Friday, July 17, 2009

Maybe Just Avoid District 9

Is there anyone out there besides me who didn't particularly like District 9?

I know Joanne Kaufman over at Wall Street Journal didn't. Neither did Kyle Smith at New York Post (and I love his "kill-or-be-krill" jest) or J.R. Jones at the Chicago Reader. Heck, even Ebert and I both have the same dislikes with the same movie for once. But for the most part, their critiques are brief and don't really give details. So here I go.

Let's start with what should be appreciated. Because really, you've gotta hand it to an August blockbuster that grosses over $35 million in its first weekend when it's got unknowns for a cast, relatively simple set production, not based on a comic book, video game or novel and its only real name credit is a man at the helm with a name stamp somewhere in the last ten years of pop entertainment. One film tried to do that earlier last year: Cloverfield. Like District 9, it was plenty hyped with a cryptic trailer as well as extensive viral marketing in addition to billboard signs. It came out at an unconventional time for a big-budget movie, it had the potential to spurt out spin-off films or tie-ins, it was about aliens, and it was produced by J.J. Abrams from the hit shows Alias and Lost. And nobody seemed to care about Cloverfield.

But at least Cloverfield's story lost its pretentiousness quickly. Cloverfield wanted to take the "alien blockbuster"/"disaster movie" genre* (see also: Independence Day; see also: Armageddon) and deconstruct it a bit; instead of big names starring as scientists or military personnel - usually men - who save their estranged families and the world, it told a street-level story of snobby teenagers who get trapped in the big mess of things, and all of them wind up dead by the end - including the guy who saves the girl, plus the girl. By itself, that's pretty predictable, but not usually in an alien blockbuster. Cloverfield also broke conventional norms by being shot cinema vérité style to give the film a more realistic look and feel. However much Abrams wanted to break from normal alien movie narratives, though, none of those methods employed ever got in the way of actually telling the story (unless, of course, you didn't like its predictability or you were one of those people who got vertigo in the theater from the HandiCam style and blew chunks).

District 9 has several similarities. The vague trailer teased audiences with the name "Peter Jackson" for months preceding its release and was greatly hyped with billboards and Web sites. It plays out documentary style, talking heads and all. I believe that it also tries to break away from conventional movie sci-fi structures.

In some ways, it succeeds, because District 9 certainly raises a lot of interesting stuff. Take, for instance (spoilers ahoy), the allegorical nods to apartheid, the "final solution" to move them all to a giant concentration camp of tents, or the protagonist's progression from small tuna working for the Man and leading a basically uninteresting life to - contrary to how most of these alien movie heroes react - become progressively cruel and selfish as he inches closer to his objective, even to the point of becoming cowardly and turning tail running during the final battle. It certainly raises interesting questions about humanity as an identity, and the film does a great job of realistically portraying how the world might actually react to an alien immigration. There are some moments in the film that had me gripped to my seat, like when the scientists force the protagonist to kill an alien. The film even has a touching father-son story. I can get teary-eyed at few things, father-son stories being one of them - and mostly in weak/simple films like Signs or The Lion King.

But from there, the film goes nowhere. And that makes me more frustrated with the film rather than hate it. As soon as the credits started rolling and I wanted to talk about these things, the longer I reflected on the film, the more it started to flake away and fall apart. And I don't mean story-wise. The story, when isolated and packaged for a Reader's Digest version, is pretty straightforward. But the internal logic itself doesn't work; several parts of the story rely on seemingly arbitrary plot points or devices that are either entirely unexplained or rely on heavy interpretive analysis from the audience. I can definitely handle the latter (The Fountain is my favorite movie, and I never see it the same way twice, so I'm not unfamiliar with films that demand a lot from the viewer). But the former aggravates me to no end, and it was my main complaint with Slumdog Millionaire (and I'm the only one I know who disliked that film, other than Salman Rushdie).

Like (again, spoilers) when the protagonist is wheeled into a room full of dead aliens (some in pieces, and a talking-head shot explains that no human has ever bonded to an alien and lived. This made me think that the room was full of failed metamorphosed human-aliens, and yet this was never explained. A friend later postulated that the room was actually full of aliens that had been kidnapped and subjected to testing. I'm open to that possibility, except the movie didn't provide much evidence to fully argue that, either. The movie had moments where you had to infer what was going on, which I'm usually fine with, except that too many times I had to say, "Well, maybe this, maybe that" instead of "The film gives A, B and C, so therefore this is what happened." Too many "maybe's" and your "clever" story starts to look like a spaghetti sieve. And I wasn't surprised by any of the "twists," including the transformation from alien to human.

And not being surprised by District 9 is funny because so things felt so random. You mean to tell me that the aliens are the only ones can operate their weapons, and the weapons are powerful enough to literally explode their enemies, and there are tons of these...and the aliens either don't use them to take over or they sell them food? (Um, cat food? Giant shrimp from another galaxy are in love with cat food? And calling them shrimp is about the only explanation for the ethnic slur "prawn," because the movie never tells me the how or why.) One friend pointed out that the film mentioned the aliens were likely low-level workers on the ship, which might be interesting enough to make sense, except that raises all sorts of questions like where are the other aliens who actually piloted or lived on the ship, and even then the film only raises that as a hypothesis. If the mothership was always operational, then why the hell do you need the fuel? (And the film never really tells you what the fuel is actually made from or why it takes twenty years to make.) Unless the "ship part" that fell is somehow part of the cockpit, since it can operate as one once it docks inside - but the film never tells me. How did humans learn their language - and, more importantly, how did the aliens learn English - in twenty years without writing anything down (which is one place where that "Well, they're workers" theory starts to look even weaker)? How did the aliens get human-sounding names like Christopher? And if human-sounding, why so English when the film is set in South Africa?

And speaking of the setting, when I stopped to think about it, Johannesburg felt more like a gimmick than a setting. It's interesting to see an alien movie taking place outside a big American city like New York for a change, and the allegorical reasons seemed appropriate to somewhere in Africa. But from there, it felt like that's the only reason to set it in Johannesburg, and trying to be so special is a bad reason to set any story. Change a few minor details and the story would've played out the same way in Russia, London or hell, New York. One thing I noted was the voodoo on alien bodies in the film which, again, is an interesting concept of how alien immigrants might impact local culture and/or religion, but from there the ball gets dropped because the voodoo felt like more of a reflection on South Africans being kooky witch doctors than anything, which starts to bother me when I think about using superstitious South Africans as a mere plot device. A friend suggested that Johannesburg was a good setting because Johannesburg has a very diverse culture and society where several immigrant groups are packed into shantytowns like sardines in a can, making it a giant melting pot where aliens could fit in. This is a good theory and it's definitely interesting...except the film doesn't do anything with it.

The editing of the film itself bothered me, too. There are a few places where you can tell they got sloppy - there's even a place during the climax where one character was barking orders, then crouching down to snipe out a building, and when the scene cuts to an explosion, the next shot of the character has him back on the other side standing and barking orders instead of crouched where he was. And the oh-so-realistic documentary style was poorly handled and ended up feeling like another gimmick. The film couldn't decide if it was a documentary or a typical sci-fi thriller because the film actually told the story both ways; most of scenes were told in normal linear film fashion, which felt weird because it would switch back and forth between styles from start to end. It wasn't necessarily confusing, but it felt weird.

Maybe I'm just an oddball when it comes to sci-fi films; one other thing that significantly separates Cloverfield from District 9 is that I'm the only person I know who really enjoyed Cloverfield. But I'm really not that particular about having answers spoonfed to me and usually prefer to be kept guessing during a movie. I feel like I could keep going with pointing out the weak spots in District 9, and that's because it's like one of those house-trained dogs that begins to act stupider the longer you give it attention. Ultimately I can't entirely hate the film because I was definitely entertained and had a good time in the theater. With some better writing and direction (and cleaner editing), the film might've suffered less under the pressure of its constant effort to be "unique" and "special." And perhaps the sequel (and there may almost certainly be one or two of them) will be better developed or explain some of these holes to me. But I can only recommend a dollar-theater or DVD viewing of District 9. I don't understand how it blew your mind, Sara Vilkomerson, or how the hell you could possibly find it "philosophically sophisticated," Christy Lemire. To me, those are gimmicky buzz phrases indicating only what this movie maybe could have have been.

*I consider alien movies like Independence Day to be part of the disaster film genre because when you look at the tyoical narrative structure of both films, they generally play out the same way whether the planet is threatened with asteroids, twisters, hurricanes, 2012, or space ships. Makes me think we should also throw in Transformers.

Friday, July 10, 2009

See Mike Run

This is Brother Pratt.

This is Brother Pratt in the Utah County Jail (as seen in the Deseret News).

Michael Jay Pratt - just saying the name puts courage in the hearts of hundreds of Orem High Tigers who remember him as the great seminary teacher. He was not just an inspiration to us, he was the closest thing some of us had to an actual general authority. People described him in terms of actual salvation. "Brother Pratt changed my life" or "Brother Pratt saved my life." He was a hero in almost titanic description; his spirituality, tracing back to Parley P. Pratt, was believed to be penultimate perfection. A short guy with a big heart who had just the answer for your problems and the right shoulder to cry on when he didn't.

And he has been arrested for sexual assault. A 16-year-old girl from his current teacher (and principal) position at Lone Peak's LDS seminary.

Video Courtesy of

Brother Pratt - the man, the myth, the legend. It all sounds like gross exaggeration. Like me, and others, have blown things out of proportion. And that's precisely because that's what it is. A fiction. A man mythologized.

Michael Pratt's life story kinda sounds like something that came out of a seminary movie. He had a troubled past as a teenager fiercely rebelling against the Church he was born into until, one day, he was dared to read the Book of Mormon. It changed him into a spiritual powerhouse causing him to go around spreading love for Christ long before he ever blew out the candles on his nineteenth birthday cake. His mission yielded endless stories for what would inevitably be his life's work: teaching in seminary and Sunday schools.

He had a life on the go; he and his family would pack up and move whenever he came to a high school and stay for a few months before picking up again and going to a new school. But he left his mark all over the county. He could get the quiet kid to raise his hand and the talkative jocks to shut up. The door to his office was always open long after school got out for the day and, oftentimes, there was a line of people waiting to lighten their latest load on his shoulders, seeking his advice. His lessons kept you awake and energized; people could repeat the main points from his lessons by topic or memory...and, of course, everyone who took a class from him remembers his "Puddy Cave fieldtrip" lesson.

Like I said - a man mythologized. And I'm certainly no different; Brother Pratt is the reason I almost became a seminary teacher. I was one of a few who could comfortably call him Michael - he had been a lodestar in my life since I was fifteen, being the only church-related figure I felt I could talk to about my struggles with my same-gender attractions in high school - and even years later when I became inactive and began dating my first boyfriend, he came to visit me at my apartment and took me to dinner. There are several stories - from funny anecdotes I even tell co-workers to a curious winter night miracle I still can't explain to this day - that describe my friendship with Mike, and my journals from high school feature him and his advice frequently. He was one of my closest friends, down to his current position as the second counselor of the singles ward I inactively belong to.

What's interesting now is not just his arrest and this scandal that follows; it's the reactions from all my old high school friends. One friend said, "Bullshit. It's all bullshit - the girl was troubled and has destroyed his life." Another remarked, "I'm shocked. He was...well, everyone thought he was so perfect." Even my sister expects that sooner or later we may yet discover this all to be rumor. Some have already begun attributing "this tragedy" and "this dispicable man" to the subjugation of the devil. "All I can say is blame Satan," said one commenter on DesNews' website.

Not many seem to want to examine this for what it is: a beloved church-related figure who is now alleged to be a felon. Instead, all wait in nearly breathless anticipation to see how innocent Brother Pratt will escape and get out of this one intact and precisely as everyone remembers him. The response is largely disbelief, but most of all denial and paranoia. "We'll find out the truth sooner or later - this has all been blown out of proportion."

But proportions larger than life have surrounded and romanticized this short-of-stature man for years. We've put him in a light that, perhaps, doesn't truly exists. And now may be the right time for us - especially me - to admit it. It'll be better for any healing that needs to occur to keep the facts straight from the stories we tell...for such is the stuff that heroes are made of. In this important time, remember him not as that mythic hero-god...but as a human being. Like the rest of us. And in that way, maybe he can continue to inspire us. Brother Pratt can be both hero and felon.

And I think I know how it will all end. This will undoubtedly stain Brother Pratt's reputation for years. But in time, this will be seen as one other spiritual trial Brother Pratt "bravely" passed through. It will become part of the stories he'll tell in devotionals (which I'm either sure of or hoping) he'll be asked to speak at. "You know, when I spent those hellish nights in jail," he'll start, and the room will quiet. And this will all become hushed controversial apocrypha, like most LDS Church scandals.

But - "Do you think he really did it?" people ask me. I answer: "If you love Michael, does it really matter?" Loving doesn't ever mean seeing just the *good.* It means seeing the *person* in spite of the *bad.* And counting in the good. So let's allow God (and the laws of the land) to decide Brother Pratt's innocence or guilt. It need not concern us and is nobody's business but the families and people involved; the rest of us, let's follow C.S. Lewis and "get back to the business of loving." Which is precisely what, as Michael has taught us, Christ is all about.

Mike's mythology is too strong amongst too many people for him to pass away into bare naked factuality. This story could break Brother Pratt's heroic narrative among us old Tigers, as well as his other former students. We needn't completely let go of that inspirational myth surrounding him but we do need to break from any dependency on such hero fiction. We, all of us, have been writing the story from the very beginning. He never came to us claiming he was our hero. We did. ...I did. And I will always - always - love him dearly.

And so it is with all our gods.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Queer Film Spotlight: Shelter

Shelter (2007) This movie was a pleasant surprise because I thought it'd be just a softporn like Latter Days but with "surfer dudes." It turned out to be a well thought out story about a young graffitti artist named Zach who's stuck in urban California dreaming of getting into art school while taking care of his sister, his father and his orphaned nephew, Cody. When Shaun, the gay older brother of his best friend comes into town, Zach starts to rethink his relationships and the direction he wants to take with his life.

Shelter's fault is its vageness about its own story. It lacks plotholes but it also lacks focus. It's not clear how his sister finds out about him and Shaun, or why Cody's father is gone. One scene makes it seems as if Zach and his sister (as well as his on-and-off girlfriend) all happen to work at the same place. At times, the film's ambiguity gives way to gimicky plot tricks, like the com radio. In addition to taking care of Cody, Zach and his sister presumably must care for their mentally disabled father as well, and yet we only see the father at the very beginning and forget that his character exists until he's mentioned, in passing, towards the end of the film. These might be minor flaws, but they undermine the film's believability.

Zach often sleeps away from home, is socially disconnected, and is defensive over his artwork. He has to worry about being a father figure to Cody while maintaining so-called masculinity and applying to an out-of-state art school. I think these are good ways to underline Zach's feeling of restlessness, but unfortunately it was hard to buy all of these things when they happened because, due to Wright's acting, they went like lukewarm milk.

This brings me to the film's biggest problem: the characters were all believable except the protagonist himself. The character could have been very interesting, but Trevor Wright plays him like a wooden puppet. His angsty fits would be understandable but his age is supposed to be 22. It's difficult to care about Zach when everything he does feels somehow lacking. Worst is Zach's "change of heart" which feels like a magic trick out of thin air because of how sudden and unexplained it is. By the end when Zach is trying to convince his sister about the future, it sounds more like he's trying to convince himself.

Ultimately I think most of the problems I have with Zach were first impressions, and maybe the character will seem better handled on a second round. The film's protagonist might seem like the most underdeveloped part of the movie, which is unfortunate, but ultimately I'd recommend it to anyone. It's very enjoyable, tells a good story, and has a great soundtrack. Shaun's character was well-acted and so was his brother, Zach's best friend. Additionally, the kid who played Cody was good at being both sensitive to the tension between others as well as being innocent.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Batman is dead.

It's raining blood and tiger cats are riding giant dogs. The fabric of reality is being torn asunder. Batman's got a gun; he must choose between his consistent morality and a once-in-a-lifetime exception. The President of the United States is an African American Superman. Sexual objectification of contemporary female superheroes is fought out between Supergirl (the blonde bombshell, like Marylin Monroe) and Mary Marvel (with a shaved head recalling Britney Spears). Green Lantern Hal Jordan stands trial for a crime he didn't commit. There are crop circles. There are angels and prophets, cannibals and vampires. There's a tiger with a checkered jacket adjusting his bowtie after clawing out someone's innards. Prometheus is bound to a wheelchair. Frankenstein quotes Milton. A Rubik's cube turns people to dust. Hell hounds chase a school bus. An avatar of death, armored in black, is on skis. 98% of the world's population raise their fists to the devil himself after he hacks the internet. A beautiful kiss and tragic self-sacrifice. The first boy on earth, the last boy on earth. Time runs backwards, then forwards. Red and black. Superman screams, winks and sings.

I give you FINAL CRISIS by Grant Morrison, J.G. Jones and Doug Mahnke. And after spending the entire night up reading, enjoying every single minute with laughter and plenty of jaw-dropping moments alternating between shock and awe, I still have no idea what the hell just happened.

Many people have raised the same point about this work - and a true point: this comic is terribly complex and confusing. The story begins as a murder mystery dressed with Greek myth at the curtains, but from there it explodes into wild chases and space odysseys that, by there very dream logic nature, belong in a comic book. Gritty realism and nihilistic philosophizing switches places with completely over-the-top action and complete baloney physics. Earth-shattering truths are delivered in between outlandish dialogue lines you sometimes want to read twice to believe. Deus ex machina abounds frequently. The comic remains completely po-faced about it all from start to finish.

And that is exactly why FINAL CRISIS is so brilliant. It manages to be, simultaneously, what comics *were* and what comics currently *are* - what they have become. For Morrison, superheroes have begun to be little more than moralizing or philosophizing social commentaries with only enough life to sustain a narrative structures that can support "realistic" plots. Stories that give you factual reality to believe in, rather than any merit of the story itself. It's all very formulaic. And it's all so very...boring. The very image of Superman holding Batman's burned and battered body expresses this: the imagery is bewildering and chilling at once, and makes us ask ourselves what comics once stood for, and the grim redundancy they've become. Have we kept the magic alive or did we kill it?

I've been reading DC comics for less than a year. So I had to do my fair share of homework on characters and events. I knew Barry Allen gave his life to save the world in the first Crisis but I've had very little exposure to Darkseid. I was plenty familiar with the Guardians of the Universe but not the Monitors. I know who the Tattooed Man is but had no idea about Black Lightening. Did the story ever contradict itself, or even the artwork? At least a couple of times, yes. Did the story every become so muddled that I couldn't understand what was going on? Definitely.

But again: that's EXACTLY why this works. Because you have to just believe in the story itself. Morrison has said in interviews that while background will enrich the story, EVERYTHING you need to read and enjoy FINAL CRISIS is right there in its own pages. The will to believe - the faith in the magic of stories (not storytelling, but stories themselves).