Monday, February 21, 2011

I Am Number Four: Teenage Sci-Fi Tackles Pop Culture

(3 stars for kids).

I confess that I did not know this was originally a young adult novel when going to see the movie. I expected a kind of pop sci-fi a la Fantastic Four (maybe I was confused on the Four, or the young blond stars). If I had known, I might not have expected as much from this movie or been quite as disappointed.

The young kids in the movie - many boys between ages six and twelve - seemed most impressed, however, and clearly, this is a film meant for them.

John Smith (played with steady, sincere blankness by pretty boy and model Alex Pettyfer) is the blond alien in question. A refuge from the planet Lorien (which is perhaps also known as the planet Banana Republic, judging from the costuming of the movie), he is one of nine teenagers hiding out on earth with special powers. He's accompanied by a guardian and father-figure, Henri (Timothy Olyphant, with touches of gray). I must say, remembering Olyphant as the young, sexy lout from Go (1999), it's hard to imagine him old enough to play the father of the 21-year-old Pettyfer, but there you go...time marches on.

Olyphant in 1999

Henri and John are hiding out from the evil Magadorians, who seem like intergalactic Rugby players with a kind of annoying (but meant to be endearing) Scream-3 habit of self-narrating their own evil shenanigans. Rather than get into any complicated sci-fi details (it all feels a bit rather like the back story of Superman Two), the movie would rather go the route of teen romance, and with inspiration and borrowing from great literature such as Twilight, "Smallville," Harry Potter, and "Glee," and so boldly goes into the realm of high-school jocks, nerds, and small-town Ohio, with sets that feel as dressed up as a Paramount back lot on October 31st (even the flowers planted in front of the houses look artificial).

John, like the other refuge Lorians, has some special powers (called "legacies" - don't ask me why they aren't simply called special powers). His is that his hands glow like flashlights. Useful I suppose if you don't have your iPhone handy. He's the next Lorian on the Magadorian's hit list, so he decides to lay low by posing as a high school student, where he promptly starts picking fights with the jocks and falling in love with the top jock's ex sweetheart, a girl named Sarah Hart. He also comes to the defense of the local nerd, Sam Good, whose father was abducted by aliens (though not Lorians - probably those bumbling Magadorians up to their tricks).

While the set up is mostly routine, the action sequences - in which John and Sarah battle the Magadorians with the help of Sam and a shape-shifting puppy - pack some punch. The kids liked the special effects, and they do their job. In the cool destruction department, this is kind of to high school what the Terminator movies are to Los Angeles.

As someone who is clearly not the audience for this film, what I found most interesting was its relationship to my own (admittedly, ever more "old") culture. Things like "X Files" and SETI, only a few years ago the staples of sci-fi, are now merely adult background for this youngest generation, which seems blissfully free of all culture except for these brief window-dressings. John the other teenage aliens seem no more alien than would a gaggle of rich kids from Orange County in a sea of Tea Partiers. If there is a message in this movie at all, it's almost Ayn Randian: that there are a few rich, pretty special people here on earth to learn and develop their own special skills, and everyone else is just a punk.

I'm not sure why that resonates with the young audience, other than that teenagers in trouble who find out they have powers they never suspected is an always popular meme. This one, however, goes a step further and suggests that even when villains are after us and even our protectors can no longer protect us, we can still explore our powers and kick some shit without consequences. When the bad guys are dispatched in this film, they turn to dust and blow away, just like a Twilight vampire. No muss, no fuss. Maybe this kind of neutering of texture and background simply represents the extra extremes of fantasy that young people need when times are tough, and the world not only seems out to get them, but actually is.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Biutiful: Stare Into the Deep if Dare

This is the first movie that I've ever given five stars to and at the same time, am warning you to stay away.

This brilliant film from accomplished director Alejandro González Iñárritu (21 Grams and Babel) tells the story of Uxbal (Javier Bardem), a Barcelona native who's diagnosed with cancer and given just weeks to live. More a visual poem than Hollywood narrative, Biutiful, weaves a half-magical tale of Uxbal's unraveling life. He lives with his two young children in a lower-middle-class apartment near the main tourist center of town, where he makes his living hustling between the various factions that survive in the crooks and crannies of urban life: the black Africans who sell knock-off handbacks and drugs to tourists; the crooked cops who take Uxbal's money to look the other way; the immigrant Chinese who make the handbags in a basement sweat shop. Uxbal tells none of his family or business acquaintances of his diagnosis - and neither does he tell his ex-wife, a recovering drug addict who re-enters Uxbal's life just as he is prematurely leaving it.

If all of this isn't depressing you already, that's because you aren't listening to Iñárritu haunting score, watching his Kodachrome cinematography of muted blues and grays; listening to the spare poetry of Uxbal's mumblings and incantations as he tries to insure the care of his children and connect with the people around him. Iñárritu wants to take us deeply into both life and death, in a way films rarely dare to, and he wants to open up our experience of what it means to be human on planet earth.

Uxbal also has a special gift - he can commune with the dead as their souls are departing the body - and the effect as illustrated in this movie borrows from horror-movie tropes (a la Paranormal Activity) and turns them on their head: instead of startled, we're deeply disturbed and disoriented, as if we'd literally - and not in a movie way - seen a ghost. Iñárritu clearly borrows from the Spanish literary technique known as magical realism as these scenes of supernatural spectators mingle with ordinary reality in order to take the story to the boundary between life and death.

Biutiful is both beautiful and unforgiving - Iñárritu's unsentimental look at life offers us none of the usual comforting platitudes we usually get in films about the young and the dying. Uxbal's final weeks are both disorienting and painful. Even in the one moment when he does reach out and tell someone he's dying (it takes place in a disco, in one of the film's most heightened disoriented scenes), he's met with cold rebuff: such talk is not the stuff of daily life, and the woman can't tell if he's serious. If he is, then - as with most of the pain of life - her only reaction can be to ignore him and look away.

Uxbal searches the remnants of his life for some connection: with his ex-wife, with his children, even with the blacks and Chinese he does business with. Even as he looks for some act of kindness to bestow upon this harsh world (yes, there are enough intimations of Christ-like sainthood and suffering here for a Catholic to love), Uxbal's efforts sometimes backfire, and sometimes to his horror. As his policeman-on-the-take friend sees it, we're all just here to get our cut, even Uxbal. Iñárritu wants to make sure that the movie - like life - gives no real hint of whether there is any salvation to be had, any reward for our faith, or if the policeman is right, and all we can make of existence is cynicism.

This really seems, then, a movie for our time. Not only is there no religion, no family, no economy and no government in which to place our faith, we can hardly even trust ourselves. The one thing Uxbal does seem to be searching for is a connection with a father who died before he was born, a young man he never knew. But even his father's body is being dug up from its grave as they tear down the mausoleum to make way for a new condominium.

I warned you this movie was bleak. At the same time, there's no denying it's beautiful. Iñárritu's imagery is amazing. The scene as Uxbal enters the disco to find his brother and tell him of the latest tragedy has to be the most effective use of emotional disorientation I've seen on film in thirty years. Even as he has blood on his hands, women dance around Uxbal with their faces transformed into huge breasts, his brother and friends laugh and drink, and the disco music spins the scene around. It's as if we - and Uxbal - are aliens watching human life from another world, barely understanding the rites and rituals we see every day.

This strangeness is ultimately what Biutiful is after, and it gets to it in the most original way possible. By the time Uxbal comes to the end of his journey, we see what a human life leaves behind, stripped of the pretense of religion, the straight jacket of moral order, and the numbing in-authenticity of modern truisms. One by one, Uxbal's relationships with the world fall away. What remains is a strange kind of poetry, one we make from the half-recognized shards of our own lives, and a vague sense that in some small way, our presence in this world may be remembered by at least one person we leave behind. In showing this, Biutiful may be the first movie that shows us what our own death might really look like.

Looking at that is not for everyone. But if you have the strength to watch it, Biutiful will leave you forever changed.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Howl: Alan Ginsberg's Poety Brought to Life

Unlike that big Hollywood sissy film called The Mechanic - which has played to wide audiences as a seeming action thriller - another movie about gay men that came out recently has gone largely unnoticed. I'm talking about Howl, a semi-animated, mostly autobiographical re-enactment of the Alan Ginsberg poem, starring the ever more incredible James Franco as Ginsberg.

We'll be seeing a lot of Franco at the upcoming academy awards, and his nomination for 127 Hours. And maybe his 127 Hours nomination is not just for that film alone, but also for his remarkable performance in this film, a much less Hollywood friendly fantasia about a gay poet. Franco practically disappears in his performance as a young Jewish poet coming out in 1950's New York, getting the gestures, intonations and mannerisms of a young Ginsberg so down pat that we feel like we're actually a part of the Fifties beat scene, watching an entire movement coming into being based merely on the lusts, dreams, and desires of a few rootless young men.

Howl sets up as his dramatic focus the trial of Lawrence Ferlenghetti - the publisher of Ginsberg's poem who was put on trial for obscenity in 1957. The movie gives us all the elements of a standard courtroom potboiler, with "Mad Men"'s John Hamm playing the defense attorney and stalwart character actor David Straithairn playing the prosecution (unfortunately, Straithairn is such a big liberal that his bad-guy prosecutor comes off as more confused and befuddled by the text than genuinely offended).

All that courtroom stuff is merely expository. What the movie really wants to do is re-create Ginsberg, which Franco does perfectly, while giving Ginsberg's life story: his infatuation with Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac, his own process of coming out and coming to terms with Fifties conformity and youthful rebellion. It uses this autobiographical background as punctuation for Franco's narration of the poem, accompanied by animation inspired by the poems imagery, such as that fabled "Moloch":

Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the 
              loveless! Mental Moloch! Moloch the heavy 
              judger of men! ...
Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! 
              Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long 
              streets like endless Jehovahs!

The animated Moloch is what we might expect (it's based on work by illustrator Eric Drooker), but adds powerful visual imagery to the language recited and re-created by Franco. The movie also proceeds to tell us not only how lines like "a thousand blind windows" were inspired, but autobiographical background of Ginsberg's time in a mental facility, which inspired lines such as

Carl Solomon! I'm with you in Rockland 
     where you're madder than I am ...
I'm with you in Rockland 
     where you accuse your doctors of insanity and 
     plot the Hebrew socialist revolution against the 
     fascist national Golgotha 

So what we really have here is an excuse to interpret what is, perhaps, the most popular American poem. Even in our less-literate generation, few people haven't heard the opening lines,

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by 
              madness, starving hysterical naked, 

For those who want to get beyond those few stanzas and get a full understanding of this cultural touchstone, Howl provides not only the historical and biographical background, but a unique imagining of how film can interact with literature.

The Mechanic: Recoding Gay Subtext

There would ordinarily not be much to note about the Mechanic, a formulaic thriller seemingly dredged up from the old '70s action stockpile as a vehicle for Jason Statham, except for one thing: it's gay subtext, which makes this somewhat predictable assassin blood-fest interesting to dissect.

First, let's note that with the Transporter films, Statham has become a bit of a gay icon. It's not simply that his athletic, otter frame has captured notice amongst the community, but also that he often plays aggressive loners, the type who travel outside the norms of society and whose personal lives are a bit of a cipher. For you straight men think of Statham as the male equivalent of Keira Knightly: British, versatile, and saucy. If you like the type, rurr......

Add to that Ben Foster (another actor with a growing gay following) as his acolyte, Steve, and it's no wonder the movie has garnered advertisements in local gay mags.

Yet this film delivers more blood-porn than gay romance. Statham plays Arthur Bishop, a hired assassin whose thing is to make his victim's deaths look like an accident. He's good at what he does (his first kill involves drowning a man by hiding his his swimming pool and then making it seem like the dead man is still swimming). The opening touch evokes some sense of male intimacy - and with Bishop's affection for classical music and modernist architecture, this very well could be the modern gay assassin. But the movie insists on keeping Arthur's straight cover, giving him a buxom prostitute to have sex with so that we know where his predilections are supposed to lie.

When Arthur is instructed to assassinate his mentor Harry (Donald Sutherland), he soon finds that Harry's uncontrollable son, Steve (Ben Foster) has all the makings of a young assassin himself. (I must say that Foster does an excellent job here of playing the scary, on-the-edge, over-the-top psycho role that he ever seems to be perfecting.) What Steve lacks is discipline, but Arthur takes him under his wing and into his home.

For Steve's first murder, he needs to kill another assassin from a rival organization - a big strapping gay man with an affinity for young boys and chihuahuas, which Steve is set up to exploit by adopting a dog and striking a pose at the local coffee shop. When the guy spots Steve and takes him home for a romp in bed, it isn't exactly a clean kill: more rage than the precision Arthur has perfected. There's several interesting suggestions being unintentionally posed here: How much is Steve really into this role play with gay sex? Is the rival gay assassin more of a man than either Arthur or Steve? Is all this violence just a way of sublimating the homoerotic attraction between Steve and his target? Between Arthur and Steve? Is all this debate about how to be a good killer just another type of gay lover's spat?

As the movie goes along it has no intention of answering any of these questions, just teasing us more as it keeps its homo eroticism coded enough to attract a general audience who just wants to see bloody killing. The only definitely straight man seems to be a big, fat religious sissy who's assassinated while lusting over teenage girls. Thus you are asked to read Arthur and Steve as any flavor you like - big homos or big homo haters - as long as you pay your ten dollars admission.

The original Mechanic was also noted for its "homoerotic bond" between the two male assassins. Not much has changed in this update, which is a shame since it misses a great opportunity to go beyond Seventies gay subtext and introduce the idea of two gay male assassins who also dance around a potential relationship.

And maybe I've made more of this than I should. I admit it was the only really interesting thing I found in the film. The rest of the bits about shady assassin organizations and assignments to kill one's mentor felt like the stock Seventies schlock it was.

So I can't say that the film is any better than the original. Though it's a fair guess that Statham may be more your type than Bronson, and this version of The Mechanic may be a little more aware of its potential audiences than the first. Even so, it hardly deals with its conflation of coded homo eroticism and violence any better than they did forty years ago, which is a shame.

Another Year: Lifecycle of a Family

Mike Leigh’s smartly written Another Year stands out in a season of great movies for its studied portrayal of the “inexorable” aging of a British family and their friends, relatives, and hangers on.

This is a film that could well have been a novel, and though it is not the usual cinematic escapist fare (there are no spies or car chases, no “meet cutes,” no ribald affairs nor sordid entourages), it is a film relentlessly about our own real lives, and will greatly reward the eager cinemaphile.

Tom and Gerri Hemple are the sixty-ish couple in question. Tom (Jim Broadbent) is an engineering geologist (he “digs ditches,” as the family likes to tease with their insistence on disillusionment). Gerri, meanwhile, is a psychotherapist, dealing daily with difficult, unhappy recalcitrant patients. She doles out patient, sage advice (such as if you aren’t sleeping and are depressingly unhappy, you may need more than sleeping pills). “Why don’t you give that a think, won’t you?” is her standard retort when she ends up against the impenetrable barriers that the unhappy people around her erect to prevent themselves from dealing with their terrible truths. The two have managed to have a happy marriage for nearly thirty years, and it’s obvious that they both complement each other as well as have long ago worn away each other’s rough edges (Tom’s directness, earthiness, and temper has been modulated by Gerri’s self-reflection, deliberateness, and criticism – he encourages her freer side and she keeps him well regulated). With their quiet, paced, educated lives, their house filled with nick-knacks, books and Italian cooking, we see that they, in effect, are us: Baby Boomers (or nearly) who have seen three decades of social and political change and who are now nearing the autumn of life entrenched in the comfort of each other’s company.

The two have sired a son with what seems like the perfect combination of their traits: he’s both enthusiastic and tempered, a public advocate who approaches his job with gusto, but who privately remains a bit mysterious and self-satisfied. He presently has no girlfriend (when one finally does appear, Gerri comments, “he’s a bit of a dark horse, that one”). The trio, it seems, can do no wrong.

Perhaps this is why they have attracted friends who seem to be complete messes, and whose lives, in contrast, are studies in mistakes and regret. First there is Mary, Gerri’s co-worker, who has developed, over the years, an inappropriate obsession with Jerry’s son (as compensation for her own ruined relationships, she senses that she is aging quickly and is over-ready to attach herself to the nearest breathing male). Then there is Tom’s friend, Ken, whose boyhood friend has recently passed away (as has his wife) and whose college exploits are taunting memories. Ken has let himself get overweight and over-emotional and is a “there but for the grace of god go I” rebuke to Tom the way that Mary’s desperateness gently rebukes Gerri’s life.

There’s also an evil double for Joe, the son: a nephew named Rodney who proceeds to terrorize his father (Tom’s brother) after the death of his mother. Rodney resents the ministrations of Tom and Gerri as their natural understanding of what to do and how to handle the situation seems to be a rebuke to the anguish he wishes to languish in. In a brilliant moment, Joe and Rodney end up staring at each other after Rodney goes on a tirade and drives out all the guests from his father’s reception for the recently deceased mother. “What are you staring at,” says Rodney belligerently, just itching for a fight, in one of the movie’s few tense moments. “You,” says Joe - he holds Rodney’s gaze a moment longer, long enough to say, “I could take you,’ then averts his eyes, saying “but I won’t.”

The Hemples, then, and even their son, are a perfect measure of assertion and demureness, just enough to get through life's turmoils and challenges with a meager level of happiness, dignity, and bemusement. All that perfected modulation can't save some of the friends and family around them, whose self-absorbing unhappiness blinds them to the steps they need to take.

What’s lovely about this film is how it keeps all these characters in balance – the patient and mannered happiness of the main family (which we clearly see requires work to maintain – they way they maintain their share of the communal garden) – and the desperate, unhappy lives of the less fortunate friends and family around them. The film doesn’t really judge any of these characters, and it’s clear that their relationships are as complicated as real life. Tom and Gerri may administer to their friends, but they are also fiercely protective of their own family, and who they let in to the family isn’t just anyone (as is made clear by Katie - Joe’s new girlfriend – who’s spunky intelligence qualifies her for immediate acceptance, whereas Mary finds herself summarily tossed out after nearly thirty years). Perhaps they lead on their friends a bit too much; perhaps their friends take advantage a bit too much. Perhaps Gerri presses facing up to reality a bit too hard; perhaps her ability to do so is what has kept this family together and on track. Like life, all these contradictory thoughts seem well to be true.

I saw this movie while vacationing in the desert, and like a desert, the quiet subdued drama may be misleading. There are two main blow-ups (the second one well prepared), but a lot more said in the quiet moments of casual conversation, character study, and interaction. Like desert vegetation, a lot is here if you look for it. More than any movie in recent memory, Another Year slows down the drama and focuses on characters enough to really capture the inexorable patterns of friendship and family, or our real lives.