Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The City of Your Final Destination: A Literary Perambulation

No, this is not the horror movie about kids being hunted by the vengeful spirit of Ironic Death. In fact, quite the opposite – based on a novel by Peter Cameron, and directed by James Ivory of Merchant Ivory fame (the first film since the death of his partner, Ismail Merchant), The City of Your Final Destination is a relaxed, literary film about a graduate student thesis. Like “gradual students” themselves, this movie is rather absent of tension and instead focused on travel, self-discovery, romantic ideals, and cultural exchange.

Omar, a handsome literary studies student, needs to write a biography on the recently deceased writer Jules Lund (one of those rare celebrity writers who achieved fame by writing only a single book – the type of writer whom I suspect exists only in the minds of other writers), in order to complete his thesis and retain his employment in a New York university, where he works alongside his current girlfriend, Deirdre. Unfortunately, Lund’s executors – his brother and his two former wives – have declined authorization. The hapless Omar feels that this is the end of his career, but Deirdre convinces Omar to make a trip to Uruguay, where he should confront the Lunds in person and persuade them to change their minds.

What follows from this premise is rather like a classic European new-wave film: Omar stumbles into the Lunds' lives – and through the beautiful Western landscapes of rural Uruguay, his own youthful idealism, and the idle luxury of the Lund estate, begins to transform the relationship of the three remaining Lunds, and the self-awareness of Omar. One can’t help if Ivory wasn’t attracted to a movie about an absent major talent – and the lives he’s left behind – due to the similarities to his own situation.

This type of movie isn’t for everyone – and screenwriter Ruth Jhabvala stumbles into some painful literary symbols (such as a stuck shoe in the mud, to symbolize Omar’s sinking feeling, or a bee sting, to signify his sudden transformation and awakening). Yet in an early summer movie landscape largely catering to superhero teenagers and warring aliens, the cultured conversations, luxurious landscapes, and casual pace of the film can feel like a brief elixir. The actors are all marvelous – particularly Anthony Hopkins, as the elder, gay Lund brother, and Laura Linney, as Lund’s first wife Caroline, who’s casual resentment at Lund makes her the hardest for Omar to convince.

One feels the elevated intuitions of the actors (and director) struggling against what feels like at times a bit of a lazy script: for instance, Omar confesses at the end of the movie having to chase after his lost dog in that early scene where he loses his shoe…but we saw that scene, and the writer had chosen then not to give us the full information in the scene that the dog is actually lost rather than out for a casual walk. The speech is well delivered, but getting the information explained to us, rather than shown in the dramatic action so we can deduce these insights for ourselves, keeps the film from rising to true art. Similar problems exist as Adam Lund explains about his parent’s exile from Germany, and as Omar explains how he is falling for Arden, Lund’s mistress, over his present girlfriend, Deidre.

That is to say, this film will seem way too talky for some, while others will appreciate the chance, for a change, to enjoy adult conversations in cinema. I certainly loved the film’s literary quality, and how it seemed to remain true to the source material. Despite the focus of the script staying away from the suggested final evolution of the title and more toward the intimate interior of the imperfect present, Ivory has left the original title, a good example of the movie’s casual approach to its own themes.

Ultimately, Final Destination does pose an intriguing question: it asks us to consider the difference between literature and life. All the characters learn to regard their fine principals about literature a little less, and the imperfections of life a little more. In this regard, the film keeps a fine balance between its own artistic conceits, and the improvisational attitudes towards its characters. In the end, all the characters grow a little, and move on to ultimate destinations of greener pastures from this season of literary seclusion and introspection, and through their reminiscences of a great absent talent. Ivory's film without Merchant may not seem to have the weight of their work together: but like youth and art, this fragile springtime work, which may be easily forgotten come the heat of the summer, is worth taking in while it’s here.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Kick-Ass: Meta-Comic Juices the Genre

It's easy to see why Kick-Ass - a movie about a real nerdy kid without any superpowers who decides to don a superhero outfit and fight crime - has been winning fans since before its release. Based on a comic by the same name, the movie is - like many comics - a peon to high-school adolescent anxieties. As well, it's a deeply self-referential parody of comic-books of the Marvel / DC Comics variety.

Part of the real charm of Kick-Ass may be actor Aaron Johnson, playing lead hero Dave Lizewski, and his fro / glasses look. Johnson gets the transformation from geeky high-school nerd into slightly less geeky, svelt superhero just right, and his costume is the genius heart of the movie. Stuffing away his fro and bulky clothes and emphasizing his dewy eyes and Angelina Jolie-style pouty lips, the green costume transforms the awkward Johnson not into a superhero so much as a supremely cool, American Idol-style singer/dancer. Kick-Ass has a propensity to really get his ass kicked - and, truth be told, has no abilities at fighting crime - but he does have just the right chemistry for instant celebrity, and gets himself videotaped and distributed on YouTube, where he becomes an overnight sensation.

What Dave doesn't realize is that there are some other masked crusaders out there - specifically, Hit Girl, and her doting ex-cop father, Big Daddy, who actually are rather Matrix-y good at kicking ass and killing bad guys. Hit Girl gets to save Kick-Ass's shit when it looks like he's going down at the hands of a particularly nasty gangster, and the three become a kind of crime-fighting syndicate (although with most of the fighting not being done by Kick-Ass). Evil mob boss Frank D'Amico provides most of the dramatic arc from there, setting himself up as Kick-Ass's arch enemy.

The movie has a fine time directly quoting - some might say ripping off, in Scary Movie style - its inspirations, particularly Spider Man (which provides the story-line DNA), although the movie ends with the slightly evil Iron Mist declaring, "wait until they get a load of me," as a way of signaling his intentions against the many powerless superheros that may be out there. (Implying that not only have these characters watched The Incredibles - which came out what, last year? - they have since devised an entire literary theory of existence around Brad Bird of Pixar.)

As meta as it may seem, and as cute as Johnson may be in that mask, the film ends up being rather conventional, sticking to the stock superhero narrative and taking few real chances. It's also incredibly violent given that we are positing that this is a "real" world and not a "superhero" one. But the violence requires us to transition our thinking into superhero reality (even Spiderman doesn't have this high of a body count). What starts as an innocent enough tweak on superhero lore ends up a violent vigilante murder-fest, and we end up not so much in superhero-land as a kind of teenage Sin City.

I liked this film, but I really felt with so many appealing characters, it could have done so much more. The business with the mob bosses and gangsters are all rather stock comic stuff, and not too inspired. Kick-Ass does need a foil to be ironic against, however, so it's a promising start nevertheless. If this thing has legs for a sequel or two, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Clash of the Titans Reanimates B-Movie Classic

Hollywood is once again in remake mode, searching for classic stories with built in audiences. It’s hard to say whether remakes of The A-Team or The Karate Kid will meet with success. One of the crap-shoots in remaking a cultural icon (the original of which may or may not have any intrinsic value) is the chance that the product will be exponentially worse than a mediocre original: witness such travesties as Bewitched, Get Smart, or (one shudders), the 1998 version of McHale’s Navy.

Of course, every now and then, Hollywood ekes out a win in this process, if not transforming the source material into something loftier, at least reimagining it with enough flare to thoroughly entertain a modern audience who may or may not be familiar with the original. Something like this happened with Lost In Space and, of course, the recent Star Trek.

This is the situation with the current Clash of the Titans – a remake of the much-beloved-if-quirky stop-motion 1981 original by famed animator Ray Harryhausen, and a rare win in the remake department. What we have may not be Oscar material, but it’s certainly worth $9.50 and a tub of popcorn to entertain the kids on a pre-summer Saturday afternoon.

What audiences loved about the original, however, wasn’t so much the engrossing story or the amazing acting (the bare-chested Harry Hamlin was there more for his ‘acting talents’ than his acting talents), as it was Harryhausen’s endearing if quirky special effects. The stop-time marching skeletons and menacing Medusa where favorites of young boys since they clearly could relate to their own play with model making and fanciful stories of demi-gods and goddesses, and the movie had a bit of that making-it-up-as-we-go-along quality that one gets from the best of youthful play. Chancy, then, to redo this movie using standard CGI techniques (since the 3D is now the standard for many a film coming out this summer, it may be more of a distraction than anything) without adding anything genuinely unique to the visuals.

In our modernized version of the story, the movie opens with a young woman and infant being rescued from the sea (like a bounty of tuna) by an old fisherman. The woman is dead, but the infant is the young Perseus, a demi-god (borne by Zeus of a human mother), destined to be the man who leads the Argosians in their rebellion against the vengeful god Hades (played with coy understatement by Ralph Fiennes). Though the opening posturing by the gods is a bit pedantically irksome (Zeus and Hades, particularly, who really don’t get along, engage in some stultifying Olympian Exposition 101), the feeling exhibited by this father for his adopted son is promising, and draws us in to the yarn.

Eighteen years later, when Hades inadvertently kills Perseus’s adopted family while wreaking havoc on the insolent population of Argos, Perseus finds himself a captive in the city, and the only volunteer willing to lead a battalion in a war against the gods.

Sam Worthington, who plays Perseus, seems to be ubiquitous lately, carrying the lead in every major sci-fi since the summer of 2009. As “demi-god” Perseus we perhaps get our first glimpse as to why. Brooding, soulful, yet stout of heart, he was born to play the comic-book hero: a softy who transforms, though a process of inner soul-searching, into a man of steal (and as my Bubbie used to say, not hard on the eyes either). He’s obviously way too old for this part (essentially that of a precocious teenager learning to be a leader), but who cares? Clearly if Hollywood continues to have a hard time finding athletic young men with this much emotional openness, Worthington is in for another bonanza year leading roles.

Perseus leads his charges through the (familiar, one hopes) story – battling the deformed Calibos, talking to the Stygian witches, cutting the head of Medusa, and finally confronting the invincible Kraken. (The one hazard of taking your kids to see the film will be having to hear endless recitations of that fine immortal phrase - “release the Kraken!”). What could have been a stultifying series of remade confrontations comes to life from the casual modern dialogue (“if these are gods, I want nothing to do with them”) and the well-timed CGI effects designed to thrill modern audiences (including some nifty scorpion fights, some deeply sexually disturbed creepy witches, a battle-royale at the Argos walls, and flying bats from hell). Sure, one can recite the movies they are all borrowed from (Transformers, Pan’s Labyrinth, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter, respectively), but remakes are nothing without their more recent cultural touchstones. The point is that the tone is kept consistently at the right temperature between blast-em-up and campy, and with the exception of those pompous gods, the story zips along with only a few minor pit stops for exposition. Harryhousen might not have been too impressed with the 3D, but he’d approve of how director Louis Leterrier has re-animated his story.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Ghost Writer: Liberal Paranoia Makes Entertaining Thriller

Roman Polanski's Ghost Writer packages up the liberal paranoia of the Bush era into a tightly wrought little thriller about a freelance writer (played by Ewan McGregor) who's hired to ghostwrite the biography of ex British Prime Minister Adam Lang (played by Pierce Brosnan), a Labour party standard-bearer who was seemingly all too willing to go along with America's war in the middle East and anti-terrorism policies of secret rendition (read: Tony Blair).

What makes the story work is Polanski's willingness to submerge the questionable politics of the story and focus on the atmospherics of the thriller. McGregor's character is charmed into reluctantly taking the position of ghost writer on Lang's biography after Lang's first writer - a loyal assistant - dies in a mysterious boat accident off the shore of the Martha's Vinyard island where Lang and his party have decamped. The opening shots show a lone BMW wagon sitting on a commuter boat after all the other cars have departed, it's driver ominously missing. Polanski gives the scene all the foreboding of Scorsese's Shutter Island, all foghorns and clanking orchestra. Clearly this was no "accident" and McGregor has put himself in mortal danger as he inevitably begins to uncover the clues that led to his former colleague's demise.

It may amuse you to find McGregor's character all too willing to continuously make the unwise decisions that put his life in further danger - such as going to bed with Lang's wife, Ruth - an unfulfilled political "widow" who bedevils her husband with her demands and who's brooding intelligence is a powerful seductive force for the bemused ghost writer. Or agreeing to meet outside a dark, out-of-the-way hotel with a "deep throat" operative who claims to have the goods on Lang. Or confronting one of Lang's old Harvard professors, a potential CIA operative, with claims that Lang has been compromised by the agency.

In each of these events, The Ghost travels ineluctably down the road that puts him into the position to be hunted, just like his predecessor. Polanski infuses enough tension (and lovely, raining black-and-white character of the bleak New England coast) into these scenes that you forget that McGregor is being such an ass (he could, at any point, easily share his information with some authorities): instead, you find yourself eager, like McGregor, to unravel the mystery of what it is the CIA is desperately trying to protect about Lang. There's also enough character in Lang's entourage to entertain us along the way - thanks to the amusing prissiness of Lang's factotum, Kim Cattrall, who adds a spicy bit of gold-hearted unctuousness in the cold, modernist beach house that is the Lang's redoubt.

McGregor and Brosnan also deserve a lot of the credit for keeping this fable going: each man brings a kind of intellectual, distracted air to their performance - going head to head with their intimacies and suspicions - yet they complement each other nicely, with McGregor ultimately the charming new seducer and Brosnan the defensive old guard (especially when it comes to the affections of the pivotal Ruth).

In the end, the ghost writer's propensity for bad decision making leads us to a preposterous confrontation (and rather flippant end to our story), but in the intervening hour and a half, Polanski does a great job of delivering a political thriller. We mostly avoid stultifying political debates about torture and the war on terror (although Brosnan does deliver a bang-up oratory at a key moment, holding the film's crucial mystery together). Although the underlying paranoid proposition about a compromised British leader may be preposterous (the idea that a Labour leader could only be anti-terrorism if the CIA were pulling his strings comes out of a leftist paranoid worldview as Manichian as the Tea Partier's right-wing version), for those who enjoy a good bookish political yarn, or a lighthearted derivation of The Man Who Knew Too Much crossed with Three Days of the Condor, the movie delivers the goods.