Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Moody movies that move me: Gattaca

I never fail to well up watching Gattaca. Starring Ethan Hawke, Jude Law ad Uma Thurman, this sci-fi thriller is ostensibly about prejudice, which in the future is based not on your race or religion, but your genetic make-up thanks to great advances in genetic engineering. Science has developed to the point that one's susceptibility for diseases can be determined at birth, as well as life-expectancy.

Vincent, the protagonist, played by Hawke, being a child born of love rather than engineering, suffers myopia and a heart condition that should prove fatal at age 30. His parents, rattled by the news of Vincent's failings, decide to engineer their next child, Anton, the boy good enough to be named for his father. A sibling rivalry develops between Vincent and Anton who is superior in every physical way. The rivalry peaks in dangerous swimming contests to see who can swim out the farthest without tiring. I don't want to spoil your experience of the movie, so I'll just say one contest is a turning point for Vincent, and he leaves home to go underground as an unregistered citizen, or invalid.

Vincent dreams of being an astronaut, something I strongly identify with. I had the same dream as a child too, but my father whom I completely adored, told me women couldn't be astronauts and I believed him. My father was born in 1916, lived through the first great depression, and was too hard at work to realize the women's movement was happening. Vincent's dad told him the only way he'd see the inside of a spaceship was if he was cleaning it. With Vincent's genetic make-up, being relegated to the lower class was his future. "Genetics as destiny" as we hear in the film.

As an unregistered, Vincent works his way through underclass jobs until he lands a janitorial job at Gattaca, the space facility. His boss, Caesar, played by Ernest Borgnine, tells Vincent not to clean the glass so well he can see himself on the other side where the Valids, the best of the genetic best, work. But Vincent is determined and finds a way to do it. This is where Jude Law, as Jerome Morrow, comes in. Jerome is a paralyzed former swimming star with excellent genetics who is willing to sell his DNA code in order to keep living the good life. I won't get into the details of how this bargain works, but in the film it's fascinating to watch. There is always the chance of Vincent being found out.

The thrill part of the thriller comes in when a murder occurs at Gattaca. I don't want to spoil any of this so I will be vague here. The police investigation of the murder raies the possibility of Vincent being found into high gear, out just as Vincent is about to go on his first space mission.

So what is there to love here? What moves me? So much.

The film is at least 50% its original score composed by Michael Nyman, which is moody and brilliant all the way through. The music is more text than subtext. I can't imagine this film without it. Try closing your eyes and listening to the score. Then try turning off the sound and watching the film. You'll see what I mean. The music is integral.

And then there is the wonderfully appropriate look of the film, a kind of dusky amber glow lights nearly every scene. Some have compared Gattaca to film noir for its moodiness and lack of bright lighting, and perhaps for the Uma Thurman femme fatalish character who is Vincent's love interest at the space center. And there is criminal activity so to speak, Vincent's assuming another's genetic identity. So perhaps it is a film noir set in the future.

What is truly moving is the character of Vincent himself, who is determined to realize his dream of being an astronaut in the face of ridiculous odds. He won't let anything stand in his way, not his family members, nor the corrupt biased system that governs society. Also, the restrained relationship that develops between Jerome and Vincent is powerful to watch.

There is a Dickens quality to the story as well, with so many parallels in the plot. I won't point them all out because they will be fun to look for yourself. But here are a few. The father tells Vincent the only way he'll get close to being an astronaut is being a janitor and that is exactly how Vincent does it. There are interesting contrasts and similarities in the relationship between Vincent and Anton to the relationship between Vincent and Jerome. Jerome and Anton, have a lot in common in fact.

Director Andrew Nichol may be better known for The Truman Show, another film that takes a critical look at society, but Gattaca is every bit as worthy of recognition. Also, worthy of note, performances by Gore Vidal, Loren Dean, Alan Arkin, Xander Berkeley, Blair Underwood, Tony Shaloub, and Ernest Borgnine.

As the year draws to a close, I tend to think about losses, things left undone, all that didn't go well--my failures. I get a little caught up in "the darkness on the edge of town" to quote Springsteen. But I try not to dwell there. I try to move forward, to head out toward the realm of the possible. I do this by remembering everything I have to be grateful for, loved ones (even those gone), health, a roof over my head in a place I want to be, the luxury of self-expression and so much more. And films like Gattaca remind me too, never lose hope, never give up, the only failure is to not try.

The power of the human spirit is the message of Gattaca, delivered through wonderful story telling, unique cinematography, great acting, and a remarkable score.

Friday, December 18, 2009

another angel movie for the holidays

So here it is. My heart on my sleeve. A movie I have watched over and over and am embarrassed to confess to. What makes The Family Man, a descendant of It's a Wonderful Life, so good in my opinion?

Firstly, I am a sucker for the
what if
scenario. Especially, the what if you had another chance to do your life over. You know, the Robert Frost road not taken. It's something I've wasted a lot of time on myself. I can dream can't I?

Then, there's the angel thing. In this case, played solidly by award-winning actor Don Cheadle. It's a small part, but as the saying goes, there are no small parts and Cheadle proves that. (As does Mary Beth Hurt as the secretary who totally steals every scene she's in with her snappy delivery and timing.) Cheadle plays a very interesting interpretation of the angel archetype.

Of course, we have the likeable Nicolas Cage as Jack and Tea Leoni as Kate in the leads, and Jeremy Pivan as the sidekick. All are wonderful in their roles. If you happen to be a Cage fan, the early scene with him getting dressed and singing opera is a must see. And child actress Makenzie Vega is almost too adorable.

It is a moralistic film, certainly. The message being, love and family win out over power and money, and these are mutually exclusive. Well maybe that isn't true in the real world. Maybe it is equally likely rich folks have will have rich family lives as it is middle class folks will. I wouldn't know. But I totally buy into the gooshy idea that love is worth whatever sacrifice it takes to obtain it and keep it. If you think I am a corny sentimental fool you are right. I wasn't always this way as my college friends can tell you. But life experience, to the contrary mind you, has made a romantic out of me.

I like the ending of this film. Without giving too much away, I'll tell you it isn't happy exactly, but it leaves the door open to the possibility of happiness and that as a viewer makes me happy.

One final note. I have to say, if Kate hadn't worn such an ugly coat to the airport in the very beginning, she might have won her plea, and the whole film would be unnecessary. But that coat was very easy to walk away from.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

And speaking about angels...

I went through a period in my life when all I watched were foreign films. Maybe it was because it was the first time I moved away from the city I grew up in and I felt so foreign myself in the new place. I certainly don't feel that way now. But it was during this period I saw some of the most memorable films, films that were like poems, films of striking image and mood. And among these Wings of Desire directed by Wim Wenders is the zenith.

Wings of Desire is visually stunning. Angels high up, overlooking Berlin. The complex architecture of a library filled with people and the angels. The city of Berlin is as much a character as the two angels, Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander for whom the landscape of human life is chiaroscuro. The angels do not see color or smell or taste. They witness by listening and watching, so we in the audience are kind of voyeur angels too.

Solveig Dommartin and Peter Falk round out this profound cast. The performances are superb. Dommartin is spellbinding and Falk plays himself in that charming Columbo way. Without giving anything away, I'll tell you that Bruno Ganz's facial expressions are a marvel. There's also an elderly man, played by Curt Bois, who longs for peace and lends oral poetry to this visual poem of a film.

The music of Nick Cave enhances the hypnotic mood. And poets can't help but draw associations with Rilke from the overall feeling of the film.

In many ways, this angel movie is nothing like It's A Wonderful Life. It isn't a whimsical comedy romance. It's not so much a story of a set of characters as it is about the human story. But there is humor here and romance and plenty of human pathos. All in the back-drop of a post-Nazi Germany that can't help but be shadows in the corners of every frame. This is an exquisite, complex, painful, beautiful film.

I feel I need mention City of Angels, an American "remake"inspired by Wings of Desire. If you have seen City of Angels don't think there is no need to see "the original." These are two very different movies. There is a nice library shot in this one too. But the movie lacks history and scope. Though I have warm places in my heart for Meg Ryan and Nicolas Cage who star, Dennis Franz is the highlight. City of Angels is a watchable movie for sure, but not magnificent.

Wings of Desire
will always remain one of my all-time favorites.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Welcome to my movie addiction

I confess I have loved movies all of my life. I watch no less than five movies a week on TV or DVD. I go to see movies in theaters. I love getting absorbed into the story. I love the cinematography. I admire great performances that remind me of the beauty and complexity of the human animal. And I also love to laugh and be scared out of my wits and cry at sappy happy stuff.

My current favorite movies change all the time. There are movies I watch over and over in a short space of time and some I want to wait to see again to savor later.

Since it is the holiday season, I confess the first movie I ever fell in love with was It's A Wonderful Life. I would guess have seen this movie no less than a hundred times. It never gets old. What first tapped into my kid imagination was those angels chatting amidst the stars--not great special effects but magical nonetheless. I like to be reminded that one life touches so many others. It's easy for me to forget. And Jimmy Stewart is such an incredible actor. He's so fragile, so like any of us.