Talking Movies

September 28, 2009

Pandorum

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 5:45 pm

There’s an intelligent sci-fi film in here somewhere but it’s bludgeoned to death by the typical Paul WS Anderson computer game approach.

Ben Foster, Henchman of the Year in my 2007 Film Awards for his psychotic turns in 3:10 to Yuma and 30 Days of Night, graduates to leading man status and acquits himself well. However he does so in a film that lifts large chunks from Joss Whedon’s 2005 film Serenity. Perhaps the passing physical resemblance between Foster and Serenity’s Alan Tudyk saw writer/director Christian Alvart suffer some unconscious free-associating while co-writing the script about psychotic cannibals in outer space.

Foster plays the unintentionally hilariously named Corporal Bower (pronounced Jack Bauer) who awakes from hyper-sleep on the super-space ship Elysium some hundreds of years from now to find something has gone badly wrong with the power, navigation systems and crew… He wakes his commanding officer Lt Payton (Dennis Quaid) and their struggle against amnesia regarding their identities, mission, and the basic functions of the ship’s equipment is all nicely intriguing before Foster sets off on a trek to fix the nuclear reactor. At this point he meets Antje Traue, who plays the obligatory busty scientist with a tight top, greasy hair and kung-fu skills, and Cung Le, the token Asian character, who gardens when not being a ninja. Predictably enough getting to the nuclear reactor involves completing a number of levels first, sorry, navigating a number of layers of the ship.

These levels are populated by the CGI villains, who appear to have strayed in from I Am Legend, but are still terrifying. I hate fast-moving scary monsters, you should see me squirm when demons move in missing frames every week in Supernatural. Meanwhile back on the secondary bridge Dennis Quaid once again proves that he is a remarkably under-appreciated screen presence as he tries to guide Foster thru the ship, before another crew member appears… Twilight villain Cam Gigandet does surprisingly well in what is basically a two-hander against Quaid. Gigandet has a pretty boy physique but his eyes somehow always hint at something deeply sinister, a fabulous asset in a film which plays on the fact that memory-loss is endemic among the crew and no-one knows just what happened to the ship. Gigandet’s scenes with Quaid are more interesting than the running from cannibals action as they both start to get paranoid and accuse the other of suffering from Pandorum, a wonderfully conceived deep-space illness that starts as an uncontrollable twitch of the hand before escalating to a certainty that the ship is cursed leading to a suicidal mass-evacuation of hyper-sleep pods into the empty wastes of space.

Alvart’s film can be very clever, especially in its creation of a very plausible future Earth riven by conflict over food-supplies, or the tiny touch of laser-shaving, but producer Anderson’s trademark drivel sinks it.

2.5/5

September 21, 2009

Creation

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 2:01 pm

A biopic of Charles Darwin that a creationist and Dawkins could go see and both happily leave halfway thru, agreeing that something so boring and utterly wretched wasn’t worth arguing over.

Creation opens with a caption proclaiming Darwin’s idea to be the single greatest in the history of thought, and then, for 109 minutes, casts doubt on whether cinema can communicate ideas at all. Creation is the worst of a biopic sub-genre (Shakespeare in Love, A Beautiful Mind) where great works are reduced to inanity by focusing not on the work, but, to paraphrase Creation’s captions, how the person came to write that work. You would think Darwin came to write his work by years of painstaking research, the formulation of a revolutionary hypothesis, and then months of hard graft writing up his findings by hand – but no! Darwin wrote his work addled on laudanum and guided by conversations with his dead daughter.  This conceit, like the flashbacks to his daughter’s life, is at first preposterous, then annoying, and finally unbearable.

The always capable Paul Bettany, bald but eschewing the beard of popular imagination, seems to be playing his own greatest hits. Darwin is a laudanum fiend and naturalist, like Bettany’s character in Master & Commander, who writes his great idea due to conversations with people who aren’t there, just as Bettany inspired Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. Jennifer Connelly as Darwin’s religious wife is under-served by the script, although she and Bettany shine in the best scene of the film when they finally confront the possibility that their daughter’s poor health was because they married, despite being first cousins. Connelly’s character though is under-served because she is religious and this is a fatal weakness.

If you want true dramatic conflict you must give each character in an argument the possibility of winning or the scene is predetermined and therefore pointless. This holds even ethically – witness the astonishing scene in Sophie Scholl where Sophie is questioned for her anti-Nazia propagandising by a Gestapo officer in an intellectual debate in which every point Sophie makes is eloquently contradicted by him, and he makes points she can’t refute: the scene positively hums with dramatic tension even though he represents genocidal evil. In Creation poor Jeremy Northam as Reverend Innes is given dialogue which is comically bone-headed – his preaching on Genesis’ most absurd passages drives Darwin to walk out of service, while his approach to bereavement counselling for the Darwins involves endless references to God’s wise plan. This loading of the dice dramatically makes these scenes deeply idiotic, and matters are not helped by TH Huxley (Toby Jones appearing for five minutes) being more Dawkins than Huxley in his startling belligerence. Indeed his effect on Darwin in the film leads Innes to deliver his only good line, “I had always regarded you as one of those rare mortals with whom it is possible to disagree without a shade of animosity. I see that is no longer true”.

Evolution is, as Thomas Jefferson might have put it, a self-evident truth, but writers John Collee and Jon Amiel seem to think it so specious that they need a straw-man construction of religion. Ignore this bizarre farrago and instead try to watch the two BBC documentaries Darwin by David Attenborough and Did Darwin Kill God?
1/5

September 15, 2009

Third Time Lucky for 3-D?

So, Avatar is allegedly going to change the future of film-making, but is the third time really going to be the charm for the adoption of 3-D technology?

3-D first appeared in the 1950s and despite Alfred Hitchcock utilising it in Dial M for Murder it’s remembered best as a gimmick used for shlock horror films like the original House of Wax, ironically directed by a Hungarian Andre de Toth who only had one eye but memorably explained “You only need one eye to look thru a viewfinder”. Right now we can witness something of the same dynamic – brilliant directors like James Cameron, Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg are all working with 3-D motion capture technology, but the cheap and cheerful shlock horrors will always outnumber the quality pieces. Which begs the question that’s always dogged 3-D, is the technology a brilliant film-making tool to more accurately depict the world as we experience it or just a flashy gimmick?

Once upon a time painters discovered perspective and so rendered the world more accurately than it had previously been depicted. Should we regard the coming of 3-D as the same leap as that between religious icons and renaissance painting? It’s not as if cinema is currently badly lacking a sense of perspective and volume, as anyone who clung to their seats for fear of falling down the abysses of the cityscapes in the IMAX Dark Knight will attest. Is the ‘need’ for 3-D as spurious as wanting to see the Mona Lisa in 3-D? Or is 3-D is to be compared with the innovations of sound and colour? The coming of sound while derided initially as a gimmick in truth merely got rid of the freakish aberration cinema had introduced of silent acting. The coming of colour was also a gimmick at first, something to make Gone with the Wind look even more spectacular or to convey the difference between grey Kansas and magical Oz. If you want proof of the slowness of adopting colour just look at Hitchcock’s career. Between arriving in Hollywood in 1940 and making I, Confess in 1953 Hitch made just two colour films. Between 1954 and 1976 he made just two black and white pictures. The move from glorious technicolour to more realistic colour certainly added this process, the ability to use colour as magisterially as he did in Vertigo helped, but the threat posed by TV in the 1950s was probably the deciding factor. The advent of TV saw cinema do epics, extras, wide-screen and colour – anything in fact to distinguish itself from what the goggle-box could offer. It also saw the first wave of 3-D films but 3-D technology fizzled out.

The second wave of 3-D came at another time when cinema was considered in peril, the 1980s, and this time TV’s cousin the video was the villain. So 3-D films again appeared, I have childhood memories of one film which one involved the hero getting into peril in various burning houses so that flaming rafters could fall towards the audience. I may have missed some of the subtleties of its plot. Actually, no, I don’t think I did. Once again cinema survived, and 3-D did not. Now here we are with cinema under threat from this generation’s big bad, online piracy. And the saviour is something that can’t be recreated except in a cinema, it’s…digital 3-D. Hmm. 3-D has been rejected as a gimmick each time it’s been fan-fared where other innovations have endured.

I lean towards the belief that 3-D has been rejected each time while other innovations have been adopted because it is essentially a gimmick, and for this reason. 3-D films currently being released tend towards two camps. There’s films where children reach out their hands towards the screen to touch the characters (Monsters V Aliens, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) and films where teenagers squirm at the dismembered body-parts and pick-axes flying off the screen towards them (The Final Destination, My Bloody Valentine). In both cases 3-D seems to be a blank cheque for abandoning serious effort on the script in favour of shallow special effects moments. When the trilogy of heavyweight directors arrive, they will bring a wave of PG-13 thrill-rides like Avatar, but can you conceive of anyone filming a serious thoughtful drama like Good Night, and Good Luck in 3-D? Until the answer to that question is yes, then 3-D will always remain gimmick.

September 9, 2009

15 Minutes of Avatar

If Sigourney Weaver wasn’t in the cast you’d have the horrible suspicion that the writer/director behind this film was not James Cameron but George Lucas…
 
Cameron’s return came with not just a trailer but world-wide screenings of 15 minutes of scenes from the first and second acts of Avatar, chosen to give a taste of the film without revealing spoilers, as he explained in his introduction. They should then give a good flavour of what to expect from the 3-D CGI animation/live-action mash-up extravaganza that is Cameron’s first film since Titanic, but the taste is sweet and sour.
 
The first scene showcased was a briefing about the extremely hostile inhabitants of a planet the military was trying to colonise (how very Aliens) but as you paid more attention you realised with a shock that this wasn’t bad motion-capture CGI but actual actors, 3-D had somehow made flesh and blood look oddly unconvincing compared to the CGI animation that followed. The next scene where Sigourney Weaver explains the preposterous plot to Sam Worthington improves on that unsettling experience dramatically but most of the film will obviously be the CGI animation adventures of Sam Worthington in his alien avatar body goofing around on the planet. And the plot is preposterous. Worthington, a crippled military hard-man, has his mind inserted into the big blue body of a humanoid alien inhabitant of the planet, and ends up closely resembling Joshua the dog-man from Cameron’s TV show Dark Angel.
 

Is Terminator: Salvation’s star really the right choice to carry such a huge film? For a long time I thought it was Sam Huntington (sublime as Jimmy Olsen in Superman Returns) who had got this part, which would have made for a funnier contrast between avatar and human rather than the pathos Cameron is aiming for, but arguably also made us root for the hero more. Worthington’s not that charismatic a presence in the footage screened and he’s not helped, as he blunders about shooting at various ill-tempered beasties, by a script packed with very obvious punning which recalls The Phantom Menace painfully at times. Zoe Saldana’s sexy tough as nails native alien love interest comes right out of the Ripley/Sarah Connor stable of Cameron heroines but her accent is right from the Jar Jar Binks School of Racial Stereotyping.
 
As for the 3-D, if you like seeing shell-casings fly towards you or fronds sweep around as the camera tracks then the 3-D is great, and scenes of night-time phosphoresce are stunningly beautiful. However the action depicted feels very, very familiar – in one scene Worthington has to tame what is basically a pterodactyl and then fly off on it to, oh who cares? And ow! why do my eyes hurt? Avatar has all new glasses for the latest refinement of the technology but (leaving aside the fact that since 3-D’s first appearance in the 1950s an ever-increasing percentage of the population has to put 3-D glasses over glasses) 3-D is still at best a draining experience, and at worst a painful one, which is why most 3-D films in this latest wave have been around 80 minutes long. Avatar will probably march towards the 150 minute mark, and, combined with action that’s distinctly déjà-vu of Jurassic Park, Star Wars, et al, that’s a hard sell…

September 1, 2009

(500) Days of Summer

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 3:14 pm
Tags: , ,

(500) Days of Summer would be the best romantic comedy of the year but for the small fact that it’s really the perfect anti-romantic comedy.

It casually dispenses with the great mind-numbing cliché of romantic comedies whereby a secret comes to light in the second act that scuppers the relationship until a grand romantic gesture is made in the third act by one of the sundered lovers which leads to a happy ever after reconciliation, and pass the sick-bucket please. Here, thanks to a sublimely fractured chronology, we see office assistant Summer (Zooey Deschanel) and greeting card writer Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) break up (because Summer’s just not happy anymore, not because of some contrived plot device) before we’ve even seen them get together as a couple. Not of course that Summer ever admits to herself or Tom that they are a couple. A refreshing change from rom-coms featuring the male with commitment issues here we have the (common in real-life but scarce on the ground in movies) female with terminological issues: ‘boyfriend’ is out, it’s more ‘the guy I’m seeing’, or ‘the guy I’m sorta seeing’, or ‘this guy I’m hanging with, I may possibly start seeing in the future, I don’t really know…’

Events occur mostly chronologically but with jumps forwards and backward to replay events so that we get an emotional oomph from scenes we thought we understand playing differently in context, like Summer being bored by Tom’s quirky humour which it transpires is a riff she had started earlier. It is important to note that this film is not a non-stop laugh marathon, but it is always warm, and filled with touches that would not look out of place in Annie Hall; such as an extended split-screen sequence depicting Tom’s expectations of a party hosted by Summer versus reality, a sparingly used droll narrator, Tom’s lists of Summer’s traits that he adores being identical to his post-breakup list of Summer’s traits that he despises, and Tom’s friends desperately calling in his 12 year old sister Rachel (wise beyond her years, of course) for an intervention to stop his distraught crockery-smashing.

Writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H Weber penned Pink Panther 2 and this is extremely clever atonement because (500) Days is a systematic deconstruction of the tropes of rom-coms which annihilates the concept of idealised soul-mate romance they perpetuate. Zooey Deschanel is luminous when she needs to be but her character is also deeply flawed, as indeed is the always excellent Gordon-Levitt, whose everyman Tom has settled for second-best in life and thus treats Summer as a Hollywood style ticket to redemption. The ending manages to be hilarious, realistic and life-affirming while being deeply subversive of the genre. If you’re sick of the Sandra Bullock rom-com conveyor belt then you should catch Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt being both charming and emotionally realistic and soak up the feel-good factor of an indie rom-com with the most joyous musical number since Enchanted’s Central Park extravanganza.

4/5

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