Thursday, March 29, 2007

Children of Men (2006)

My husband’s always bugging me about repopulating the Earth after the apocalypse. I mean, the hypothetical “if everyone was dead but us, would you have babies?” I tend to say no, because I figure if we’ve gone that far towards our own destruction, we deserve to die off and let someone else have a chance. Children of Men makes me feel much the same way, but with lots more suspense and a better soundtrack.

It’s 2027, and no one’s been born for 18 years. No one knows why, and in fact it doesn’t really matter—like the other recent post-apocalyptic film set in England, 28 Days Later, the mechanics really aren’t the point. It’s what you do with the situation that matters. At the beginning of the film, Theo is a former activist who isn’t doing anything except drinking black coffee and visiting his friend Jasper (Michael Caine in a Gerry Garcia wig). But animals seem to like him. This of course makes him the ideal man get involved in a plot about babies, since he’s already friend to mankind’s substitute children.

Theo, because of his previous ties to the revolutionary underground, gets mixed up in a tangled political web spun around a young refugee/immigrant named Kee. Who is, miraculously and for no explainable reason, preggers. This is revealed with little Biblical subtlety but great beauty in a barn, the girl covering her breasts in an odd touch of modesty. And that’s sort of the style of the movie; Alfonso Cuaron delivers a fast-paced thriller of a sci-fi movie (which deserves to be a lot longer and more fleshed out) in beautiful, stark detail. Everything about this society indicates a world living backwards. No one bothers to clean up the trash, or prosecute pot-growers, and apparently no new songs have been written since 2003. There is no future, until this baby comes along, and even then it is uncertain. Is the baby a new hope, or merely the banner for revolution?

Cuaron’s movie appears to itself be a sort of banner, because he’s imbued it with so many Iraq War references we might as well be watching the news with better lighting. Prisoners lie in blindfolded rows, hand-held cameras get splattered with blood, and a huge sign over a refugee deportation center proclaims “Homeland Security.”

As a science fiction film, it’s too short and doesn’t go far enough. As a political message, it’s a bit heavy handed and similarly directionless. But as a suspense film with appealing sci-fi and political aspects, it’s very good. It’s beautifully filmed, the soundtrack works well, and the world-building is solid. Just don’t expect any real insight into human nature, or our future. Read more!

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Shortbus (2006)

I was suspicious when I heard that John Cameron Mitchell was auditioning "sextras" for his new film, at the time called "The Sex Film Project." He said he wanted to use actual sex, not simulated, in his film. And one had to wonder; how is that not porn?

Well, it's not. "I know it when I see it," and Shortbus is about sex, not about getting off. Sure, it's also about narcissism, but then, isn't a lot of sex? Why, you might well ask, should we be interested in a movie whose basic premise is "let's put actual sex on the screen"?

Maybe because, unlike porn, it's an "actual" movie. In fact, after the first few minutes (which, I believe, are deliberately shocking and set up a counterpoint to the actual themes of the film), I was perfectly comfortable watching this film in mixed company (both of gender and level of acquaintanceship). Because I wasn't watching people trying to be sexy--I was watching people have sex. Strangely, there is a difference, one that made it much less disturbing than simulated soft-core. And what this movie is about is that it's okay, no matter what you're into. And that you, yes you, are a voyeur, so you can't escape anyway.

The story involves the intersection of several people who converge upon Shortbus, the sex club and salon for the "gifted and challenged" of the sexual world. Supposedly based on a real place and time, it's a well-lit, sex-positive venue where no one is pushed but everyone is encouraged. Our primary vehicle here is Sofia, a sex "I prefer couples counselor" therapist who has, despite her job, never had an orgasm! She offers some exceedingly bad therapy and subsequently attempts various techniques for achieving her ultimate goal--all the while protesting that "sex is awesome!" Now, this could very easily have been excruciating to watch. I can imagine some wonky "edgy" comedy with this premise trying to get away with whatever it can. Like American Pie for the Peter Pan Syndrome set. But by making the sex "real," Mitchell's also made it believable. Not everything the characters do is plausible, but the spirit in which the film was made seems to make up for it. There's a gay threesome situation that is by turns really angsty and sweet. There's an old, closeted mayor of NY who frequents Shortbus and counters the claim that by being in the closet, he "didn't do enough" about AIDS. There's an S&M mistress who doesn't have any close connections to people, but who photographs them obsessively and frequently inappropriately.

In the end, when I sit down and think about the actual plot, there's not much to it. And I don't know if I learned anything specific from Sofia's journey. But I feel I did learn a lot about beauty, and bodies, and sex in general. Not to mention having the utter contrast of our media's simultaneously Puritan and pornographic impulses thrown in sharp relief; this movie shows it all, but is neither. And while my feelings about it as a movie are mixed, my reaction to it is as positive as... well, as it wants us to be about sex. Read more!

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Full Monty (1997)

The Full Monty came out ten years ago, and on its anniversary it’s been given a “Fully Exposed,” 2-DVD treatment. At the time it came out, the backlash hit me before the film did, and so I recall being less than impressed. It was probably the utter seriousness with which people approached the film—seriousness I read in the box office and the Oscar noms and everyone talking about it. The hype just couldn’t support a cute film about unemployed, naked steelworkers.

And that one-note joke, flavored with “new” slang we Americans could toss around, made it seem like tourism to me. Trainspotting had already hit, so we knew that we were supposed to like British movies, but this made them cuddly. I got the feeling everyone in the U.S. was taking in the nudity and the language and everything else with the sort of detached superiority which leads (in old novels, anyway) to proclamations of “oh, how quaint!”

Of course, I am now a snob with ten more years’ experience, and am able to enter the film again with reduced expectations and a better understanding of the filmic context. And this time, reminding myself that this was indeed a surprise hit, that the imitators came after, I really did enjoy it. We all know the story by now: out-of-work steelworkers, confronted with financial responsibilities and the popularity of the Chippendales, launch their own, Yorkshire-version male strip show. They’re thin, fat, pasty, old, and uncoordinated, but these plucky lads know how to make the best of things and confront their fears head on! To the film’s credit and my relief, the potential sentimentality is softened by the very real situation these guys are in, and the endearing characters who really do seem to have relationships. It doesn’t ignore the homoerotic aspects of what they’re doing, or the implications to masculinity of both unemployment and public nudity.

The one sour note, somewhat perversely in my opinion, is the score. I know it won an Oscar, but I found it to be far too jaunty. I’m not talking about the soundtrack itself, which was also very popular and is a lot of fun. No, I mean the weird, over-produced harmonica stuff that seems to be constantly telling us, “Hey, I know this is a movie about unemployment, but it’s a happy movie about unemployment!” The script does a fine job of walking the line between comedy and pathos. I don’t need a “lonely” harmonica cheerfully telling me that I shouldn’t be too upset by the goings-on on screen, because this is actually a light-hearted romp. I’m watching middle-aged pasty men strip, after all.

As for the new DVD set, I now know more than I ever needed to about The Full Monty. (Except, strangely enough, why the film is too cowardly to actually show the full monty.) The first disc has utterly pointless “deleted scenes,” which largely consist of alternate takes from various angles. Useful if you need to learn how utterly tedious filmmaking is, but adding nothing to our knowledge of characters or themes. The cast filmographies are nicely done with little interviews interspersed with information about their careers. But the bulk of the info is on the second disc, which has several featurettes (or one long one) that talk about the script, the hiring process, the making and subsequent popularity of the film, and why exactly the studio thought Americans wouldn’t understand the word “stone” as a unit of measure (back on the first disc, you can also watch the movie with its original, UK soundtrack. Seriously). Despite some questionable “artistic” touches in the filming of interviews and things, it’s quite well done, and many more movies deserve this kind of treatment. It’s a demonstration of what DVDs can be used for. I’m not entirely convinced I needed The Full Monty to go all the way, but it’s refreshing to see a little film get this kind of release. Read more!