Friday, September 28, 2007

Stardust, or On Aspiration

Stardust wears its ambitions brazenly: the aim here is revisiting the glory days of kidult fantasies like Willow and The Princess Bride. And it succeeds halfway: Stardust does make you feel like a kid again, but mainly inasmuch as it reminds you what it was like when grown-ups would all talk down and treat you like an idiot.

Let's face it here: while we all like these big sweeping fantasies just fine, they're brute-force storytelling. If you're doing it right, you don't have to overstate your plot loudly and slowly, like a tourist talking to a foreigner: your story's just not that clever.

Stardust does not realise this. Stardust, penned by the insufferably smug Neil Gaiman, really believes itself to be the cleverest, most subversive fairytale since... well, since The Princess Bride. And while it's unfair to compare a trifling frivolity with the all-time heavyweight in the genre, that's the comparison everyone seems to want to make.

But where a Neverending Story or a Krull would get on with the business of telling their tale, confident that audiences of any age would pick up on the important bits, Stardust is constantly stopping to make sure you know what's going on, and doing it via horrid, embarrassing attempts at down-with-the-kids dialog. Which is a shame, because when it just chills the fuck out and lets you wallow in its world, Stardust is really quite engaging. The big-name bit-parts disappoint terribly (De Niro's part seems entirely centred around the notion that gays are funny; Gervais' the assumption that we have watched The Office), but the core cast are singularly charming in a sprightly, winking, Sunday panto kind of way. The plot is shockingly inconsistent as a fairytale, but also gleefully plausible as - work with me here - an olde-worlde twist on the high-school-drama theme of fitting in with the popular kids.

Will Stardust be remembered with anything approaching the fondness of its esteemed antecedents? It's not likely, but then again, not quite inconceivable.

[originally appeared at Flicks]

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Things the English Language Needs Words For

I really dislike when people try to be clever by pointing out the holes in the English language. They're right - why should only Germans, for instance, get to invoke concepts like Zeitgeber, the psychic "reset button" of the spirit, or Gewehrdummheit, which translates literally to "gun-foolishness"? - but they always go about the exact same way of attempting to prove their point: For some reason, the example they'll smugly offer is invariably the fact that, while deja vu is an everyday part of the lexicon, the term has no opposite counterpart.

This is annoying because it's not true. The opposite of deja vu is jamais vu, and it denotes a sensation whereby you know you've done something often enough for it to be familiar, yet it has the air about it of utter freshness. Technically it's not really an accepted part of the English lexicon, but then, neither was deja vu, until it became such.

There are things we don't have words for though. We don't have a word, for instance, for the warm feeling of nostalgia elicited by remembering how much you once despised something. Being as our generation are utterly insatiable in our desire for nostalgia-inducing artifacts from the recent past, it frustrates me intensely that there's no word to describe the strange, inner-grin feeling I get when I hear a Silverchair track off Frogstomp, or Days of the New's debut single, or the Reverend Horton Heat's really-quite-good It's Martini Time. A friend and I recently spent an entire morning searching for a copy of Sublime's breakthrough album just so she could bask in this strange, entirely earnest sort of reverse-fondness. (To my shocked protestation, she paid full price for it).

It's important to stress that this is different from "ironically" forcing yourself to like something because you find it so appealingly awful (drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon, dressing like Scritti Politti). This is the bizarre yet undeniably real feeling of fondly re-experiencing the strength of the feelings you once had for something; it just doesn't matter that those feelings were, at the time, rage or revulsion or the urge to vocally condemn the offending entity in a manner which itself, you now realise, probably verged on the unbearably obnoxious.

Something else I don't know of a word for is what we might as well, as a placeholder, call "hypercredulity": an unsettling feeling that feels a lot like disbelief, but is borne not out of witnessing a seeming impossibility, but witnessing something that just seems so inevitable it's hard to believe it's actually having the temerity to happen.

William Goldman likes to tell a story about how he and a fellow movie insider were driving around in LA, and the fellow mused, "I wonder what the weather's going to be like tomorrow", at which exact point the radio announced, "The weather tomorrow is going to be..." Goldman points out that this could never happen in a movie: audiences wouldn't buy it because it's just too on-the-nose.

Hypercredulity isn't exactly like that, but it's very similar: you have trouble with something because it just seems like reality is fucking with you by being uncharacteristically obvious. I experienced this the other day when I was at the bookshop: Don DeLillo's latest book was on the feature shelf, and it was called (of course) Falling Man. I picked it up to read the blurb, to find that it was (of course) a domestic drama about people living ordinary lives in (of course) post-9/11 New York City. The sheer inevitability of such a product being created made it seem difficult to accept that it existed; more like one of those dreams where, when you're explaining it to someone, you describe some sort of crazy thing, and then justify it with, "but you know, in the dream, this sort of thing was inevitable".

Another example of hypercredulity is John Cusack's latest movie, Grace is Gone. In Grace is Gone, Cusack (of course) takes his children on a cross-country journey (of course) because he's nervous and putting off telling them their mother has been killed in Iraq (of course). The mere combination of John Cusack, the current point in John Cusack's career, the kind of movies that have succeeded of late, and the current international worrying-points, make such a movie (or not just "such a movie" so much as "this exact movie") so inevitable that, again, it's somehow difficult to reconcile yourself with the notion that such a movie exists.

One more thing I feel there should definitely be a word for is something K and I once termed "delarity". The birth of delarity was this: K and I had just spent a weekend in Hanmer Springs, and we were driving back home, and the car broke down. (This may have been because it was a family hatchback and we had just driven it up a fucking mountain; or maybe because we had been using the uncommonly length patches of road to see just how fast this family hatchback would go if you let the sumbitch rip; or maybe it was Just Its Time).

And where did the car break down? The car broke down in, apparently, the absolute furthest point in the South Island from any other point of consequence. So far that it took roadside service hours and hours and hours to get to us, and it would have taken us even longer to get to food or lodging or even drinkable fucking water. And maybe it was the ridiculousness of the situation - it is utterly impossible to become stranded on the road in New Zealand, except possibly for on the Desert Road, and even then there's horses about you could eat or in a pinch ride to civilisation - but we quickly descended into uncontrollable hysterics.

Everything, suddenly, was hilarious. And we reasoned that we were not on drugs, but we were suddenly so hungry and tired we might as well be. It was not unlike, after a party, when it's 3am and most folks have gone home and just a few good friends have stuck about, and you find yourself talking about something totally inane, and suddenly the most minor notion will strike you as hilarious and you'll be unable to stop laughing for a good five minutes. And the next day, when you think back on it, you'll be unable to figure out what made it the slightest bit funny.

Because you're delirious. And it's hilarious. So the situation has descended into delarity.

We need a better word for this.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Invasion, or On Knowing What We Know

The first twenty-odd minutes of The Invasion are a little bit brilliant.

The first thing that happens in The Invasion is that Nicole Kidman searches frantically through a pharmacy clearly wrecked by some sort of extreme societal unease. She’s freaking out and trying to stay awake. This will not happen until two-thirds of the way through the movie’s timeline, which is a fairly common gambit.

But then the second thing that happens in The Invasion is that a spacecraft crashes in middle America, and an infectious-diseases specialist is infected by an infectious disease (oohh, irony) it has brought back, and he goes home and lies in bed, and we see a mid-shot where he is enveloped by a cocoon and starts transforming.

And then Nicole Kidman gets a telephone call from him, and he’s acting really odd and inhuman, you know, just like a person in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers would do. And why this is brilliant is that at no point are we asked to find this mysterious. It’s accepted that we know good and well what’s going on: the spacecraft has brought back the parasitic organism from The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and now Mayhem will ensue, with a dose of Metaphor for our buck. We are in the capable hands of ghostwriters Larry and Andy Wachowski and ghost-director James McTeigue (having replaced credited director Oliver Hirschberg and writer Dave Kagjanich, in what one assumes was a fairly messy production period): the team that brought you V For Vendetta is once again going to serve up some perfectly serviceable fun.

The Invasion is not a remake – it has the same central conceit as the two previous iterations of Body Snatchers, but the plot is entirely new – and it’s not a sequel, because at no point is it suggested that the events that took place in the 1956 original or the 1978 version are a part of this film’s history. But it’s taken completely for granted that we know what’s going on, either through our familiarity with those films or their presence in the zeitgeist. So the first twenty minutes of The Invasion are filled with a nervous uncertainty as to what to expect: being that the usual Body Snatchers formula is the usual slowly-learning-the-terrible-truth schtick, and being that The Invasion has played all those cards in its opening scenes, exactly what’s going to make up the rest of the movie?

Which is why it’s so disappointing when Veronica Cartwright shows up.

Veronica Cartwright had a large supporting role in the 1978 Body Snatchers. In fact, Veronica Cartwright was the only person not to be Body Snatched. So her presence here is momentarily exciting for continuity-junkies: is the movie in fact trying to posit some sort of scenario in which this is a sequel to that film? The playful sequel/remake/new-thing riffing is growing positively electrifying! Ghostwriters Larry and Andy Wachowski are clearly having almost as much meta-infused fun here as they did back when they wrote Bound!

…Oh, no, she’s a new character, it’s a cute throwback, that’s that then. And you get the feeling that this is where something dies.

Because from this point on, despite the movie having made explicitly clear what is going on, we’re forced to watch the slow, tedious process of Nicole trying to figure out what is going on, aided by Bond and Felix looking much, much less attractive than they ought, peering into lots of microscopes and watching lots of ridiculous CG. Along the way, our heroes will encounter many life-threatening situations, all of which – every one of which – will revolve around the fear that their fellow humans will vomit on them. Which is no less hilarious than it sounds.

But we will not care about these situations, because we have already been exposed to the clunkiest, most didactic fucking this-is-what-we’re-really-talking-about scene in any movie I care to remember, where a Freaky Foreigner gathers all of the script notes as to the subtext of a Body Snatchers movie and just reads them, without craft or nuance or the vaguest hint of life, until we are (a) in no doubt as to what deeper societal malaises the film is riffing on; and also (b) asleep. Ghostwriters Larry and Andy Wachowski clearly have a soft spot for their terrible Matrix sequels. Idiots.

And the biggest trouble here is, of course, that WE KNOW ALL THIS. We've SEEN The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and you told us, in the opening minutes, that you knew that. There's no excuse for having to sit through all this interminable isn't-science-interesting crap when we all know that we all know what's going on.

There’s an action scene near the end of the movie that, you vaguely feel, should be redeeming the whole thing – Invasion of the Body Snatchers! EXTREME! – but honestly, the movie has, by this point, abused our capacity to accept the ridiculous (people vomiting on people, copious desperate stabs at real-world relevance, Daniel Craig in a very funny little hat) so thoroughly that you just want the whole sorry thing to be over and done with so the end credits can lie to you about who to blame for this sorry mess.