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Archive for the ‘Sci-Fi’ Category

Arrival

04 Jan

Arrival – directed by Denis Villeneuve. Sci-Fi. 119 minutes Color 2016.

★★★★

The Story A linguistics professor and a scientist are drafted to translate the language of alien invaders.

~

The music adds a lot to the telling. So does the editing. So does the filming, which is suave, muted, controlled. Like all sci-fi, it is a director’s gala day.

The story is so simple as to be rudimentary. Has anyone thought of it before? Alien spaceships land, but they speak an incomprehensible language. What are they trying to say? Neither in sounds nor in writing can it be understood.

Linguistics, you learn when you study it, has a substructure in mathematics – at least that is what the professors tell you. It is their livelihood to tell you something, so this is what they have contrived. Which is why a mathematician is brought in as the sidecar to the linguist – not that a linguist would need one, since a linguist would already know how to do the math, if any needed doing. He’s actually a poorly-written foil to give the linguist someone to talk to. You see what one is up against.

One other trouble I had was that the adventure of what the aliens were trying to convey stalls, then dissipates. For, into a language of black raindrops, we have no way of following leads and clues. The translation is un-filmable. As an audience, we must take on faith the power of the linguist to interpret it. We have faith in the actor to play the part, but we cannot know the part she is playing.

Another trouble lies in the character of the mathematician. Either the script or the director or the actor himself or all three have allowed him to be played as more volatile than need be. In short, Jeremy Renner overacts.

This might be a strategy to counteract Amy Adams’ playing of the linguist. For she plays her as if she knows what she is and what she does. She a steady-as-you-go linguist. She is undeterred and un-bestirred by the pressure of the situation. And this choice by the actress is right, smart, and actable. It’s isn’t showy, but it works for the story. It carries the film.

Renner’s behavior fails to throw Adam’s reserved linguist into error or even question, which is to say it has no dramatic function. He should have played it not as a counteraction but as a counterpart, as a fellow professional, just like she did. It would have worked just fine. Instead, his character looks like an amateur, like some Joe who stumbled into a sci-fi movie.

The particular information the aliens have to impart is blocked by The Great Powers, represented by their thick-headed minion on site. This obstacle is a ritual of melodrama and one which we cannot take seriously, so the conflict looks routine.

Forrest Whitaker, at his most magisterial, plays the colonel in charge of operations, but his part goes for naught. Its function seems to have been cut, but his grim bearing adds portent to the suspense.

That the suspense is considerable is due to the power-spectacle of the ships, the aliens, and their unaccountable bearing. The simplest and most effective element of this suspense comes from the aliens’ coloring. They are black. But is their message black? We must wait and see.

That the linguist was born with and therefore is already in possession of the aliens’ information is the surprise and quirk of the plot, about which no more shall be said here. The plot has other features of suspense besides spectacle, and they are held there by music, cutting, direction, and particularly by Amy Adams’ restraint.

I seldom go to sci-fi film. I find sci-fi sophomoric and humorless. I find it intellectual, chilly, and small. But theatres are packing them in. So, if sci-fi is your bent, never mind what I say here. You will find that your arrival at Arrival has been lavishly and unsparingly prepared for.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay 1

23 Nov

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay 1 – directed by Francis Lawrence. SciFi. 123 minutes Color 2014.

★★★★★

The Story: A young woman is unwillingly enlisted as the symbol of an underground movement to overthrow a tyrant.

~      

I have never seen such a film before. I have never been to one of these series films, partly because I am not interested in SciFi as a subject of any depth of drama or intelligence of scope and also because I am not interested in violent and mechanical action as a film style. I went to this one because it would be one of the last times to be seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman on the big screen. His appearance is rationed, he looks bad, and he does everything beautifully.

As do Joanna Moore as the president of the insurgents, Stanley Tucci as the evil interviewer, Woody Harrelson as the clever reprobate, and the always praiseworthy Jeffrey Wright. They cannot make a mistake, and they never appear to be slumming. Far from it: they seize every scene they are in with just the right grip. As does Donald Sutherland with his refulgent white hair belying his swinish interior. Only Elizabeth Banks seems out of place here: she seems to be playing a transvestite fashionista or something. Her character seems out of place, which is fine, but her performance also seems out of place, which is not fine. She doesn’t appear to be someone who should be doing this.

The main burden of the story lies with Jennifer Lawrence, who evidently has been in earlier versions of this series. She is not pleasant to look at and she is not pleasant. Moreover, her choice as an actor seems to be to play shellshock. I question it. She seems continually benumbed by something. In the past, she has had great success in playing marginal characters, but for her to play a heroine, a focal character is perhaps not her métier. But the story is hers.

And, for me, the interesting thing about it is how slowly, how leisurely it moves, how scenes are developed, how matters are discussed, how interior toward the characters the pressures of the story are aimed. I sit back in my multiplex armchair and stretch my legs into the aisle and watch in great comfort as this long, slow, story engrosses me – not just because of the satisfactions of its occasional and quite sensational blaps and gallooms but because Story in itself should sometimes invite repose, acceptance, trust, and the ease of the treat of a very expensive entertainment before one.

I took my pleasure, I may tell you. I did not feel cheated because I knew nothing and expected nothing. However, I realized as I left that what I had been watching was one of those Flash Gordon episodes I used to see back in the ‘40s, at the Saturday matinee – a cliff-hanger a week – and that I had started myself on the Perils Of Jennifer. And that I was bound to see the next one, and the one after that, praying only that Donald Sutherland will reach the end of the series before the end of his life. And mine.

 

Guardians Of The Galaxy

29 Sep

Guardians Of The Galaxy – directed by James Gunn. Sci-Fi Comedy/Adventure. 122 minutes Color 2014.

★★

The Story: A club of renegade do-gooders seek a magic orb to keep it out of the wrong hands.

~

Will this never end! This was my mantra as I watched this clunking monstrosity repeat itself over and over. Now we have the orb, now evil Ronan has the orb, now we have the orb, now Ronan – the same ploy repeated interminably, the interminability broken by action sequences so fast you cannot enjoy their elaborations, amid settings so ornately imagined the director dare not give us time to appreciate them. For it’s either back to the orb or into a space battle or a onto a recess into sophomoric humor lead by Chris Platt beating off of the barbs of Bradley Cooper disguised as fast-talking, wirehead Raccoon, who is actually quite funny.

John. C. Reilly, Djimon Hounsou, Benicio del Toro and Glen Close freeze-shrink their immense talents to earn their pay playing characters with no discernable character. While the great Lee Pace stands before us in ruins as the villain Ronan, his beautiful speaking voice turned into a steam shovel and his interesting face shrouded in makeup, costume, and shadow.

Everything about the movie is made-up and everything depends on makeup. It’s worth seeing for the makeup. Is it? No.

The film seems not to be based on a Marvel comic strip so much as on a Buck Rogers Saturday matinee kids’ serial. That is to say, it is based on the perpetual repetition necessary for its existence at all. Except here we see all the serials at once, an endeavor that hangs itself on its own cliff-hangers. Raiders Of The Lost Arc with jokes but no humor.

 

The Giver

08 Sep

The Giver — directed by Phillip Noyce. Sci-fi. 97 minutes Color 2014

★★★★

The Story: A young man entrusted with the memory of the race decides to flout convention and save all humanity.

~

Everything depends upon the casting of the young man, and in this case he is perfect – Brenton Thwaites, a teenager by the look of him, with a big open expression and beautiful eyes like Dana Andrews’. So we can well believe in his ability to absorb the information he is called upon to receive and go on to care about his survival with it.

This information is imparted by a senior member of the community, and is played by Jeff Bridges. It is the part of a man who knows everything, and the peril in such parts is that one can sound mantic. Or make noises like a stone dog. That is to say, be Alec Guinness. Bridges skirts this canyon and tousles the young man as he transmits the info, so we see he is rather more warm-minded than the rest of the community, from which all feeling has been drained by daily injections and by a sternly regulated diction. Katie Holmes plays the young man’s mother, and she is a vision that would have won Charles Addams’ heart. His father is the local executioner, which would have won his other heart.

For what we have here is a dystopia. A dystopia is a utopia, a utopia is always a dystopia, all utopias being dystopias because all utopias, having been formed for the most noble and humane purposes, insist on certain humorless excisions, and so all go to the bad.

The monitor of this nation is Meryl Streep, who plays her role of the bad lady with a technical purity that is a source of wonder and surprise with every breath she draws and every word she utters. She regulates a nation from which all color and all love have been banished.

In the story, the young man wakens to the deprivations this nation lives under as he learns of them through the transmissions of The Giver, Bridges, a physical encyclopedia of all past human and natural history. And somehow the young man must escape and save humanity from the wreckage of the future.

I enjoyed the adventure and all the sci-fi effects. Indeed, the effects are the chief value of sci-fi. They guarantee and deliver magic. The Giver story is told in a series of beautiful montages that sweep us forward and keep us abreast of The Lost Horizon we are learning about and from. Shakespeare’s The Tempest is a sci-fi play. Meryl Streep transports herself with no more difficulty than Ariel. For special effects have an honored and ancient place in commanding our sense of wonder, fortunate deliverance, and heavenly visitation every time. If you don’t think those are real in real life, your sense of reality may be stunted. Effects are the wand to remind us of the power and influence of the impalpable.

 
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Posted in Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep: ACTING GODDESS, Sci-Fi, SURVIVAL DRAMA

 

Gravity

15 Oct

Gravity – directed by Alfonso Cuarón. SciFi Drama. Two astronaunts on a space mission come up against The Universe. 90 minutes, Color, 2013.

★★★★★

George Clooney has the most hopeful eyes. And there’s such fun in them. This is what makes it virtually impossible for him to die in a movie. A real hero, yet. Gary Cooper had it written into his contracts that his characters would never die — because the only thing Gary Cooper could do was be a hero. Such are the qualities and strategies of The Stars!

Sandra Bullock has wary eyes, almost skeptical. She doesn’t quite believe. This also makes her good as a hero – because it means she is up against her inner lack of faith in the Universe, as well as everything else on the bus-ride. “This can’t work out but I’ll go through with it anyhow,” is her mantra.

What a pair they make!

Dancing through space, they make us see the Earth itself as dancing through space, and doing so compulsively, thank goodness, as by the merest chance. How vulnerable the huge Earth is, and how dear – never more plainly seen as from the great distance from it to which this story takes us.

Space!

What a place!

How beautiful! How restful! How dangerous! How unlikely!

You’ve never seen it before, and never have you had the opportunity to appreciate it more than in Gravity, in part written, produced, and edited by its Mexican director.

How on earth Clooney and Bullock ever signed themselves up for this project I shall never know. I mean, from Y Tu Mamá También, how could these grand stars have the least inkling that this was not just going to be another Buck Rogers cliff-hanger? How could they ever have imagined it would be this good!

The film is breathtakingly beautiful in how it shows what is breathtakingly beautiful.

Both actors are super-duper. Clooney plays a jocular raconteur blabbing on all the time, and Bullock plays an introverted scientist he mentors.

I saw it in 3-D in a picture palace, and it is well worth seeing it thus. And, of course, besides all that, it really is a cliff-hanger!

 

Robot and Frank

29 Aug

Robot and Frank – directed by Jake Shreier. SciFi Drama. An elderly man is assigned a robot to be his caretaker. 89 minutes Color 2012.

★★★★

Frank Langella is a wonder to watch as he gets to accept his odd companion, played by the voice of Peter Sarsgaard. Langella has been around the block as an actor so long that he surprises every nook and cranny he comes upon.

The story is by a half-wit writer (according to the moronic Extra Voice Over he supplies, a “sort of” Valley Boy, using “sort of” six times a clause), but, unlike him, it has its charms, which supply the robot with a moral and ethic denied to the Langella character who is cat burglar striving for his final hit. He teaches the robot to pick locks.

Supplying a welcome set of variations for these two, we have three fine actors, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, and the inestimable Susan Sarandon. Watching Sarandon these days one sits back as confident as in the company of the best claret and simply enjoys a skill which is as past expertise as the moon the earth. What ease! What human insight! What open presence!

These three circle around Frank and his robot and they work toward a perhaps too sappy denouement for such a grouch.

But never mind. The idea of a robot pal ordered-in to care-take a dotty senior has a fine simplicity to it, and we look upon the doings of these two as perfectly possible in the near future.

A pleasant way to spend time without wasting it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elysium

26 Aug

Elysium – written and directed by Neill Boomkamp. SciFi Dystopian Drama. Earthlings now reside in a wrecked planet while the plutocrats inhabit a disease-free, gated garden in space which, seeking cure, a sick man and a sick child strive to reach. 109 minutes Color 2013.

★★★★★

We watch it because we want to watch Matt Damon carry another picture on his handsomely buffed shoulders. And we are not dissatisfied to see him do it once again. Except, of course, during the final reel, when, as is the long established and fitting custom in action/adventure movies, all character interaction dissolves in the tension inherent in his surviving the villainous remaining obstacles. This tension is in him and in us. Or is it in him? Or is it that we simply see him beat the odds with superior wit, muscle, and plot necessity, while we do all the tensing?

In any case, these sequences are over-cut, because we must not be asked to believe them, because to do that we would have to see them slowed down, and doing that, we would never find them credible. As it is we never find them credible. They simply zip by. And so the hero, the story, the human element – all are lost in the flash and speed of the editing, and we are bamboozled.

Are we bamboozled?

Nah. We don’t really buy it.

I’m not sure I buy the Jodie Foster freeze character of the mean Secretary of Defense of Elysium, as written, either. And I cannot understand two of the actors at all: Wagner Moura as Spider, Damon’s rebel chief, whose shaking curls destroy his articulation, and Sharlto Copley whose burr is so garbled and pitched that nothing the actor says can be heard. These characters, of course, are perfectly clear in their roles, but not in their gobbledygook. Bad direction. Too bad. It means all their humor is lost.

What’s not too bad is Damon, who, as always, is apple-pie, threatened, within or without, with strychnine. A completely identifiable actor, like Joel McCrae or James Stewart. And the entire contraption of the film is given and validated in its feeling and value by him and by Alice Braga. She is a wonderful actor, womanly, humorous, fluid, heaven to look at. She is a tincture of health in the sour atmosphere of nasty doom, exemplified by the part played by William Fitchner, a piece of work if ever there was one – Mr. Elegant Death, a sort of walking very expensive coffin.

The film satisfies as briskly as any other fast food you can think of. If you want to spend time without wasting time, you might like it.

 

The Guy Pearce Papers 5 — Prometheus

26 Oct

The Guy Pearce Papers 5: Prometheus – directed by Ridley Scott. SciFi. Explorers on a spaceship search for the answers to The Big Questions on a planet out there. 124 minutes Color 2012.
★★★★
It cost 130 million and it earned 420 million, and I had never heard of it until I tracked it down at the library to see what Guy Pearce was up to in it. I don’t go to SciFi films, Action/Adventure films, Animation films, Gangster films, unless there is someone in it to draw me to watch it. So I am not fit to review this picture except to say that its remarkable spectacle should be even more remarkable on the big screen instead of my TV. The color scheme of the picture is earthy and slimy, for in the huge dome of the tomb-like structure on the planet are found no pastels. Only worms. Octopi. Sarcophagi the color of Brittaniawear. The spaceship exploration has been financed by an ancient and perhaps dead or perhaps virtual plutocrat so old he looks like a mummy – but he may be a zombie – but he also may be both. He’s English anyhow, and with a UC accent I cannot ascribe to any actor I know. I wait for Guy Pearce to appear. Well, all right, he must have some sort significant role later. The ship is in the command of Charlize Theron who moves her impressive beauty rather uncertainly through the early scenes – unusual for this actor, yes? The problem with SciFi is to find an acting style suited to the taciturnity of SciFi scripts, and, with two exceptions, this style is no more stumbled on than the answers to The Big Questions. That is partly because the male and female playing the leads opt for sloppy realism, which does not jibe with the intent of the exploration, with their jobs as scientists, and with the setting, which, as with all SciFi I have ever seen, is Big Machine. SciFi has not progressed beyond Modern Times with Chaplin caught in the machinations of an assembly line. SciFi is all Big Fancy Machines. And it’s fun, of course, to see these monstrous machines come to life and collide. It is also true that neither actor has the substance necessary to carry such an immense film. At each exploration of the slime-dome, I expect Pearce to appear and I wonder what day they are saving him for to save. But no. No, the ancient plutocrat comes alive, and Theron proves to be his daughter, and she’s awfully mean, and she wields a wicked flame-thrower. As an actor she never really finds her voice for the role. But Michael Fassbender and Idris Elba do. Fassbender plays a Peter O’Toole knock-off robot, and what he does to find the style is nothing at all, except to stay infinitely still internally, and say his lines in the ordinary way. Idris Elba is the best thing in the show. He plays the captain, and I believe his every move, each one of which is casual, grounded, and masterly. He brings every scene he is in to complete life! But where is Pearce? Then I take a second look at that parchment faced trillionaire. Oh my word: there he is: playing a man of a hundred and four who is already dead, and he has been in front of me all this time! The great disguise here is not the make-up but the accent – and where he got that from, I could not say – but he is completely someone else, someone else in posture, gait, voice, and energy. Yes, energy. That old bastard tycoon was never in his life Guy Pearce. But still Guy Pearce is that old bastard tycoon.

A Supporting Lead. Sized just right.

 
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Posted in ACTING STYLE: INTERNATIONAL REALISTIC, Charlize Theron, Guy Pearce: ACTING GOD, Idris Elba, Michael Fassbender, Sci-Fi

 

Lockout

26 Apr

Lockout — written and directed by James Mather and Stephen St. Leger. Sci-Fi Action. A prison breakout in space. 95 minutes Color 2012.

★★★★★

Why is he one of the great film actors of our time? Well, for one, there is his application – complete application to the key he has chosen in which to play a role. (And for another there is his discernment of what the right key is. Back to application:) Not every good or great actor has it; it’s an ingredient in the work or it isn’t. What application means is that before the first note struck there is no doubt, there is no seeking out the way; there is complete commitment and forward movement. The actor asks nothing from the audience. But what he gives to them is a character for them to trust. He is selling apples, not grapefruit. He has thrown himself into it. He is there. Proactive. Among a variety of positive ingredients of his talent, it is a characteristic of the craft of Guy Pearce. So it is easy to see why a producer would want him to tell a tale. It is why the entire film of The Hurt Locker depended upon how by-the-rules Guy Pearce lightly played the opening sequence: the entire film streams out of that performance and was unthinkable without it. In the case of Lockout he is the principal player, the hero. Here he plays a jocular Buck Rogers in a comic book in film form, a superhero with a witty mouth for a cape. Pearce’s understanding how to deliver these jokes as throwaways is the critical counterpoint to the heavy, head-on, non-joke situation of The President’s daughter held hostage by creepy Scottish escapees in an outer space prison where inmates are injected to sleep their sentences out, but are actually used for dastardly experiments. You know the sort of thing. Is there another actor alive who could play it so well? Yes. Robert Downey Junior, but Pearce has better diction; he is more audible. At his most sub-rosa he doesn’t murmur. Because this is the case, he and the girl can remain dialoguing and not get swallowed up by the special effects. The writer/directors let Pearce keep the comebacks coming, and thus the characters are not lost, as they so often are when such films bear down on their finales and the rocket ships start zooming. His fine physical shape and prowess authenticate the role as well. So what is he? He is perfectly cast, that’s what he is. He is so perfectly cast you don’t even think about it. He is so perfectly cast you go along for the ride through to the end and beyond, even though without him in it you would not watch such a movie at all, and without him in it, you would have movie at all.

 

The Lost World: Jurassic Park

21 May

The Lost World: Jurassic Park – Directed by Steven Spielberg. Sci-Fi Action. Dinosaurs, still hanging around on a tropical island, draw competing scientists and developers. 2 hours 7 minutes Color 1997.

* * * * *

Pete Postlethwaite devours the screen like a brontosaurus rex whenever he is on it. This is wonderful to behold, because his ruthlessness outstrips the passion of any other character in the movie, and so one loves him for it. The others fare not so well. For the “action sequences” devour character as well as characters. This is true of all such films. David Koepp has written a brilliant script, which means that its wit compliments the wit of the director, and he has made for us characters who have a living eccentricity, in scenes that are beguiling and actable. But all of that is in the beginning of the film. As soon as the dinosaurs start competing with the humans all character is lost as the film bogs down in spectacle, escape, acts of derring-do, mayhem, terror, clumping and munching – in fact, in story- behavior in which, because it is minimally verbal, character, charm, eccentricity, and even motive are devoured. It’s no one’s fault. It’s simply a characteristic of the genre. They all end up this way. The chief consequence of this is that one ceases to love the characters – because they are characters no longer. And too bad too. Because we have the glorious Jeff Goldblum as one of a group of four heros (really five until our beloved Richard Schiff becomes an ors d’oeuvre for a rex). With his bright and wonderful face, and endearing tallness, and supple intelligence, he plays a character who disapproves of everything, in a role which almost becomes thankless because of that. Julianna Moore is delightful in a love scene walking away from him in the middle of a river; she plays a character who approves of everything. And the dewy Vince Vaughan plays a kind of side-car part which is actually underwritten and functions really only to make a certain defunct radio work to save the day (it’s actually night). Never mind. It’s a director’s film, and Spielberg has a witty mind. Never is he unprepared to entertain us. The action sequences unravel with imagination and care and stunning execution. And in this is he ably abetted by the camera of Janusz Kaminsky and the surprising editing of Michael Kahn, who will supply us with a sterling close-up of Moore’s face, for instance, just when you would never expect you would need the relief of it from the action in play. Spielberg always gets his endings wrong, and he does not fail us in this one. It’s a failure of value in him, as, for the wrong reason, he brings the tale around to a city he has not previously established, and so the big bus-wrecking sequences, and so forth, have no connection to us. The ending comes out of nowhere into nowhere. His wit does not fail him, as the rex clomps by an Animal Control vehicle, but his thinking does. This means that the value of actions floats free of the value of settings, streets, a harbor, a ship, and, most important, human inhabitants. However, the film has delivered so much “entertainment” one has to forgive him once again, simply on the grounds that our exhaustion forbids us from sustaining anything more than a sigh of relief that the entertainment is finally over.

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The Fountain

31 Jan

The Fountain – directed by Darren Aronofsky – Sci-Fi Science Drama. To save his dying wife a brain surgeon leaps into his past and future incarnations in search of a panacea for her. 96 minutes, color, 2006.

* *

As in his dreadful Black Swan, we are faced with an essentially adolescent temperament in the director. This does not mean that brilliant results are not produced, but it’s a false brilliance. Darren Aronofsky often uses the same staff on his films. They are all young males, just a gang of clueless neighborhood boys getting together to talk about stuff. Matthew Libatique films most of them, and does so with an imaginative power that is so striking one almost believes the picture might be saying something. Clint Mansell writes music with such justice to it that one is almost convinced the film might have some content. But no. This becomes blatant when one listens to the dialogue, such that the actors are altogether competent, except when they open their mouths and words come out. Aronofsky especially betrays his immaturity in the way he handles Rachel Weisz. Her character’s life hangs in the balance, but she is made to seem a high school sophomore’s wet dream, just a pretty chick – but why should we care about such a vapid thing? Yet on the Extras we see Weisz on the sound stage, and she is clearly a woman who has moxie, wit, readiness, intelligence, and truth, all of which would have made her an ideal heroine to loose, but none of which is in the film itself. This leaves us with Ellen Burstyn, an actress of limited temperament, and Hugh Jackman who is very talented and whose performance carries the picture – to just outside the Five and Dime. Aronofsky intended audience was who? Adolescents? But this is a sci-fi-sci story about a brain surgeon trying to save the life of his brain-tumored wife, and it involves incarnation stories, which take him back to 1500 and a search for The Tree Of Life in South America and a future in which he is meditating Buddhist. The visual effects throughout, for the most part not computer generated, are remarkable, but kids’ stuff. It is a film about soul without a soul. Science Fiction, like computer games, is adolescent escapism. It is always about initiation. But we cannot feel an initiation when the author has never had one. And Aronofsky has never had one.

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