Sunday, November 17, 2013

Crescendo to Silence — Gravity

Waves of sound and silence surround a story of connection—to Earth and to Hope.

OVERALL Highly Recommended for all ages!

Two aspects of this film stand out off the top: the sound, and the visuals. The soundtrack and sound editing, the with excellent production of 3D elements to bring the viewer out into space like no film about this subject ever has.

The sound comes in waves, fading in from nothing, swelling to a crescendo, then suddenly dropping to silence. The effect is to highlight and emphasize the silence, and also the way objects careen at unthinkable speeds through that silent void. The characters all point to the silence in the dialogue; the sound thus underpins this important theme.

And if there ever was a film to see in 3D, this is the one. It takes you out into space and gives you a picture of earth, impossible to describe in words. By turns you hover over continents, oceans, cities, mountain ranges. It feels as if you are actually looking down on their vast immensity. 3D often feels to me like a gratuitous use of media/technology toys; something for kids to do on a rainy day. Not so this film. The dimensionally enhanced views are used in a restrained way; to illuminate the feeling of being untethered from earth and from its gravity.

And now for the story. It is a deceptively simple one.  Space engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is on her first shuttle mission; her colleague Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is a calm veteran with a remarkably reassuring voice. They are hit by debris and must make their way back to the earth's surface.

We are given a way in to the story through Dr. Stone's eyes, as we get queasy seeing the way the world so easily turns upside and out of control with no gravity. At first she shudders and shakes at the slightest movement. We feel her disequilibrium and near motion sickness as she is flung about and rotated around whatever she happens to be holding onto. With her we cling to Kowalski's expertise as he guides their actions.

Instead of falling into the usual genre devices of aliens as the villains, here it is simply an accidental barrage of debris, smashing into them at lethal speeds, and the inner fight against panic and despair that ensues. (Again the sound: a juxtaposition of the explosions and impact with deafening silence is memorable and a marked contrast to the usual overwrought sound effects of action films.)

The situation forces Dr. Stone to come face to face with her daughter's death. She talks about it with Kowalski, but later must determine on her own whether life is still worth living without someone she loved so much.

It is this inner story that makes the film. Science fiction and space stories are often delinquent in this most critical area: whether the story connects in a real way to other human beings. Here we have a profound and emotional struggle going on simultaneous with the external threat, and it draws us into the heart of the main character. 

In Gravity the vastness of space is shown to be both intimidating and beautiful; but it is Earth that comes out as the victor of the heart. "Thank you," Dr. Ryan whispers, clutching mud in her hand. The alien landscape she has encountered mirrors the newly adopted inner landscape she has now found. She is now a colossal figure, whereas in space she was tiny, both in comparison to what was surrounding her, and in the way she felt inside.

When Dr. Stone finally makes it into the safety of the space station, and removes her suit, the shock of seeing her body is visceral and stimulating, in way that evokes an appreciation of all the earthly elements of being human; flesh, muscles, strength and agility in arms and legs. When she gets to earth, we get to see this stripping down to the body again. The meaning here is unmistakable: return to earth, to the body. 

Paradoxically, this movie also heightens our appreciation of space exploration, but by a counter-intuitive method. Just as dancers learn to concentrate on the ground and the feeling of weight and gravity in order to learn to jump higher, perhaps the focus on earth and our foundations will lead us out into space again.

The athletic figure of Sandra Bullock is shot gracefully in zero-g as well as underwater.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

And a Child Shall Lead Them — Ender's Game — JDIFF Screening Event

When children lead our wars, we have truly lost our ethical moorings.

(Orson Scott Card's book gets a 4)
ORIGINALITY 3 (Book gets a 5)
OVERALL Somewhat recommended. 
**Special Ender's Game Screening with the Julien Dubuque International Film Festival featuring Khylin Rhambo and Aramis Knight.** SEE LOCAL NEWS CLIP

This is mostly a film about boys made for boys. Which is not a bad thing if you have them. My two had a great time and in addition to being very entertained, we had a very intelligent discussion about genocide and ambiguous moral choices.

When I first encountered this story, it was as a middle-schooler just beginning to explore the science-fiction and fantasy genre. Even after many years, it stands out as a major work, one that made an impact on my development as a boy. One of the reasons (beyond that it is very imaginative) is that Ender is a strong, memorable character, who shows how a child can take on adult responsibilities, and may even be forced by circumstances beyond his control to accept leadership roles.

I rooted for Ender, through all his training, alienation from his peers, and coming of age in the space training camp. In many ways this story mirrors the trials of one's teenage years, including the mixed feelings one has for the father-authority figures in one's life. I wanted him to win! And he did, except for one thing—genocide.

We discover that Ender's game is no game at all. "Why are we still seeing these images?" Ender asks of the simulation, after it continues to show the enemy planet burning and collapsing, a whole civilization destroyed.

There are signals that something is amiss, seen in the stern, worried-looking Harrison Ford. He brings the proper gravitas to the narrative he must give to Ender, "These are beings that killed many on earth! We must go after them and wipe them out! Ender, you are the only one who can do it." 

Ender is tricked; or is he? His character is prone to violence, to total retributive justice, to ruthless pursuit of victory. Despite occasional flashes of compassion and deep emotion (conveyed only partially convincingly by Asa Butterfield), Ender is a battle commander at heart. This is what the general sees in him. Ender does begin to develop deep reservations about what is happening, and thinks he still has time to decide otherwise. 

Ender's Game reminds us that war-happy military-industrial minds will recruit anyone, even young children. But it also depicts something more basic: that war itself is childish. That the aims of war, and all the training and all the gadgetry (and in this case, all the cool space-age stuff like zero gravity laser tag) are all for a purpose that, seen in light of this story's end, is not only absurd, but colossally destructive to every form of life.

This is a good point to make in a story; except that, the film doesn't quite deliver, because of the massive production and sensational, block-buster style visual effects. All the boys who watch this film will get swept up in the adrenaline, the battle, the rooting for Ender to win! They will go away remembering the glory of it, rather than grasping the ethical dilemma.

Unless, of course, they are guided by an adult, who can teach them what the terms "morally ambiguous" and "genocide" mean, and who can help them process why it was that Ender was so upset, why he turned to a peaceful mission, and why it was significant that his enemy never retaliated. Parents who do so will have added a consciousness of war and peace to the minds of their children; and doing so recapture the true aim of the story.

Does this film transcend its author? 
I believe it does. The presentation of its ethical dilemma lifts this film, and the book, out of the morass of Orson Scott Card's personal views, his clumsy and rather stupid statements against homosexuality. Given that this is a story for boys about boys, one does have to wonder about the same-sex leanings of the author, despite his vociferous denunciations of it. (And isn't it those people who always come out most strongly against?) 

Monday, November 4, 2013

Pulse of Sex — Come Undone

Why would she do it? Why get involved with another man when her domestic life with husband Alessio is secure, loving, tender, full of support and comfort?

Don't watch this to see gratuitous sex or to escape from a long day.
OVERALL Selectively Recommended. 
Mature theme, don't watch if you don't want to open the can of worms called "affairs."

This film is a fine example of the material offered by
Film Movement. Check them out!

This 2010 film directed by Silvio Soldini, Come Undone examines an affair between two people already in committed relationships. Anna, in faithful cohabitation, and Domenico, married with children, meet by chance and immediately begin courting each other. Soldini sensitively dramatizes all the smallest, mundane details of what transpires when one begins an affair of this sort, and the relationship is beautifully unfolded.

"At least there are no vampires here," says Domenico, when they enter the hotel room. (Which they can book for four hours at a time—this European invention is an acknowledgment of the need for a neutral location.)

Vampires indeed—is precisely what they are there to do, the red-lit ambiance giving expression not only to their passion but to the devouring lust at work.

At this point each viewer will read his or her own judgment and history onto the film. But if we can stand back from that, we are led to ask, How do we deal with our bodily chemistry, our emotional pull toward the passion and vitality that can so easily go missing from our secure domesticated arrangements?

What do we do, in other words, when the pulse of sex takes over, and the "logical" parts of brain begin to shut off? When the pre-frontal cortex of brains, the "reasonable" side of ourselves, is revealed for what it is—something of a piece with the lower brain, something that arises out of the unconscious, something that is only a small aspect of our person, not the whole—what are we to do? We don't have as much "choice" in the matter as we might want to believe.

According to one perspective from Slant, this film, while balanced, has its share of cliché moments and characters. I disagree. In fact, it is astonishing to me that the questions asked by this film are regarded as cliché, when the fundamental problem posed is at once so powerful and so intractable, and when I rarely see them handled as sensitively as they are in this film.

If anything, the cliché is not this story but in our conception that romance should only happen between two single people. Escapist romantic comedies abound of that sort. If any of those stories added in the element that one or both parties are married or in a committed relationship, they would at once become heightened with artistic tension. 

What I like most about this film is that these are two of the most ordinary-looking people you will ever see on screen. Their ordinariness makes the story convincing, and it lends an especially poignant and even breathtaking quality to their lovemaking. This film is anti-porn, the opposite of the blitzed-up pseudo-world of internet sex, with ordinary people breathing and moving together instead of showing off moves for the camera.

I also like that the momentum of the affair is led in the first place by the woman. She recognizes something in herself that needs expression, but also that the personalities around her in her family are never going to recognize it. She quite bravely pursues her own path (though it must be said that lying about it was not courageous). Eventually she realizes she will not choose to continue the affair. But her choice comes from experience, not from theorizing or moralizing.

The worst part about an affair is the deception. Lying is a kind of poison that slowly worms its way into each relationship affected by an affair, and to Silvio Soldini's credit, he does not spare the characters the emotional consequences of lying.

Guiseppi Battiston does a marvelous job as the "straight man" to Anna's deviancy. His genuine all-around good-guy-ness, as boring as it is, nevertheless is good for her, and she knows it. Without his character as a foil, Anna's would not stand out so starkly. His grace in handling everything is commendable. Would that we all could get a dose of it.

Be sure to see other work from Come Undone actors. Stay tuned, reviews of a few of these films coming soon at Deeper Film!
Alba Rohrwacher
Pierfrancesco Favino
Guiseppi Battiston (gotta love these names)