Friday, October 25, 2013

Day 247: The Counselor

"I think truth has no temperature."
For years rumors swirled that Ridley Scott was going to direct a film adaptation of the best-selling novel Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, despite the novel's reputation for being unfilmable. As the years passed and nothing came of that collaboration, when word came down that the two men would be working together on an original story called The Counselor, anticipation was high. Scott has floundered of late, in the wake of his resurgence at the start of the last decade with Gladiator & Black Hawk Down, but an original story by one of the most respected novelists of the last 25 years seemed like a can't miss proposition. How did they fare? Read on to find out...
Michael Fassbender plays the title character, a man whose profession as a lawyer to clients both big & small, has given him a taste of the criminal life. Hints are dropped that he's in over his head due to some financial obligations, some stemming from his purchase of a very expensive engagement ring for his fiancé (Penelope Cruz), and he decides it might be time to buy his way into a morally dubious drug deal. The deal is spearheaded by one of his clients, Reiner (Javier Bardem) & his girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz), and the counselor is warned several times that he's going down a road from which there is no return.
And since it wouldn't be much of a story if everyone lived happily ever after, something does go wrong. The deal goes south, and the drugs go missing, and due to the counselor's tenuous professional connection to a man who ended up dead, his life is now in danger. Another connection to the deal, a mysterious man named Westray (Brad Pitt) advises the counselor to get out of dodge before he or his fiancĂ© come to significant harm, but being a lawyer, he's looking to play every possible angle to get himself out of trouble. 
I hate putting caveats on a film to gauge how well you'll enjoy it, but this one virtually requires them. This film is downright baffling, even for someone well versed in the tropes of genre filmmaking. There is very little information given about anything that is happening at any given moment, and it will be a chore for some audience members to keep up. It feels very much like one of McCarthy's novels, just with all the character development and exposition jettisoned in favor of dialogue that conveys the bare minimum amount of information for the audience to keep pace. It will be an eternally frustrating film for many audience members, and even those who get on its wavelength will be left wanting more. If you were confused and aggravated by No Country for Old Men, you may end up throwing your hands up in disgust at the end of this film.
I can embrace ambiguity when it's done right, such as Brad Pitt's character in this film, but the total dearth of relevant information in this film ended up baffling me more than anything else. In retrospect, I'm beginning to piece things together, but I honestly have no desire to see the film again to see where and how those pieces all fit together. Bottom line, I just don't think this was complete enough as a script to work as a film. This is a case of death by a million tiny cuts. Had the film trafficked in something besides ambiguity, it may have been a more wholly satisfying film, as I think all of the performances are very good, and there are some genuinely great set pieces in the film, but overall, it's just so elusive to me that I'm almost apathetic towards it. 
One other item of note, and gauge your expectations for the film accordingly, but I avoided all the advertising for this film prior to its release. I didn't see any trailers, commercials or ads for the film at all, and went into it completely blind. As a result, I found myself thoroughly confused by the first forty or so minutes of the film, but was able to keep pace enough to get the general gist of things. However, anyone who has seen the trailers will be even more confused because having now watched both trailers that were released, they totally mis-market the film. This isn't anything new, studios do this to films all the time, but if you do see the film after having seen the trailers, you'll understand perfectly well what I mean by that.
As I said earlier, the performances are all very good with Pitt & Bardem being the stand-outs. These are two men who have embraced what it means to be a character actor, and they go for broke with their performances, making the most of what little screen time they both have. Fassbender is equally good, selling the moral ambiguity of his character, and never trying to make him likable. Penelope Cruz is good as well, even though she's only in four or five scenes, she creates this sort of idealized woman that gives the protagonist something to fight for. It's Diaz who surprised me the most, however. I think this is her best work since Being John Malkovich, and she proves here, as she did in that film, that given the right kind of role, she can be used very effectively. 
I would be hard pressed to call this the best work of either Scott or McCarthy's career, and they both do underwhelming work to say the least. The film has no visual flair like the Coens brought to No Country, and the script feels a bit under-developed. Ambiguity is fine in doses or when it's used on certain characters, but when the film is so riddled with ambiguity, it makes it hard for an audience to follow or even care what happens. 
This film is most assuredly not for the squeamish, as many of the characters in this film do not meet with good ends. There are moments of shocking violence, but no less would be expected of an author like McCarthy. If you're a fan of his work and the actors involved in the film, you will probably find a lot to admire about this film, but don't be surprised if the entire experience leaves you feeling hollow. 
GO Rating: 2.5/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Monday, October 21, 2013

Day 246: Carrie (2013)

"These are godless times Mrs. Snell."
While it is very much a product of the time in which is was made- check out this video to see how horribly dated it is- Brian DePalma's 1977 film version of Stephen King's Carrie remains the definitive film version of the story some 37 years later. It's so good, it even made Quentin Tarantino's list of the 12 greatest films ever made. Nevertheless, movie studios that lack imagination feel the need to constantly remake the film or give it unnecessary sequels and since kids these days just won't watch anything that wasn't made in the last eighteen months, the time is right to trot out another remake. So, on a scale from one to Footloose, how unnecessary is the new adaptation of Carrie? Read on to find out...
Opening with the most ridiculous birth scene this side of Apocalypto, Kimberly Peirce's Carrie more or less proceeds to follow the plot of King's book beat for beat. Carrie White (Chloe Grace Moretz) is a wildly unpopular high school senior whose religious fanatic mother (Julianne Moore) has raised her in such a manner that when she gets her first period during gym class, she thinks she's bleeding to death. A band of popular girls led by Chris Hargensen (Portia Doubleday) pelt her with tampons, chanting "plug it up" and because this is the internet age, take a video of the incident which they upload for maximum embarrassment. This results in Hargensen getting suspended and banned from attending prom by the gym teacher Mrs. Desjardin (Judy Greer).
Another popular girl Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde) immediately regrets her part in the incident and convinces her popular jock boyfriend Tommy Ross (Ansel Elgort) to take Carrie to the prom. Carrie rebuffs the offer at first thinking it's a trap, but soon relents and agrees to attend. Hargensen & her boyfriend Billy Nolan (Alex Russell from the excellent film Chronicle) plot their revenge which involved dousing poor Carrie with pig's blood at the prom. Little do they know that Carrie has discovered that she has telekinetic powers that she has been harnessing and, to paraphrase Ron Burgundy, may make them immediately regret their decision to further embarrass her. 
The biggest issue with this particular adaptation is that it can't decide exactly what kind of film it wants to be. It vacillates wildly between teen angst drama and supernatural thriller, and can't settle on a tone for even five minutes. As a matter of fact, Julianne Moore is basically the only one acting as if she's in a horror film at all. Everyone else is striking a tone that somewhere between Dawson's Creek & Twilight, and it doesn't help one bit that the film is shot in such a pedestrian manner that it services neither side of the equation. DePalma's original was, despite its dated qualities, flush with style and you never doubted for a moment that it was a genre picture. This is shot with all the gauzy melodrama of an after school special, and when the bodies do begin piling up in the third act, the death scenes are often slowed down for maximum gore, making the tonal shift all the more jarring and ridiculous. 
There are also superhuman leaps of logic required by the script-- and potentially the source material, though it's been years since I read the book-- that ultimately sink whatever semblance of quasi-realism the filmmakers may have been trying to achieve. For example, we're shown an early scene where a janitor is scrubbing anti-Carrie graffiti off of a locker, but a mirror Carrie smashes with her mind in the girl's bathroom is left in shards for days. Later on, in the film's climax, a wide shot shows that the school is engulfed in flames, yet the fire is totally extinguished in the next cutaway to the school, presumably moments later. Also, Carrie has time to go home, take a bath and have a lengthy confrontation with her mother with nary a police officer being dispatched to her home despite the fact that hundreds of witnesses saw her murder people at the prom.
Again, these may be issues with King's book, but they had no problem fixing other inconsistencies and updating the book to the 21st century, so why leave these absurd contradictions intact? Another thought I had while watching the film (I had to do something to occupy my wandering mind) was how much better of a film could have been made of watching Moore's psychopathic Christian mother trying to raise a toddler. Moore's character abuses her teenage daughter, and is shown cutting herself several times, that it makes me wonder how great a film it would have been to see her navigate the challenges of raising a three year old. Somebody please make that film. 
As for Moore's performance, she booked a one-way ticket to crazy town, and it's almost refreshing to see a respected actress go balls to the wall crazy in a film. Her performance starts at 11 and only goes up from there. It's a downright rococo piece of acting that should be studied for years to come for its sheer insanity. As for Moretz, she manages to ably infuse Carrie with a proper amount of empathy, such as in the scene when she goes shopping for her prom dress, but I never really bought her as an outcast. In the original film, Sissy Spacek brought an otherworldly appearance and manner to the role that made you instantly believe that she could be such a pariah, but Moretz unfortunately looks like a very pretty girl playing dress up. It's the equivalent of putting glasses and a bad wig on Anne Hathaway in The Princess Diaries and expecting the audience to be bowled over by her transformation into a gorgeous young woman. It feels like a cheat. 
The rest of the young cast is a mixed bag at best with Elgort & Russell faring the best, making their polar opposite characters more than just caricatures. It's the females that don't acquit themselves as much, with Doubleday thinking that pouting equals acting and Wilde being nothing more than a blank vessel in which, I'm assuming, she hopes the audience will fill in the blanks with a complete character. Judy Greer manages the most even-handed performance of the film, managing to play a much more convincing version of this character than Betty Buckley in the original (heresy from a huge fan of her work on stage, I know). Greer makes for a believably sympathetic character, one with whom you can see a true connection to Carrie's plight, and she's easily the most realistic character in the entire film.
Kimberly Peirce, now on her third feature film as a director, is miles away from where she started. If you were to show this back to back with Boys Don't Cry, you could never convince me, were I not already privy to such information, that the same person directed both films. This film lacks both the intense love of character shown in Boys Don't Cry, as well as a sure hand behind the camera that doesn't feel like the work of a hired gun. Carrie has its moments, but none of them approach what's already been done before, and I just can't bring myself to find much of anything here, outside of a few performances, worth recommending. 
GO Rating: 2/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Friday, October 18, 2013

Day 245: The Fifth Estate

"I'm about to write a press release about death squads and I need to dress in an appropriate manner."
Billy Ray's excellent 2003 film Shattered Glass was, among other things, a thrilling expose on how the internet became a major player in the world of news reporting. The Fifth Estate, in its purist form, is a film about how the internet became the next evolution in news, beating the press at their own game. The most unfortunate thing about the film, however, is that it can't settle on an identity. Had it been content to merely tell the story of the meteoric rise of controversial WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, played here brilliantly by Benedict Cumberbatch, it might have made for a more interesting story, but in trying to tell multiple stories at once, it flounders a bit. Read on to find out why...
In 2007, Assange was a bit of a nobody, if only because the very thing he was trying to do had no identity yet. His aim was to be a pioneer in a new brand of social justice, creating a website where whistleblowers could leak sensitive information under the umbrella of total anonymity. His only ally and true believer in those early days was a man named Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl) who becomes Assange's first convert in the war on corporate secret keepers. Berg devotes his time and resources to helping a man who is presented as aloof at best and downright inhospitable at his worst, meaning that there is very little reward for him outside of the self-satisfaction that this quest brings him. 
As their enterprise grows, so too does their tenuous friendship and partnership, and the men seem to be veering in sharply different directions. Berg paints himself as a man with a hunger for exposing the truth without endangering anyone's lives, least of all their own. Assange meanwhile moves in a much more narcissistic direction, putting himself front and center, and the information they leak, and lives they may be endangering as a result, a distant second. Everything moves to a head when Assange gets his hands on several thousand classified documents related to the American war in Afghanistan, and how they plan to handle the release of this information. 
The Fifth Estate is based, at least in part, on Berg's book Inside WikiLeaks, and by virtue of that fact, paints Berg as a bit too much of a saint, and Assange as a necessary villain. This is not to say that he's a totally villainous character, and Berg's admiration for Assange, at least in the early days, shines through some of his more despicable character traits. But as far as character assassination goes, the film has its sights firmly trained on Assange. The film seems at first to be a straight forward biopic, hitting all the familiar beats in the rise of WikiLeaks from total obscurity to world-changing entity, but it has flashes in the early going of striving to be something more. 
Around the halfway point, the film makes a shift from biopic to espionage thriller territory, playing out like The Parallax View-lite or some such variation on the mid-70s paranoia thrillers. By expanding the world beyond Berg & Assange-- most of which I'm guessing is based more on the second source book Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy by David Leigh and Luke Harding-- it begins to get muddled. It tries to expand along with its subject, and loses focus in a very desperate way. There are scenes involving US government officials played by Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci & Anthony Mackie, that feel like stabs at opening the world up but only end up making the film feel less focused. Had this been a television miniseries, it may have made more sense to include these characters and scenes, but in a two hour film that started as a biopic, they feel half baked at best.
Ditto a handful of sequences involving David Thewlis & Peter Capaldi as editors at the UK newspaper The Guardian. These scenes feel like they belong in an All the President's Men-style film that, again, could have been more developed given a larger scope. The worst offender in these diversions, however, are the scenes involving Alexander Siddig as a Libyan man leaking information to the US government. His scenes were a woefully misguided attempt to put a human face on the collateral damage being caused in the lives of people affected by Assange's increasingly reckless behavior, and ended up feeling wholly out of place in the grand scheme of things. 
The film also skirts, outside of a text scrawl at the end of the film, the allegations of sexual assault that were leveled against Assange in 2011. The Assange presented here in this film seems strangely asexual, making this an interesting avenue to have gone down, and considering how the filmmakers seemed interested in leaving no stone unturned in this story, I'm surprised they excised this particular part of Assange's trajectory. I'm sure that the fact that the suit has yet to be settled plays into this in some way, but had the film kept its focus more firmly on Assange, it could have made for a hell of an interesting set of scenes. 
Having said all that, I can't fault any of the aforementioned actors for any of these missteps. The performances are very good to great across the board in the film, and they do their best to sell the underdeveloped plot threads they were given. Cumberbatch does some of the best work of his career as Assange, and sells him as an interesting, if not terribly likable, three-dimensional person. Bruhl is also very good in the film, giving the audience a vessel through which to observe Assange. All the character actors I've already mentioned do great work as well, particularly considering how little of their characters end up in the story. 
The script ends up being the film's biggest liability, if only because it suffers from an extreme lack of focus in the second and third acts. Writer Josh Singer's dialogue tends to feel a bit reductive at times as well, with the scenes that feature Assange & Berg one on one being the exceptions that prove the rule. Director Bill Condon, a veteran of great character driven films like Gods & Monsters and Kinsey, shows his strength in those scenes as well, and similarly stumbles when opening up the world, falling into bad habits he picked up making films like Twilight: Breaking Dawn and Dreamgirls
Had The Fifth Estate established its identity and kept on the track it was headed on for the first hour, it could have been a great film. In fact, I'm almost overly fond of the first half to the point where I'm willing to give the film a slightly higher score despite its flaws. Anyone who didn't follow the rise of WikiLeaks as it was happening will find a lot to enjoy here, and will be able to fall into the film's rhythm very easily, but anyone looking for a more focused look inside the mind of Julian Assange will be disappointed to find themselves as lost as the other characters in the film. The Fifth Estate is not a bad film, but it could have been a great film, and that's almost more disappointing as a result. 
GO Rating: 3/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Day 244: Captain Phillips

"It's okay Irish... It's only us now."
For a few days in April 2009, the whole world was learning of a drama unfolding off the coast of Somalia, as Somali pirates had taken an American freighter and its crew hostage. The story gained traction for being the first military action of President Obama's administration, and for weeks it was all anyone could talk about, even being parodied on South Park. But the real story behind the saga of the Maersk Alabama, its crew, and its Captain Richard Phillips hadn't been explored in any real depth beyond the typical reductive sound bites, quips, and quotes. Based, in part, on Phillips' own book, director Paul Greengrass' film seeks to present a factual and realistic version of the events we all thought we knew fairly well.
Opening in Vermont in early April 2009, Captain Phillips tells the intersecting stories of Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) and a Somalian pirate named Muse (Barkhad Abdi). The two are on a collision course, with Phillips captaining the Maersk Alabama through the dangerous waters around the Horn of Africa and Muse captaining a crew of four men determined to come aboard and prove themselves to the elders back in Somalia. Their first encounter ends with Phillips successfully outmaneuvering Muse's crew, but the next day, Muse and his men prove wily enough to land aboard the freighter and take the Captain hostage.
The freighter's crew follows protocol and hides aboard the ship, and attempts by the pirates to locate them prove unsuccessful. Seeing no alternative to end the conflict in a satisfactory manner, the pirates decide to flee the ship in its lifeboat with $30,000 from the safe, but a last minute change of plans leads them to bring Phillips along as a bargaining chip to extort even more money from the shipping company. They very quickly get in over their heads, and it isn't long before they begin to run out of options, none of which can possibly end well for them.
As a director, Paul Greengrass knows better than almost anyone how to drop the audience into the middle of events and give them the visceral thrill of being a part of the action. Never one to hedge his bets or play it safe, Greengrass loves to linger in the murky grey areas of this entire scenario, making it hard to sympathize with the pirates, but impossible not to feel some emotion towards their impossible situation. He's smart to dodge full on empathy, but at the same time savvy enough to show that sometimes there are no easy answers. It's only in the last forty minutes or so that he begins to lose focus a bit. By opening up the world and showing the tactical decision made by the American military, we lose some of immediacy of Phillips' situation, but he pulls it all back into focus brilliantly in the last ten minutes.
As for Phillips, he is presented as a hard man to like at first. He's a bit of a stick in the mud, and doesn't give his crew much leeway when it comes to the codes of conduct. They challenge him after their first encounter with the pirates, and he pushes back hard. His decision making abilities once the pirates come aboard, however, show him to be a man in full control of a seemingly uncontrollable situation. While the parallels between Phillips and Muse are obvious in the early goings, it's here that they begin to separate and show that Phillips is much more cunning than Muse gives him credit for, and Muse is just a little too trusting of Phillips, a quality that Phillips manages to exploit well in key moments.
Greengrass works with many of the same people on his projects, so there is a unifying feel to all of his films, no matter how varied the subject matter. His frequent cinematographer Barry Ackroyd shoots the film well, particularly the second half of the film which takes place almost exclusively inside the lifeboat. While his tendency to sake the camera can be a bit disorienting, it's used strategically here with the first half having a bit more of a classic look, and the desperate second half having a much more handheld feel. Editor Christopher Rouse also makes the most of the footage, keeping the film moving in the first half and then agonizingly suspenseful in the second half, dragging things out to emphasize the claustrophobia and desperation.
Tom Hanks got to be one of the most respected and likable actors in Hollywood for a reason, and he effortlessly slips into the role of a man who possesses a good deal of the former with very little of the latter. Hanks is fantastic in this film, and has no problem playing those grey areas mentioned earlier. He shows us a man that's fully three dimensional without worrying about how the audience will perceive him, whether it be as a hero or as a man who did the best he could under excruciating circumstances. His final scene, in particular, will likely leave you speechless.
The four actors who play the main pirate roles are all very good as well, making the most of the screen time they have and providing four well-rounded characterizations. As Muse, Abdi shows a great deal of control and assurance for a first time actor, and I sincerely hope he finds more work as he proves himself to be more than capable here. The rest of the cast is comprised of more or less unknowns, with a smattering of familiar character actors, but Greengrass cast the film well enough to not make any of them distracting, save perhaps the ridiculous wig that Catherine Keener wears in her first, and only, scene in the film.
Captain Phillips is a very good film that avoids many of the traps that kept me from loving Zero Dark Thirty. It's got an emotional core that film was lacking, and gives the audience a much narrower view of this situation and a closer connection to its characters. The film's final few scenes are a real gut punch and don't approach ZDT's borderline jingoistic finale. It's an exhausting film, to be sure, but it gives you a real sense of what it would have been like to be in such a situation yourself, and that's what makes the film such a success. You may not find yourself bounding out of the theater, eager to revisit this film anytime soon, but you'll feel like you had a true experience right alongside the characters in the film, which is something that's in short supply these days.
GO Rating: 4/5

[Images via BoxOfficeMojo]

Monday, October 7, 2013

Can a Critic's Opinion Change Over Time?

In my original review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I said that "While the film is not a total debacle on par with the Star Wars prequels, it reeks of being inessential." The general gist of my opinion on the film is that in the aftermath of The Lord of the Rings, to present us with a film where the stakes are comparatively low, but presenting them as if they're on equal footing, is like a server bringing you the appetizer after the main course. While my overall view of the film hasn't changed, it's still a bloated mess, I found myself revisiting the film a few weeks ago and found that I enjoyed it quite a bit more than I did on my first viewing. 
This got me to thinking about the nature of criticism in general, and whether or not a critic's opinion can, and maybe even should, change over time. I'll be looking at a few examples to see how my views have changed, or sometimes not, over the years. Be warned as there be spoilers ahead...kane

The first, and greatest example I can think of in which I've completely reversed positions on a film is Orson Welles' 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane. The first time I saw it was in my film criticism class in college, and the film had just been named as the number one American film of all time by AFI. Expectations were high, and the crappy VHS copy of it did the film no justice. While I recognized the film's script was pretty impeccable, the thing about Citizen Kane that sets it apart from virtually every other film that's ever been made is its visual innovation. Revisiting the film when it was released on dvd, I was able to see that Welles kept everything in every frame of the film in focus at all times, which blew my mind once I realized it. The other visual tricks he innovated, along with cinematographer Greg Toland, have been aped and copied to death in countless films since then, and it was only then that I realized just how incredible the film was. 
Viewing experience plays into our opinion of a film a lot more than we probably like to think it does. This past weekend's monster hit Gravity is being universally praised for its visuals and virtually every critic, including yours truly, has recommended seeing it in 3D and IMAX (if possible) because the film relies on immersion to play to its full strengths. I fully acknowledge that the film is good enough to play well under less than ideal circumstances, but I truly do wonder if audiences who don't catch the film now, in theaters, will have the same opinion of it years from now, watching it on a small screen in their college film criticism class. 
It was most assuredly the viewing experience I had seeing The Hobbit in 48fps that fueled a good deal of my hatred for the film at the time. The fundamental problems I have with the film have not changed, but I do find it a bit more charming and enjoyable watching it at home on blu-ray than I did in the theater. There's also another matter to consider, however, which is the age at which we see a film, and how that shapes our opinion of it...

When I saw Mike Nichols' The Graduate for the first time, I was a freshman in high school, and the film basically meant nothing to me. I didn't understand any of the characters, their motivations made no sense, Benjamin seemed like a whiny child of privilege, and the ending most assuredly cemented my apathy towards it. Seeing it again after I graduated from college, I fully understood it better. Now I got Ben's aimlessness and his malaise towards life. Mrs. Robinson didn't seem like a shrill psychopath anymore, but a woman accustomed to getting her way and doing anything she can to maintain her upper class lifestyle. Everything made a lot more sense to me because I had, I hate to call it life experience, but I was at an age where I could better appreciate what the film had to say about life from a certain perspective. 
Sometimes a film will go in the opposite direction as I've aged as well. Revisiting Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid not too long ago, a film I loved as a child, I began to see the characters in a different light. Once they arrive in Bolivia, the whole film sort of fell apart for me. Here's an excerpt from my review that sums up the issues I felt watching the film in my 30s:
I think the major issue here is that they seem to be stealing because they're bored. There's nothing else for them to do, so they do the only thing they know how to do. Even in their attempt to go straight and get jobs, is the audience supposed to be happy that they steal back the money that was stolen from them? It's a morally ambiguous quagmire that the film gets bogged down in, and I couldn't help but lose what little sympathy I already had for them.
I never would have had that perspective on things as a young man, so it becomes interesting to me to see how my view of certain characters changes in the opposite direction because I find them unsympathetic. Benjamin Braddock does essentially the same thing, he begins an affair with Mrs. Robinson out of boredom, yet I sympathize with him because once he realizes what he does want in life, he changes his ways and fights for it. Butch & Sundance end up getting caught before they have a reversal of any kind, so maybe that would have changed my views, but the way it stands right now, at this point in my life, they're the much less sympathetic characters. 
Sometimes it doesn't take years to reverse a position on a movie, but months or weeks or even days. There were two films that came out this summer that were highly anticipated in most geek circles, both of which I disliked intensely, though for different reasons. Star Trek: Into Darkness I hated immediately, and a second viewing after its release on home video all but confirmed my hatred of it. There was immediate backlash against it when it was released, mainly due to its misguided attempts to pay service to Star Trek fans by making the villain Khan and "paying homage" to the ending of Wrath of Khan, but the film has bigger structural problems than just that. It's a convoluted mess, particularly in the third act, and while that's fine for most above the line science fiction filmmaking, Trekkers have come to expect more from their beloved franchise than watching villains crush people's skulls and heroes punch the villains into submission. 
The more egregious example however, and one which I have most assuredly changed my opinion on, was Zack Snyder's Man of Steel. My second viewing of this film actually made me intensely dislike the film in a way I didn't when I first saw it. The first time I saw it, I found it exhausting and overwrought, particularly for a Superman film, but I didn't outright hate it because I found certain elements enjoyable enough to carry me through. Those elements vanished almost immediately on my second viewing, and I saw the film for what it was, nihilistic destruction porn masquerading as mainstream entertainment. I understand the argument that the film does not present us with the Superman we all know and love, but rather with an alien coming to terms with his great powers and great responsibility, but no amount of revisionist history can account for the wanton destruction that takes place in this film, often at his hands.
I can accept the rationale that this particular Superman has not yet come to terms with the moral implications of killing his enemies, but to watch him destroy Metropolis in an attempt to stop Zod, and then suddenly draw the line at the threat of Zod killing four people in a train station is irresponsibly absurd. Henry Cavill sells the moment immediately after that, thankfully, and it sets Superman up to now have the moral high ground in any future situations, but that's only if you ignore the preceding twenty minutes. It's very similar to the role reversal at the end of Into Darkness, it works because we know what came before it, but it only works well if we ignore that very same memory. 
I suppose the final point I have to make in all this is that a critic's opinion should be able to change over time. We place such a high value on ratings systems that it sometimes makes it seem impossible to change once we've placed a seemingly absolute value on a film. There are some films not worth revisiting because they're an affront to our personal taste or even good taste in general, I'm looking at you Spring Breakers, but I think that as a critic, it's important for me to sometime reevaluate my position on a film. It may not change drastically, and if there's enough fundamentally wrong or right about the film, the shift may not be noticeable, but the fact that a critic is willing to try should speak volumes about what we do for a living. 
So if there's a film or comic or anime or whatever it may be that everyone loves, but you just don't seem to get... give it some time. You may catch up to it, it may catch up to you, or maybe, just maybe, everyone really is wrong. That doesn't seem likely though, does it?
[Images via 12345]

Friday, October 4, 2013

Day 243: Gravity

"I hate space."
Spoken at right about the halfway point in Alfonso Cuaron's newest film Gravity, that line provides a simple yet bracingly hilarious respite from the chaos the audience has been surviving alongside the film's characters. It's not an exaggeration to say that Gravity is one of the most unbearably intense films you will ever see, but in the best way imaginable. It's the kind of film that visual effects are made for, and when used this vividly and realistically, you can begin to understand how badly misused they are by lesser filmmakers in virtually every major studio release these days.

On a routine mission (is there any other kind to start a space tragedy) to repair a malfunctioning satellite, scientist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and a third astronaut are informed that some debris from a recently destroyed Russian satellite will intersect with their current position. When the debris reaches them, their companion is instantly killed and Ryan is sent hurling into space. Luckily Kowalski is equipped with a booster powered jetpack and is able to reach her before she floats into the abyss. 
Kowalski tethers himself to Stone, and the two set off for a nearby Russian space station. The station is equipped with an escape pod that can power them over to a nearby Chinese station that has a pod suitable for re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere. They're on a strict deadline however since, not only are they running out of oxygen, they must also deal with the fact that the debris which destroyed their shuttle is in orbit and will circle back around in roughly ninety minutes. It's a race against time as the two fight for survival in the harshest environment imaginable. 
To say any more about the film would be to give too much away, and thankfully the film's advertising campaign has focused almost exclusively on events that occur in the first act. Gravity is unlike any film you've seen before, and I mean that in the best way imaginable. A lot of comparisons are being bandied about between this film and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, and apart from several visual nods to Kubrick's masterpiece, this film is completely different in almost every way apart from the outer space setting. 2001 dealt with huge questions like the origin of life and the evolution of humans, whereas Gravity is a down and dirty thrill ride that keeps you breathless and on the edge of your seat for its entire running time. It doesn't have time to consider the big questions like "what does it all mean," it just keeps propelling forward on sheer adrenaline.
And that is why it is a hugely successful film. Apart from a brief interlude late in the second act, Gravity doesn't stop for even a moment to catch its breath, forcing the audience to do the same. Where a lesser filmmaker would have bogged the film down with unnecessary flashbacks or tangential conversations, Cuaron presents us with a lean film completely devoid of such frivolity. None of this is to say that the film is without emotion or character development, it's just all done in such a streamlined way that you never lose focus on the characters' fight to stay alive.
As for the technical elements of the film, they are top notch in every way. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's constantly orbiting camerawork helps to capture both the beauty of Earth from a distance and the terrifying void of deep space behind the characters. Complemented by an amazing score by Steven Price, the film is a gorgeous combination of picture and sound. And beyond the score, the film's sound design is flat-out amazing, never succumbing to the temptation to give us sound that couldn't exist in the vacuum of space, relying instead on the actor's breathing to do the job of conveying constant peril.  
As for the performances, they are as good as you would expect from two veterans like Bullock and Clooney and then some. Clooney is the kind of actor that can convey a complete character with just a few lines of dialogue, and uses the first handful of lines he speaks to let you know instantly who this guy is. But this is Bullock's show all the way, and she makes the most of that opportunity. You feel her anguish, fear and anxiety, and she makes it palpable. As much as the film is a truly visual feast, it wouldn't be any good if the lead actress wasn't so fantastic, and she really sells the film through her performance, and the one speech of any substance that she has late in the film is as devastating and full of emotion as you want it to be, and she sells it completely.
I must also applaud Cuaron and his son Jonas for their screenplay. The dialogue is used sparingly and always in service of either driving the story or expanding on a character, and it's never cheesy or overwrought. The film doesn't have an ounce of fat on it, and I imagine that a good deal of the credit for that has to do with it being such a solid screenplay. The film could have had a James Cameron-esque screenplay full of overly obvious dialogue and story beats and still been entertaining, but a lean script like this helps to elevate the entire endeavor and make it that much better overall.  
I truly cannot say enough good things about Gravity, other than to say that it is a film that virtually everyone can enjoy. I would wholeheartedly recommend seeing it on the largest screen possible, such as IMAX, but at the very least I think it's essential to see in 3D. The film will work well in 2D because it's just that good, but the 3D presentation adds an immediacy that a normal 2D viewing would not have, particularly for the handful of shots where the camera drift inside Bullock's helmet and you see things from her perspective. It's thrilling, exhausting, enervating, but more than anything else immensely entertaining. Gravity is the real deal, and I truly don't get to say that often enough. 
GO Rating: 4.5/5

[Images via BoxOfficeMojo]