Sunday, October 27, 2013

No one should try to defy "Gravity"

As wonderful a genre as science fiction is, 99.9% of movies made under that label lean a lot more heavily on the “fiction” part than the “science,” so it’s a rare treat when we get one that relies on some scientific fact-based scenarios to produce dramatic effect.  When pitching 2001: A Space Odyssey to MGM all those years ago, Stanley Kubrick said he wanted to produce the first “good” science-fiction film, with his definition of “good” being “believable,” as he wanted to tell a compelling story in a setting that could easily be our own world. Of course, he very famously did so, and the lack of similar efforts by other filmmakers through the years could be evidence of how difficult a task “realistic” science fiction is.

Alfonso Cauron’s Gravity, however, belongs in any discussion with Kubrick’s master-piece.  By saying such a thing, I don’t mean to imply that they are equals (2001 is such a unique film that almost anything will pale in comparison to it), but I do mean that Gravity is such an absolute technical marvel, like 2001, that its being a very good human story is like icing on the proverbial cake.

The film opens with an uninterrupted seventeen-minute take depicting a space shuttle repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.  Astronauts Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) are two members of the crew we see performing extra-vehicular activity (that’s space-walking to you and me) when NASA radios an emergency abort alert, as a field of debris from a destroyed Russian satellite is in a direct orbital path with their shuttle.  This cloud of metallic fragments travelling faster than any bullet ever could does indeed find them before they are able to change their orbital path, destroying the spacecraft and leaving Kowalski and Stone adrift in space.  What follows is an engrossing, fascinating story of loss, bravery and the discovery of a will to survive, told by Cauron in such a stunningly beautiful way that any audience member not feeling fear and anxiety, and happiness and joy, is almost certainly a fairly dark-hearted individual.  

By the end of the first act, Gravity essentially becomes a one-woman show, a story of a woman’s decision to survive, not only her current predicament, but her lonely, emotionally empty life in general.  Sandra Bullock’s performance is a statement that her Oscar win two years ago was no fluke, and I fully expect to see her name listed amongst the Best Actress nominees again come February. There are so many scenes in which she is the only character, and yet even without anyone to exchange dialogue, she conveys so much about Stone’s fear, and pain, and depression, that we know this character intimately by the time the film ends, and her fate is all the more emotionally impactful for it.

As amazing a story as Gravity is, the concept of a massive storm of orbital space debris could be the impetus for several other fascinating stories, as we could imagine how our society would react to a severe crippling of, if not outright elimination of, global telecom-munications that would result from such a scenario.  Imagine television and radio broad-casts being interrupted, international telephone calls being impossible, and internet connec-tivity being all but stopped.  Hell, the loss of world-wide Twitter access alone might be the beginning of Armageddon.  Cauron, to his credit, does not distract us from the story he chooses to tell, not even once, trusting his audience to understand how there’s a wave of chaos going on down on Earth, which makes the solitude of Bullock’s character all that much more profound.

At the risk of being repetitive, I’ll reiterate that Gravity is worth the price of admission as a visual treat alone.  Cauron’s use of computer-generated effects is extensive, but done with such great skill that not once are we under the misguided notion that we’re viewing some sci-fi space opera. Cauron’s lighting and camera movement constantly amazed me, and the moments of suspense and danger the astronauts faced got physical reactions from me that most movies can’t get out of me anymore.  Even the sound design of the film was fantastic, as we heard the radio transmissions from Earth differently when we were inside the astronauts’ helmets than we did when we were outside their suits (yes, you read that right - Cauron takes us all sorts of places in this film), and the silence of space is punctu-ated by the thuds and clunks that would be heard when the characters were in enclosed spaces with atmosphere.  

Now I did see Gravity in IMAX 3D, and yes, I’ve just raved and raved about how beautiful it was to watch, but I continue to believe this format to be a waste of a filmgoer’s money, and a lesser viewing experience than traditional two-dimensional film presentation.  With the ex-ception of Avatar, I’m yet to see a 3D film that didn’t have muddied or unbalanced colors, and I would even include Avatar when maintaining that the 3D effects have not yet added anything absolutely necessary to a story being told on-screen.  That being said, to each his own, and your tastes and experiences may differ, but I don’t think there’s really any debate needed when saying Gravity is the best picture of 2013 so far.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

"The Wolverine" gives us nerds a reason to keep living.

I once read a magazine article (in OMNI Magazine, I believe, but it was so long ago that I can’t swear to that) that described a study where certain folks were hypnotized into believing themselves immortal.  The purpose of the study was to determine what behavioral changes these folks would exhibit towards those they believed to be “mere mortals.”  The surprising results were that the newfound “immortals” promptly lost all initiative to do much of anything, becoming lazier and more slothful, and pretty much turning into couch potatoes.  After all, since they now had all the time in world, what’s the big rush to get motivated and accomplish anything? 

It’s an interesting question, one of many that mankind has pondered about the possible pitfalls of immortality, and similar to the train of thought plaguing the mutant superhero Wolverine in this latest solo film for the member of the X-Men. 

Although not explicitly stated, The Wolverine appears to be a direct sequel to 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand (not that any of us were really wanting THAT cinematic experience to continue, mind you…), as the movie starts with Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, in all of his bulked-up, gym-freak glory) trying to come to grips with the losses he experienced in the second and third X-Men films.  Before finding him choosing to live alone in the wilderness after the events that concluded that film, we see via flashback how Logan was interred in a Japanese Prisoner-of-War camp just outside Nagasaki during the closing days of the Second World War, and since we all know what happened in Nagasaki that second week of August in 1945, we aren’t surprised to see Logan’s mutant healing abilities put the the ultimate test when the “Fat Man” bomb comes a-calling.  During the firestorm, he manages to save a Japanese soldier, who over the next seventy years becomes a billionaire industrialist, and never forgets the debt he owes to the mutant stranger. 

Flash forwards to the present day, and it seems Logan has come to think that immortality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be if it means he outlives everyone to whom he may grow emotionally attached.  He lives unsheltered in the Canadian wilderness, avoiding human contact save for an occasional visit to a small town to obtain supplies.  Out of the blue appears Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a mysterious little Japanese Sprite of a girl with ninja-level swordsmanship skills who insists Logan return with her to Japan, as the man he saved from nuclear fire all those years ago is now dying and wants to see Logan one last time to offer him a gift of thanks.   That “gift” turns out to be the possibility of a way for Logan to lost his super-healing powers and become mortal, which he refuses, but soon finds his healing ability greatly reduced, if not stripped away completely, anyway.  Throw in some Japanese culture clashes, some big-business political intrigue and a bunch of ninjas, and you have all the makings of a slam-bang comic-book movie for grownups. 

Although I was surprised by the selection of director James Mangold to helm this movie when I first heard the news more than a year ago, it was certainly a welcome one.  His body of work would not necessarily make one think of him when looking for somebody to make a Superhero movie, but he has done action movies before (namely the Tom Cruise vehicle Knight and Day), and I loved Walk the Line and his remake of 3:10 to Yuma, so I had total confidence that his vision of a Wolverine movie would be nowhere near as cartoonish as the last attempt turned out to be.  Sure, this film follows the superhero-genre’s current trend of being more introspective and less bullets-and-profanity (well, except for “The Avengers,” but who am I to nit-pck?), but the big action set-pieces here are definitely exciting and do serve to propel the story, not interrupt it.  Wolverine’s fight along the exterior of a speeding bullet train in particular is probably the highlight of the movie’s second act.  The fight scenes are a bit more rooted in reality than, say Superman’s might be, which helps keep the tone of the movie a bit more in the vein of a character study - not necessarily like Ghandi or Lawrence of Arabia, but you get my drift. 

Hugh Jackman slips on the claws-and-funky-haircut for a sixth time in this film, and he wears the role as comfortably as an old suit.  Not that he ever overplayed the character in any of his previous performances, but perhaps he is (and we, the audience, are) so familiar with this role now that there’s almost no effort involved in projecting the character anymore.  The well-written script certainly aided Jackman by giving him interesting things to do and say, and I found the Yukio character very interesting as well, all the more impressive because of the performance of the relative newcomer Rila Fukushima, a young actress with virtually no film acting experience at all.  The only character that struck me as being a “comic-book” character was Viper, seemingly played as cartoonishly as possible by Russian actress Svetlana Khodchenkova.  Her beady eyes, vampish body language and garish costumes projected a bit more “ham” than the material warranted, but this was the exception in the cast of characters, not the rule. 

I consider myself fortunate to be the age I am, maturing in my nerd-taste as apparently those who make films to cater to these tastes mature as well.  I have loved comic books and related material all of my life, but contrary to some evidence, I am a grownup now, and while the Richard Donner Superman and Tim Burton Batman films were entirely satisfying to me in their day, it takes more effort now to give me “superhero” material that doesn’t seem better-suited for the Disney XD channel.  Given how silly the first Wolverine solo film turned out to be, it wouldn’t have taken much to make a sequel that wasn’t a great improvement to me, but The Wolverine is definitely a great improvement, one that can (and should) make you all but forget the first one. 

…and if I end up living forever, maybe I’ll find this sort of filmmaking getting better and better and continue having a reason to live.