Saturday, March 17, 2012

Young Adult (2011) ***½

In the world of great villains, you’ve got Hannibal Lecter, you’ve got Auric Goldfinger, and now you have Mavis Gary. Charlize Theron is deliciously, unapologetically evil in her portrayal of Mavis as an emotionally stunted YA fiction writer out to get back her high school sweetheart, Buddy.

Mavis is a hot mess. She cranks out pulpy teenage fiction while living in a filthy apartment. On the outside she looks just like Charlize Theron, which guarantees her at least short-term success with men, but on the inside she is genuinely a bad person, with the emotional maturity of a popular, pretty, high school mean-girl. Which is probably why she is so good at writing novels for teenagers.

An email announcing the birth of her old boyfriend’s first child triggers something, and Mavis returns to her hometown, where she reverts to her old high school self while shamelessly trying to break up Buddy’s happy marriage. It’s like the evil twin of the movie “Sweet Home Alabama.”

The genius of Mavis as a character is how absolutely oblivious she is to other people’s emotions and reactions. It doesn’t occur to her at all that others will be disgusted by her attempt to break up a happy family. One even wonders if she has some form of autism, a possibility alluded to when Buddy’s wife explains her work with autistic kids. (I know, could they have made Mavis’s competition any more of a saint?) Normally in a movie like this, Mavis would go through something traumatic which would make her grow as a person. Then she would live happily ever after with the dorky guy she ignored in high school, the one who’s been under her nose all along. I’m going to provide a spoiler here and tell you that that doesn’t happen in “Young Adult.” Mavis gets a look at the blackness of her soul, stares into the abyss of self-awareness and change, then says, “Nah, that’s not for me. I’ll just keep on being a huge mess.”

This is a fun twist on the rom-com, late-coming-of-age genre, although as with screenwriter Diablo Cody’s other work (see “Juno”), the cleverness feels overly deliberate at times. Even the central premise of Mavis’s defiant refusal to grow up feels a bit arch. What I notice in Cody’s movies and writings (mainly articles for Entertainment Weekly) is a literary cleverness that she doesn’t want anyone to miss. Her work is like a meal at a high-quality chain restaurant like Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. The food is good, but there is just a hint of a flavor of something pre-packaged, something that tastes exactly the same at a restaurant in the next town. Cody’s quips and word coinings are fun, but you do get the sense that they will taste exactly the same in the next movie.

That’s really my only complaint. Otherwise, “Young Adult” is a fun black comedy. Now, when people tell Charlize Theron they loved her in that movie where she played a monster, she’ll have to ask, “Which one?”

3.5 stars out of 5

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Gattaca (1997) *****

“Gattaca” is the kind of movie that if you haven’t seen it, people will tell you “You gotta see it!” So I’m telling you, “You gotta see it! It’s awesome!” I could just leave it at that, but I guess that wouldn’t make for much of a review.

The title of this sci-fi noir film comes from the name of a future space agency. Jerome (Ethan Hawke) works at Gattaca, and as the film opens, he is on track to fulfill his dream of going into space. The only hitch is that Jerome isn’t really supposed to be there. He doesn’t have the genes to be an astronaut. In this version of the future, everyone is genetically manipulated to be perfect. Babies come from in vitro fertilization in labs which determine their height, sex, and eye color, and remove any hereditary tendencies to disease. Humans are still capable of normal reproduction, however, and occasionally someone like Jerome gets conceived in the back of a car. There is nothing obviously wrong with Jerome (I mean, he looks exactly like Ethan Hawke!), but in this future the genetically imperfect are termed “invalids” and forced to languish in the lowest tiers of society. I won’t reveal how Jerome manages to move from his janitor’s job to being an astronaut, but he lives in constant danger of being found out. All the tissue testing that is done at Gattaca to verify identity and rule out drug use is accompanied by genetic testing, so Jerome has to be perpetually prepared to cheat these tests. When a murder occurs at Gattaca, the increased scrutiny of the investigation threatens to expose Jerome and ruin his dreams of space.

“Gattaca” is one of those sci-fi movies, like “Bladerunner,” where people wear retro clothing, and it looks cool as hell. They even drive old-style cars, retrofitted with electric engines. The movie itself is very stylized as well; in fact everything about the movie is very cool and crisply done. The shadowed halls of Gattaca echo with the sound of footsteps, and everyone speaks very quietly and properly. Jerome is terse and reserved because he has so much to hide, but his manner fits in perfectly at Gattaca.

The world of “Gattaca” isn’t so very far removed from our own. It’s easy to imagine that within a generation or two, science will make possible the genetic manipulations described in the movie, and that genie will not prove easy to put back in the bottle. Just as parents today try to get their kids into good schools, the parents of the future will want their kids to have the best genes. It will mean an end to babies being born with genetic diseases, and adults will be healthier, too. There also won’t be any short people or people who need glasses, and then one has to wonder if this world might also lack for Beethovens and Einsteins.

The doctors tell Jerome that his genes make it almost certain that he will die of heart disease, but he makes it at Gattaca precisely because he has more heart than anyone else. As he tells his genetically perfect brother, “I didn’t save anything for the trip back.”

The point of “Gattaca” is that perfection isn’t everything, but the movie comes pretty close to perfection. Director Andrew Niccol blends sci-fi and noir in a great story with excellent style and acting (kudos to stars Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, and Jude Law.) It’s an underappreciated gem that deserves a place in your collection.

5 stars out of 5

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Easy Rider (1969) ***

One might be tempted to ask what is the point of “Easy Rider”? It’s a poorly constructed film with limited narrative and an unsatisfying ending. And yet it is an icon. I think that for one thing, the movie captured, and maybe helped create, the romantic image of the motorcycle rider as a free spirit. Secondly, I think the movie tapped into a groundswell of disillusionment with how the 1960’s were turning out. After a dramatic decade of consciousness-raising, protest, and national discourse, there still wasn’t room in most of America for anyone to be different.

Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper play Wyatt and Billy, a couple of low-lifes on Harleys. They successfully smuggle cocaine into the U.S. from Mexico, then embark on a cross-country motorcycle trip to New Orleans to spend some of their profits at Mardi Gras. Along the way they have pleasant encounters with a variety of hippy types and unpleasant run-ins with rednecks and cops. They also pick up a kindred spirit, George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), an alcoholic southern attorney and amateur philosopher. He puts into words the quiet dismay simmering in Wyatt as they travel through middle America. During a campfire exchange which pretty much sums of the movie, George gives his most memorable line: “...they’re gonna talk to you and talk to you and talk to you about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ‘em.”

For me, the message of “Easy Rider” is somewhat diluted by its contradictions. In every small town through which the guys pass, they are viewed with suspicion and contempt by the conservative, white locals. Of course, Wyatt and Billy are cocaine smugglers, so it seems that the townsfolk’s profiling is pretty accurate. The violence directed against them is completely unjustified, but still, would you want drug-runners to roll into your town and chat up YOUR teenage daughter?

“Easy Rider” is also a great example of sloppy filmmaking. The scene cuts are abrupt, and there is at least one clear editing error that should never have been allowed to make it onto the final cut. Still, I suppose it’s lucky the film got made at all. Dennis Hopper was reputedly on drugs the entire time, and he was the director! The actors also smoked real marijuana on camera for some scenes. During an LSD-tripping scene in a New Orleans cemetery, there are some interesting lighting effects that it turns out were due to someone opening the film before it had been developed.

All in all, I would say the filmmakers could have done worse. On a reported budget of $400,000 (Pretty cheap, even in 1969.) they made a film that has captured the imagination of millions. For all its flaws, the film does manage to capture the disillusionment of its time, and it puts into stark relief the pathos of a society divided against itself.

3 stars