Friday, February 19, 2010

A World of Hurt

According to the director herself, Kathryn Bigelow was given one day to prove herself on the set of Near Dark before the producers replaced her with another (presumably male) director. She used that day to maximum advantage, using it to orchestrate the motel shootout in which our band of white trash vampires find themselves dodging bullets and sunbeams. If you know the movie, you haven't forgotten that scene, and Bigelow kept on directing. At this writing, she's favored to become the first female winner of the Academy Award for best director for The Hurt Locker (2009), having already become the first female winner of the DGA award. I've already seen speculations that, if she should win, it's because she "makes films like a man." Bigelow's movies occupy a "male" space only if you believe demographic research that states that women don't like action movies ("'Action' is a label for video store owners," she has said in the past) or only like romantic comedies. What bullshit.

What strikes me hardest about The Hurt Locker, an account of a bomb disposal tech in the Iraqi theater who gets off on the adrenalin rush from his very dangerous occupation, is not that it has the point of view of a female director, but that it has the point of view of a director who has always explored the obsessional appeal of violence. She often eroticizes it (the movie The Hurt Locker most reminds me of is the director's own Blue Steel, in which Jamie Lee Curtis answers the question of why she became a cop with "because I get to shoot people"). And here, Bigelow's background in another genre--the horror movie--bleeds into The Hurt Locker. There are two specific sequences in the film that could not have been made by a director who wasn't in touch with the sensibilities of the horror film: first, the sequence where our squad of heroes explores a captured bomb-making facility only to discover the makings of a "human bomb." In the second, our protagonists are touring the aftermath of a nighttime suicide bombing and take off into the darkness in pursuit of the enemy. Neither of these sequences reads as "action." Both of these sequences are palpably horrific.

Another element of the movie that sticks out like a sore thumb: although Bigelow is using the "run and gun" style of shooting, presumably to give the proceedings a documentary feel, she never does so in a way that obscures the geography of the scene. You always know precisely where everything is in space. In this regard, Bigelow kicks the holy crap out of directors like Paul Greengrass at their own game.

Finally, The Hurt Locker is an interesting exercise in subtextual political critique. The film goes out of its way not to point fingers about the Iraq war, or, really, to pretend that it's about anything other than its very particular characters doing their very particular jobs. Some critics have taken this to mean that it's apolitical. I don't believe that. Its acquaintance with horror is one giveaway, which kills any kind of jingoist thrill that might transform the film into war porn. Another is the jump cut at the end of the tour that places Jeremy Renner's character in a supermarket, confronted with an oppressive consumer culture. "Is THIS why we're going to war?" is the unspoken question. This is a political film, all right, but Bigelow has used the time honored technique of "smuggling" the politics into the movie in the subtext. Sometimes, movies are stronger for the elements that the director hides. This is such a movie.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Gender Fixations

I don't remember who pointed me at Princesa (2001, directed by Henrique Goldman)--it was probably one of my friends on the IMDB, but I'm not sure--but I hope they aren't offended if I stop taking recommendations for transgender-themed movies from my cisgender friends. The movies themselves keep pissing me off. This is yet another dire examination of the life of a transsexual prostitute. What is it about European films about transsexuals? Do European transsexuals not pursue other professions? Surely they must. Anyway, Fernanda, the title character is from Brazil, but works the streets in Milan in order to save money for her operation. She initially lives with fellow trans prostitute Charlo (who is not transsexual, per se), and works for transsexual madame, Karin, who fancies her. For the most part, Fernanda treats the people around her pretty poorly, especially Karin, but none of these people is exactly sympathetic. One of her Johns, Gianni, is so smitten with her that he offers to leave his wife, take her in, and pay for her operation. She treats Gianni pretty poorly, too. The poor guy doesn't have any idea of why Fernanda does anything that she does. I doubt that a non-trans audience would understand why she would object to a partner who is a bottom and the movie doesn't explain it. When she's confronted by Gianni's pregnant ex-wife, she leaves him and heads back to Karin to reclaim her spot on the street.

So, given the opportunity to escape life on the street, she finds that living as a "normal" housewife is a suffocating set of gender roles and then goes back to the streets where "she feels like she belongs." What a load of happy horseshit. I mean, I "get" the point. The life of a housewife is oppressive, the film seems to opine, blah, blah, blah. It further opines that the life of a pregnant cisgender woman is more valuable than the life of a transgender woman (and has that transgender woman acquiesce to this notion). And it offers the noxious idea that trans women would choose sex work over another kind of life. Clearly, the filmmakers don't know what the fuck they're talking about. Oh, they throw Charlo at the audience, who develops AIDS and heads back home to her parents, but that's not really held as criticism. This is a film that really is slotting a life of desperate exploitation as superior for our heroine to a life of bourgeoisie comfort. Really? Give me a break.

In any event, it's all deeply offensive.

There's something chilly and clinical about the early going in XXY (2007, directed by Lucía Puenzo), the first film I think I've ever seen about an intersex person. The characters--at least initially--seem like specimens under the microscope of the filmmakers. This isn't helped by the austere backdrop of coastal Uruguay, filmed by director Lucía Puenzo in a cold, blue light. The story in this film concerns Alex, who was born with both male and female sex organs but lives as a girl, and her parents, who are at a loss as to how to help her through puberty and the awakening of her sexuality. This material has the potential to be exploitation or to be the equivalent of an after-school special (which is another kind of exploitation). The filmmakers feel the tug, I'm sure, but for the most part avoid this trap.

As far as the plot goes, Suli, Alex's mother, has brought a renowned plastic surgeon and his family to visit in the hopes that they will push Alex one way or another. Their son, Alvaro, has his own struggles with sexuality and with a father who is indifferent to him. It's a nice contrast that speaks to the notion that everyone has issues with their parents and their sexuality, not just gender variant children. Alvaro and Alex are drawn to each other, and each exacerbates the other's loneliness.

The film thaws considerably in its last third, as Alex's marine biologist father looks into options for Alex on his own. This leads him to meet another intersexed man who was assigned a female identity at birth, but disagreed and changed it, and their conversation injects an unexpected warmth into the film. There's also a cautionary tale embedded here, as Alex is assaulted by a group of boys on a beach who want to "see it." She is, after all, a freak in their eyes and they feel an entitlement to gaze upon the freak regardless of her own desires even though they will never really understand her. The end of the movie pulls a neat trick: it's the "normal" Alvaro whose relationship with his parents is destructive rather than Alex. In one of the film's last images, Alex puts her father's arm over her shoulder as they walk. I almost wish the entire movie was as warm as this image, but nothing makes a thing stand out like its opposite, I guess.

In any event, as a statement of self-determination in matters of gender identity, XXY is pretty enlightened. It's certainly light-years beyond other transgender movies that still fall into the stereotypes of gender variance as defined by a cissexual (cissexist) dominant culture.

In keeping with the theme of this post, one of the major villains of Chocolate (2008, directed by Prachya Pinkaew) is a transgender gangster who keeps among her henchmen a group of transgender thugs. Far-fetched, I know, but considerably less offensive than the crap in Princesa. Beyond that, though, this is an old fashioned martial arts movie, in so far as the plot and characters don't really matter. All that matters is jaw-dropping action, and, as in director Prachya Pinkaew's collaborations with Tony Jaa, this delivers on that count in spades. The story, such as it is, follows Zen, an autistic girl who is also a kind of savant when it comes to martial arts. When she sees martial arts--on television or in real life--she can duplicate it. A useful thing when your mother used to be a gangster's girlfriend who is owed a lot of money by mobsters, especially when said mother develops cancer and needs someone to collect those debts. This film has been described as Rain Man meets Iron Monkey, and I don't disagree with that. JeeJa Yanin, who plays our heroine, has awesome martial arts moves, and the copious ass-kicking lets her show it all off in increasingly complex fight choreographies, culminating in a 20 minute blaze of glory at the end of the film. This is one of those movies like the early 1980s Jackie Chan movies in which the viewer watches the insane stunts and thinks: "Oooh! That HAD to hurt." Like those films, there are copious outtakes at the end, showing that, yes indeed, it DID hurt. These people are crazy. In any event, this is a gas.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Hair of the Dog

I was mildly surprised to find myself enjoying the heck out of the remake of The Wolfman (2010, directed by Joe Johnston), given that everything about this film, from the change of directors midstream to the changing release dates, screamed "disaster." For all of that, it's a pretty good fusion of classic horror and the more sanguinary contemporary horror movie, one that respects its sources and doesn't feel the need to trample all over an icon in the name of becoming relevant to a contemporary audience. The basic story still works. So this film doesn't really go off the reservation or take any real swings at the fence, per se, but, y'know, the original item didn't do that either. It's ENORMOUSLY better than any of Universal's previous attempts to jump-start their monster franchises.

Boy, howdy! is this a good-looking movie in a gloomy/gothic sort of way. The production design is primarily done in grays and blacks and reds; it reminds me of Edward Gorey's set designs for the 1970s stage revival of Dracula. The actors are all very good, with Benicio Del Toro doing an uncanny impersonation of the Chaneys (he actually looks more like Lon senior than junior), and Anthony Hopkins doing a variation of eccentric that should be a dead giveaway as to the plot turns later in the movie. Emily Blunt is fine in the thankless role of love interest--more than fine, actually; she manages to erase any fond memories I might harbor of Evelyn Ankers. Some of that might be the work of her wardrobe, which is elegant and gothy without being stereotypical.

The set pieces are engaging and well staged. Joe Johnston is a fairly classical director who doesn't go in for the run and gun style, so the audience is clued in to what's actually happening on-screen most of the time. The filmmakers have resisted the urge to tone down the violence for the PG-13 audience, but the various dismemberments don't overwhelm things. The best scene in the movie is the asylum scene, where poor, doomed Larry Talbot is trotted out for the assembled psychiatrists to demonstrate how baseless his delusions are. I wish it had a better instinct for the jugular, but it's a fun scene. And the end of the movie is like the end of the best Paul Naschy werewolf movie ever made.

All told, a pleasant surprise.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Embracing Pedro

I've been mulling over Pedro Almodovar's Broken Embraces (2009) for about a week now. It's a film drunk on movies. It's as constructed of other movies as any Tarantino film, and like Tarantino--hell, MORE than Tarantino--Almodovar has internalized his sources and spit them out as his own inspiration. This movie is his 8-1/2 and his Peeping Tom all rolled into one and filtered through Bad Education. It has four basic narratives, including a film within a film remake of one of his own movies, all of them centered around a director whose memories of a life in film haunt him after his blindness. More to the point, though, it provides Penelope Cruz a role that embodies everything the director loves about actresses. She's his Audrey Hepburn, Claudia Cardinale, and Marilyn Monroe all rolled into one in this movie. The opening shot during the credits tells you everything: it watches Cruz as she prepares for a take. Like the Nouvelle Vague directors, Almodovar understands that movies were invented for gazing at beautiful women.

It's in its particulars, however, that the movie sings. There are two sex scenes that give lie to the notion that there are no new ways to film sex scenes. There is a shot of Lluís Homar and Cruz together on a beach that looks like an alien landscape that says almost everything about love and the photographic image, and there is a shot in which the fictional blind director frames his last kiss with his lover between his hands as it plays on a grainy video that might be my favorite shot in all of Almodovar's films. And the climax isn't a big reveal that ties up the film's mysteries--it leaves some danging loose ends, thankfully--but is rather the restoration of a murdered movie.

All of this is filtered through a kind of formal classicism that Almodovar has been drifting towards for a little more than a decade, though, like everything else, he's internalized it and converted it into his own cinematic anima. This film is a masterpiece when viewed through that lens: beautiful, enigmatic, complex, everything anyone could want from a movie. What I mostly take away from this movie is a desire to watch more movies. In this regard, it's a gift to me at a time when my need to watch movies has been at an ebb.