece of perspective goes to Jerry Cardozo (Ray Romano), a journalist who has covered the Mob for thirty years.  He becomes fascinated with Tommy and Rosie, going so far as to interview them about their Robin-Hood-ism, and serves as a conduit to how crooked the feds really are – he even proclaims to a federal agent, “You guys are worse than [the Mob]!”  Yes, screenwriters, we get it already.

Long story short, Al’s hand is forced due to “The List,” a MacGuffin inexplicably entrusted to the aging Joey D (Burt Young), which is taken by Tommy and Rosie when they rob the Waikiki Club.  Al puts out a hit on the couple, who seem to be the only ones who do not realize how serious this is.  Count how many times someone asks them, “You know what’s gonna happen, right?”  By the end, for all their belligerence, they really haven’t figured it out.

The First Rule of Non-Mob Movies (i.e. movies that aren’t about the Mob per se, but feature characters who get involved with gangsters) is that they must become Mob movies halfway through, for the simple reason that filmmakers cannot resist making a Mob movie when they have a chance to.  A prime example is last year’s The Iceman, about Richard Kuklinski.  As soon as he gets involved with the Mob, Ray Liotta’s mob boss character suddenly gets his own scenes and conflicts that have nothing to do with the main character or storyline, and serve only to add more shopworn “gangster scenes” to the pile.  Rob the Mob follows the same rule, but it’s handled more responsibly, and Andy Garcia’s character is someone we can genuinely understand and even get behind.  This way, there are no “bad guys” in the movie, just polarized characters who cannot possibly all win (though to be fair, Big Al’s henchmen are all typical mooks, one of whom, played by Michael Rispoli, can’t even understand why Al would want to spare him the task of murdering someone).

Michael Pitt and Nina Arianda are a golden duo, and both manage to play the characters as honest-to-goodness lowlives with enormous aspirations and one very bad idea about how to achieve them.  They could have easily been depicted as misunderstood Robin-Hoods, and even with the creative licenses the film takes, it never gets too precious about anything but their for-better-or-for-worse love for one another (in fact, whenever anyone says something serious, piano music plays).  As you’d expect, the film contains plenty of nods to earlier Mob movies, and a surprising amount of subtle Quentin Tarantino references (think True Romance).  Romano’s character is relatively flat and straightforward, more a plot device than a character, but he never takes more than his fair share of screen time.  Garcia’s turn as the goodhearted mafia don is wonderful, and my only regret about the casting is that Pitt and Arianda never share a scene with Garcia (which makes sense story-wise, but is still a bit sad in retrospect).  Unfortunately, the film does perpetuate the popular depiction of Italians as pasta-slurping goombas and greasy wiseguys who know how to do three things: cook, play cards, and talk about whacking people.  Two gangsters write messages to each other in tomato sauce.  Garcia at one point declares, “There’s no Sunday without cavatelli and braciole!”  Is the idea that most people don’t know what that means, and will just think it sounds obscure and authoritative?  Because those of Italian descent (myself included) groaned a little.

Hats off to Rob the Mob for doing a different Mob movie.  One that cares more about the non-mobsters, involves no real violent imagery, and doesn’t festoon itself with profound ideas.  And, y’know, for reminding us how much sense Yogi actually made sometimes.

Rob the Mob (2014) written by Jonathan Fernandez; directed by Raymond De Felitta; starring Michael Pitt, Nina Arianda, Andy Garcia, and Ray Romano. 

 

 

 

Snowpiercer

Size ten chaos

snowpiercerYour first hint about the depth of Snowpiercer is that it’s named after a gigantic plot device: a self-sustaining train that bashes through solid walls of ice and snow in order to continue its eternal loop around the world.  The film is effectively the underdog version of Edge of Tomorrow: based on dystopic graphic novels, starring a reliable Hollywood actor, and far more concerned with what’s happening than why it’s happening or why anyone should care.  Which parts, I wonder, did Harvey Weinstein want to trim or change?

The story takes place after humans attempt to combat global warming, and instead cause a new ice age that apparently wipes out all life on Earth, though I’m not sure whose in-universe conclusion that was.  Either way, the remaining people have taken refuge on the aforementioned train, whose magic engine is responsible for sustaining the lives of the few thousand humans left.  A few issues already: why can’t they just turn on the engine and keep the train at a standstill?  The treacherous snowstorms at every turn aren’t exactly facilitating the goal of survival.  Also, even with the great length of the train, a few thousand people are not enough to keep the human race alive, so it’s kind of an all-for-nothing game already, but the narrative itself seems unaware of that, so we’re left to suspend our disbelief.

We start with Curtis (Chris Evans), a Boring Hero who has become sick of the caste system put in place by those who run the front of the train.  Those in the “tail section,” including Curtis’s friends Tanya (Octavia Spencer) and Edgar (Jamie Bell), as well as one-armed/one-legged mentor Gilliam (John Hurt), live in squalor and eat nothing but blocks of protein that look like Jell-O and probably taste much less pleasant.  The story begins as a small army of mooks shows up and inexplicably takes away two of the tail section’s children, much to the chagrin of Curtis and Edgar, who spend five minutes speaking in exposition in a scene that would have been much more effective (and no less clear) if they hadn’t said anything at all.  A would-be riot occurs, during which inciter Andrew (Ewan Bremner) throws a shoe at the wrong person: Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton at her hammiest), who then makes an example of Andrew by making him stick his arm out the window of the train, exposing it to the cold until it is frozen and useless.  Then they slam it with a carnival mallet, because it’s fun to watch stuff shatter, and let’s face it, there’s nothing better to do.

Through some of the exposition, we gather that there was an attempt at revolution four years ago, but no one has been able to run the gauntlet to the front of the train.  But during today’s kidnapping, Curtis notices that Mason’s soldiers do not have bullets in their guns.  Gilliam agrees: these guys come in here with guns every day, but have never even fired a warning shot.  The next time they try something, Curtis rallies every able body in the tail section, including Tanya, whose son was one of the children abducted.  The good guys defeat the guards and rush through the gates that they’re not allowed to pass.  The movie still has two hours left, and it waits almost that long to try to develop the characters (y’know, after most of them are dead).

From here, Snowpiercer becomes a relentless Game-of-Death-style battle movie, in which each train car involves a different type of fighting, ranging from various Bull-shitsu to unnecessary slow-motion kills to Zero Dark Thirty found-footage night-vision.  The one bit of story that happens in between involves the freeing of Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho), the film’s Belligerent Savant, from the prison car, along with his supposedly clairvoyant (because that’s normal!) daughter, Yona (Go Ah-sung).  Nam is the creator of the gates that separate the train cars, so Curtis’s troupe needs him if they’re going to get far.  Through one thing and another, Curtis, Nam, and Yona make it to the end, where the two men have a heart-to-heart about whether they should open the final gate that leads to Wilford, the Godot Character who rules the train, or just blow a hole in the side of the car they’re in and see if they can survive outside (Nam has evidence that the snow is melting, but it’s mostly a blind-faith idea).  Just in time, Curtis is invited to the obligatory Dinner at the Ivory Tower, after which he has to choose whether to become the new, erm, “conductor,” as it were.

The scene prior to this, nearly two hours into the film, is the first time anything is revealed about Curtis and his motivations.  It’s a pretty good scene, but we needed it much earlier, before the exhausting battles and slaughter.  Chris Evans can act; there’s no question about that after The Iceman, but it would be nice if he were given the opportunity to do so before we’re asked to support his violent coup.  Sadly, his steak dinner with Wilford, which is thankfully not rushed (and which reveals that, much like the revolution in The Matrix, this revolt was planned by Wilford and Gilliam in order to keep the population of the train under control), brings attention to an important bit of Fridge Logic: why does the caste system exist in the first place?  No reason is given for the horrid conditions of the tail section, and it’s not as if finances have anything to do with it, since there’s no currency in this particular dystopia, just the damn train.  And after enduring so much intense violence, the lack of answers or depth is a real groin-punch, and it opens the sluice gates for a zillion other questions we’d have been willing to keep quiet about if we’d gotten some attempt at resolution or character development: why, if Wilford has spent his entire life obsessed with trains, does he never use one bit of correct railroad terminology?  How/why did the government greenlight the construction of a train that spans the entire world and never stops running?  How does a community of people survive on pure protein, without fruits and vegetables, without getting scurvy?  Why does Curtis react the way he does when he realizes that the protein blocks are made of processed insects?  People eat those in real life, and in many areas, are pretty happy to have them.  What is Minister Mason (Swinton’s character) “minister” of?  Why is she, in all her madcap glory, cast aside early and replaced by a silent Übermook?  How does such a large percentage of such a small human society have the exact body-type and low-rent aspirations conducive to becoming monstrous security guards who stand in a room all day, waiting for opponents to show up?  Why do they wear black masks?  Why use unreliable weapons like axes when the exact outcome of the battle is so vital to Wilford’s plan?  Why does a genius like Wilford think that cutting down an already-reproductively-insignificant population by 70% will ensure the survival of the human race?  Why keep the tail-section people in filth, poverty, and boredom, without even giving them the option to work jobs or somehow contribute, and then blame them for being useless?  Why keep them alive at all if you only want them for their children, when the people in the front are clearly reproducing too?  How did Edgar ever know what steak smelled like if he was born on the train?  Why are all the women either bereft mothers or vilified?  Does anyone not comprehend what Mason’s painfully obvious innuendo about keeping the aquarium population balanced is an allegory for?

Most important of all, if Curtis’s anger is based around the fact that he hates himself for becoming a selfish, deranged cannibal when he and his people were first corralled into the tail section – a scenario that almost saw him kill and eat the infant Edgar, after killing his mother, when food was scarce – how does he so readily abandon Edgar to die at the hands of Wilford’s forces, and then later execute a woman at pointblank range, right after ordering one of his mates to kill yet another woman (this time a pregnant teacher played by Alison Pill)?  Are we really supposed to sympathize with him after this?  It’s almost as if Curtis was deepened as an afterthought, without retrospect.  Does he really think he’s going to make humanity better by killing most of the remaining people?  Are we supposed to be inspired by the ending, in which two whole people survive the ordeal?  Good news for the polar bears.  Not so much for the humans.

The problem is the same one so many films and TV series have: the abundance of answers, and complete absence of justifications.  The focus on plot and not on characters.  We can’t care about what happens if we don’t care about the people it happens to.  Again and again, these House of Cards plots dictate a film’s story, and any coincidental characterization serves only to string one noisy, desensitizing fight scene to the next one.  Everyone loves to guess who will still be alive by the end, rather than get to know anyone before they’re put on the chopping block.

One piece of advice for aspiring dystopians: don’t struggle to have a point.  Don’t orbit some shopworn theme or broad idea.  Have a character worth caring about, and don’t kill them for shock value.  The rest is pretty easy.

Snowpiercer (2014); based on the graphic novels Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob; written by Bong Joon-ho and Kelly Masterson; directed by Bong Joon-ho; starring Chris Evans, Octavia Spencer, Go Ah-sung, and Song Kang-ho.