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Saturday, September 19, 2009

"Take a non-stop teenage romance/ and turn it all into lust": More thoughts on Jennifer's Body

Title quote courtesy of the classic Agent Orange song about the impossibility of separating love from lust.

So I do have more thoughts on Jennifer's Body. It isn't a good movie, nor is it a "so bad it's good" movie like The Apple or The Wicker Man remake. But it is a good movie to write about. In part, that's because Cody's script throws out so many ideas and never really does anything with any of them. It's all zeitgeist, very little substance. It definitely feels like a very very early screenplay pushed into production without very much production.

And the film's main concept is a good one and the one that gets the most development (while botching the execution). Discovering and expressing one's sexual identity as a teenager often feels simultaneously invigorating and dangerous. To elevate it to a state of literal death and damnation is pretty clever.

Needless to say, other films have played with this before, Ginger Snaps standing as the most thoughtful version. But it is still less common than the "have sex, get murdered by a serial killer" approach of most slasher films.

But Cody can't accept that as her sole subject. Or, at the very least, she can't unify the other elements around this subject. Instead, she's got to touch on cliques, small town life, absentee parents, the homosocial elements of close same-sex friendships and a couple other things.

And she's certainly not aided by a cast that either acts as if they are reading the script off of cue cards or trying to hide the blatant artificiality of dialogue.

Fox turns in probably the worst performance of the cast. Theoretically, this should be a dream role for her. She's playing a sex object who uses her beauty to rule what even she knows is a very circumscribed territory and who already fears that she's peaked. She's been granted an amazing amount of privilege that puts her above normal morality, but it's all dependent on the temporal nature of human beauty. She just needs to deliver her lines in a believable manner and show a moment or two of vulnerability, and she can just look pretty the entire rest of the film.

The problem is that Fox can't do the first of those two things expected of her. All her lines are delivered with the exact same intonation, as if she memorized them phonetically and is just reciting them in her breathy, "sexy" voice". It might have been possible to sell the stylized speaking style as that of a pretty, pretentious girl who no one is willing to tell that she is not as clever as she thinks. But there's no thought process going on for why she says these things.

Because of this, her most effective moments are the silent ones, like a beautiful shot of her swimming naked in a lake, ascending the ladder with supreme self-confidence, the water steaming from her diabolically warmed body. Her pride at her beauty and satisfaction that this can last forever are filled in by her posture and blase expression.*

But if Fox fails the script, so does pretty much everyone else. Adam Brody as a satanically aided lead singer does seem to get that everyone in the Cody-verse is just really clever and this is how they talk. My favorite sequence in the film is when he and his bandmates are about to sacrifice Jennifer to Satan (in order to get a real career)** and he goes from threatening to assured to cajoling in a matter of moments all to keep the sacrifice moving. Towards the very end, he starts singing Tommy Tutone's "867-5309 (Jenny)" as if this was just some late-night karaoke lark before viciously stabbing Fox to death. For a second, the mix of dark wit and horror take you somewhere unexpected. But it's just another momentary diversion in a film filled with too many of them already.

*The funny thing is that Marilyn Chambers, whose acting ability seems at least as limited as Fox's, turned in an extraordinarily more complex performance in a similar role in Rabid. And while Cronenberg's script is not as self-conscious or stylized as Cody's, he hardly gives Chambers the depth that Cody attempts to invest in Fox's character. Perhaps all that I need to add is that the director for JB also directed the live-action Aeon Flux. So the director might be yet another weak link. Maybe the surprise is how a film with a flawed script, a mediocre director and bad cast does manage to hit a nerve even a couple times.
** One of the best running gags is how the band's national success increases with every tragedy that strikes the town, when their Fall-Out-Boy-meets-the-Killers hit single gets co-opted as the soundtrack to the town's suffering, to the point that the song title is the theme for the high school dance.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Pretty Girls Make Graves: The Movie Film for Theatres

Maybe a longer review later, but for now:

Jennifer's Body has a great idea at the core and has a couple more interesting ones on the outskirts. But the execution is really botched. Diablo Cody is not Joe Dante, and the people reading her dialogue need to act as if they aren't embarassed by it. Only Adam Brody pulls it off. Sadly, he is only in the film for 20 minutes.

Even Shorter Version: Finally, all you people that wanted Mean Girls and Cronenberg's Rabid to be the same film, only scripted by Diablo Cody, you got your wish. For everyone else who enjoyed Tina Fey's wit and Cronenberg's incisive mix of empathy misanthropy, stay far far away.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

So Rousseau, Hume and Locke land on an island...

So I've been watching a lot of Lost lately. As in, a season and a half in about a month.

And this is after having only ever seen ONE episode of the show somewhere in season 4.

I'm totally new (or was) to the show. I only knew the zeitgeist-y sort of scuttlebutt until recently: there are these people on an island, there's a smoke monster of some kind and polar bears, Michael Emerson is creepy, etc. And that a fake band named "Geronimo Jackson" showed up. But it wasn't until they put the first 4 seasons on Netflix Instant Viewing and I watched the pilot that I got hooked.

So I'm less of a Lost newbie now, but I think it holds together better in some ways, watching so much so close together. The callbacks and plot threads hold together better. It is rather well-plotted, the characters are well-drawn, and the cast is pretty solid. It might not be doing anything new per se, but the way it is combining a bunch of existing elements and ideas, both in terms of methods and themes, is interesting. Heck, even the way the show is peppered with allusions without getting pretentious with them is refreshing.

Of course, there are problems. It seems like sometimes people let stuff slide on the island faster than a real person would. Ten days after Locke gets Boone killed and lies to everyone, suddenly he's a trusted arbiter of whether Charlie is crazy or not? This is stuff that doesn't matter when you've got about a season separating these events. But when it ends up being separated by a few days (more similar to the way time is flowing on an the island), it kind of irks me.

But in some ways, it's like reading a serialized novel, like early Dickens. Over the next few days, I hope to post an entry or two about Lost up until where I am now (in the last few episodes of the second season). From then on, I intend to do TV Club-esque (a la the AV Club) entries episode by episode as I watch them, talking about themes, characters, and theories as I come across them. It should be amusing to see how much I miscalculate upcoming events, at the least. And heck, it seems like the AV Club's TV Club coverage doesn't really start 'til last season.

And I promise updates on some of the other stuff I've been promising along the way. Or at least to tie these entries into my pet causes. So, make your own kind of blogging/Blog your own kind of blog/ Even when nobody else blogs along!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Putting out blogfires...with gasoline!

So I saw Inglourious Basterds opening weekend and loved it. And I think the uproar over Tarantino's handling of the Holocaust and the movie-house alternate history was actually stupid. You'd think that no movie-maker had ever used the Nazis as easy historical punching bags before August 21, 2009. But apparently, suggesting that Jewish people might, like other people, wish to take revenge on their persecutors is out of line. Or something.

Other people have done better jobs of dismantling these arguments (start here, for example, and move forward chronologically). But the thing that struck me about Mendelsohn's article is the last paragraph: "It may be that our present-day taste for "empowerment," our anxious horror of being represented as "victims"—nowadays there are no victims, only "survivors"—has begun to distort the representation of the past, one in which passive victims, alas, vastly outnumbered those who were able to fight back."

I think that Mendelsohn has identified the fact that America does not like to watch people lose (especially when they feel like they are threatened, as in our current economic and political circumstances). We like to believe that the underdog will triumph, the poor but smart and nice guy will get the girl, and good will win out over evil. And these victories are usually because the hero is so darned good, awesome or competent (if not all three). There's little sense of "fate". We rarely see anyone who, despite their best efforts and hard work, fails utterly and completely. The best example of this kind of ending is Chinatown, which still ends powerfully, because the bad guy wins and the good guy hasn't done anything to hurt or stop him. And there's nothing he can do anymore.

But what surprises me is that Mendelsohn (and the other anti-IB people) pull this on Inglourious Basterds, of all movies! This is a movie that makes its own mythmaking-machinery visible to the audience (cf. Brad Pitt's speech about the Basterds' mission, the portrait of Hitler painted as a less-imposing Hitler rants, Nation's Pride being explicitly described as a "German Sergeant York") and certainly complicates the relationship between history and what happens on the screen. People might not recognize the inaccuracies in a million other films (Gladiator, Braveheart, The Patriot, etc.), but they certainly know how WWII ends!

But why not say this about any of a dozen other films about the Holocaust? Schindler's List focuses on some gentile saving Jews. Life is Beautiful is about a guy saving his son from a concentration camp by pure whimsy. Defiance is about Jews standing up and fighting against their oppressors. Described in this reductionist sense, don't all these attempts to understand the Holocaust in cinema fail utterly? Mendelsohn does call out Defiance as an attempt at a feel-good film, but why didn't he write this article then for its release?

In fact, the only Holocaust movie I've seen that points out the characters' helplessness and defeat by the machinery of the Nazis and their death camps is Bent! As far as I remember, the only victory Bent dares to claim for its heroes is in not giving up that final inch of themselves (to paraphrase Valerie in V for Vendetta). And ironically, that film was about the people who get ignored by Holocaust films/books/etc. Quick question: how many movies focus on the Gyspies, homosexuals and Jehovah's Witnesses persecuted by the Nazis? There might be less of them, but their experience too sheds light on the Nazi killing machine and philosophy.

But getting back to my original point, the problem is that Americans like to believe that they have the autonomy to save, alter or improve their lives, that there is no force they cannot defeat by sheer force of will and ingenuity. As far as beliefs go, it's not a bad one. But this tenet of American society really falls apart in the face of genocide and ethnic cleansing. Or the problem of pain in general.