April 30, 2013
from Discovery News
“Oblivion,” the sci-fi mind-bender topping the box office charts this week, is the first big popcorn movie of the season. Set in the year 2077, the film stars Tom Cruise and is notable for being an original story by director Joseph Kosinski –- not a franchise reboot or adaptation.
Original sci-fi movies are something of a commodity these days, even though it’s almost impossible anymore to come up with a truly original sci-fi story. The territory has been thoroughly mapped for 100 years in cinema and a few hundred years before then in literature.
“Oblivion” doesn’t break much new ground, but it does take several classic science fiction tropes and sorts them into new and interesting combinations. In fact, the film takes on a remarkable number of major genre themes, each based in real-world scientific issues and conjecture. You might say it throws in everything but the kitchen sink. Oops, wait a sec. There’s a kitchen sink scene, too.
April 30, 2013
from Indy Week
It’s said that God protects drunks, fools and little children. If so, He must have been working overtime during Jack Kerouac’s prime rambling days, at least as depicted in On the Road, the new film adaptation of Kerouac’s most famous book.
A scattered but earnest transposition of the novel, On the Road stars British actor Sam Riley as Sal Paradise, our hero and Kerouac’s literary alter ego. Garrett Hedlund (Tron) plays Sal’s best friend Dean Moriarty — Neal Cassady in real life — the alpha libertine who spent his days drunk on life. And liquor. And pot and bennies and whatever else he could get his hands on.
For the first two-thirds of the film, Sal and Dean carom around with a rotating cast of beatnik acquaintances, drinking their way through jazz clubs and speakeasies and some truly alarming road trips. Those drunk driving sequences are particularly harrowing as the boys barrel across America in a two-ton Hudson.
Director Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries) uses this imagery quite deliberately, I think. It suggests the manner in which our protagonists recklessly endanger themselves and everyone around them in a headlong rush for kicks and glory. As the film proceeds, a growing sense of dread builds. Even Dean pauses at one point to let his gaze linger on an old wino in the train yard. This lifestyle isn’t sustainable.
The fellas have some adventures and epiphanies along the way, to be sure. Sal spends a season as a field hand and enjoys a brief love affair with a migrant worker, played by the terrific Brazilian actress Alice Braga. (When is someone going to give her a leading role?) Dean gets married — a couple of times, actually. And their pal Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge, in the role based on Allen Ginsberg) finds time to write era-defining American poetry.
Kristen Stewart plays the fourth key member of the gang as Marylou, Dean’s main squeeze. After so many years moping through those vampire movies, Stewart actually shows up for this film and carries many of its most emotionally loaded scenes. You can read in her eyes her hopeless love for Dean, and also the sad resignation that he will never, ever come through for her.
Dean is everyone’s biggest problem, it seems — including the film’s. The character of Dean Moriarty looms large in annals of American literature. In the book, he is a character of incandescent charisma, a holy maniac mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved and desirous of everything at the same time.
In the film, unfortunately, he is played by Garrett Hedlund, who looks and acts like a Hanes t-shirt model. Hedlund has one effective scene, near the end, when the inevitable downward spiral kicks in. But for the most part, Hedlund fails to provide the raw wattage that the role demands. It’s really not his fault — this isn’t a performance issue so much as a casting mistake.
Riley is all right as our narrator and protagonist, Sal Paradise/Jack Kerouac. But wow, does that guy look like a young Leo DiCaprio. Viggo Mortensen puts in a playful turn as Bull Lee/William Burroughs, and Elisabeth Moss completely steals her scenes as a jilted bride forced to deal with all these beatnik hipster assholes.
All the movie’s best scenes, fittingly, are on the road. Salles strings together a melancholy parade of dusty highways and interstate buses and railroad trestles. The interior scenes are all about either sex (everyone here gets naked, a lot) or, heaven help us, literature. I’m sorry, but no matter how august the company, watching drunk 20-somethings reading drunk 20-something poetry is excruciating.
On the Road ends nicely, with a bleary sequence in Mexico and a bitter little coda. It’s a satisfying enough film, but there’s a lingering feeling that it never quite manages what it’s aiming for. As a long-anticipated film adaptation of a very famous book, On the Road could have been a little better. But it could have been a lot worse.
April 30, 2013
from Discovery News
In popular culture, it’s sometimes referred to as “apocalypse porn” — the proffering of imagery and scenarios that depict end-of-the-world catastrophes. You know the routine: Crumbling monuments, abandoned cities, desolate wastelands. Think recent movies like “The Road” and “I Am Legend,” or older classics such as “Mad Max” and “Planet of the Apes.” One of this season’s most popular TV series, “Revolution,” posits a planet-wide blackout that tumbles civilization back a few centuries.
Movies and TV often reflect cultural anxieties, and we’re clearly terrified of this stuff. But what do we actually do on an individual, practical level to prepare for disaster scenarios? Click around online and you’ll find plenty of survivalist outfitters willing to sell you alarming things. A more sober assessment can be found at Ready.gov.
The following is a list of basic items as recommended by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for general disaster preparedness. However, if recent entertainment fare is any indication, our biggest concern is actually the walking dead. So we’ve also added a bonus category: In Case Of Zombie Apocalypse (ICOZA).
April 30, 2013
from Indy Week
If ever there were a film that justified a re-release in 3D format, it’s Steven Spielberg’s dinosaurs-run-amok blockbuster Jurassic Park. In both its visual style and its pulpy adventure spirit, Jurassic Park was pretty much 3D already when it hit theaters 20 years ago.
The good news is that the 3D effects in the new edition of Jurassic Park, screening locally in select IMAX theaters as well, are used with evident care and restraint. There’s none of the goofy zoom-into-your-lap nonsense, and no George-Lucas-style overhauls of classic scenes.
The even better news is that the 3D effects genuinely enhance the thrill-ride storytelling techniques which made the movie so popular in the first place. Watching this movie again after (I don’t even want to say it) two decades, I was cheered mightily by the experience. Jurassic Park remains a pretty much bulletproof piece of popular entertainment.
Everyone knows the story, right? An eccentric billionaire uses DNA technology to create a tourist island theme park of actual free-range dinosaurs. They get loose. Sam Neill, Laura Dern and two cute kids run like hell.
Those set-piece spectacles we remember so well are presented once again for our consideration. The T. rex attack on the stranded Jeeps remains the film’s most iconic sequence, and the 3D makeover gives the images new texture and thrust. Blown back up to proper big screen proportions, after years of rattling sadly through the television, the scene is restored to its original glory. And the sound! When the T. rex roars, you can feel it in your ribcage and your brainstem. It’s like some atavistic predator danger switch gets thrown.
The calmer dialogue scenes are punched up in 3D as well, subtly for the most part. Occasionally you get that strange terrarium effect, where foreground figures pop from the frame, and that can be distracting. But other sequences seem designed from the ground up for 3D. The velociraptor kitchen attack, with those long stainless steel counters, is nicely enhanced by selective 3D flourishes. Jurassic Park 3D does not look, sound or feel like a 20-year-old movie. The original creature designs and special effects, only slightly tweaked for 3D, hold up very well indeed.
For the thrills and the effects to really land, you need a sturdy story and characters to care about. I’d forgotten — or more likely never even registered — just how effortlessly Spielberg doles out the goods. In regard to all the weird science, Jurassic Park simply sets up its premise, then plays fair by its own rules. You get the precise amount of information you need to accept what’s happening. The characters are sharply drawn and the relationships are clearly established. Spielberg’s ever-present emotional themes are threaded throughout — innocence in peril, wonder and awe, reluctant fathers, abandoned kids.
Here’s a testimonial for you: I brought my 9-year-old boy to Jurassic Park 3D and he completely flipped out over it. I know he’s seen special effects on par with what’s onscreen here, but he’s never been put through the old Spielberg sentiment machine at the same time.
from Indy Week
In 1993, three young boys were found brutally murdered in the small community of West Memphis, Ark. In the maelstrom of initial disclosures and media coverage, it was reported that the bodies found in a drainage ditch showed signs of ritual murder.
The community panicked, and within weeks three misfit teenagers were arrested for the killings. Even though no physical evidence tied Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley to the scene, and they provided credible alibis, they were convicted and Echols, deemed the ringleader, received the death sentence.
The baffling, infuriating case of the West Memphis Three has been dragging on for two decades now. A three-part HBO documentary series on the case, the excellent Paradise Lost films by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, raised multiple red flags regarding the trial, including suggestions of false testimony, coerced confessions and prosecutorial misconduct. Those films put such a bright light on the case that thousands rallied to the cause of the West Memphis Three, including celebrities Eddie Vedder and Johnny Depp and filmmakers Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson.
The new documentary film West of Memphis, produced by Jackson and Walsh and directed by Amy Berg (Deliver Us from Evil), covers much of the same ground as the Paradise Lost films. About halfway through, however, West of Memphis shifts its focus. By way of new eyewitness and DNA evidence, the filmmakers make a persuasive case that the real killer is Terry Hobbs, stepfather of one of the murdered kids, and that he has been hiding in plain sight all along.
The film also chronicles recent developments in its last half-hour. Most importantly, it documents the decision by the state of Arkansas to release the three men from prison in 2011, on one condition: They agree to an obscure and dubious legal plea that would protect the state from any further civil lawsuits.
March 12, 2013
from Indy Week
In the opening scenes of Oz the Great and Powerful, director Sam Raimi’s pretty but rickety prequel to The Wizard of Oz, huckster stage magician Oscar Diggs (James Franco) is preparing for his show with traveling circus. The year is 1905. The place is Kansas, of course. And there’s a storm blowing in.
It appears that Oscar — the ladies call him Oz — is something of a cad. He’s got a girl in every town, and he treats his earnest stage assistant Frank (Zach Braff) like a servant. When his one maybe-true-love Annie (Michelle Williams) implores him to be a good man, Oscar stares ruefully across darkening Kansas plains. He doesn’t want to be a good man. He wants to be a great man, like Harry Houdini or Thomas Edison.
Oscar gets his chance when a tornado interrupts his latest getaway, via hot air balloon, and spirits him to the magical land of Oz. In a glorious 15-minute visual effect sequence that will get your blood racing (and your hopes up), director Raimi pulls out all the stops. As with the original Oz, he transitions from black-and-white to kaleidoscopic color, then opens up the frame as the picture gets wider and the 3-D effects kick in.
Oz boasts gorgeous visuals throughout, with skillfully executed digital and practical effects and artful use of 3-D. Familiar sights like the Yellow Brick Road and the Emerald City pop with new texture. New fanciful locations, such as the porcelain village of China Town, evoke the wonder of the first film.
All the prettiness is a welcome distraction as it becomes clear, during the movie’s middle passages, that our hero isn’t quite up to snuff. Franco is not a particularly likeable performer — he always seems a little bit above it all, a little too pleased with himself. It doesn’t help that his character here shares similar qualities.
The story doesn’t give him much, either. Oscar is essentially a charlatan during his adventures in Oz. He agrees to pose as the great and powerful wizard and makes the acquaintance of three witch sisters — Theodora (Mila Kunis), Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Glinda (Williams again). There’s a low-simmering seduction vibe in several scenes, and an awkward love quadrangle develops. It never really plays, and it feels too low-stakes for the epic fantasy storytelling. Our hero in the original Oz is a little girl who desperately wants to get back home. Our hero in the new Oz is a smarmy rogue who wants to get rich and score.
Oz the Great and Powerful picks up steam again toward the end, with some inventive storytelling twists that explain the world Dorothy will later discover. Oscar finds redemption and Raimi finally finds the heart the film so desperately needs. He also throws in some nifty stylistic flourishes that will be familiar to anyone who has seen his Evil Dead movies. And Mila Kunis really tears it up as the most interesting of the three witch sisters. She makes the movie’s most startling transformation, and provides its scariest scenes. I’d have liked to see the film follow her more closely, but I guess that story has already been told.
Oz isn’t a terrible movie, but it finally disappoints. Like its lead actor, it’s very pretty to look at yet never inspires much confidence or affection. The images dazzle, but the story doesn’t linger.
March 12, 2013
from Indy Week
Director Michael Apted’s Up series is one of the most intriguing projects in the history of documentary film. Initiated in 1963, the series began with a profile of 14 British 7-year-olds from various walks of life. Every seven years since then, Apted—an assistant on the first film—has returned to interview the participants. Some have dropped out of the series. Some have dropped back in. A surprising number have returned every seven years to speak with Apted, on camera and at length, with admirable candor.
In the eighth installment of the series, 56 Up, we catch up once again with some of these familiar faces—older now, heavier maybe, often sadder, usually wiser. Take Neil, the forever-troubled wanderer who has drifted on society’s outskirts since dropping out of school. In flashback sequences, we’re reminded that Neil was squatting in abandoned houses in 21 Up and entirely homeless at age 28. But now we find him serving as a lay minister and town council member in a small village. He’s troubled still, and lonely, but seems to have reached some approximation of peace.
Two kids from the first film are profiled together. Suzy came from a wealthy background, and Nick started out in a one-room country school. Suzy would eventually forgo education to explore Paris, while Nick got a degree in physics from Oxford. At 56, both appear comfortable, and their accents are discernibly more posh than the others.
The details roll by: Simon, raised in a children’s home, is now a happy family man and volunteers as a foster parent. Paul works as a handyman at a retirement community. Peter plays in a folk band. Jackie has arthritis.
You don’t need to be familiar with the previous films to appreciate 56 Up. Apted deftly weaves in clips from earlier installations, and the effect is that of watching someone age 50 years in 10 minutes. The juxtapositions can be moving: The frantic insecurity of the 14-year-old girl is now a quiet desperation behind the eyes. It’s sweet and sad at the same time. Like all good art, 56 Up provokes complicated feelings.
A certain, inevitable self-awareness has crept into the films over the years. The Up series participants are minor celebrities in Britain. The project has impacted their lives enormously, and not always for the better. Several scenes are about the subjects’ ambivalence toward the films. “I have a ridiculous loyalty to it,” says one series veteran. “Even though I hate it.”
When it began, the Up series was intended as an examination of the British class system, and of the Jesuit saying, “Give me a child until he is 7 and I will give you the man.” Viewers are invited to reflect on the adage with each particular case study, but the series has grown way past aphorisms. The film draws no conclusions, and perhaps it’s the participants themselves who have the ultimate vantage point.
“The idea of looking at a bunch of people over time, and how they evolve—that was a really nifty idea,” says Nick. “But it isn’t a picture, really, of the essence of Nick or Suzy. It’s a picture of everyone. It’s how a person, any person, how they change.”
I think that’s right. The Up movies aren’t about the people they’re about—not really. They’re about aging and change and the passing of time. They’re about everybody.