Thursday, October 31, 2013

Wonderfully Terrible: The Fast and the Furious

Movie Review: The Fast and the Furious

Director: Rob Cohen

Reviewed: 31 October 2013

jamesintexas rating--**1/2

"The Fast and the Furious" is a poorly made, sloppy action film. Thin characterization combines with nonsensical plotting to result in a film that disappears into itself, skipping major scenes and goes far too long without its racing cars. Vin Diesel is so limited in what he can do that the film works best when just glowers. Racing fast cars really just involves injecting nitrous into your engine and pressing a turbo button that makes it go really fast! Paul Walker plays an undercover cop directed to infiltrate a gang of street racers that may or may not be behind some very complicated hijackings of trucks filled with electronics. And that conflict can be disposed of instantly.

"The Fast and the Furious" is a whole lot of mindless fun with street racing, attitude, and a carefree attitude. The characters are sketched lightly: the menacing ex-con who may or may not be the leader of a gang of criminals; the undercover cop with torn loyalties; the other jealous, suspicious members of the gang; the gruff, by-the-book federal agents in charge of the whole investigation. The film features some fun driving, incredible stunt work, lots of posturing, rap music, colorful cars, and fist fights. It captures the spirit of street racing from "A Rebel Without A Cause" and seems like a fun template for loud, flashy mayhem.

I don't recommend this movie; it is a lot of fun, and I can't wait to watch the rest of the series.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Oldboy done good

Movie Review: Oldboy

Director: Chan-wook Park

Reviewed: 23 October 2013

jamesintexas rating--****

Oldboy is a revenge film with endless surprises and inventiveness. A smashing together of Kafka and Tarantino, Park dazzles with an unforgettable story of a man imprisoned for fifteen years who escapes and searches for the reason why. Its precision is haunting, and I think that Oldboy offers a unique tale with a towering lead performance.

Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi) finds himself transported from his everyday life with his wife and child to a hotel room of a cell where his food is delivered through a tray in the door, a television keeps him occupied, and his captors refuse to identify themselves. He wracks his mind, wondering what choice did he make that led him to this? On that basis, Oldboy resembles a horror film, more like an American torture film like the Saw series with an impossible intelligent villain and over-the-top outlandish scenarios. But unlike those films, Oldboy veers off into becoming a psychological thriller, a mystery with a true surprise that occurs midway in the film, not in the final minute. The unraveling of who would do this to him and why is endlessly fascinating. Scene after scene dazzles, and there are multiple scenes where the challenge is to keep staring at the horror on the screen.

Min-sik Choi with a lion's mane of hair, expressive face, and impressive body control dominates the film as he occupies nearly every frame. He endures much physical abuse in this film, and his face captures that pain and weariness. One fight scene is impressively done, a ballet of over fifteen adversaries all attacking Dae-su in one long shot which glides forwards and backwards, never breaking in its intensity. Actions and images are repeated in the film, and the denouement is nearly as devastating as those of grand classics like Chinatown and Vertigo. I have never seen a film quite like this one, and with Oldboy as an entry point, I cannot wait to see more stories from this confident, skilled director.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Room 237: The Endless Interpretations of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining.

Movie Review: Room 237

Director: Rodney Ascher

Reviewed: 23 October 2013

jamesintexas rating--****

To be a critic of anything means to analyze it carefully through whatever lenses you bring to the work of art. It's impossible for me not to see a movie like Moonrise Kingdom or Kings of Summer through my own experiences of camping and scouting as a young boy. Similarly, as a teacher of AP English Literature, I navigate canonical texts with students, helping point out the significance of the Valley of the Ashes between the Eggs and New York City in The Great Gatsby, the symbols of blood, hands, night, and sleep in Macbeth, or most recently, masks in Joyce Carol Oates's short story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" Many positions are more conventional and obvious based on past interpretations or overwhelming amounts of evidence. Others are more fringe, saying more about the writer and less about the work of art. Part of my coming into my own as a writer in high school and as a student of film was in the audacity of taking a position and following it to the end. For example, if I wanted to look at the Ernest Hemingway story "The Killers" as a possible inspiration for the type of chatty killers that would populate Quentin Tarantino's films, I could draw that straight line from text to text. I loved poring over the Bible to find out what Samuel L. Jackson's Jules Winfield's Ezekiel 25:17 speech in Pulp Fiction could mean. What's in the briefcase? There are a million interpretations, and crafting a plausible argument is most of the fun. The pursuit of truth was the pursuit of my truth, my interpretation of a film, and that could sway with where I was in my life at that time, what a critic said, what biographical details seemed relevant. In short, it was entirely subjective.

As I tell my students, there are a million interpretations that could be right when approaching a film or a piece of literature, but there are also clearly wrong interpretations, indefensible ones, and nonsensical ones. Rodney Ascher's audacious new assembled film Room 237, an assemblage of five different interpretations of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, seems deeply committed to the analysis of analysis and offers a unique take on the act of interpreting. The film is entirely crafted from footage from The Shining and other Kubrick films, as well as some graphics and maps. We never see the faces of the critics or their credentials, so Ascher levels the playing field, offering each person's analysis as equal to another's and no obvious ways of discrediting one over the other (though one theorist is featured speaking over a crying child in the background).

The offering only of analysis can be extraordinarily liberating or dangerous. One interpretation of a minor symbol of Calumet City Baking Powder can in the background of a shot inside the freezer with Danny, Dick Halloran, and Danny's mom explodes into a larger lens of seeing the film as a metaphor for the genocide of Native Americans. And that could be plausible. Could be. Theories unfold at a rapid rate, isolated from each other, so the same freezer scene returns in another theorist's reading of the film, but this time the focus is on the faking of the Apollo moon landing. One theorist plays the film both forwards and backwards, projecting it upon itself, looking for concordances. Another maps out the interior hallways of The Overlook Hotel, offering close reading of the movements of Danny on his big wheel. Many provide biographical and anecdotal information about Kubrick himself, the genius filmmaker who cultivated a persona of complete control over his films. As a result, nothing is ever an accident, and everything is intentional.

And there's the rub. Is everything intentional? How much control does an artist, any artist, have over his or her work? And, if you look hard enough and with enough motivation, will you always find something to support your belief?

I flat-out loved this film. It feels distinctly modern in its assembled approach and deep thinking about an impressively disturbing film. To engage critically with a work of art requires a point of view, and the pursuit of evidence that supports one's belief can be blinding or enlightening. There are political implications to seeing an incomplete picture of anything (what one is certain is stockpiled in a nation like Iraq, for instance), and in any enterprise, searching with myopic certainty may mean disregarding evidence to the contrary, no matter what the implications of that action may be. And Room 237 has made me fall even more in love with The Shining, offering so many ideas and takes that it will be a pleasure to revisit this masterpiece. Ascher's film ends with the contemplative idea that perhaps Kubrick's intention was to immerse the audience in the labyrinth of a film of infinite interpretations, a sort of intellectual madness much like that experienced by its main characters.

A work of art lives forever in the minds of its audience, and Stephen King, Stanley Kubrick, and Rodney Ascher have all layered ideas over each other that can spin on into infinity every time an audience engages with it. Allowing for interpretations means including ones that are wrong, indefensible, and nonsensical, some of which are featured in Room 237. We are the judges of what interpretations make sense to us. And I suppose the only relevant question to ask is "Am I convinced?"

This film convinced me of its brilliance.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Plush: Going Nowhere. Fast.

Movie Review: Plush

Director: Catherine Hardwicke

Reviewed: 20 October 2013

jamesintexas rating--1/2*

In her new film Plush, director Catherine Hardwicke offers a cautionary tale of Hayley (Emily Browning), a rock and roll vocalist whose life unravels as she struggles with her guitarist brother’s drug overdose. Set amidst the backdrop of a tour with a floundering single and an uncertain future, Hayley struggles holding her home life together with her husband Carter (Cam Gigandet) and two children as well as hiring new replacement guitarist Enzo (Xavier Samuel) to move forward with her band. Enzo resembles Hayley’s late brother, and his dark energy attracts her and inspires her at a critical time in her life. Enzo has ideas for Hayley’s career, moving her towards edgier material that may change and possibly destroy her as the two cross into a dangerous relationship without clear boundaries.

Plush aims unsuccessfully for a sort of middle ground between erotic thriller and relationship drama but then shifts to be a more conventional horror film, a film where loud noises erupt but then turn out to be lawn sprinklers multiple times. Hardwicke obviously spent a great deal of time constructing Hayley’s world, and Browning delivers a strong vocal performance onstage. Judging from the credits, she prepared nearly a dozen songs for the role. And there is the rub. Hardwicke spent more time constructing that world and its seedy milieu and less time improving a creaky script without surprises that tips its hand nearly an hour into the film, and eventually goes completely haywire. Browning’s Hayley never fully earned my sympathy or interest, and the actress falters a bit in capturing the desperation of a woman spiraling out of control. I wonder if an actress like Rooney Mara or Noomi Rapace would have been able to carry Hayley’s fierce yet brittle charisma to more satisfying results. Gigandet’s Carter is a bland character with the busy writing schedule of a national magazine reporter yet seems to only want to dig giant holes in the backyard ominously. Samuel’s Enzo, with his wild moods and tortured, histrionic gestures, seems to be having the most fun, but even he wears out his welcome and is reduced to ridiculousness by the end. Throw in creepy puppets, disturbing video imagery, and a secluded home in the Hollywood Hills, and Plush ends up with far too much going on in a story that cannot handle the strain.

Plush boils over, leaving very little to enjoy. Hardwicke’s film suggests concerns about artistic integrity amidst commercialism, as well as how the rootless nature of a tour can destroy a personal life, but neither of those points seems compelling or fresh. The film offers an insider’s look at the music industry, but then offers thin supporting characters and unconvincing conflict that prevent the stakes from ever being more real. Hayley and Carter’s house in the hills is never in jeopardy. In her debut film Thirteen, Hardwicke had a stronger cast (Evan Rachel Wood and Holly Hunter) to help her carry that relationship-based story. Here, she seems adrift and without the proper cast or script to achieve her desired vision, and Plush suffers as a result.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Alien Invasion: The Inferno of Spring Breakers.

Movie Review: Spring Breakers

Director: Harmony Korine

Reviewed: 19 October 2013

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

"Spring Break, y'all.  Spring Break Forever!" utters Alien (James Franco), a rapper-gangster-deejay in Florida who bails out four young women from jail after a fabled, much-anticipated Spring Break trip goes awry. The neophyte, the aptly named Faith (Selena Gomez) finds herself overwhelmed by her trio of friends Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), and Cotty (Rachel Korine). "Be careful around them," one of Faith's friends warns her. "They have demon blood in them." These women prove resourceful, as lack of funds does not keep them from their dream of breaking out of their college and heading south by any means necessary. In a particularly daring shot, Korine keeps the camera inside the getaway car as two of the women jump out, invade a restaurant with guns, terrorize the people, and jump back into the car, all while the car circles slowly around the windows of the restaurant, revealing the images but not the sound. That comes later. Faith accompanies her friends on their journey into the heart of darkness: dancing, drugs, sex, and destruction abounds.

The party ends early on in the film. The camera lingers on the four young women in revealing swimsuits handcuffed together, leaning against the police car. Enter Alien who seems to have been watching them from afar. And by bailing them out, Alien inducts them even further into his criminal underworld of drugs, guns, seaside resorts, and cash. What happens to this group of four friends as well as Alien makes for compelling viewing; Spring Breakers is surprisingly one of the best films of the year.

Harmony Korine's greatest accomplishment in Spring Breakers is to offer commentary on the hedonistic culture of young people behaving badly while also providing the voyeuristic look into this world of excess. It is impossible to look away. And Korine's magic is to cut together a film that swirls around these characters, the America culture of Spring Break and getting away from it all, as well as Alien's materialistic rantings. Spring Breakers is remarkably pretty to look at because of its color-saturation and its overall aesthetic look. Korine's camera lingers on impossibly gorgeous sunsets. He uses slow-motion in his editing, and I do not know if I have seen an image as arresting this year as two women clad in bikinis and hot pink ski masks firing automatic weapons into the air. In another scene, he layers in Faith's phone conversations with her grandmother over the frenetic partying, a juxtaposition of the world presented and the world experienced.

The film is compulsively watchable and slender in running time. It never travels exactly where you expect it to, and I found Franco's performance to be so much more than the mere parody it may suggest. It was moving. Alien is as much a believer in the American Dream as Jay Gatsby throwing his shirts up in the air to impress Daisy Buchanan. Of course, in Spring Breakers, it becomes a rambling monologue of braggadocio consisting of "Look at my shit!" before listing that he has "Scarface. On repeat." But the idea is the same: look at what I have, look at what I own, look at how important I am. Korine carries his frightening ideas to their conclusions, never letting the audience off the hook, exposing the ugliest, most violent aspects of this world and this time. He plays with time and loops back upon specific scenes, offering the possibility of this being a memory replayed in the main characters' heads.

Spring Break may be forever, as Alien suggests, but a distinctly American undercurrent of violence and menace swirls beneath color-saturated shots of beach bacchanalia, and Korine loves playing with audience expectations, particularly in casting ex-Disney Channel stars Gomez and Hudgens. It is a journey into the mouth of hell for these four women, with Alien as a demonic guide, a journey that some are more capable at navigating than others. There might as well be a sign as they enter Florida: Abandon hope, all ye who enter here. Spring Breakers is incendiary, darkly funny, and awash in impressive visuals and upsetting violence. It is one of the year's best films.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Pain & Gain: Michael Bay's Best Film Ever!

Movie Review: Pain & Gain

Director: Michael Bay

Reviewed: 17 October 2013

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

I love this film.

Maybe it was because I was sleep-deprived and watched it in three chunks between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. over two days holding my newborn son as The Rock and Marky Mark pounded out reps, dressed up as superheroes, and wrecked havoc all over the 1994-1995 Miami scene in this crime-fueled caper of gym rats turned kidnappers.  Pain & Gain is based on a true story and directed by Michael Bay.  Now, I carry some baggage to any Michael Bay film, and I have not enjoyed anything of his in a long time, maybe ever. His film The Rock was the first time that I openly started cringing at the thoughtless action summer blockbuster, and I openly recoiled at most of Armageddon a few years later. Raised on a diet of James Bond, Die Hard, and Indiana Jones, I think I expected more from an action film. Story, characters that mattered, a sense of cohesion. Bay's films, especially most recently Transformers seemed to embody a soulless, stylish evisceration of my childhood, an exercise in crass explosions and special effects, cheap humor and forgettable characters.

My view of Michael Bay has totally changed with his most recent film Pain & Gain.

His style meshes well with the R-rated hyperkinetic story of three bodybuilders who reach out for the American Dream by kidnapping a rich man named Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) and trying to steal his money and his life. The cast, led by Wahlberg as Daniel Lugo, consists of huge muscles and huge performances. These criminals are inspired by the Hollywood culture of easy crime, easy money, and it is fun to see how they spiral further and further into depravity and excess.

The film is completely surprising because of its charm, its form reflecting its content, Bay's confident and innovative camera movements and editing, usually distracting, but this time, it was remarkable and engaging. I just loved the camaraderie of the cast, with Rebel Wilson, Anthony Mackie, Rob Corddry, and Ed Harris all looking like they are having fun. lots of fun. He has indulgent moments and plenty of gratuitous violence and nudity and explosions, but here, Bay seems in on the joke, enjoying himself versus punishing the audience. I am not sure that I understood every plot twist and turn, and at one point, I was not following how the characters reached an important place, but I just loved the ride.

Everyone is an irredeemable scumbag in this movie, and everyone shares in the blame: the criminals, the victim, the police, the woman at Home Depot, and even the priest.

In a way, Pain & Gain is the counterpoint to The Great Gatsby, another deeply American story of envy, reinvention, and striving beyond one's limitations.  Daniel Lugo sees an opportunity, and he takes it, albeit in the most ridiculous, twisted, and bizarre way possible. It seems awfully strange to compare Mark Wahlberg's buff, bug-eyed fitness and self-help devotee to Leonardo DiCaprio's suavely composed millionaire Jay Gatsby, but both films wrestle with similar themes and are two of the best films of 2013. After all, remember, Gatsby's 1906 copy of Hopalong Cassidy contained this moment of self-improvement and commitment to fitness: "Dumbbell exercise and wall-scaling...6:15-6:30 A.M."  Daniel Lugo would have needed to push Jay Gatsby because as this film shows, fifteen minutes of exercise just is not going to cut it.

Michael Bay, well-done. I cannot wait to watch this fun movie again.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Don Jon: Funny, Well-Told, Full of Heart

Movie Review: Don Jon

Director: Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Reviewed: 6 October 2013

jamesintexas rating--***

Joseph Gordon-Levitt directed, wrote, and stars in Don Jon, a film is quite funny, well-constructed, and warm in its navigation of one man's addiction to pornography and struggle to connect with others. Gordon-Levitt, impressive biceps and confidence, stars as Don, a northern New Jersey lothario who admits to being more rapturous about his encounters online with pornography than the women he meets in clubs. Don seems arrested a bit, at odds with his family (a wonderful Tony Danza and Glenne Headley), and focused on obtaining forgiveness for his sins from his parish priest and reciting prayers during reps at the gym. He drives the streets with a furious intensity, barking curses at those in his path. Jon's orbit is knocked about after meeting a ten, his dream girl, Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), who pushes him out of his accustomed routines and challenges his habits. Don begins taking classes and changing, though not always to his liking. The film depicts Don's journey from solopsism as necessary and vital, though the evolution is never easy.

Gordon-Levitt the filmmaker relies upon some tried and true techniques that he none-the-less injects with freshness. He structures the film through the character's routines: church, dinner with family, the club, school. That structure provides a consistent anchor, giving us touchstones in the character's life, though I will admit to wanting to know more about Don that the movie is willing to show us. The film never becomes cartoonish or treats its characters disrespectfully. The commentary on our porn-soaked world where even commercials for fast food use sexual imagery seems apt, and Don Jon wonders openly about how the internet and even access to images on phones have rewired our brains. There is a bit of on-the-nose analysis of how romantic films and images of princesses serve as a counterpoint to that culture, though the film is not necessarily sure to go with that (though it provides for some fun mock-film clips with recognizable stars).

This film is not your typical romantic comedy. And that is a good thing. It demands more.

I admired the film's meandering quality as well as my never being quite certain what direction it was traveling down, particularly with Julianne Moore's character. All the performances are terrific, and it was nice to see Scarlett Johansson act in a more demanding role. Gordon-Levitt remains charming, impossibly charming, and family scenes in the household resemble a bit of Silver Linings Playbook for their volatility and claustrophobia. Gordon-Levitt is a remarkable talent as evidenced in his last few films: Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, Lincoln, Looper, 50/50, and Premium Rush. With Don Jon, he proves that he is game for anything and capable behind the camera as well as in front of it.

Powerful Performances: Catching up with Rain Man

Movie Review: Rain Man

Director: Barry Levinson

Reviewed: 2 October 2013

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

I finally caught up with Rain Man, and the film surprised me with its unlikable lead character of Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise), a hustling car salesman in California who is drawn back into the orbit of his family in Ohio after a death in the family. Upon his visit to Ohio, Charlie meets Raymond (Dustin Hoffman), a brother that was hidden from him by his family. Raymond is a high-functioning autistic-savant who has never left the grounds of his institution. Raymond organizes his day by television shows, verbal routines such as reciting "Who's on first?" by Abbott and Costello when upset, and clinging to the world that he knows. In an act of revenge against being cut out of a family will that leaves millions to Raymond, Charlie takes Raymond out of his routines and embarks upon a road trip with him to the west coast. The trip proves to be a powerful one for both Charlie and Raymond.

Hoffman's performance is the standout, winning him an Oscar for Best Actor, but he has a great performance from Tom Cruise to play against. Hoffman's Raymond is full of gestures and awkwardness and humor and emotional outbursts while Cruise's Charlie embodies rage and regret, anger at himself and his family. The drive forces Charlie to slow his life pace down to accommodate his brother, and the film's best scenes involve Charlie processing what it means for him to have a brother. The strength of this film comes from those performances and Levinson's restrained direction. There is no nefarious villain in the film. Charlie's decision on how to best help himself and Raymond at the end of the film has its own power without an adversary. The final scene at the train station is a marvel, and Rain Man is a deeply sad film because of the pain of lost time and lost connection. Hoffman always lights upon the humanity of Raymond with his Judge Wapner quotations and K-Mart wardrobe choices. However, Cruise provides the real emotional power as a man finding something outside of himself to believe in and to love. Empathy for another person. How far Charlie has come from the surface reality of Lamborghinis and wheeling and dealing of the opening scene.

I do not know if the film plays as well in 2013 as it did in 1988, but I found Rain Man incredibly moving and profoundly sad in the best way, rooted in its characters and in its world.

I hope for Charlie and Raymond and their future as brothers.

Cutest Documentary Ever: Babies.

Movie Review: Babies

Director: Thomas Balmes

Reviewed: 6 October 2013

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

Babies are cute. And regardless of where a baby grows up, there are certain touchstones that are elemental to being human. Learning to walk and cry. Learning to feed. Seeing the world around you with curious eyes. Playing. Laughing. Moving. Imitating.

Thomas Balmes's 79 minute documentary Babies features four babies from San Francisco, Namibia, Mongolia, and Tokyo. There is no narration, and the adults are often cropped out of the shots, providing a baby-focused view on their world. I laughed often and engaged with this film on an emotional level, as Balmes structures the film loosely. Sometimes a link from one scene to another (one baby to another) is a simple movement or action. There is a small focus on parenting, as we see the San Francisco parents taking their child to Baby Yoga, playgrounds and parks, and reading books together. Balmes contrasts this style with the female-centered communal rearing of Namibia, where the men are never seen, and a community of women work together to raise their children.

Balmes refuses to provide subtitles for scenes, so we only have the babies as focus. There are really no direct interviews with the camera or bold cuts back and forth. A room full of toys in San Francisco is juxtaposed against a baby crawling through a Mongolian field. As a document of life and babyhood, Babies exists as a wonderfully fun discussion-starter. Some of its shots of babies interacting with animals made me wonder how they even made this film. I wonder what the parameters were in terms of filming. I mean, when do you step in and prevent a goat from drinking out of the bath water tub while a baby sits inside of it? Were the filmmakers ever allowed to step in and interrupt the process? What if a baby was in harm's way?

The film offers many observations and questions, but its structure is both limiting and freeing. A choice at the end to show us what the babies look like now is pretty fun. I wonder though in ten years how these four children will have diverged in terms of life paths, interests, and education. In terms of degree of difficulty, I give Balmes high marks. However, I wonder, what is he trying to say? There is no doubt though that these babies are loved and exploring their worlds. Some day, they will watch this film. What will they think?

The Intense Concentration of Self: Gravity, A Landmark Achievement of Modern Filmmaking.

Movie Review: Gravity

Director: Alfonso Cuaron

Reviewed: 6 October 2013

jamesintexas rating--****

In Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, a young character named Pip finds himself adrift in the ocean during a whale hunt, and as his boat sails out of view, Pip faces the overwhelming isolation of being one man in an ocean: immovable, uncaring, and unforgiving. Melville states, "Now, in calm weather, to swim in the open ocean is as easy to the practised swimmer  as to ride in a spring-carriage ashore.  But the awful lonesomeness is intolerable.  The intense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity, my God!  who can tell it?" There are moments in Gravity when space feels like the ocean and the astronauts merely floating shipmates, cast adrift in a sea of stars and firmament, struggling for a line or a hold, fearful of spinning out into the void. Alfonso Cuaron's explorers, much like Melville's, want desperately to survive their quest in an environment dominated by vortices and gravitational forces far beyond their control, "the blending cadence of waves with thoughts." Gravity unites astonishing storytelling with masterful cinematic technique, delivering a movie-going experience of the highest caliber.

This is why I go to the movies.

I refuse to spoil the viewing of this film for anyone, and I think the less said about the film's surprises, the better. I am thankful to have seen it opening weekend, especially in 3-D. In a remarkable twenty-minute opening shot that establishes theme, character, setting, plot, and tone, astronauts Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) work outside of their spaceship on an update to the Hubble Telescope, a chance to search into the beyond to see even farther than ever before. Kowalski seems the irrepressibly confident maverick while Stone seems the more brittle and reserved scientist. Their task involves a spacewalk on a jet pack, tangles of umbilical cord-like hoses, and the omnipresent spinning of the earth, ship, and astronauts themselves as they execute incredibly arduous movements with only each other and the voice of Houston's Mission Control in their ears. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's camera moves permanently on an axis, swirling around the astronauts, lingering over the glow of earth below and twinkle of stars above, establishing other landmarks in the sky as well as the voyeuristic close-up look at the outside of a spaceship. The visuals are completely jaw-dropping in their beauty, color, and depth. I see this film's use of special effects as a triumph in story-telling on par with Life of Pi and Avatar.

The constraints of depicting this environment ramp up the suspense and terror.  Without sound and quick cutting, Cuaron relies upon keeping his camera trained on his actors as well as the score by Steven Price to tell the story. Often, a point-of-view shot establishes the murkiness of an oxygen-deprived brain or the chaos of a wrecked ship. The film has a relentlessness that can be deeply upsetting and uncomfortable. It is difficult not to compare a majestic film of this reach with the Stanley Kubrick masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. In that film, an astronaut finds himself locked out of his own ship by a paranoid computer, desperate to save itself. Here, the conflict exists within. Can a person think a way out of an enormous, overwhelming problem? What is humanity's capacity for inventiveness and rebirth? How does one choose to die or live? Cuaron offers a spiritual dimension to these questions juxtaposed against the immensely practical aspects of solving problems, overcoming obstacles, and the clock steadily ticking. Both Bullock and Clooney are stellar here, doing incredible work that should be rewarded in a film that should be similarly recognized. I hope Gravity finds its audience much as 2001 did. The film's last shot took my breath away.

Yesterday was the six-month anniversary of Chicago Sun-Times Film Critic Roger Ebert's death. I wish that he had been alive to see Alfonso Cuaron's boldly ambitious Gravity because of its eye-popping visuals and its toe-curling intensity. Ebert said, "It's not what a movie is about, it's how it is about it." He is right; the how is essential, and Cuaron has crafted an amazing film, reflective of a vision that inspires awe and emotion. I cared deeply about what happened to the characters in this film. To me, a successful film echoes for an audience far after the viewing ends. Gravity reverberates in my head, and I expect that it will for some time now.

It is the best film of the year.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

To The Wonderful: Terence Malick's To The Wonder

Movie Review: To The Wonder

Director: Terence Malick

Reviewed: 30 September 2013

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

Elmore Leonard, the beloved writer, was known for his ten famous rules about writing, one of which included, "Leave out the parts that readers tend to skip."  With his latest film To The Wonder stretching the limits of non-narrative storytelling, eschewing words for imagery and sound, Terence Malick seems to exemplify the inversion of Leonard's statement: Leave in the parts of the film that other directors tend to skip.  His film never offers easy plotting or momentum.  Instead of a conventional, explained relationship story of an American and a Russian woman who meet in Paris and fall in love, Malick focuses on the fragmented memories and gestures of that relationship, swimming in its colors and physicality instead of its plot. Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko play Neil and Marina, but there is Rachel McAdams too as Jane, another love of Neil's.  And Javier Bardem rounds out the cast as Father Quintana, the lonely local priest.  The bulk of the film takes place in a small Oklahoma town's fields of grass, outrageously beautiful skies, and natural beauty, though some takes place in Paris as well.  None of these interactions are cliched or easy in any way, and the emotional core of the film comes from their isolation or connection.

By now, Malick's techniques are familiar but never worn-out.  His characters speak narration which involves questioning of self and God.  His camera tracks behind characters walking and searching, nearly always passing through doorways and boundaries.  His cuts can confidently cross oceans or go underneath an ocean.  In truth, Malick's style demands more attention than the typical narrative film. By releasing us from the strictures of a traditional narrative, he allows us to meditate on time and the nature of memory.  Certain shots in this film are unforgettable: the light in the field, a ballet-like hiding from each other as one character enters a room and another leaves, the unnatural brightness of a nearly empty grocery store.  In a way, this film is a silent film, coherent only through the studying of gestures and bodies.

Terence Malick is a visionary director, an auteur and a cinematic poet who has added To The Wonder to his already impressive filmography.  To The Wonder feels in the moment, present in action and gesture more than conversation.  I do not remember any conversations between characters in this film.  Instead, I remember the layering of questioning over movement, the sense of human being meeting the sky, arms raised, exultant and full of awe.  Malick loves to shoot sunlight bursting through trees, no matter if it is Guadalcanal in World War Two, an idyllic childhood street in Waco, Texas or the forests of colonial Virginia. To end this review referencing another beloved American writer, William Faulkner, Malick's films present a coherent, unity of vision just as Faulkner's did in his fictional Yoknapatawpha County. There is a distinct thumbprint as Malick's work builds both within and on top of his own filmography, splintering time and space, unafraid to demand much of the audience.

I gaze in wonder at it all, never daring or presuming to fully understand it, but always appreciative that Malick's ponderings and his images both enchant and haunt.  I highly recommend this otherworldly cinematic experience.