Friday, June 30, 2006

Recent Movie Roundup 2

Haven't done one of these in a while. Mostly because, if you go through the AtWQ archives and dig up the three or four posts I've written about films in the last six months, you'll have a pretty good record of my movie-going activities. Seriously, is it just me or are there less and less reasons to go to the movies these days? It's been months since I walked into, or out of, a movie theatre feeling that my time and money were well-spent. This particular roundup incorporates rented films and even one that I caught on TV, but I can't say that it whets my appetite for more of the artform (which is not to say, of course, that I don't have appointments for Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and Superman Returns. I'm a good little sheep in that respect).
  1. Casanova (2005) - I really wasn't expecting great things from this movie. The trailer makes it look like yet another attempt at clunky historical revisionism, plus that old chestnut, the rake reformed by a progressive woman. And let's be honest, 'from the director of Chocolat' isn't exactly a phrase that inspires confidence. But to my very great surprise, Casanova is a frothy delight. The film revels in its own ridiculousness, and does a very good job of imitating the period farce, complete with several cases of mistaken identity, the requisite scene in which our hero arrives at the ball with two dates, and everyone paired up at the end. Heath Ledger is charming and ebullient as the lead, and Sienna Miller is really quite appealing given that her character--a feminist in 18th century Venice whose primary purpose seems to be to show the hero the error of his ways--could easily have become a hectoring shrew. The film sadly falls apart in its climactic scene, where instead of buckling his swash and swinging off chandeliers, our hero stands aside with a baffled expression while he is rescued by others, and even the camera seems to forget where he is (also, although the set and costume design are appropriately lavish, one can't help but wish that the effects budget had been a little bit higher, not to mention that some money had been spent on a better stunt coordinator). In spite of this flaw, Casanova makes for a very enjoyable entertainment, and is well worth a rental.

  2. X-Men III: The Last Stand (2006) - The consensus on this film is that the cure plotline was quite interesting but underdeveloped, and that the Phoenix plotline was criminally underused. I agree on both counts, but I will add that I appreciated the way that both sides of the mutant divide were clearly non-homogeneous in their opinions. Among the good guys, we have Rogue leaping at the opportunity at a normal life, and Storm thoughtlessly pronouncing that no mutant needs to be cured of their mutation. Magneto may coldly turn his back on Mystique once she's been cured, but Pyro is clearly uncomfortable with that decision. This disagreement even among compatriots gave the division between mutants an extra dimension, and helped make their predicament a believable one. Which was sadly necessary as, much like the two films that preceded it, X-Men III failed to convince me of what is arguably the crux of its plot--that humans are disgusted and terrified by mutation. The scene in which Angel first unfurls his wings is a study in dissonance between the audience and the characters. How can we accept that anyone would look on those beautiful white wings with disgust? I think this is a problem with the central concept of the X-Men story--the mutants are far too cool. With the core of the story absent, I had very little to hold onto, and of course the characters didn't offer much on that front. In terms of quality, X-Men III is largely of a piece with the first two films--very pretty and at times stirring and exciting, but with a great big hole where its heart should be.

  3. Ghost Ship (2002) - Yet another failed attempt at the 'ragged crew are picked off one by one by unseen menace' formula, and yet another demonstration of how important plotting is to shlocky action and horror flicks. It take great skill to convey backstory and character traits in throwaway lines, and to effectively establish the history of the menace that's killing off our heroes, but far too many writers don't even make the attempt, trusting that a few pulse-pounding sequences will be enough to sustain the film even without a coherent plot. Ghost Ship is a masterful demonstration of why this attitude fails. It seems to be missing its second act--the story transitions directly from 'characters arrive at spooky location and some of them die' to 'last survivor makes valiant attempt to defeat the evil menace' without passing through increasing tension or the slow revelation of the menace's identity. Even the deaths of main characters are rushed through and given very little significance. It is, however, worth noting two exceptionally stylish and well-made scenes in which we learn what transpired on the ship, one at the beginning of the film and one near its end. They can't save the film, but they are effectively horrifying, and go some way towards assuaging the suspicion that one has wasted 90 minutes of one's life by sitting down to watch.

  4. Bee Season (2005) - I was dubious, shading into disdainful, about this film when I watched the trailer a few months ago. I have to admit, having seen the film, that the trailer misrepresents it--the movie is neither as heartwarming nor as benevolent as it suggests, and the Jewish aspects of the story have not been excised. That said, Bee Season simply doesn't work. The novel, in which 11 year old Eliza's ascent to the national spelling bee corresponds with her family's disintegration, takes place primarily inside its characters' heads. The film deals with this issue in the mother's case by using awkward and slightly embarrassing voiceovers and flashbacks, and in the case of the other characters by simply ignoring their inner life. This is a particular problem when it comes to Eliza, who is the novel's main character but in the film is nothing but a catalyst for the other characters' problems. Finally, although the film doesn't shy away from the damage inflicted on Eliza's family, its ending strongly suggests that that damage can be repaired, in a complete reversal of the novel's conclusion (or, at least, I think that's what it's saying. I found the film's ending nearly inscrutable).

  5. Happy Endings (2005) - Don Roos's latest film bills itself as a comedy, but it is actually at its weakest when trying to be funny. Especially in its middle segment, the film devolves into an embarrassing and uncomfortable farce, in which previously rounded and fully-human characters are reduced to caricatures in the service of a quick laugh. Happily, these comedic segments don't last very long, and surrounding them are three touching and melancholy stories about love and lies. The film's promise to resolve all of these stories happily is a sly wink at the viewers, and as the stories progress we come to understand that it isn't the happy endings that we should be watching for but the unhappy, and sometimes simply mundane, middles. Happy Endings is a more soulful film than Roos's The Opposite of Sex, and its large cast is more uniform in its abilities. Lisa Kudrow is, of course, one of the standouts, but it's Maggie Gyllenhaal who comes to dominate the film. Her character is amoral and thoughtless, but at her most unlikable moments, she suddenly exhibits a compelling strength, and even a sort of integrity, that transform her into the film's heroine.

9 comments:

Telepresence said...

1. If you haven't, check out Dirty Pretty Things. I'll happily watch a fair number of schlocky movies, but I thought this was well worth just about anyone's time.

2. About disgust with mutants in the X-Men movies. I agree with you that the movies were light on the sense of real anti-mutant sentiment in the society, there are a few incidents from the comics that I wish they'd adapted for the movies to get the depths of anti-mutant sentiment across.

However, I'm not sure the lack of such scenes is quite as important as it seems. Pretty much everyone who sees the films, even those who know nothing about the comics, picks up the allegorical aspect, the mutants-as-jews/muslims/gays concept. Once that connection is made in the head of a viewer, a lot of the shape of mutant sentiment in the X-movie world gets loaded in I think, even if only subconsciously. The fact that mutants are very cool in the movies doesn't really change this for me, consider the aura of coolness to the point of fetishization African-Americans and gays have had in this society, even while also being hated and attacked. Or look at sexism and misogyny. The ability to simultaniously adore yet fear and hate, to find beautiful yet also less than human, to worship and abuse or destroy, is a psychological trick humans pull off quite easily. So the coolness of the X-men, though it's an unbalanced depiction, doesn't really throw me off that idea.

I think Rebecca Romjin's portryal of Mystique helps me there as well. I think more than any other character in the movies, she did a fantastic job, without much actual plot or exposition, what a lifetime of anti-mutant sentiment meant to her and how it shaped her worldview and reactions.

Matt Ruff said...

I think it makes perfect sense that humans would be terrified of mutants -- if we're talking about those mutants who can throw fireballs, toss cars around like toys, summon lightning and tornados, walk (or run) through walls, or vaporize folks they don't like just by thinking about it. (Pretty angel wings, I'll grant you, aren't that scary.)

Of course, this is where the metaphor breaks down -- AIDS panic notwithstanding, gay people can't drain your life force with a touch, so there's no logical reason to want to "cure" homosexuality. Ditto Jewishness, dark skin, etc. But there's a *very* logical reason to want to disarm somebody who's capable of ripping the Golden Gate Bridge from its foundations. In that case, the cure is actually a blessing, because it allows Wolverine to stop Magneto without killing him. Pity he didn't have an extra dose of the stuff to use on Jane -- then he wouldn't have had to rip her guts out.

Telepresnece said...

Matt, I'd argue that the metaphor doesn't break down quite so badly as it seems, since, while the real world hatred or fear of blacks/gays/jews may seem irrational to you and me, they are as palpably threatening to many of those who hold those feelings as fear of fireballs and flying suspension bridges would be.

For example, I think a lot of homophobes really do feel essentially that gays _can_ with a mere touch, drain their life force/corrupt their children/seduce away their spouses/give them Exodus-class afflictions). An angry teenager with fireballs has nothing on the terror of a gay man sharing the shower.

Matt Ruff said...

An angry teenager with fireballs has nothing on the terror of a gay man sharing the shower.

Sure he does: the ability to set you on fire.

The mutant teen is actually dangerous. You'd be stupid not to be afraid of him, just as you'd be stupid not to be afraid of an angry teen with an assault rifle. So he makes a very poor metaphor for an unarmed gay man who just wants to wash up.

Telepresence said...

"You'd be stupid not to be afraid of him, just as you'd be stupid not to be afraid of an angry teen with an assault rifle. So he makes a very poor metaphor for an unarmed gay man who just wants to wash up."

To you and me directly, sure. To someone who actually does deeply hate and fear gays, to the point of being willing to attack them, legislate against them (or a viewer keeping such people in the back of their mind as they think about the world the characters live in)? I think the metaphor holds. *shrug*

Telepresence said...

Also, are you the Matt Ruff that wrote Sewer, Gas, and Electric? Because if so, I'd have to insert some fairly shamefully fanboyish sentiment >here<.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I agree with Matt that the black/Jewish/gay/other minority group allegory collapses under the weight of the very real threat of the mutants' powers, but even in light of that destructive capacity I still find the films' representation of human reactions to mutants disappointing and unrealistic. I guess my problem is the lack of diversity in that reaction - where the mutants are allowed a range of feelings, the human attitude seems strangely uniform.

Telepresence makes a very interesting point about our tendency to become attracted to the different and exotic even as we fear it, but in light of that tendency, where are the mutant-philes? Where are the people who identify as mutants in spite of their humanity, and embrace mutation as a way of life instead of a biological state (the film came close to dealing with this issue when Rogue came back to the school even after she was cured, but never acknowledged it from the human side). If I'm to believe what the films are telling me, every human being confronted with mutation is disgusted and terrified, and I simply don't believe that given the way the mutants are portrayed. It's possible that the comics treat the human characters with a bit more nuance.

Andrew Ducker said...

The only good bit in Ghost Ship was the pre-credit sequence with the cable. It was all terribly downhill from there on. Shame really.

Dotan said...

Abigail, I think the movie had human anti-cure protestors, but I'm not sure. A better example of Mutantophiles can be found in Grant Morrison's run on the X-Men comic (the specific title is New X meN), which featured a cult/movement of people who wanted to become mutants, by implanted mutant organs in themselves to gain superpowers.
The idea of mutants as a metaphor ("feared and hated because they are different and special") does clash with the superhero premise, as Matt pointed out. The metaphor works much better for the virus children in Greg Bear's Darwin's Radio (and probably countless other examples in prose SF), but it breaks down when "different" means "able to shoot laser beams from your eyes".
The dissonance in the way the X-Men are treated by humanity vs. how they are treated by the audience comes both from the fact that they are superheroes and from need to make the teen audience like them - therefore, they have to be cool.
I felt that the first scene with the Angel, where the terrified boy is hacking away at these unnatural growths coming out of his back does explain some of the horror and disgust - the full-sized wings may be beautiful, but having them grow on your back (or your child's back) must be a horrible experience to undergo.
The Wild Cards series had a more sophisticated take on the mutant paranoia business, and addressed both the irrational hate of Jokers (mutants that look weird) and the very rational fear of Aces (mutants with scary powers).

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