Thursday, October 31, 2013

"Mama" Who Bore Me: Maternity Horrors

At first glance, they don't seem to have much in common. I'll readily admit that my argument here may be a tad stretched. One is Ridley Scott's sci-fi horror classic about a doomed ship stalked by a terrifying beast, the other is a very-recent ghost story about feral kids and the spirit that watches over them. Yet, there's a common theme running through Alien (1979) and Mama (2013): the fear of motherhood.

Let's start with Alien. When you consider the involvement of Swiss conceptual artist H.R. Giger, it comes as no surprise that this is a heavily sexual film, starting with the phallic design of the xenomorph. In particular to maternity, though, the most striking thing is the set design inside the Nostromo. The tight, claustrophobic hallways clearly invoke the birth canal, presenting it as a horrible, cold place. Given the way the creature arrives in the ship (the facehugger itself mines terror from the fear of male rape), it's fitting: the xenomorph is, in a perverted way, this crew's "child," and it's threatening to destroy them at every turn. And it strands Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and company without help; their computer system, telling named "Mother," cannot compute their requests for protocol to eliminate the monster.

Of course, it wouldn't be until the film's James Cameron-directed sequel, Aliens, that the motherhood theme would become more overt (of course, it helps that Ripley is front-and-center in that film). Yet in Alien, the fear comes from birth itself, and - bear with me - the idea that the child, a foreign body grown within another body, could be some sort of aberration.

Mama, on the other hand, takes a different approach. The two girls - Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse) - lose their biological mother and are raised in a cabin deep in the Pacific Northwest. The film's main source of tension comes from the competing adopted "mothers" that step in to take care of them: Annabelle (Jessica Chastain), the girlfriend of the girl's surviving uncle (played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), and "Mama," the spirit that protected them in the woods. The film relies a tad too heavily on jump-scares and the fast-moving ghosts borrowed from Asian horror to elevate the film to classic status, yet it derives terrific conflict from the fears of adoptive motherhood. These children have already been through severe trauma - even without the ghost. Annabelle's fears stem from the fear of screwing them up even worse, or, at the very least, not being able to help them recover.

"Mama," though, is fiercely protective of the girls. This stems from a backstory that's not wholly satisfying, but it does add another wrinkle to the "maternal" fear concept. "Mama" is representative of their former life; it's traumatic, yes, by the girls have forged a real emotional connection with the spirit, as children often do with parental figures. On top of Annabelle's other fears is this idea of not being their sole "mother;" in a way, "Mama" is always going to be around. Any bond she forms with these girls will never match that of their "real" mother, and that can be a terrifying notion for adoptive parents.

There are, of course, a ton of horror movies out there that utilize maternal fears for their terrors. But Alien and Mama, an unlikely pairing, present two different kinds of fears in interesting ways.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Wither The Wolf of Wall Street?

So far this year, without fail, every time I update my Oscar predictions, there's a release date announcement that essentially renders my work (and it does usually take me several hours to do it) dated. And now we know that The Monuments Men, George Clooney's WWII drama about saving art from the Nazis, will be moved to "early 2014," and therefore won't be a factor in this year's Oscar race. This comes on the heels of The Wolf of Wall Street getting a formal release on Christmas, meaning - for the moment - it is back in the race.

Of course, this sets up the obvious: WOWS (what a great acronym) will take Monuments Men's place in the Best Picture race, Adapted Screenplay race, and Director race. The lattermost should be interesting because it's becoming increasingly crowded: Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity) should easily find himself nominated, David O. Russell (American Hustle) seems like the safest bet of the remaining unseen films, and as 12 Years a Slave begins its march to (presumed) gold, Steve McQueen is a pretty sure thing too. That leaves two spots and a number of contenders, including Scorsese, who has the fact that he is Martin Scorsese on his side. But what does that mean for Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips), J.C. Chandor (All is Lost), or John Wells (August: Osage County)?

The big one affected by this shuffle, though, is going to be the Best Actor race. Even last month, this category felt like it was going to be tough to break into. Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips), Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), Robert Redford (All is Lost), and Bruce Dern (Nebraska) feel like whatever the closest thing to "lock" there is, while Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club), Christian Bale (American Hustle), Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street), Forest Whitaker (Lee Daniels' The Butler), and Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station) seem to be fighting for that final spot. Of that latter set, DiCaprio and McConaughey seem (at the moment) to have the best chance. When WOWS was doubtful to be released this year, I felt like McConaughey had the best shot at his first career nomination. But throwing DiCaprio back into the mix makes it much more murky.


So let's pretend, for a moment, that Hanks, Ejiofor, Redford, and Dern are all safely locked into place, and that DiCaprio and McConaughey are the top contenders for the fifth spot. There are three ways this could unfold:

Scenario 1: The Wolf of Wall Street is a critical favorite, Dallas Buyers Club earns generally decent reviews that single out McConaughey's performance, but the Academy goes whole-hog for WOWS. DiCaprio edges McConaughey out for the final spot in Best Actor, but because McConaughey's career has been on-fire lately, the momentum he's built up over the past two years pushes him to be nominated for his role in WOWS for Best Supporting Actor. Basically, everybody wins.

Scenario 2: This one is trickier. Suppose that, even if WOWS, um, wows, the Academy has had a strange apathy towards DiCaprio. His career has plenty of iconic roles, and every role he turns in is buzzed about by the Internet as his "sure-thing winner," yet he only has three nominations to his name, the last of which was in 2006 for Blood Diamond (yeah, not The Departed, like everyone expected). Not Inception, which was never going to be considered an actors movie anyway. Not J. Edgar, which…let's not even go there. Not Django Unchained, which was a fine performance but, oddly, lacked menace and never really made an impression. So even though he looks, from the trailer, like he's having the most fun he's had in ages, there's no guarantee that the Academy will glom to him.

So in this scenario, DiCaprio misses out yet again, and McConaughey gets the final nomination. McConaughey also likely gets a spot in Supporting Actor, too, given how wide-open that category is: at the moment, Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) and Tom Hanks (Saving Mr. Banks) are the only truly likely nominees, with a number of contenders duking it out. It seems reasonable to assume that McConaughey could earn the rare double acting nominations (along with Hanks, which would make this the first year since 1993 - and second all-time - that two actors scored two acting nominations in the same year).

Scenario 3: One of the other contenders keeps them both out, McConaughey still likely gets his Supporting Actor nod (basically, I feel really comfortable saying McConaughey will be nominated one way or another this year), and DiCaprio sits next to his BFF Scorsese at the ceremony and watches.

Where was The Monuments Men in all of this? Nowhere, really. Even though I kept it in my Best Picture predictions, I seriously had no idea how this would fit into the rest of the race, and I had honestly resigned myself to believing that the film would pull off the rare feat of being nominated for Best Picture and nothing else. It didn't really seem like an acting contender, despite the big names, nor did it seem to have heat in Director or Adapted Screenplay. So it's absence only really affects WOWS (as far as this article is concerned).

So, what say you? Do you think WOWS is as strong of a contender as I'm making it out to be?

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Short Takes: End of Watch, Se7en, and Other Police Films

End of Watch (dir. David Ayer, 2012)

It made sense that the found-footage conceit would find it's way into the police drama; to our viewing fortune, it was David Ayer - best known as the writer of Training Day - who decided to make it happen. Brian (Jake Gyllenhaal, sporting a bald head that only accents his eyes more) and Mike (Michael Pena) are partners and friends; they've been riding together for a long time, and for a class project at his night school, Brian is filming his daily life as a beat cop in the LAPD. However, they both find themselves in a tough spot when a routine investigation uncovers a massive operation by a cartel. The film's greatest strength is in the chemistry between Gyllenhaal and Pena (the latter of whom can always be counted on to bring great depth to his characters). The two of them feel like they've been friends for ages, and as a result any moment that focuses just on them doing their job feels terrific. Ayer - who wrote and directed - doesn't completely stick to the found-footage motif, and the climax can feel a little too action-movie cliche to fully work. But it is a wholly worthwhile ride-along to take. B

Rampart (dir. Oren Moverman, 2011)

Set in the early days of the LAPD's Rampart scandal in the late '90s, Woody Harrelson stars as Dave Brown, a racist, misogynistic corrupt cop who is a renegade in a department that's heavily under investigation. The film is essentially a character sketch, following "Date Rape" Dave around as his life collapses around him, though he's the only one who can't see that happen. Oren Moverman - who also wrote and directed the terrific and underrated The Messenger - works with crime novelist James Ellroy to paint a pained portrait of a man who's been left behind by the times, and isn't capable of understanding why his methods are wrong. Harrelson rightfully earned enormous praise for this role; it's easily one of the finest performances in a career that's got quite a few great ones. His Messenger co-star Ben Foster appears as a homeless informant, and Brie Larson steals all of her scenes as Dave's daughter Helen, who hates her father and everything he stands for. Rampart is a knock-out of a film. A-

Se7en (dir. David Fincher, 1995)

It may seem odd to say nowadays, but there was once a time when David Fincher was considered a risk to hire as a director. His previous film, Alien 3, was a disaster for the studio, and as his first feature, it seemed like he may have to retreat to the comfort of music videos for the rest of his career. Se7en changed that. Morgan Freeman stars as cop-on-his-last-assignment Somerset, who works with the new guy in town, Mills (Brad Pitt), on solving a string of gruesome murders related to the seven deadly sins. Fincher amplifies the film's grimy, corrupt soul through dreary visuals and consistent rainfall. But Freeman is the MVP here, bringing "I'm getting too old for this shit" weariness while showing shades of a man who really has seen too many tragedies to keep going. And, though most of us now know who the killer, all I'll say is that Kevin Spacey had a pretty terrific year in 1995. Of course, the film is most famous for it's climactic third act; even 18 years later, it packs a hell of a gut-punch. A-

Zodiac (dir. David Fincher, 2007)

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the San Francisco area was terrorized by a serial killer known as the Zodiac, thanks to the cyphers that he sent to local newspapers as a challenge. New letters would appear every few years, before they finally stopped; the case was never solved, with a handful of confirmed victims and as many as 30 possible victims left unknown. Given his track record (see above), it seemed obvious that Fincher would be drawn to this material. Jake Gyllenhaal plays San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith, who became obsessed with the case and eventually wrote two books about Zodiac (which formed the basis for this film). Robert Downey Jr. - still in the midst of his pre-Iron Man comeback - portrays reporter Paul Avery, who's assigned the case by the newspaper, and Mark Ruffalo is Inspector David Toschi, the detective in charge of the investigation. What Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt do so well here is using this case to explore the nature of obsession, and how Zodiac's main weapon - fear - ruined far more lives than just the ones he took. Everything about this film is close to perfect: the acting, the cinematography, the costumes, and especially the editing - the film never drags despite being over two-and-a-half hours long. Fincher has been celebrated for a number of his films, but only this one truly qualifies as his masterpiece. A+

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2012)

To close out these short reviews of police dramas (not what I intended to first), Once Upon a Time in Anatolia provides an existential police drama. Unfolding over one night and the ensuing day, a team of police officers and other personnel, led by Commissar Naci (Yilmaz Erdogan), search for a body in the countryside around Keskin, Turkey. The film, like many of Ceylan's, is contemplative, as the characters discuss everything from yoghurt to previous cases, and the stark, repetitive landscape provides a terrific metaphor for the existential angst the characters are faced with. It could have been a very dull, plodding story, but Ceylan and his cast bring it to life in a way that never fails to lose the audience's attention. This film is what AMC's The Killing wanted to be. A-

Short Takes: Rush, World War Z, and More

Rush (dir. Ron Howard, 2013)

The best sports movies are able to communicate how rivalry and competition drives the people who make playing games their life. Rush, which is based on the true story of the rivalry between Formula One race car drivers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) in the 1970s, has a terrific competition at its center, a sport that's extremely dangerous. However, the rivalry never really becomes tangible until about halfway through the film, when Peter Morgan's script decides to focus solely on the year 1976. Until then, the film is a mess, swapping back and forth between the two drivers without any of it feeling important. But when the film kicks into high-gear, it's a terrific thrill ride. Howard stages the racing scenes with great tension, and Anthony Dod Mantle's cinematography is gorgeous at times. However, it's Bruhl who almost single-handedly carries this film. He's been doing great work for years, but Lauda is the first role that most American audiences are going to see him in, and he brings great humanity to a man who was known for his cold calculation. On the track, Lauda was laser-focused; too bad Rush couldn't follow suit. C+

World War Z (dir. Marc Forster, 2013)

Based on the behind-the-scenes drama - going overbudget, star Brad Pitt's on-set arguments with Forster, a completely re-written and re-shot third act - you'd think World War Z would arrive as a bloated, shuffling corpse of a film. Instead, like the film's zombies, it's surprisingly quick and exciting, though don't expect much in the way of soul. Gerry (Pitt), an ex-U.N. specialist, is called back into action when zombies begin wrecking havoc all over the world, as we goes on search of the pathogen's source so that a cure can be developed. It's a role that Pitt is pretty much slumming in, though the film isn't particularly interested in its human characters (Mirelle Enos is his barely-there wife). Instead, Forster - who's previous foray in action cinema, Quantum of Solace, didn't go so well - moves diligently from one big setpiece to the next, the best of which is a stunning crash sequence of a zombie-filled airplane. There's not much human life beneath the surface, but World War Z still manages to be an enjoyable ride. B

*By the way, I was a big fan of Max Brook's original novel, with its oral-history structure and interest in the cultural and geopolitical aspects of such a situation. I realize that that could have never worked as a summer tentpole studio film, but one day - maybe 20 years from now or something - it would be an interesting concept to revisit this as a television miniseries, perhaps as a series of faux documentaries.

Iron Man 3 (dir. Shane Black, 2013)

Leave it to the folks at Marvel to take what should have been a tiring third entry in the Iron Man series and turn it into something unexpected. Of course, a lot of the credit belongs to writer/director Shane Black, the former action-screenwriting wunderkind who found a second wind with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (reviewed here). He takes what could have been another bombastic entry in the superhero canon and transforms it into a buddy action flick, spending more time with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) instead of Iron Man (in fact, the suits no longer need a human operator) and seeing Tony team up with old buddy Jim Rhodes (Don Cheadle), now going by Iron Patriot, to defeat the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) and the oily Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). There's a mid-film twist that I'm not convinced totally works, but the cast is all-around great, and Gwyneth Paltrow finally gets a chance to be more than just window-dressing. It's more fun than it had any right to be, and it's a breath of fresh air as Downey Jr. (presumably) rides off into the sunset from these films. B+

Mud (dir. Jeff Nichols, 2013)

Matthew McConaughey has been having a killer past couple of years, with great performances in a number of films that have helped distance him from his goofy-romantic-comedy past. Mud is yet another of these great performances, featuring McConaughey as a fugitive living on an island in the Mississippi river when he's discovered by two young boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), whom he enlists to assist him in taking care of business before he flees again. Nichols, who made 2011's terrific parable Take Shelter, presents this Southern-fried pulp like a Terrence Malick film, with plenty of shots of the Arkansas environment around the river. The film is perhaps too long, and the story perhaps wraps itself up a bit too neatly to fit with what came before, but both Sheridan and Lofland make engaging young leads. But this is, ultimately, McConaughey's movie, and he lends Mud - both the character and the film - just the right amount of sleaze and soul. B

The Sapphires (dir. Wayne Blair, 2013)

There's a great premise to The Sapphires: the true story of an Aboriginal Australian girl group that travels to Vietnam in the 1960s to perform for U.S. troops at a time when Aboriginals are not considered human but rather "flora and fauna" by the Australian government. However, The Sapphires wastes a lot of its potential by presenting it in standard biopic form that too often feels lifeless. It certainly doesn't help that, in the film as well as in the marketing, the girls - Kay (Shari Sebbens), Gail (Deborah Mailman), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), and Julie (Jessica Mauboy) - take a backseat to Chris O'Dowd, who plays their loutish manager. It would have really been interesting to see this story told from their perspective, rather than his. The tunes are catchy, but the film never matches their energy. B-

Captain Phillips (dir. Paul Greengrass, 2013)

Let's get this out of the way first: yes, of course Tom Hanks is terrific here as Captain Richard Phillips, who has taken hostage by pirates aboard the Maersk Alabama in 2009 in the first successful pirate attack on a US ship in nearly 200 years. But attention must be given to first-time actor Barkhad Abdi, who plays the pirates' leader Abdulwali Muse. Abdi, a Somalian-American, goes toe-to-toe with Hanks  and nearly matches him in every scene, proving himself to be a magnetic presence and a spectacular actor. Their duet is what makes this film sing, moreso than Paul Greengrass' expectedly-excellent direction (his usual jerky camera makes sense in the context of being adrift at sea) and Billy Ray's tight script. If the film has any flaw, it's that most of the third act is devoted to US Navy rah-rah heroism, which feels out-of-place within the rest of the film's tight focus. But as a nerve-wracking, impressive thriller, it's one of the year's best films. A

Oscar Prediction Update: October 2013

I've updated the Oscar predictions for October, which you can check out here. This is always the more exciting time of the process, since the contending films begin rolling out en masse and the season's narratives begin to take shape. Here are my thoughts about the changes I've made:

  • The Wolf of Wall Street is the big mystery of the moment, as Scorsese reportedly turned in a massive 3+ hour first cut and is now having to edit it down to meet a tentative November 15 release date. That date hasn't been confirmed yet, and it's still unknown whether or not the film will even come out this year or not. For now, I'm leaving it out of my predictions on the assumption it's moving to 2014.
  • Speaking of moving to 2014: Foxcatcher was one of the great unknowns of this year, and it will be moving to next year.
  • Best Actress remains unchanged, if only because I just don't know if Judi Dench is really capable of topping Amy Adams at the moment. I guess I have a hard time believing that for the second year in a row, an acting category would be comprised completely of previous winners, and I feel more secure about Emma Thompson and Adams than I do Dench.
  • Since I'm dropping Leonardo DiCaprio in Best Actor and Bruce Dern has announced his campaign as a lead, the latter's moving into my predicted five. I can't actually see this category looking any different than it does right now; these are all strong performances and even the strong secondaries (Michael B. Jordan, Christian Bale, Joaquin Phoenix) don't seem likely to pry their way in. But stranger things have happened.
  • Even though it doesn't seem like it, I think I'm really underestimating American Hustle. It could end of dominating this year if it becomes a big-enough hit, critically and commercially. And yet...I just don't think it'll be able to squeeze out a number of other contenders. I guess we'll know later if it'll be able to "get over on all these guys," as Amy Adams says in the trailer.
  • Supporting Actor is looking mighty thin right now, isn't it? There's just not enough known about the films and the performances, and those that do look like winners right now (specifically, I'm thinking of the truly phenomenal performance Barkhad Abdi gives in Captain Phillips) aren't likely to gain any real traction for a number of reasons. Maybe we'll see it turn around later?
  • I know I'm underestimating Inside Llewyn Davis. It hasn't performed hugely with festival audiences, but American critics and the Academy go nuts for the Coen Brothers...except when they don't. This one just feels like it's more in line with A Serious Man: maybe it can eek out a nomination or two (most likely Original Song), but it's just going to go down as one of their "underrated masterpieces" five years from now. Unless, of course, the Academy goes nuts for it. On a related note, other pundits are putting this in both Adapted and Original Screenplay, so I give up until there's further clarification.
  • Fruitvale Station probably isn't going to get any nominations this year. After being the must-see indie event of late summer - helped by the outrage over the Trayvon Martin verdict - the film's lost a lot of its heat, and given the competition it probably won't pick up anymore. Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay are its best chances for a nod, but even those are becoming long-shots.

Sight & Sound Sunday: Metropolis (1927)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 Poll Rank: #35 (tied with Psycho; Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles; Satantango)

**Note: for this essay, I watched the 2010 restoration of the film, incorporating the Buenos Aires footage discovered in 2008. This is currently considered the most complete version of the film.**


Whether he would admit it or not, German director Fritz Lang's silent sci-fi epic Metropolis is a political film. Though it wasn't exactly a critical hit upon it's release, the film's reputation sank further when Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Hitler praised it as exemplary of Nazi ideals (reportedly, Lang was offered to be an "honorary Aryan;" he left for France immediately afterward). Though Lang was adamantly against National Socialism, his then-wife Thea Von Harbou, who wrote the novel that the film is based upon, would later become a strong supporter. Lang declared that he was not particularly political at the time, and in his later life openly detested the film, thinking of it as "silly and stupid." Whatever his intentions, the film carries a strong political message.

But what is that message? The above mantra closes out the film as the moral of the story. That story, set in the futuristic city of Metropolis, finds Freder (Gustav Frohlich), the son of the city's leader, descending into the depths of the city, where he switches places with a worker and learns about the terrible conditions they live and work in. He seeks Maria (Brigette Helm), a beautiful woman, but instead finds himself in the midst of a worker's revolt led by Maria and the Machine Man (also Helm), which was made in the image of Freder's mother.

The message, then, must be that for there to be harmony between the working class (the hands) and the ruling class (the head), there must be empathy and understanding (the heart). However, while Lang's title cards would indicate this, the film itself doesn't provide such a clean-cut reading. While the film's plot is, in many ways, a compromise between free-market capitalism and Marxist communism, the workers never come across as particularly sympathetic; in fact, with the exception of Freder's friend Josaphat (Theodor Loos) and 11811 (Erwin Biswanger), the worker Freder replaces, the workers are barely human at all. In fact, they're presented as machines themselves, or at least cogs in the machinery that make the city function.

When the workers are read in this way, it makes the film's anti-technology theme even stranger. The machines in the city's factories are (rightfully) presented as dangerous, not only to the workers who toil to keep them running but for the ruling class as well, should the machines fail. But then there's the Machine Man, the automaton that inspires the revolt that nearly destroys the entire city. The Machine Man is presented as a kind of false messiah; it promises rewards for overthrowing the masters that oppress the workers, yet only brings about ruin. In short, the Machine Man - vis a vie Maria - is not a true mediator between the head and the hands. If anything, the Machine Man contributes to the problems that the film's characters face. However, if machines are the source of social strife, and the workers are portrayed as machines themselves, then the film seems to be making the confused argument that the workers are the cause of society's ills. This seems to go against that final title card, where the ruling and working classes are given equal importance.

There's no denying that Lang's vision of the future is muddled on a number of levels, from it's handling of socioeconomic issues to failing to explain a number of facets of this world (for example, who's consuming the products of labor if not the laborers themselves?). Whether Lang meant to or not, Metropolis is a politically-charged film; those politics, however, are muddled and contradicted by competing ideas.

On the next "Sight & Sound Sunday:" Rashomon (1950)

Thursday, October 17, 2013

24 @ 24: Day One, 5:00 A.M. - 9:00 A.M.

As the sun rises on this first day of 24, I've noticed that the show has started to draw parallels between Jack Bauer and David Palmer.

In these four episodes alone, this has become especially evident. On the one hand we have Bauer, counter-terrorism super-agent. He's virtuous in the sense that his ultimate mission is to protect the country, but in kidnapping Nina (Sarah Clarke) and potentially being framed for an attempted assassination on Palmer, it's obvious he's willing to take extreme measures to do so. Yes, he was being manipulated by Gaines (Michael Massee), the apparent mastermind behind this convoluted plot. But note how, from the very beginning, he's been breaking protocol in the name of the mission. He's making progress, but at what cost to those around him?

Palmer, on the other hand, has based his campaign on "integrity," and he seems to be an exemplar of that. Everyone around him - including (especially?) his wife (Penny Johnson Jerald) - is intent on convincing him to keep quiet about his son accidentally killing his daughter's rapist seven years prior. Even Keith (Vicellous Shannon) is against it, fearing that his dad his throwing him under the bus just to save his campaign. Palmer's intention is more pure, though - he feels morally wrong about covering it up, and wants to come clean with the voters. Whereas Bauer is using questionable means for "the greater good," Palmer's trying hard to do good in a world where it's easer to be easy.

It's an interesting contrast going forward, and it'll be interesting to see if Palmer's asked to compromise that integrity he prides himself on later.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Gravity (2013)

Is there anything as existentially terrifying as outer space? It's an infinite vacuum, a dark void where, as the marketing of 1979's Alien noted, no one can hear you scream. If something bad were to happen, there's no one there to save you - all anyone on the ground can do is hope for the best. And should you drift off into the void, all that's left is to disappear into vast nothingness. Space is where humanity is at its absolute most vulnerable; amazingly, fatal accidents in space are incredibly rare.

Gravity, the first film in seven years from Alfonso Cuaron, finds astronauts Ryan (Sandra Bullock) and Matt (George Clooney) stranded above the Earth after debris from an exploded satellite destroys their space shuttle. Their only hope for survival is to reach a nearby space station and use its pods to make it back home. The caveat: the debris cloud will orbit back around quickly, raising the stakes considerably.

There's no denying the fundamental truth that this movie is visually breathtaking. Cuaron, collaborating again with genius director of photography Emmanuel Lubezski (Children of Men, Tree of Life), creates a beautifully stunning backdrop for the action, as the Earth is hardly ever out of the frame. The special effects team clearly took their time in creating these rich environments, resulting in a realistically ethereal gloss over every scene. The true virtuoso sequence - the one everyone who's seen it is talking about - is the opening scene, a near-20 minute single shot that drifts in on Ryan and Matt's shuttle, swoops around as they complete their repair mission, then follows the action as all hell breaks loose. It's easily the film's best sequence, and quite possibly the best 20 minutes of any film this year.

As is too often the case with these kinds of films, the ambition is greater than the actual product, even in the hands of someone as immensely talented as Cuaron. Don't get me wrong - what Cuaron does here is nothing short of incredible from a directing perspective, and he should easily score his first directing Oscar nomination for this film. However, where the film suffers the most is on the script level. Cuaron collaborated on the script with his son, Jonas, and the result is surprisingly standard: the basic plot finds Ryan drifting to a nearby space station, surviving a round of debris, then repeat. There's a subplot about Ryan learning how to let go of grief that works well, but otherwise the writing is remarkably flat. There is, also, the issue of the film's score: it's too often invasive and protruding in scenes that would have been much better served with silence. How remarkable would it have been for the film to feature only diagetic sound, letting the silence of space lend to the overall tension?

Even though Bullock and Clooney are remarkably talented actors, their performances are more impressive from a technical standpoint - the ways they shot the roles in the studio - than from a traditional acting standpoint. Clooney is mostly asked to coast on his (considerable) charm as the experienced astronaut, keeping his cool when the situation turns dangerous. Bullock makes the most of a character that we don't really get much insight into - she remains a cypher for most of the film's running time, but Bullock manages to get a lot of milage purely out of panicked looks and muttered asides. Though they both put in commendable work, especially Bullock, it's hard not to wonder if they were cast more for their bankability than for whether they were really right for these roles (it's easy to see why it would be the former; spending $100 million on an auteur's passion project that's essentially a twofer in space isn't exactly a studio's idea of a hit).

I've been working on this review for over a week now. Even though I genuinely enjoyed the film, I've had a hard time writing about it. And in a lot of the reviews that I've read for it in that time, I notice Gravity being compared to two films: Apollo 13 (the disaster-in-space angle) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (the auteurist-driven film, the bodies-floating-in-space). However, the one movie that kept coming to mind for me was Alien. Gravity wants to capture that same claustrophobic feeling of hopelessness that Alien is able to create, the tension of being lost in the void where no one can help you (that the two also have strong female protagonists makes the comparison more evident). And though Gravity doesn't capture it quite as effectively as the previous film (what could?), it comes awfully close. It may not make a lasting imprint on cinema in terms of storytelling, and it won't be Cuaron's masterpiece, but it's a breathtakingly beautiful experience. See it 3D or IMAX if you get a chance. A-

Monday, October 7, 2013

24 @ 24: Day One, 12:00 AM - 5:00 AM

The most striking thing about these first five hours of 24 is how completely of-their-time they are. Sure, there are the obvious hallmarks that this is the year 2001: the cell phones, the home phones (they're not the same thing!), Kim Bauer's (Elisha Cuthbert) kidnappers drive a van decked out in blacklights and listen to Nine Inch Nails-type alternative metal. Our hero, Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), works for the Counter-Terrorism Unit; the Department of Homeland Security hadn't been formed yet. And, of course, the idea that a black man - in this case, Senator David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) - could become president was still decidedly far-fetched.

But more so than those narrative elements is that fact that 24 as we know it and its subsequent success could not have occurred at any other point in television history. The pilot aired a little less than two months after 9/11, at a time when terrorism was the national buzzword and everyone worried about when the next attack would come. FOX and the show's creators, Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran, had  a program that provided the perfect catharsis: Bauer would defeat the terrorists and save American lives. The show began as a modest hit, and though it never reached the Nielsen top 10 seasonally, it did average more than 10 million viewers over the course of its run. It would also become a critical hit, winning raves and awards, included the Best Drama Series Emmy in 2006 (to date, it's the last non-cable drama to win) and the Best Drama Series Golden Globe in 2003. 

The first five hours of season (day) one, though, are all about setting up the show's premise and characters. Most people, even those who have never seen the show, are at least familiar with the show's main gimmick: each hour of the show equals one hour of "real time," and the entire season takes place over a single day. It's a clever trick, even if the show doesn't exactly pull it off in the most believable fashion. Luckily, the emphasis here isn't really on the gimmick as much as it is on crafting an action-packed narrative. There's a plot to assassinate Palmer on the day of the California Primary, which, if Palmer were to win, would secure him the nomination for president. At this stage, there's no explanation for who's actually behind the plot, how many are involved, or what kidnapping Jack's daughter Kim has to do with any of it.

There are, essentially, five different narratives playing out. Jack is attempting to find the terrorist responsible from blowing up a passenger flight, who is also likely the hitman hired to carry out the assassination. Jack's wife, Teri (Leslie Hope), is searching for their estranged daughter. Some time is spent with the young people involved in the assassination plot, though their role has mostly been ambiguous for now. Palmer is holed up in his hotel room with his family, with a story about to leak about how his son murdered his daughter's alleged rapist. And then there's Kim's storyline, as she desperately tries to escape from her kidnappers. At this point, only Jack's plot is actually interesting, while the others are just getting warmed up.

But while there's mostly just table-setting going on, the show does offer us a few glimpses of the Jack that became a pop culture lightning rod in the debate on the War on Terror. Jack is mostly presented as a tough agent with sharp instincts; in other words, a man who's very good at his job. However, Jack's skills sometimes fall into extralegal practices. After a building shootout with unknown gunmen, Jack cuts the finger off one of the shooters to take back to CTU and get a positive identification. In another shootout, he explains to a police officer (who is eventually killed thanks to him) that when keeping America safe, you have to operate outside of the law. I'm sure as we get further into the series, these themes will come up again and again, but for now, these few mentions are all we really get.

There's not a whole lot happening in these early episodes: the plots are vague but exciting, and we haven't spent enough time with these characters to really understand them just yet. But there's reason to be optimistic going forward: we're only just beginning.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Sight & Sound Sunday: The Searchers (1956)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 Poll Rank: #7

As the 1950s rolled around, the Western genre had exploded across the cultural landscape. Radio serials such as Gunsmoke made their way onto television, which, as a young medium, held a lot of potential for visually telling these serialized stories. Director John Ford was - and still is - best known for his contributions to the genre (trivia note: despite this, none of his four directing Oscar wins were for Westerns), particularly 1939's Stagecoach and 1950's Rio Grande. John Wayne was at the height of his popularity, and by now he had cemented himself as not just as America's favorite cowboy, but also as America's only cowboy. Wayne and Ford had collaborated on 21 films over the span of their respective careers, but 1956's The Searchers is frequently as their greatest.

The Searchers was Ford's attempt at what would later be called the "revisionist Western." Ford was interesting in creating a Western that addressed the racial issues between white settlers and Native Americans. The Searchers, adapted from a novel of the same name by Alan Le May, would feature a bigoted former Confederate soldier, Ethan Edwards (Wayne), looking for the Comanches who took his daughter alongside is part-Native American adopted nephew Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter). The two would stand in contrast of one another, depicting the racism of old giving way to newer, more accepting attitudes.

Did he succeed? Somewhat, with very marginal results.

In the context of the 21st century, there are enormous racial problems (which I'll discuss further down). However, for a Western in 1956, The Searchers is remarkably forward-thinking. Ethan is first seen framed inside a doorway, a man who's been left behind by the times (he still carries his Confederate saber, even though the war is long over) and his own seething hatred. As the film progresses, Ethan is shown becoming increasingly more brutal until, in the final climactic showdown with the Comanche chief Scar (Henry Brandon), he scalps the chief, thus performing an act commonly associated with the "savage" Native Americans.  The film's final shot frames Ethan leaving the rescued family, again framed in the doorway, removed from their comfort and returning to wilderness. At this point, he can no longer function in society.

There's no denying that Ethan is a remarkably complex character, reflecting moral quandaries that most Westerns were more than happy to gloss over in favor of cowboys-vs.-Indians (or, rather, "us vs. them") narratives. But The Searchers doesn't exactly condemn him, nor his way of thinking. One moment, he's more than willing to kill his captured niece (played by Natalie Wood) because she declares herself "one of them," but the next he's cradling her in his arms, and she's glad to have been rescued by him. Everyone around Ethan knows that he's taking things too far, but no one ever stands in his way. A major facet of this problem is that Ethan is played by Wayne; as a major box-office draw, Wayne - and the studio - couldn't afford to let Ethan come across as completely unlikable (though Wayne himself would later have some very negative things to say about race). Though he does teeter on the edge at several points, Ethan ultimately comes across ambiguously, allowing the audience to either cheer him as a hero (as AFI did for their "100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains" list) or view him as a man consumed by hate.

The biggest issue is in the film's representation of Native Americans. The only two Native American characters in the film with speaking parts - Scar and Martin - are played by white actors. Every other Native American character onscreen is silent and without personality. The most appalling example is Look, a Comanche woman that Martin accidentally marries. Look attempts to snuggle up next to Martin at night, only to be kicked by Martin, rolling down the hill to Ethan's boisterous laughter. Within ten minutes of her first appearance, Look is dead, and though the film tries to play this sympathetically, the rampart misogyny demonstrated to her before makes this gesture ring false.

It's impossible to discuss the issue of race without analyzing one of the film's most famous scenes. Ethan and Martin reach a military outpost where a number of women that had been captured by the Comanche are being held. The women are crazed and feral; they are incapable of speaking, instead only capable of making guttural noises. When one of the soldiers remarks how unbelievable it is that these women are white, Ethan responds:
"They ain't white. Not anymore. They're Comanch."
The implication here is that, because of their captivity and (presumed) rape at the hands of the Comanche, they've become "savages" themselves. Ethan glares at these women with a look of disdain; in his eyes, not only are they no longer white, they're no longer human. However, later in the film, when they discover the missing niece in Scar's camp, she's still "white," capable of speaking and behaving "civilly." One could presume that this means that perhaps her captivity has been different, but there's no denying that there's an odd range of tones that the film takes to race (for more on this, I highly recommend this essay from Brenton Priestley).

Of course, Ford was facing an uphill battle in wanting to create a Western that takes a more nuanced approach to race. The very core idea of the Western - the white settler as hero fighting the villainous Native American for the right to the "empty" American West - is inherently racist. But though it doesn't entirely succeed in it's intention, The Searchers did make an effort to address these issues, creating a Western rooting in a tangled morality with no easy solutions.

On the next "Sight & Sound Sunday:" Metropolis (1927)