Monday, November 27, 2006

Superman Returns (2006)

I entered Superman Returns in the manner of an archivist, fairly certain of what I was going to see but determined, anyway, to catalog its relevance to our culture. To my surprise, I was surprised. I had no idea how much of a dick Superman is. I mean, Dean Cain just seemed like a lovable dork. Tom Welling's too hot, and can't make up his mind about Lex, but he suffers prettily so I overlook that. And Christopher Reeve is dead and was, in life, a nice guy, so I can't say anything bad about him (that's already been done by South Park, and much better than I could). So what's up, Singer? Why is your Superman such an ass? Why is Lex Luthor the only interesting person in this movie? Well, I know that, it's because of Kevin Spacey. But seriously, guys, the credit sequence set me up for a nice exercise in nostalgia (I wore out tapes of I and II, and bow continuously to this day to General Zod) but all I got was Superman the jerkface and lots of really phallic crystals.

Which actually would have been kind of cool if Superman had been gay. Wouldn't it be great if Lex stole Superman's phallic crystals and he's forced to choose between Lex and Lois' new boyfriend, Cyclops? By the way, Singer, that was a good one putting ace dickmaster Marsden in there, thereby setting the usurping boyfriend up for audience hatred, then making him an okay guy. You totally got me, there.

So. Basically, Superman's been away for five years to visit the nonexistent Krypton, which seems pretty arbitrary given the fact that he and Lois seemed to be getting pretty hot and heavy around the time he left. Which he did abruptly, and without telling her. Again, for no explicable reason. That whole “it would hurt too much” is just cowardly. Are we supposed to believe Superman's a coward? Or only when his sex life is on the line?

Once back, he spends most of his time eavesdropping on Lois and Cyclops' conversations with his super hearing, making eyes at Lois' kid, and x-ray-visioning their house to spy on them yet again. He shows up in the kid's room, uninvited and unannounced. He presents bewildered confusion to the notion that Lois might, in the past five years, have taken up with someone else after her boyfriend mysteriously disappears with no indication that he's coming back, let alone whether he even likes her that much. I'm sorry, but eavesdropping with your secret powers (he's dressed as Clark, and Lois ain't any smarter here than she ever is) is not cool. I don't care how much you hate Cyclops.

Not that Brandon Roush emotes much of anything, here. He's pretty, sure, and he looks as nice as one can in a skin-tight bright blue suit with underwear outside it, but so what? As superman, Roush looks like he's been constructed from the same weird rubber stuff his suit is made from. He's just kind of there. The best Supermen make the most of Clark; Clark's the heart of a good Superman, the guy who has to actually live the anonymous life he's chosen for himself. Clark does nothing in this movie but break Lois' stuff and look confusedly at her boyfriend.

Lois doesn't do much better herself. Call me old-fashioned, but no matter how much trouble Margot Kidder got in, she was feisty and brash. Kate Bosworth contributes fainting and even less curiosity about that whole Clark/Superman thing than usual. She's a reporter, for god's sake. Although, in this universe, her skill seems to be in saying mean things about Superman. Hey, maybe I quality for a Pulitzer!

There is a plot other than Superman being a dick. It's a sort a of re-imagining of the first Reeve film, with a few of the same lines and a similarity of plot that is more entertaining than it sounds. The parallels are amusing to those who catch them, but unimportant if you miss them. It's a sort of a cross between a sequel and a remake, and it's interesting to tease the threads out.

But at the end of the day, although Superman regains control of his phallic crystals, nothing about his dickliness is resolved. He's just as much of an asshole at the end as when he left Lois the first time. This Man of Steel might be for Truth and Justice, but he's sure not for ethics. This movie's ready-made for a sequel, and I can't wait. I hope it involves Lois investigating Superman's multiple alimony checks, which he pays with money laundered through the Kryptonian mafia in Metropolis.

And if you don't believe me, check out, who figured this out a long time ago. The evidence speaks for itself. Read more!

Pretty Poison (1968)

Pretty Poison was billed as a teen exploitation flick but plays like a bad thriller—the kind that’s actually kind of fun. It's one of those movies that makes you wonder whether its comic effect is intentional, given how seriously everyone involved seems to be taking it. The story of a troubled young man (played by Anthony “Troubled Young Man” Perkins) who gets involved with a color-guard high school blond (played by Tuesday Weld, whose name sounds like a to-do list at a shipyard—Monday: Rivets. Tuesday: Weld) includes badly planned espionage, heavy handed dialog, tragic-yet-unexplained psychotic pasts, and inappropriate romance. At its opening, we and Tony are warned that fantasies can be dangerous in the real world; he's going out on his own now, away from this “facility,” and he'd better stop with all that imagination stuff.

Well, he doesn't. He also breaks his probation (from his not-jail) for no other apparent reason than to work at a chemical plant instead of the lumber yard, where the dumping of bright red waste into a river fixates him like so much blood. He also fixates on the high school color guard, and Tuesday in particular, to whom he spontaneously presents himself as a CIA agent. The bored little girl believes him, and the two embark on the most inept juvenile crime spree ever. Tony's a great CIA agent until Tuesday's belief in him leads to the discovery that she's even more insane than he is. He makes up stories; she brings them to life, leaving Tony completely paralyzed.

Psychologically, the movie makes no sense. We never really figure out what's wrong with this guy, or even really why we're supposed to believe there is something wrong with him. And the instant metamorphosis from blond cheerleader to raging psychobitch likewise goes unexplained. In fact, the main characters' every action seems inexplicable.

All the same, there is a certain entertainment value. The director's lack of subtlety can be somewhat humorous, and Perkins is always good as the seemingly unwilling and confused baddie. But unlike Psycho, his confusion here is due to sheer ineptitude rather than Norman's split personality. Couldn't we at least have had some men pretending to be doctors explain everything he did in an anti-climactic denouement? Perkins had the unfortunately ability to project adorable psychotic confusion, which got him typecast in crap like this. Unlike the muddy waters of the film's psychological state, however, the lesson is clear: imaginative, intelligent, inept young men are always screwed over by pretty young girls with ambition. Remember, boys: “The world has no place for fantasies.” Read more!

Wild in the Streets (1968) and GAS-S-S-S (1970)

In the late 1960’s, small-time studio American International Pictures became notorious for their exploitation pictures; movies that appealed to the new “youth culture.” Two such, Wild in the Streets and GAS-S-S-S, are included on an MGM “Midnite Movies” DVD release, and despite similar subject matter the juxtaposition displays very different attitudes towards the films’ audience.

Wild in the Streets, the more famous of the two, was made in 1968 and adapted from a short story in which 15-year-olds win the right to vote, vote “old age” out of power, and end up electing a 25-year-old rock star president. 30 means mandatory retirement; 35 internment at LSD concentration camps. The movie is billed as a satire aimed at youngsters; a sort of fantasy in which the newly mobilized young get power. The poster boasts Jim Morrison’s exhortation that “we want the world and we want it now,” and the reputation the film has is as a youth cry to arms.

Watching it, though, reveals a hateful attitudes towards youth that runs contrary to any rebellious image I previously had of the film. The “kids” are ineffectual, write really bad music, and are unable to govern themselves. Youth-in-power doesn’t result in an American utopia but a fascist nightmare. Adults may be opportunistic and ridiculous, but the new wave just seems stupid and unfocused. Their platform has one plank: since the marketing whizzes say the under 25 crowd makes up 52% of the population, we’re the majority. Once held, this majority does nothing but smoke pot, put LSD in the water, and deploy their might to keep adults corralled in acid-flooded camps that have nothing of the groovy communal about them. President Max Frost doesn’t seem to learn anything either, or benefit from his ascendancy; and the end of the film predicts a bitter reprisal.

In sum, this film is a mockery, a sadistic fantasy, of the youth movement’s desires for political voice.

The antidote to this bad-acid trip is on the other side of this disc: the delightful, pop-culture rich, Roger Corman-directed GAS-S-S-S (1970). In a similar scenario, all adults over 25 are simultaneously wiped out by a freak accident, leaving the youngsters to fend for themselves. The premise occurs right at the beginning, without the wading through nonsensical exposition Wild requires. A band of long-hairs travels across the newly-depleted American landscape, encountering exactly what you’d expect if half the population had been wiped out—small bands of power-hungry survivors, just trying to get by. Of course each group represents a different manifestation of power, be it communal, fascist, or just plain thievin’. But at no point does the movie contend that it’s the youth themselves causing the mayhem. This is the system they inherited, and with no law and order and society would break down.

The script is rife with gags of varying degrees of cleverness and crammed full of cultural references. On top of that, it’s just absurdly fun. A shoot out in a junkyard (shades of The Chase?) involves hurling the names of Western stars at each other. Our hero finally deploys “John Wayne,” but regrets it later. “Maybe I coulda winged him with a ‘Clint Eastwood,’” he muses. Edgar Allen Poe shows up on a motorcycle to dispense doom-filled wisdom, proto-goth Leonore riding bitch. One very pregnant character has a bizarre-yet-contagious fixation on “the golden oldies” that supersedes all other thought of survival. (“I can’t bring a child into this world,” she eventually decides, and so remains pregnant.) Fascist loot-and-pillage gangs are run like football teams, complete with cheerleaders, uniforms, and marching band.

While its satire is less barbed (the ending, especially, is rather hopeful and hippie-friendly), GAS-S-S-S is actually a much more rational response to the youth-power sentiments of the time, not to mention a much more appropriate candidate for cultdom. For one thing, it’s a better movie (with far better music, provided by Country Joe and the Fish, than the rock-star-oriented Wild gives us). For another, it doesn’t crudely insult the very demographic it’s marketed for. Wild in the Streets doesn’t live up to its title. GAS-S-S-S, luckily, outstrips its own. Read more!

Borat (2006)

While press, and box office, for Borat has been very good so far, there are critics (and people who don't get paid for their opinions) out there who call the movie offensive, anti-semitic, and (un)humorous at the expense of people who are tricked into exposing themselves as bigots by an ostensible idiot reporting for Kazahkstan.

I have to say that those people really don't get it.

Borat, if you don't know already, is the creation of Sacha Baron Cohen; previously introduced on his HBO series Da Ali G Show. A bigoted, sexist, racist bumpkin, Borat interviews real people in America about issues such as homosexuality, slavery, manners, women drivers, and especially Jews. Baron Cohen has perfected his act to such an degree that by the time his target figures out something's up, it's too late; the release has been signed, the damning comments made. So it's understandable that people who've been caught on tape, and aired across the country, as espousing anti-Muslim, anti-gay views feel betrayed.

But this film's primary target isn't the people Borat ambushes, or even America as a whole. The feminists Borat offends don't come off as idiots. The black kids he meets on the street do their best to help a hapless white guy who wants to figure out their culture. The southern dinner party guests deal kindly with the ignorant sot until he hands his hostess a bag of feces and invites a prostitute over as his date. Even his overweight cohort, though displayed rolling around naked for about ten minutes, comes off mostly as a really good sport.

No, what Borat does is make his audience extremely uncomfortable by confronting us with some unpleasant truths about what we're willing to put up with. These people aren't so much set up and shot down as damned for not doing anything at all. When Borat goes into a store and asks what kind of gun is best for shooting Jews, shouldn't the owner call him on that? When Borat expresses disbelief in the concept of women having their choice whether to engage in sexual activity or not, shouldn't that elicit more than an uncomfortable chuckle?

To my mind, what Baron Cohen does is not in itself racist, sexist, or even anti-American. It's less about what he says and more about the reaction he gets (or doesn't) from the regular people he encounters. For me, this reaction is most clearly encapsulated in two reactions: one from the dinner party guests who, with Borat out of the room, tell each other he's just a little uneducated and shouldn't be long in assimilating; and when the owner of a rodeo tells him he should shave off his mustache to look less “like them.” One could argue that the betrayal felt by these people is a lesson in giving the “other” the benefit of the doubt, but I would argue that it's still an illustration of treating people who don't sound or act like us as something alien.

In the end, though, what's really impressive about this film is its relentlessly upsetting comedy. It bludgeons you with Borat's adventures, made all the more mind-boggling by the mental somersaults you're forced to do to decide what's a “real” encounter and what must be a set-up. To his credit, Baron Cohen seems to have improv'd most of the film, and his ability to stay in character is tremendous. I don't know what he'll do now that he's been irrevocably exposed, but Borat the movie is a hilarious, offensive, and weirdly informative look at the American hunger for media. Read more!