Friday, April 10, 2009

I.O.U.S.A./DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL: Enormous changes at the last minute

Two recent films made their DVDebut this past week -- one a documentary, the other a sci-fi remake -- and both hinge on the fact/fantasy that the good old USA can effect what the late writer Grace Paley, in her infinite wisdom and wit, called "enormous changes at the last minute." In her famous short story there is a memorable paragraph* that ends with the title phrase. Ms Paley may be describing youth, but as the two movies under consideration here make

clear, it's the adult faction that needs to rise to the challenges presented by each film so that its younger generation has something left to live for (not to mention the opportunity to actually do that living).

Let's tackle the fantasy first. In Scott Derrickson's remake (with a screenplay by David Scarpa based on the 1951 screenplay by Edmund H. North from the original film), the world's salvation rests on convincing an alien power that, against all evidence, humanity is capable of reversing its destruction of our earth. If I remember correctly, in the original movie (which I have not seen for half a century), the problem that gave the alien power pause was man's warlike nature. In the new version, it's that -- and much more. We're destroying our own habitat and making it unlivable for future generations, and we're on the brink making this status irreversible. Sound familiar?

This is a worthwhile scenario and more than a little timely. Initially, Derrickson manages to cook up a good bit of suspense and foreboding with a minimum of bloodshed, and what there is seems necessary, well-chosen and well-executed. Keanu Reeves uses his stoic countenance appropriately and Jennifer Connelly (right) makes an attractive, intelligent foil, with Mad Men's Jon Hamm on tap as a scientist who doubles as mister-in-waiting, Kathy Bates as the properly insistent but stupid Secretary of Defense (the film was made and released theatrically when the greedy, traitorous and incompetent Bush regime was still in power), and John Cleese in the small but effective role of a smart professor who tries to communicate and convince. The most unfortunate role, as both written and played, is that of the Connelly character's adoptive pre-teen son: an annoying, nagging, schmaltzy contrivance that slowly drags the movie down to a very low level. This role is essayed by Jaden Smith (shown above with Ms Connelly), who at this point in his career appears to have little of his father's innate humor or ability to underplay and thus turn a cliché on its ear. Young Master Smith was better in The Pursuit of Happyness, so perhaps playing opposite his dad is a help.

Finally, this earth-standing-still remake (which is worth a look but not much more) comes down to the idea that fallible humanity can only correct itself in the event of a last-minute crunch. As ever, there seems to be little agreement among the world's powers as to whether or not that crunch is even near.

Our second film, I.O.U.S.A., posits a similar crunch, this one having to do with how our country is currently running -- well, ruining -- its economy. A necessary and quite interesting civics lesson in economic well-being, the movie covers the U.S. deficits: budget, savings, trade and leadership (the last of which may be the most-needed yet worst-handled). We shall see if President Obama and his crew bring much new and helpful to the table.

A famous government in/out box decorates I.O.U.S.A.

Visually, the movie is made up mostly of talking heads -- from David Walker, former Comptroller General of the U.S. and now (as then) a leading proponent of fiscal responsibility; Warren Buffett; former Secretary of the Treasury Paul O'Neill (shown below, who talks about his attempt to serve the dreadful Bush administration) and a few just plain folk -- which is fairly standard for this kind of documentary. Occasionally, however, the director/co-writer Patrick Creadon chooses to shows us odd visuals such as the Rockefeller Center skating rink, which, try as I might to connect, seemed to have little to do with our economy. On the other hand, it was a brilliant stroke to interview a middle-aged wait-person working in a dining room similar to the one used by the "big boys" during a conference on how to fix our economy. The waitperson, bless her heart (and pocketbook), simply tells it like it is.

How much has already changed in the two years since the film was made! China is referred to as the "Biggest Economic Success-Story of the Day." Now China, along with so many other nations, is reeling; India, last I heard, is being touted as the new BESSOTD. One of the more interesting of the film's side trips takes us back to the days of Suez and something called financial warefare, as wrought by the U.S. against Britain and France. The results, as offered here, may be debatable (OSS 117 would certainly not agree), but the theory is most interesting.

Once you finish the film you must watch the update with David Walker, which takes us through the beginning of January '09 but does not offer much good news. The big question, after viewing these two movies is whether we shall bury ourselves economically before we do so more literally -- via everything from toxic waste to energy shortages or a nuclear winter. Happy Birthday, Earth!


* I so loved Ms Paley's paragraph that I once committed it to memory. That was decades ago and my memory now may be faulty. If so, my apologies to this wonderful writer:

The kid, the kids.
Though terrible troubles hang over them,

such as the absolute end of the known world,
quickly through detonation,

or slowly by the misuse of our natural resources,
they remain, even now, humorous, optimistic and brave.
In fact, they expect enormous changes at the last minute.

--Grace Paley, from Enormous Changes at the Last Minute

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