Treating space travel with Gravity

gravity movie poster
Gravity, directed by Alfonso Cuarón and written by him and Jonás Cuarón, is a visually stunning examination of working in space. I suspect this movie would be one of the rare beasts that rewards viewing in 3D.

But it’s not just gorgeous and exhiliarating to watch — at its centre is a human story, a tense, captivating physical and emotional journey dealing with both outer and inner space. And thankfully, character exposition is minimal and natural, and melodrama absent.

Sandra Bullock plays a doctor, Ryan, recently attached to NASA to conduct an experiment. She and veteran team leader Matt (George Clooney, reliable with humour and dependability) are marooned in space when bad things happen to their transport. Again and again. Their mission becomes one to get back to Earth.

The physics of space is beautifully, strikingly, rendered on the big screen — thrust and counter-thrust, in an environment with no resistance. Propelling through the confined sections of a space station littered with floating debris — not as much fun as you might expect. Think space walks are genteel? Think again — velocity matters.

Particularly impressive is the way sound travels only in intense POV scenes, transmitted through spacesuits, while broad scenes are conducted in the silence of space — only the occasionally intrusive score to be heard.

Bullock is ideal as the doc who has to dig deep — not action-movie deep, just humanly — reading instruction manuals, thinking laterally, using wit and dry humour and sheer tenacity in the struggle to survive. Her journey is intense, and well worth strapping in for.


Pacific Rim: One for the dinosaurs

pacific rim posterIt could have, and should have, been superb: Pan’s Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro (see also Devil’s Backbone, Cronos and Hellboy) helming a big-screen flick in which giant mechs — human-driven robots — battle giant monsters — ‘kaiju’ — for dominance of the Earth.

Pacific Rim is a pretty movie. It has some comedy moments. Ron Perlman’s appearance got a chuckle from the cinema. But that can’t save it.

Oh hackney! Where is your plot? Your logic? Where are your characters? Where is your time limit, for pity’s sake?

No more stereotypes, I beg you. Neither racial nor gendered. Isn’t it time we left this boyish, dinosaur-aged bullshit behind?

Look to anime, to Evangelion … see? See how something can be pretty and still tell a story?

Women can pilot mechs and don’t need to be protected by oafish, testosterone-fuelled males. What a great excuse for a punch-up — ‘apologise to the lady’. FFS, the ‘lady’ could’ve kicked both their arses.

Oh mechs, your tactics are flawed, and writers, your world building so thin I could ride a daikaiju through it as easily as they crash through your ludicrous sea wall.

I could go deeper, dissect the many aggravations and sheer occasions of stupid evident in this half-baked, pedestrian effort, but I’ve already given it more than two hours of my life.

In a mech shell: an irrelevant comedy side act, boorish leads — what the hell is Hollywood doing to Idris Elba? — and flimsy plot devices make for a monster of a flop.


The Hobbit, or, Over the Top with Bilbo!

Oh dear. This is what happens when you try to out-lord Lord of the Rings with a much simpler, shorter tale. The Hobbit has gone from a journey into maturity for young Bilbo, to a rip-snorting adventure with set pieces more at home on a Disney ride. Orcs! Goblins! Revenge!

Admittedly, all the over-the-top derring do does help the almost three hours of movie pass more quickly than it feels, although it remains a tedious affair devoid of the warmth and suspense that the original three of Peter Jackson’s franchise mustered so very well.

I lost count of the wonderful hair-dos sported by the dwarves. Was mildly glazed by the repetition of events from the other movies, such as summoning eagles with a whisper to a moth or an outstretched hand winning the ring toss. Was bemused by the lack of continuity of events in the Shire as depicted in Fellowship.

And overall just a bit saddened that, to win the respect of his travelling companions, it wasn’t enough for Bilbo to be courageous and clever, but he had to kill something, too.

Hobbit wasn’t a bad movie, just a dull one, with music, sound effects and scenery among the highlights. It finally found some emotional resonance with the interplay between Gollum and Bilbo, too little, too late.

Where LOTR had me lining up for the DVDs — indeed, we just watched the extended versions again, a form of cleansing, perhaps — I won’t be dashing out for the Hobbit, and more’s the pity.

Hitchcock: a master in suspenders

hitchcock movie posterTHE movie Hitchcock is an absolute delight. It stars Anthony Hopkins, almost unidentifiable behind the dapper girth of the titular director, and Helen Mirren as his wife, Alma Reville, and either one is worth the price of admission. What a pleasure to watch these two conspire and joust! And there’s Michael Wincott, oh gravel-voiced villain who, should anything I write ever be made into motion picture, I would beg to have involved. Let’s break the usual casting and make him the damaged good guy, or least the damaged guy of ambiguous morality, up against, say, Edward James Olmos playing against type as the wily villain, or at least, the wily guy of ambiguous morality. But I digress.

Hitchcock is the story behind the making of Psycho, financed by Hitch and his missus when Paramount said no. ‘They just want more of the same,’ Hitch says, or words to that effect. He’s having none of it. He’s bought up every copy of Robert Bloch’s book Psycho he can find just to try to preserve the mystery; he’s not going back to North by Northwest territory now.

There’s so much to love in this tale. It’s cleverly dovetailed by what could be scenes from Hitchcock’s famous television show, starring a brilliant appearance by a crow; the performances are on the money across the board — yay too for Toni Collette bringing it home; and Hitchcock is portrayed with a degree of realism, both good and bad aspects of his character on show. Insights into the Hollywood machine and Hitchcock’s career are also very cool.

There’s a clever score, too, and a final pun that made me chuckle and my wife groan; the movie hits extra heights in its attention to small details. Masterpiece is probably too strong a word, but it’s a damn fine character study of a fascinating couple making an extraordinary film; perhaps file next to Ed Wood.

the girl movie posterFOR contrast, you could check out 2012’s other Hitchcock movie, the HBO-BBC collaboration The Girl, a portrayal of the relationship between Hitchcock and his star Tippi Hedren of The Birds and Marnie.

This is a much more grounded narrative, not quite as accomplished in its attention to details, and Hitchcock is a far less sympathetic character as he sexually harasses Hedren through the course of her two starring roles.

The acting, with Toby Jones and Sienna Miller in the lead roles, is accomplished. It’s interesting to note, also, the difference in how the two movies depict Alma and Hitchcock’s PA, Peggy Robertson.

The behind the scenes of the filmmaking work to illustrate Hitch’s spiralling obsession with his starlet, who gamely resists his advances, even after the trauma of five days of scratching, pecking and pooping on the set of The Birds. The attitude toward the director wanting his ‘cut’ in the industry is underplayed but condemning.

Kind of glad we saw the films in the order we did, not only because of the chronological nature of them, but in the character-destroying depiction of the director offered by The Girl. The relationship with Alma is likewise given a new angle, and the closing scene’s parallel with a key scene in Marnie is so clever. Not quite up there with Hitchcock for focus, but worth the look as the other side of the coin. Or lens.


Hysteria: at the movies and in Emilie Autumn’s Fight Like a Girl

hysteria movie posterTHERE is a moment in the newly released movie Hysteria, which traces the invention of the vibrator in the late 1800s, where the humour to be extracted from doctors masturbating women to release their ‘hysteria’ runs into the horror wall: the feisty heroine, played brilliantly by Maggie Gyllenhaal opposite the rom com’s leading man Hugh Dancy, faces institutionalisation and forced hysterectomy. The engine of her dire straits is her father.

While the movie has its laughs, its social commentary, both of class and sex, is telling. The medical condition of ‘hysteria’ was only dismissed in the 1950s, the movie’s afterword tells us. It takes a lot of Rupert Everett’s hijinks as electrical experimenter and comic moments with mating ducks to relieve that uneasiness.

emilie autumn album fight like a girlSURGICAL maltreatment of women as a way of dealing with perceived hysteria, or lunacy, is very much to the fore in Emilie Autumn‘s new album, Fight Like a Girl, which landed this week. It offers a narrative, musical arc set in an asylum for women — some of the music is from a planned Broadway show — but this is not the home for wayward girls so endearingly and sexily brought to the stage in her previous live show. Rather, this is the surgery where those ‘wayward’ girls are locked away to keep their brash sense of self and identity from unbalancing the patriarchy. Women as objects to be used, as threats to be neutralised, is the theme.

The ranging styles of the songs, from the upbeat defiance of the titular single to the violin ballad of ‘What Will I Remember?’, the vaudeville of ‘Girls! Girls! Girls!’ to the funereal ‘Goodnight, Sweet Ladies’, is clearly rooted in the dramatic production. And what a dark show it promises to be, with drug therapy and incarceration, and threats of sterilisation, rape, mutilation and murder among the offerings.

Tellingly, the album opens with the strongest, most strident songs, giving the impression of a revolution being quashed as the songs then travel into the asylum. A number of shorter tunes, some instrumental, suggest bridges between scenes, before the album draws to a close with the military beat of ‘One Foot in Front of the Other’, a hint of recovery and the promise of round two.

Along the way, there are treats in the minimalist electro of quite terrifying ‘Take the Pill’, harpsichord-driven ‘If I Burn’ and the seven-minute menace of ‘Scavenger’.

She’s quite the multi-talented artist, Ms Autumn, and this album, a different beast with some familiar stripes to her breakout Opheliac, suggests, even after just a couple of listens, further rewards in store.


The Cabin in the Woods: not so much

cabin the the woods posterWe saw Cabin in the Woods last week. The venerable Astor Theatre was packed to the rafters with out and proud nerds. They lapped up the Joss Whedon horror flick like popcorn, cackling throughout and applauding its finish. It was all very mysterious.

The movie was not to my taste, I have to say. Sure, I got my chuckles — just chuckles — from the occasional pithy line, and enjoyed the appearances by former Buffy the Vampire Slayer cast members, but the clever meta content and genre self-awareness seemed to pull back from making any real point — afraid of insulting the fans, perhaps — and the story, engaging enough to begin with as it troped along, slowly sank under the weight of its own increasingly unbelievable world building. Quite strange, how Buffy fought time and again to save the world, and here its ending is applauded. Loudly and possibly sycophantically. Meh.

Meanwhile, on the Astor website it seems the old theatre might be operating under a cloud. That’s a pity.

Prometheus: crash and burn

Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s latest movie:

  • dodgy science
  • unbelievable, and unbelievably stupid, characters
  • questionable narrative
  • In other words, it’s as unsatisfying as the Creationism it appears to espouse. So bitterly disappointing in so many ways, the nicest thing I can find to say about it is that it looked nice. Ben Peek offers a more detailed analysis.
    Me, I’m off to watch Alien, when Ridley knew how to tell a story with heart, and then Aliens, to be reminded how you can actually give a damn for a multi-character movie.