Thursday, 30 June 2011

Limitless, Sc-Fi and the Joy of Limits

Great to chat together at Wild Goose, Vic. I've been so over-shadowed by your productive writing of late, that I thought I should convert some of my notes from the Wild Goose film review into a blog post. So here goes...
At least three recent sci-fi films explore some of the edges of human neuroscience – one of my favourite topics. There was last year’s Inception and this year’s Source Code and Limitless. All three are interesting films worth seeing and all three are thought-provoking journeys that are worth discussing afterwards.
Before doing some of that discussing here, however, I have to get one thing off my chest. Despite the fact that recent, real discoveries in neuroscience raise fascinating questions and point to many more possibilities that could be developed in coming decades, all three of these films succumb to the temptation to stretch way beyond the possible. In other words they choose not to accept the limits of either reality or even remotely likely potential reality. Perhaps many don’t agree, but I think the best sci-fi films make you believe the worlds they are creating are possible. Even when they stretch scientific possibility, they sell you on what could be.
Inception and Source Code choose not to accept these limitations. Inception doesn’t even bother trying to create a realistic pathway into the dream intrusion and manipulation at the heart of the film. Source Code does do a good job on trying to sell you on possibilities through the bulk of the film but then slips into silliness at the end. (I admit that my charge of silliness is not fair. Very smart people seem to play with the idea of parallel universes. Personally, I find the concept logically and aesthetically unappealing, but perhaps this is just a blind spot and the billions of my other selves in other universes would think differently.) The result is an unsatisfying final ending to an otherwise intriguing film. Ending with the kiss would have been better, and showing some kind of lasting effect from the late reconciliation with his dad would have been even better (because that at least would touch on the real-life miracle of how memories can be healed with wide-ranging effects).
Limitless, ironically, does a better job of accepting its limits. The benefits of NZT-48 are conceivable if somewhat exaggerated (and the NZT advertizing campaign demonstrates this). In spite of the fact that the film encourages the unscientific myth that we only use a small fraction of our brain, it does seem realistic that drugs have the potential to significantly enhance certain cognitive skills. It also does a great (if somewhat predictable) job of showing the typical biological price of cheating. The ending, which I certainly hope is meant to bother or at least unsettle us, is much less predictable and forces us to look more deeply at the tension between morality and our drive to exceed limits.
Wendell Berry, who I take to be one of the most important prophets of our day, writes that, in most cases, hope comes through limits – through accepting them and working with them, not striving to push past them. I appreciated the way that Limitless pushed me into a new appreciation of that truth. I’m just a little afraid for those who thought it was a happy ending. (***+ for Limitless; *** for Source Code and Inception – so two mugs up all around.)

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

The Time that Remains

Ironic title as I am currently obsessed with ‘the time that remains’ before the Over the Bridge Festival and the Wild Goose Festival and the “Assembly’. In this case, however, the title refers to a warning about the time that is remaining to us to turn things around in Palestine/Israel and the wider world.

The Time that Remains is another poetic and thought-provoking film by Elia Suleiman, the Palestinian filmmaker who wrote and directed Divine Intervention in 2002. It is a darkly funny epic tale chronicling the Israeli occupation of Palestine since 1948 through the telling of stories about Suleiman’s parents and grandparents. The film contains stories from 1948, 1970, 1980 and 2009. In the latter stories, Suleiman plays himself as a powerless observer who never utters a word or changes his facial expression. It all works brilliantly if you enjoy this kind of original filmmaking style as much as I do, but I suspect the average filmgoer would be bored to tears.

Suleiman employs mostly non-actors, which works because there is little dialogue in his films and it’s all about seeing the absurdity of daily life in oppressive situations, which is aided by the natural actions of non-actors. The cinematography is outstanding, which is vital to a film that relies on carefully-constructed framing to fuel the atmosphere.

The Time that Remains is a subtle cry for justice, not just for the Palestinian people but for all the world’s people who suffer from oppression and poverty. The use of humour diffuses the tension of such a cry without diluting the sting of its message. The film makes fun of Israeli people (especially soldiers) but not in an unkind way. And, as I mentioned, the Israeli people represent all those in the world who, blindly or knowingly, contribute to the suffering of others. There can never be too many good films which deal with issues of injustice.

The Time that Remains gets an easy ***+ and, because of its 2011 American release date, this 2009 film may even make my top ten of the year. My mug is up.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Super 8

I knew so little about Super 8 (virtually nothing) that I didn’t even know it involved kids, let alone that it was a film about kids. I'm not particularly drawn to films about kids, but the drama involving the kids is what makes Super 8 work, at least to some extent.

Super 8 is written and directed by J.J. Abrams, whom I have previously described as the Steven Spielberg of the 21st century. Here Abrams makes that comparison very obvious, as Super 8 feels a lot like Close Encounters and ET. It is even set in the time those films were made (1979). Indeed the whole film feels like Spielberg with a darker edge. And the first hour, during which we follow a group of kids as they try to make a horror film, is as good as many a Spielberg film (and that’s saying something; no director has more films in my top 150 than Spielberg). To say a little more about the plot, let me add that the filming is interrupted by a colossal train wreck which, within seconds, draws the attention of the air force. And that’s all I will say about that.

I should probably just stop my review there and let you experience Super 8 without further comment. But knowing how valuable low expectations are, let me lower your expectations. I throughly enjoyed, and was very impressed by, the first two-thirds of the film, a drama focusing on two kids and their fathers. The performance of the two kids (Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning) is truly remarkable and overshadows the work of any of the adults. Unfortunately, the overarching plot goes elsewhere (though Abrams wisely considers the drama to be the heart of the film). Super 8 is generally referred to as “a monster movie.” Since even I knew that going in, I will assume most readers do as well. The ‘monster movie’ did not work for me at all. It was derivative and boring and altogether anticlimactic. In other words, as a sci-fi film, Super 8 was a major disappointment to me.

I confess to watching and enjoying Abrams’ recent TV shows (LOST, Alias, Fringe) but there is something about Abrams that worries me. Like Spielberg, Abrams has the pulse of the masses. He can do no wrong. But I have been disappointed with both of Abrams’s last two films (Star Trek and Super 8). In both films, the best parts were those that didn’t involve the overarching plot. Those plots, which I found uninteresting, were just too important a factor for me to allow the rest of the film to sufficiently impress me. But then, I am one of those strange people who think Spielberg’s A.I. is a much better film than ET.

So, in spite of the great first half, Super 8 gets only *** from me. My mug is up, but I was hoping for something more exotic inside.

I just read Ebert’s review and was gratified to see that he also thought the first half of the film was much better than the last half. But he was more forgiving of this than I was.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Midnight in Paris

Regular readers will not be surprised to read that Midnight in Paris is my idea of good romantic comedy. Not that long ago I wrote that Woody Allen at his worst (Hollywood Ending, made in 2002, is his worst, in my opinion) is still better than most of what passes for comedy dramas today. Midnight in Paris may not be Woody Allen at his best (the days of Manhattan and Annie Hall) but this is easily the best film he has made since Everyone Says I Love You in 1996.

Midnight in Paris tells the story of Gil and Inez, an engaged couple visiting Paris with Inez’s parents. Gil (well-played by Luke Wilson) is a would-be novelist who likes to look back to the Golden Age of 1920’s Paris and wants to move to Paris to write. Inez (Rachel McAdams is well-cast here) wants to stay in California and wants Gil to go back to what brings in the money: screenwriting. When they meet acquaintances whom Gil finds pretentious, their paths diverge and Gil finds himself caught up in a late-night Parisian world beyond his wildest fantasies. I refuse to say more, because this is a Woody Allen film I will recommend to all my readers and you should try not to know more than this before watching the film.

Midnight in Paris is full of wonderful performances (Marion Cotillard and Kathy Bates are standouts), witty and intelligent dialogue, great music and fascinating cinematography. It is very funny (much funnier than Bridesmaids, in my opinion), even if watching yet another actor (Wilson) play Woody Allen is a little distracting. And it is very romantic in a classic kind of way. The film touches on interesting themes like finding meaning in our empty existence and why so many people think life was better in some golden days of the past. I wish it had done a little more with these ideas, but you can’t have everything.

If I wasn’t so stingy with giving four stars to a film, I would give Midnight in Paris four stars. But since I am stingy, I will stay with ***+ and add that it will almost certainly be in my top ten films of 2011.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

X-Men: First Class and Why My Mug is Almost Always Up

I have deliberately avoided going to see most of the biggest hits of 2011. Films like Hangover II, Thor, Fast Five, Pirates 4 and Kung Fu Panda 2 are not my idea of a fun evening at the cinema and are not likely to get an upward facing mug from me (the chance that one or more would surprise me is always there but the odds are against it). Since I am not being paid to write reviews on my blog, my life is too short to watch films that are unlikely to get three stars from me. You may recall that my foundational criterion for giving a film three stars is that I am willing to watch the film again. If I am not willing to watch it again, it gets two and a half stars or less. But since I happen to believe that any film worth watching once is worth watching twice, it follows that any film I do not think is worth watching again is not worth watching the first time. So that, my friends, is why most of the films I watch and review tend to get a mug up.

I had pretty well decided to lump X-Men: First Class with the films mentioned above, but the reviews were better than those for the others and Katrina recommended it, so I gave it a chance this evening, going in with fairly mixed expectations. Sigh. On the whole, I found X-Men: First Class a rather tedious film. The truth, which I am sure I have shared here before, is that action generally bores me. The action in First Class was definitely of the boring variety and there was altogether too much of it. When the action stopped, I occasionally found the film diverting, especially when James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender were alone on the screen. So I would be willing to watch it again, thus assuring that my mug will once again be up.

X-Men: First Class takes us back to the early days of Charles Xavier (McAvoy) and Magneto (Fassbender). With the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 as a backdrop, they join together with a group of young mutants to take on another group of mutants led by Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who had helped train Magneto, but also killed his mother.

The acting was mixed. I can’t say I was overly impressed by Bacon or January Jones (maybe that’s because they were the “bad guys”), but Jennifer Lawrence was very good as Raven (no surprise there after her fantastic performance in Winter’s Bone) and McAvoy and Fassbender were, as hinted at above, great to watch. The score was a little over-the-top, but that’s probably to be expected in an X-Men film. The cinematography was good enough but I am growing tired of CGI.

Needless to say, I found the violence in First Class quite disturbing, especially since kids of all ages are going to find their way into the cinema. I did appreciate the mutant versus ordinary human theme, as always, and Xavier’s generally pacifist mentality. He tries valiantly to keep Magneto from killing Shaw but in the end the filmmakers still seem to require that the ultimate bad guy (a nazi, no less) be gruesomely killed at the end of the film, and all sorts of violent mayhem was still apparently necessary to save the world. Sigh.

So, mostly because I enjoyed watching the three primary actors, X-Men: First Class gets *** and my mug is up.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Just What You Were Waiting For: Two Relentlessly Depressing Films (Biutiful and Enter the Void)


When, early in Biutiful, our protagonist (Uxbal, played marvellously by Javier Bardem) finds out he has an advanced form of cancer and only weeks to live, you know we are in a for a fun time. And we get just as much fun as you might expect. No, I lie. We get ever so much more fun than you might expect.

Uxbal is a loving father of two adorable but troubled kids. He is separated from his wife (Marambra, played by Maricel Alvarez), who is bipolar and abusive. To make a living, Uxbal works for people who exploit recent illegal immigrants to Barcelona. He is breaking the law, but we can see that his heart is in the right place. He actually cares for the poor people he is exploiting, even before he gets diagnosed and tries to put his life in order (which includes various attempts to help the immigrants). But Uxbal’s attempts to help immigrants, like his attempts to help his wife and children, are consistently thwarted.

The result is a film that spirals downward into tragedy and despair. But Javier Bardem does such a great job of making Uxbal believable in his criminal goodness that Biutiful worked for me. I found Uxbal a very sympathetic character and had no trouble understanding the war of clashing values which made his life so difficult both before and after the diagnosis.

Biutiful is directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who made the great Amores Perros and two underrated films (21 Grams and Babel). Since I’ve loved everything he has done, I was not surprised that I would find Biutiful to be a compelling well-made film which is once again underrated (IMHO). ***+ My mug is up.

Not wanting to end my day with such a depressing film, I decided to enter the void, watching a film about which I knew nothing except that it was highly recommended by both Gareth and Jett on The Film Talk. In the immortal words of Captain Alberto Bertorelli: “What a mistake-a to make-a”.

Enter the Void

Wow! Wow!

Enough said!

Well, no, if I just give Enter the Void two wows (and you know that automatically means a minimum of ***+) then you might decide it is something you should watch, even if it is relentlessly depressing. Do not make that mistake unless you are ready to go on a trip unlike any you have ever been on in a theatre or at home (unless of course you use substances like LSD).

Enter the Void, written and directed by Gaspar Noe, is not like any film I have ever seen. If I had ever used LSD myself, I might compare this film to going on such a trip, but I do not have that experience to compare it to. So I buckled up as much as I could and went on a ride down into the dark underbelly of Tokyo, where our protagonist (Oscar, played by Nathaniel Brown) begins by taking a mesmerizing trip of the aforementioned variety (and we get to join him) before going to a bar to sell some drugs to a friend. Well, the next thing you know Oscar is dead and for the next two and a half hours we get to experience death through his eyes and mind, including watching Oscar’s life flashing before his eyes, a life that had its wonderful sweet moments but also a few too many horrific ones that we get to experience more than once (oh joy!).

It felt like a very plausible death trip to me and who wouldn’t want to see what it’s like to be dead? You, that’s who. Unless you are up for the ride of your life (a very very slow-moving ride of your life). What I’m doing here is trying to warn people to stay away from Enter the Void (like the masses have certainly done to this point) unless you have the patience and stomach for it. If you do, you may be blown away like I was, but you’ll have to sit through an incredibly disturbing graphic scene of an abortion, among other graphic scenes (sex, drugs, not too much violence), and be prepared for all that relentless depression.

Enter the Void is an amazing mind-blowing work of cinematic art that finds a new way to explore the human search for connection which so many people in our world hunger for. It is beautiful and ugly, awful and awe-full. It is an experience that requires at least a large-screen television, it is an experience you may want to share with friends (too late for me) and it is an experience you may not want to have again. It is worthy of at least ***+ and I am tempted to give it more but it didn’t leave me as numb as Requiem for a Dream (not for lack of trying), so I’ll stay at this for now. My mug is up, but be warned: this is a potent brew that not everyone is ready for.