The Future

“The fault,” Cassius tells Brutus in Julius Caesar, “is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” Just as the fault is not in the moon, but in himself, when Jason (Hamish Linklater) freezes time in Miranda July’s film The Future, and supplicates the nearest celestial object to let him off the hook. His wife, Sophie (July), looks to be paralyzed in perdition on their bedroom floor—the secret she needs to confess locked inside her like a tear stuck in its duct. But the moon, bright and blue as the high-beams the director calls eyes, cannot reverse the process; it speaks to him as it shimmers in space, like the guardian angel in It’s A Wonderful Life, but it cannot come off its heavenly pedestal to help out a brother in need. Even magic realists have to draw the line somewhere.

Well—somewhere further than a talking cat. Paw-Paw is the “X” on the couple’s calendar; if she can last out a month-long waiting period, they can adopt her. She is their only commitment, the event that will decide their fates forever and usher in the next stage of their lives; she is their only anchor in the rising tide of time, and the only object with which they can take its measure. Luckily for them, they can’t hear her talk—that onus is on us. (As she rasped on the voiceover, like an Ewok blues singer, I realized how much we take Bill Murray as Garfield for granted.) One can almost smell the stale ramen noodles in the walls of their flat. A self-conscious deadpan, favoring deadness over panning, is the order of the day—though the passivity is pointed. Jason and Sophie live in a static environment that recalls early Jim Jarmusch or Kevin Smith, with their underachieving heroes; but this is slackerdom gone sour, lived in unhappily, and past 30. And I think it may be crucial to note the difference in time (now) and place (L.A.), and, if gendered assumptions are your thing, the presence of a female sensibility.

In her profile of July—published, quite punctually, in July—Katrina Onstad elegantly sums up the resistance to the director’s work: “Twee fascinations with childhood innocence can mask an unwillingness to tackle life’s darker quandaries.” And the flaccid-faced boys in Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005)—July’s first and previous film—do indeed seem to be submerged in masks; their stares are inexpressively sad and unaccountably burdened. Fifteen is rather early in life to rediscover one’s innocence, but a boy that age has life lessons to learn from an even younger girl. Yet contrast this mawkishness with the subplot involving his eight-year-old brother. After seducing a woman in an anonymous chat room by inviting her to “poop back and forth” with him, they meet in person, on a park bench. After the music swells, he pecks her on the cheek and scurries off. What seems at first to be a light-hearted curveball becomes a profoundly sad moment; the woman is more alone than ever, her innocence and “corruption” inexorably linked. Could it be that July’s twee fascinations mask a latent willingness?

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Right before the lights went down and Contagion got underway, my buddy asked if this was a bad movie for us to be sharing popcorn at; and for the first few minutes, my answer was a withering “Uh-huh….” Steven Soderbergh lingers a few extra seconds on a much-fingered bowl of peanuts at a bar in Kowloon, on a metal pole on a Tokyo commuter train, on derelict cell phones passed like dinner plates—the way filmmakers draw our attention to seemingly mundane objects in a mystery: giving us a heads up on clues. But then come jaundiced faces, overused Kleenexes, the ghastly coughs that emanate from the hollows of people’s souls. And cue convulsions! It may have been like buying a Range Rover on the way home from An Inconvenient Truth, but I finished the popcorn anyway.

Contagion isn’t a mystery exactly. This study of a viral pandemic, the attempts to contain it, and the effect that has on modern society has the pull of an omnibus disaster thriller, the substance of a technical manual, and the form of an objet d’art: Imagine Richard A. Clarke recruiting for a war game at an Oscar afterparty, and hiring Annie Leibovitz to document it in a photo spread. Who but Soderbergh—except, maybe, a resurrected Robert Altman, after having received his doctorate in public health in heaven—could’ve pulled this off? (And don’t let’s forget the screenwriter, Scott Z. Burns, whose name has the ring of an over-the-counter ointment.) Soderbergh has carved a special place for himself in the canon, harboring an admirable fascination with the way things work and a polystylistic urge to slink under the seat of his director’s chair: a combo that has inevitably drawn him to the style and subject of bureaucracy. In their last go, The Informant! (2009), he and Burns made Matt Damon into a monkey wrench, the embodiment of human error in the space where Russell Crowe in The Insider once fit snugly; but despite his best efforts, Soderbergh seemed too close to his subject for his posture of ironic distance, and the satire got sticky. Apart from Dachau, AIDS, and the Trail of Tears, this is about as far from comedy as he could get; so the barrier between his audience and his obsessions is as thin in Contagion as a microscope slide.

But that doesn’t mean he and his team aren’t up to their old film-school tricks. If they had role models, they were probably Michael Mann (without the heavy muscularity) or, more likely, that fleet fox David Fincher (without the underlying aggression). (Cliff Martinez, who composed the electrified score, tweaks Trent Reznor down to the last decibel.) The editor, Stephen Mirrione, cuts with a headlock on woozy continuity and benefits from Soderbergh’s jarring use of static shots—an endowment, perhaps, from the late Sidney Lumet. The chromed contrasts in his imagery—this director hides behind his own camera and photographs under an assumed name—are enough to get your optic nerve hungover. It’s as if the action was reflecting off a glass skyscraper. What an odd place to spot one of the most beautiful-looking films of the year: a mantle ceded despite the angles—voyeuristic and belligerently imbalanced, crowded yet chillingly still. Composition and montage go it alone; Eisenstein would’ve been proud.

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Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Even if I didn’t expect it, I should have: Our hirsute cousins are more compelling, and, generally speaking, more convincingly embodied than we are in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I should’ve also anticipated its tendentious way of getting from Point A to Point Ape. An hour and a half waiting period between being a lower primate and becoming superhuman may seem like a brisk evolution to a Darwinian; but if you’re clocking in behind The Tree of Life, which breezed past eons in a fraction of that time, you know you’re in trouble. It’s not that this prequel is dull, exactly; for kids who haven’t seen the original Planet of the Apes (1968) or its sequels there may actually be some suspense. For most of us, however, the filmmakers had to take a different tack—they had to put us on the side of the underdogs by making their enemies (i.e., human beings) despicable. The genetically enhanced ape Caesar (a digital species-swap of Andy “Gollum” Serkis) who has suckled the milk of human kindness out of Will Rodman (James Franco)—a scientist who’s raised him to be something between a person and a pet—gets picked up by animal control and thrown into a zoo. A simian Shawshank, really. This passage sinks nearly to the level of PETA propaganda; Tom “Draco Malfoy” Felton (strapped with the ludicrous—and inappropriately heroic—name of Dodge Landon) is far from wizardly as the zookeeper / prison guard who uses an electronic cattle prod as his not-so-magic wand. He’s such a sadistic nitwit that the monkeys seem to outsmart him from the get-go; when they steal eugenic serum from Rodman’s lab, to escape and conquer the world, it’s an almost superfluous twist.

If the mad-scientist tragic inevitability doesn’t hook you as much as Shakespeare’s sometimes does, then maybe you’ll be sated by the way the insurgents break free of their monkey bars. The movie is sly only when it winks at its audience by nodding at its progenitor; but when one of the zookeepers sees Charlton Heston playing Moses on TV, it’s a genuinely clever joke. Caesar—the name really does flummox the historical allusion—doesn’t part the sea, but he does aim a fire hose at Dodge, who’s compromised by his own weapon of choice. The director, Rupert Wyatt, is inhumanly square when trucking purely in live-action (even Franco, stiff as a squiggle in 127 Hours and Howl, carries rigidity like a contagion); but he seems to have stored his imagination on a Mac hard drive. With Serkis as their ringleader, the motion-capture actors would’ve been impressive even without the state-of-the-art trimmings, covered extensively elsewhere; performers playing humans are rarely tasked with such gestural acting, and there’s certainly some kudos due to the techies who helped make their individuation possible. Predictably, the police called in to corner the apes on the Golden Gate Bridge are foolhardy, and their weapons technology is easily outmatched by the physical strength of their adversaries, and their cunning. (As well as by a convenient cumulus of Bay Area mist, and a little unconvincing writing: Since when are gorillas bullet-proof?) There are, however, two instances which, if they’d been sustained, might’ve made for a really stylish blockbuster: 1.) A shot of newspaper boys and joggers looking up at the palm-tree canopy when leaves start to fall unseasonably, and seeing the apes advancing; 2.) The sound of the apes trampling their way to Rodman’s slick corporate laboratory. The latter, a very simple special effect, might have been used to better advantage as a leitmotif for the apes’ rising action.

The plot has its own built-in simple special effect: its by-now familiar apocalyptic chic is compounded with a horrifying reversal of fortunes. If the only edge we humans have is our technical ingenuity—whether in the form of imagination or opposable thumbs—and we lose that to those species closer to nature who, by implication, we’ve mistreated, well—basically we’re screwed. There’s something primally unnerving about seeing a police cruiser wiped out by some refugees from the zoo—thwarting our so-called superiority with the very primitive bars we’ve caged them with. (It may be PETA propaganda, but they may have a point….) At the same time, however, this doomsday scenario puts us at a safe distance; to put it in the demotic: We’ve got 99 problems, but a baboon ain’t one. The prospect of nuclear war was the subtext back in ’68—it’s by no means incidental that Rod Serling, who’d already strolled through that territory many times before on The Twilight Zone, was one of that film’s writers. Nowadays, with our hopped up end-times expectations distended to the point of abstraction, it seems perverse that at our entertainments (not just our art and literature) we can sit back, relax, and take comfort in a mercifully quick bloodbath that leads to our everlasting oblivion. (If I had a crack team of researchers at my disposal—or at least a Netflix account—I’d love to see how much more often the world has ended in the past five-to-10 years of filmmaking than it did in the five-to-10 years prior.) I may be taking liberties with this movie’s climax, which makes it about as much a prequel to Contagion as it is to Planet of the Apes. But, even without subscribing whole-heartedly to the inevitability of man’s impending demise, I’m unsettled by the notion that we’ve become like terminal cancer patients envying gunshot-wound victims for the suddenness of their destruction.

Our Idiot Brother

Was it Charles Schulz who said that happiness is a fuzzy sweater? In the opening scene of Our Idiot Brother, set at a farmer’s market either in the thick of autumn or the clammy armpit of spring, Ned (Paul Rudd) wears a woolly Huxtable hand-me-down like his second skin—third, if you count the tie-dyed shirt straying from beneath it. Elsewhere, he comes equipped with candy-striped wife-beater and plastic neon sunglasses. (Most adults who put on such raiments are too old to rock the look, but this slob passed the cut-off decades ago.) Rudd, in his normal, clean-shaven state, looks like a narcoleptic Ferris Bueller; but with Ned’s Christlike beard accreting on his chin like a bird’s nest on a branch, the actor slumps even further into dreamland. A late-model Holy Fool, Ned takes the man-child to its allegorical extreme; and his sisters and ex and siblings-in-law are refinements of distinct and psychologically precise N.Y.C. types. This is a Europeanized comedy: delicately urbane yet almost abstract.

Dramatically, the movie is shaped like a farce, though Ned commutes between sisters’ couches rather than lovers’ boudoirs. At that farmer’s market, the hippie is goaded into selling weed to a uniformed cop who cruelly preys on Ned’s sympathetic nature. After his release from a four-month stint in prison, he’s given the boot by a crunchy girlfriend who acts like her war-widow’s forbearance has been pushed to inhuman limits. Kathryn Hahn is as physically and vocally right in this self-imposed bumpkin’s dreds as a strung-out louse, and it’s easy to ascertain how such a ball-buster could’ve snookered a sap like Ned: She spins her self-interest as self-sacrifice. For his part, Ned’s as mendacious as George Washington, and assumes as much from everyone else; but he isn’t fluent in subtext, the official language of New York neurosis. So each sister puts him up and then—her hypocrisies exposed and exploded—kicks him out, only to see the error of her ways. This device could get preachy or sentimental; and this raw material could be rearranged into something like Chance Gardener Goes to Portlandia. Fortunately, the writers (David Schisgall and Evgenia Peretz) and director (Jesse Peretz) don’t push too hard from either side.

For some people, the expectancy integral to this mode of storytelling may feel more like predictability; the subplots are somewhat too self-contained, curbing the potential for a bigger, more brazen meltdown; and when Ned ends up behind bars a second time, his self-pity seems incongruous with the loafer we’ve come to love. But Our Idiot Brother has got its milieu down pat. This is the newly gentrified New York, above the city scrum, where the art-inclined natives are terribly open and yet can never really say what’s on their mind. This cesspool of urges jonesing to break the surface is a counterpoint to iddy Ned the way that laid-back Los Angeles was contrapuntal in Greenberg—although Greenberg erred in saying that he was in the only place where adults dressed like children, as evinced by Ned and his sister’s (Zooey Deschanel, all wide eyes and jangling nerves) girlfriend (Rashida Jones). She’s a lawyer who—despite being one of the most mature characters in the picture—wears nerdcore glasses in an ensemble that’s stuffed many an adolescent boy in a locker. (Jones’s gamy grin when she proposes to kidnap Ned’s mutt is a movie highlight: spot-on Brooklyn puckishness.) Another sister, Emily Mortimer, and her hubby, Steve Coogan, play sententious members of the parenting-blog bourgeois. He’s a phony; she isn’t. When she asks him if he’s cheating on her with his documentary’s subject—which he is—he hops out of bed, puts on his shoes, and says, with insolent pomposity, that he doesn’t want to get angry in front of their child. He’s a male Hahn.

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