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Archive for January 6th, 2007

Alfonso Cuaron’s brilliance as a director is in full force here – there a couple of set pieces in this film which, quite frankly, put to shame most men who have claimed the mantle of ‘director’ – but this film is anything but the perfection that many critics are making it out to be.

That’s not to say that it’s bad.  As a matter of fact, it’s actually very good, but it’s touch and go at times.  The script has its faults, and at times the acting does as well.

But lets start with the good.

Absolutely every claim that this film is, visually, the equal of “Blade Runner” is absolutely correct.  It is gorgeous to look at at all times, and the world that has been created for this film is faultless in its believability.  From a pure imagery standpoint, one is immersed in this film and does not want to leave.

(Minor spoilers in the following two paragraphs.)

What drives this feeling of completeness are the two tour de force moments in the directing; there are two brilliant single-take sequences in this film, one at the beginning, one at the end, which put you in the world and keep you there.  The first is somewhat brief – an introductory shot of the world as the main character walks out of a coffee shop – which sets up the world full of smog, a grey color palette, and full motion advertisments everywhere.  And then we get the shock moment, which is what makes the whole take feel real – the coffee shop that we just left explodes.  The world is a hail of marketing, despair, and violence…and it comes at us when it is damn good and ready, leaving us powerless.

The second sequence is breathtaking.  Running through a warzone, a handheld camera follows the central character for several minutes, catching falling bodies, small arms and cannon fire, exploding buildings, cowering civilians, and active characters running thru the set.  Tiny moments are caught, important characters get shot down, and facial expressions register despite their need to happen exactly on time.  Everything seems believable in a take that, by all rights, shouldn’t be possible.  This is an awful lot of fireworks to go off without an edit; a lesser director would’ve caved in to the fear of such a scene being unattainable.  Orson Wells and Joseph Losey (kings of the intricate long take) would applaud in those moments when they hadn’t lost control of their limbs in awe.

Yes, I realize how much praise I’ve heaped on this scene in a single paragraph.  Watch the film; I dare you to try to say otherwise.

There are also nice little touches scattered throughout the film.  In the home of what appears to be an artist (I was a bit unclear), the outside of the building is set up as a replica of the album cover for Pink Floyd’s “Animals.”  (A large factory with smokestacks and a pig floating in the sky.)  I assume this is one of the works of the artist living in the building, but it may just be an in joke for the viewer.

Unfortunately, when we get into the little moments, we start to get into what makes this film problematic.

It suffers quite badly from an awareness that the script is essentially just a ‘run from destruction’ action concept.  All of this world building matters very little in the grand scheme of a plot based on chase scenes.  Though the world building is what makes the film memorable, it may be more than the script itself deserves – or more than the script can bear.  The little moments seem so special precisely because the overall thrust of the film is so resolutely mundane – it is just a chase, and a chase is very difficult to intellectualize unless your name happens to be Sabu.

What I mean by this is that the film, in an effort to keep the constant running lively, tends to lapse into ridiculous B-movie-esque humor that is totally at odds with the glorious filmmaking on display.  (Watch out for little spoilers in this paragraph as well.)  In one particular sequence, our little band of protagonists goes on the run in a car that won’t start; the absurdity of seeing these people ‘run’ for their lives by pushing the dead weight of a car is enough to suck even the most willfully gullible spectator out of their ‘suspension of disbelief.’  The whole thing feels like a bad joke, but bad jokes don’t belong in this film.  That’s an “Apocalypto” level gag, and it’s been shoehorned into “Casablanca.”  (Kudos to all those who’ve seen the film and realize why I used “Casablanca” there.)

The film does this sort of thing from time to time – lurching wildly into comedy that feels far too low-brow for the high-brow proceedings.  As I implied earlier, an action ‘chase’ film is not, by its nature, a high brow thing; had this film not been directed as a masterpiece by Cuaron, those moments probably wouldn’t grate so badly.  Bravo for making a world in which modern issues like terrorism, homeland security, etc. feel real, understandable, and frightening all at the same time, but is it really wise to use such a world for a plotline on a par with any given Michael Bay film?  The film is positively schizophrenic in the levels of intellect to which it is trying to appeal.

There is also a tiny amount of bad acting in the film.  Julianne Moore, as much as I love her, falters now and again here.  She’s good, but feels just the slightest bit miscast.  Clive Owen, in the lead, also doesn’t give quite a good enough performance in the scene where he weeps by a tree after a prominent death; the scene is very moving, and would work wonders as a still frame, but Owen just doesn’t quite pull it off.  Another take should have been attempted.  There are other little bits of slightly off acting throughout the film, where characters went for broad caricature (probably rightly, considering the script), but where more subtle performances would work better.

With all those criticisms in mind, the weakest aspect of the film is the script itself.  Much of the first hour is not particularly good.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that much of the film in its entirety is not particularly well scripted.  Michael Caine as Theo’s friend Jasper feels almost like a throwaway character – a joke that was never finished.  Though his character as a political cartoonist is metaphorically important, and helps to deal with exposition, he doesn’t really feel like he matters to the story as a whole.  (This is a shame, as he is the source of my favorite single piece of artistic design in the film – a political cartoon of storks being shot down like warplanes, symbolizing the end of human fertility.)  The script only really got me about ten percent of the time, the rest of my love for this film was entirely due to direction, camerawork, and set design.

Though this review no doubt sounds awfully negative, I do actually suggest quite strongly that people see the film.  It’s strengths outweight its weaknesses – at least, enough for a single theatrical viewing.  (And, take it from me, this is emphatically not a film that you want to wait to see on DVD.  The experience would be significantly inferior.)  It is a beautiful looking piece of filmmaking, with a powerful (though not overly intellectual) message about war not only being a reaction to suffering, but also drowning out the things that really matter in life.

Though it is highly problematic, the set pieces alone make it worth the effort to sit through.

Just don’t leave.  For the love of god, if you pay ten bucks to see this, wait until you get the money shot, the single-take of a battleground, which doesn’t occur until about ten minutes from the end.  I pity the fool who pays to see this and doesn’t actually see that moment.  It is a five minute masterwork all by itself.

Pity I can’t say the same about the rest of the film.

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Went back and glanced at my old blog just now, for no particular reason, and found this line:

“orientation lady was quite spastically concerned.”

I make me giggle sometimes.

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Just finished this book yesterday…color me unimpressed.

Perhaps Ballard was better when he got more bizarre.  “Crash” sounds interesting, as does “The Atrocity Exhibition.”  But this…this was just a waste of time.

The core idea was brilliant.  Spontaneous crystalization occuring in the forests in three locations on earth, which rendered useless the distinctions between life and death (because being encased in crystals was like a permanent living mummification) and light and dark (because things encased in crystals gave off light of their own).  In the early going, it really seemed like it was going to be a book of strong social commentary, and passages where the central character waxed poetic about how ‘light’ and ‘dark’ personalities were two sides of the same coin, about which he refused to make a moral judgment, were nice.

Unfortunately, the brilliant central concept was fleshed out with either poorly thought out characters or trite situations.  No one in the book, including the main character, had any personality whatsoever; they were just a list of names.  Normally, any time a character returned in the book, I’d have to pause and try to remember what their ‘job’ was or what they had done, because I was completely incapable of reading any motivation or attitude onto the name.  But equating characters with their jobs or previous experience didn’t really help at all, because these things were never creative either.  You’ve got your untrusted priest, your female reporter/love interest, your best friend and his wife who you’ve slept with, your ship captain, your military commander…  The only surprising inclusion was leprosy, and it was really just a means to an end – a disease to give people so that mummification in crystals seemed like a better future than death.

Virtually everything felt like a deus ex machina.  The crystalization, the fact that other crystals could ‘melt’ the new crystals, the extra-marital affair, the reporter who looked surprisingly like the woman in the affair…  None of it seemed like it was motivated.  These were just pinball paddles slapping our main character from one situation to the next.

I was bored to tears by this book.  My mind wandered on every single page.  The writing was nothing special, the story itself was nothing special, and the characters were non-existent.  The only thing that kept me going was the core idea, and even that wasn’t particularly satisfying, as most of the time people were just running away from it rather than discussing what it was or what it meant philosophically.

This was sort of like what happens when Michael Crichton tries to do sci-fi.  It just turns into lots of running and ‘action.’

Of the seven classic science fiction books I’ve read in the last five or six months, this one was clearly the worst (if one makes a special exemption for “Frankenstein,” which was atrociously written, but rather good as a story).  Walter Tevis’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth” is still the best written and the most compelling.

…although, last night I started Richard Matheson’s “The Incredible Shrinking Man.”  Matheson was clearly a deeply talented writer, and may be the first author I’ll have read who can contend with Tevis for pure skill.

——

My list of books recently read from best to worst:

  1. “The Man Who Fell to Earth” – Walter Tevis
  2. “Slaughterhouse Five” – Kurt Vonnegut
  3. “The Watch Below” – James White
  4. “The Left Hand of Darkness” – Ursula K. Le Guin
  5. “Childhood’s End” – Arthur C. Clarke
  6. “Frankenstein” – Mary Shelley
  7. “The Crystal World” – J.G. Ballard

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