Friday, October 11, 2013

GRAVITY

After a painful, seven-year absence, Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamá También, Children of Men) has returned with his most technically impressive film in a career. The nerve-wracking suspense thriller is one of those large scale epics that will probably be wasted on anyone watching at home. Its grand, vertigo inducing vistas featuring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney floating 30 miles above the Earth, demand to be seen in 3D and on the biggest screen possible.

The entire first act is captured in a single, stunningly extended, 17 minute take that starts with a breathtaking view of the Earth and a small speck that quickly grows into the Space Shuttle. As Cuarón's camera balletically zips around, we see astronaut Matt Kowalski (Clooney) testing a new jetpack while our protagonist, Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock) completes repairs to the Hubble Telescope. We learn that while Kowalski is an old hand, Stone is a rookie, a mission specialist who's there more for her expertise with the equipment than her abilities as an astronaut. This inexperience makes what happens next so much worse for her. An unexpected cloud of debris strikes and destroys the shuttle, sending Stone flying off into the emptiness of space. Cut off from ground communication, low on oxygen with no chance of rescue and only 90 minutes till the debris orbits around the Earth and hits again, rarely have characters found themselves in more dire situations. 

Gravity might be the most authentic feeling space film ever made. All the equipment the astronauts use looks correct, Cuarón doesn't cheat the lack of sound in space, everything we hear in the film comes from the in helmet mics, and he makes extensive use of CGI to make the weightlessness work, and it all helps sell the peril, which is helpful in a film that was filmed with so many special effects. Even more than last years Life of Pi, Gravity blurs the line between what we consider to be an animated film and what is live action.
 
The CGI and the use of very long takes, which continues throughout the film, gives the film a decidedly videogame aesthetic. But what elevates Gravity's cinematography far above the level of a really good E3 demo is the personality that Cuarón and his regular cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, breathe into the camera movements. The camera never feels like a cold, remote observer, but instead flies around like an inquisitive child struck with fear and wonder and at the same time invigorated by the freedom of movement that zero-g offers.

For all of its intimidating technical achievements, the script (co-written by Cuarón and his son Jonas) is a bit clunky and too wordy, particularly towards the end. Also, while the film admirably tries to be weightier and give Stone an emotional back story, it sometimes feels like too much. Bollock delivers one of her best performances, but when we're spending the entire film thinking she could die at any moment the emotional stakes are already there and we don't have time to care about anything else. But these are minor quibbles, Gravity may not work as much more than a roller-coaster ride, but it's hard to care when it's the best damn roller coaster ride in town.

Grade: A-

Monday, October 7, 2013

PRISONERS

There are times when it seems that the whole world is on drugs. Prisoners is currently enjoying a fairly impressive box office run and glowing reviews despite being complete and total dog shit. It's a sleazy, exploitative Basic Cable thriller with Oscarbait aspirations.

It stars Hugh Jackman as the sometimes religious survivalist Keller Dover. One afternoon the Dover family visits their neighbors, the Birchs, for a quiet Thanksgiving dinner. Director Denis Villeneuve takes his time laboriously underlining just how normal a day this is while a dank, dirty RV circles the neighborhood. Eventually, both families realize that their respective 6 year old daughters have been kidnapped.

The police are called and it's not long till Alex Jones (Paul Dano), the owner of the RV, emerges as a suspect. But after being held and questioned by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), Jones is released due to lack of evidence and the fact that he has the IQ of a small child, and is likely incapable of committing the crime. But Dover isn't so sure. Fearing the worst, he takes matters into his own hands and kidnaps Alex, holds him in an abandoned building and tortures him for information.

You might be wondering what everyone else is doing during all this, the answer is not much. With so many big name cast members, you'd think the film might focus on how this kidnapping effects the lives of these two families, but no. Rarely are casts like this wasted so badly. Keller's wife, played by Golden Globe nominee Maria Bello, spends most of her negligible screen time siting in bed doped up on pills and their son, having served his purpose in the first act, is completely forgotten.

It's the same problem with the Birch family, they are played by Oscar nominees Terrance Howard and Viola Davis and they are absent from the film for such outrageous stretches that it's easy to forget that they're in the movie at all and that they too have lost a daughter. Sometimes they show up so they can be complicit in Keller's crimes, but nothing much comes of it. However unintentional, the film seems to be telling us that in this situation, only the emotional struggle of macho white men are worthy of screen time.

Worse still is that the film doesn't do much with that screen time. For much of the extravagant 153 minute run time we're punished by endless scenes of Dover yelling and torturing Jones, every one plays the same note except louder than the last. Each one not sure if it wants us to marvel at just how villainous Keller has become or to agree with his methods. Occasionally the film reaches for religious symbolism – opening with Dover reciting Our Father, occasionally dropping crucifix's into the frame – as a justification. But while the film does it's damnedest to get us to notice these images, it never does the hard work of attaching any meaning to them. It's window dressing Villeneuve uses so he can pretend to condemn Dover's brutality towards this mentally disabled man before ultimately excusing it.

While Dover brutally tortures Jones, Loki's investigation stumbles around, pursuing a series of increasingly implausible red herrings presented with all the ceremony of a Law & Order: SVU episode but without the self-conscious camp. We get murderous priests, and lots of snakes and mazes and bumbling on the part of the supposedly brilliant Loki and again, nothing much comes it except to put Loki in the right position to set up what may go down as the textbook example of how not to do an ambiguous ending.

Without any insight, or even attempts at insight, Prisoners is just a mean, sadistic bore. It puts us through the ringer only because it can and uses serious issues and concepts like child kidnapping and faith in the most ugly, exploitative way possible. Cinematographer Roger Deakins does great work lighting the thing, but don't be fooled by the film's artifice. It's just another tool the director uses to get you to think this film is more than just a shiny turd. Do yourself a favor and stay away from one of the worst films of the year.

Grade: D

Thursday, October 3, 2013

TREKKIN' IT: THE FINAL FRONTIER

Fair warning: review contains spoilers.

At its best Star Trek has been a standard bearer for intelligent, mainstream science fiction. But the longer it allowed its actors creative control, the more it risked being the victim of runaway egos. The series had done fine letting Leonard Nimoy direct a couple installments, but the franchise was about to suffer it's first bona fide dud with the William Shatner helmed Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.

 In interviews, producer Harve Bennett, who remains enthusiastic about the finished product, calls the film “Bill's turn,” referring to a contract clause that allowed Shatner a shot at directing solely because Nimoy had had one. That he would try directing a feature isn't surprising, he'd long been looking for ways to distinguish himself beyond acting. In addition to his infamous singing carrier, he had directed a few small plays and a smattering of T.J. Hooker episodes. The same year Final Frontier was released, Shatner published TekWar, the first in a series of cyberpunk novels he co-wrote with an uncredited Ron Goulart. Shatner viewed himself a storyteller and for his feature debut, he set his sights sky high for what he hoped would be the ultimate Star Trek film, one that would simultaneously take the franchise into darker, more action oriented territory whist pumping up the broad comedy and, most staggeringly, answer the question of 'is there a God' with a very preachy 'no.'

That's quite a checklist for a first time film director, but the film cannot be called a failure of ambition because that would imply that Shanter, Bennet and screenwriter David Loughery (Lakeview Terrace, Nurse 3D) had a clear, unified idea of what they were doing. Instead the film is the definition of egotism, going off in a hundred different, conflicting directions, thinking each one will be equally fantastic and perfect, and the resulting film is a complete mess.

The film is not without its moments. The film's prologue – one of the few moments where the film rises above its generally workmanlike visual look, a problem perhaps exacerbated by the films short shooting schedule – lands us on Nimbus III and introduces us to Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill), a renegade Vulcan who's brainwashing the local farmers into serving as his own personal army.

From here it gets really convoluted, really quickly. Through some awful dialogue delivered by David Warner (who seems to be in physical pain delivering it), we learn that Nimbus III is a diplomatic outpost in the Neutral Zone separating the Klingon and Romulan Empires from the Federation. The place is even refereed to as “the planet of Galactic peace.” Why then, we might ask, is the conference room where the ambassadors meet in a storage closet behind a seedy dive bar in the kind of town waiting for Clint Eastwood to ride through? It doesn't really matter. The film may go through a lot of trouble explaining Nimbus III, but it's all about to be thrown away. All that matters is that there are important people in the capital city that Sybok will use as hostages so he can steal a starship.

All this exposition is intercut with some shockingly disparate scenes where Kirk, Spock and McCoy go camping in Yosemite National Park. This 'action' climaxes with a campfire scene where the gang teaches Spock to sing “Row, Row, Row, Your Boat.” As a kid I remember kind of liking this, It's patently ridiculous, and the chemistry of the actors almost sells it, but as an adult it feels like little more than a way to fill time while scoring easy fan service.  The fact is that real fans already know that these people love each other, and if the film wanted to remind us of their bond for later in the film, there are a hundred simpler ways to do so that don't stop the action cold. It's never a good sign when the first half hour of a film feels like the first half.

Eventually, the crew is ordered to rescue Sybok's hostages and after arriving on Nimbus III we get a direct to video style action scene where Kirk and Spock ride on blue horses and charge a team of commandos into Paradise City (where the grass is not green and the girls are cats). Eventually Sybok wins and uses Kirk to takeover the understaffed and chronically malfunctioning Enterprise A. At this point we learn two unbelievably ridiculous things, 1) Sybock is really Spock's half brother and 2) The reason Sybok wants to steal the Enterprise is so he can travel to the center of the Galaxy and meet God.

The film uses the family revelation to shake up the Kirk/Spock/McCoy relationship. It's an admirable idea, but giving Spock an evil half-brother we've never heard of is such an out of nowhere Scooby Doo twist that it's a non-starter, as is the implication that the overly pragmatic Spock might betray Kirk and their multi-decade spanning friendship for an outcast half brother with whom he has an anecdotal relationship at best. Still, the film doggedly peruses the idea that the crew's loyalty is up for grabs as Sybok uses his Vulcan abilities to “remove their pain.” What that means exactly is very inconsistent. At the beginning of the film it seems like he's brainwashing people into joining him. But as the film goes on it tones down the Charles Manson vibe and it suddenly seems like his glassy eyed followers have free will, especially when it comes to characters we like.

This culminates in the film's only good scene, where Sybok attempts to take away McCoy's inner pain. He's forced to relive his father's death, for which he was responsible, while Kirk and Sybok argue as to the best way to deal with our daemons. Sybok insists that we must purge ourselves of the past in order to move forward, hence his whole “give me your pain” shtick. Where as Kirk believes that our past, especially our misfortunes define who we are and should be preserved at all costs. This is the kind of intellectual argument that Star Trek is best at, and the film would have done better to have more of this, but alas the film decides it really wants to meet God instead.

The Enterprise approaches the center of the Galaxy, passing through lots of lightning bolts, energy clouds and other special effects nonsense before arriving at a mysterious planet the crew dub Eden. Sybok and the core Trek trio set down on Eden and search while Jerry Goldsmith's score does an admirable job instilling a sense of wonder. For a moment it feels we just might have something, but then “God” shows up. We should not expect very much from a film that promises a cameo from the almighty, we have such high expectations that it's hard to impress us.

Sticking with the "big, white beard" look doesn't help.
To be fair, the being that appears isn't very well defined, it could be God, the Devil, some kind of alien, or some kind of combination of the three. I take it though that he is meant to be God in some fashion because that's what the finished film has set up, and it never really suggests otherwise. At any rate, he is revealed to be a fraud. After a shockingly short encounter, Kirk outsmarts “God” who seems to be nothing but a snake oil salesman who, like Sybok only wants to steal a starship, prompting Shatner's famous line: “What does God need with a starship?”

That's a good line, but it's the beginning of a thought not the end of one. At this point in the film it's fairly safe to assume that Shatner is an Atheist, which is fine and dandy if that's what works for you, but his film casually brushes off the idea of a God without any thought, insight, nuance or debate. The film had the wonderful opportunity to explore how faith can be corrupted and trap people or even suggest that this being only wants a starship so he too can search for his creator, which would be really interesting. But instead of doing any of those things, the film decides to half-ass the whole Atheism thing and paint Shatner's alter ego as "God's" outright superior: according to this film, God and his followers are either glassy-eyed hicks or hucksters who are easily outwitted by the glorious Captain Kirk, envy of all! That is, of course, before "God" is killed by a photon torpedo delivered by Spock (Trek's go to embodiment of all that is logical and scientific).

Final Frontier had a chance to be something interesting, but mistakes the kernels of ideas for fully formed ones. It wants to have big ideas but would rather go camping. All and all, it would have been best if Shatner had stuck to acting. Time has ensured that film isn't necessarily the lowest point in the series, but it's pretty damn close.

Grade: D

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Trekkin' It directory:
The Motion Picture
Space Seed / The Wrath of Khan
The Search for Spock
The Voyage Home
The Final Frontier
The Undiscovered Country

Generations
Best of Both Worlds / First Contact
Insurrection
Nemesis

Star Trek '09
Into Darkness (spoiler analysis)