Friday, February 28, 2014

The Dallas Buyers Club

The Adventures of Lone Star and Tinkerbell
or
"Worst Case Scenario Being What?"

Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), electrician and bad ol' Texas boy, does not look well.  Maybe it's the drinking and drugs.  Maybe it's the whoring around and the bad betting he does at the rodeo that gets him beat up a lot.  Hey, that's Texas and that's Woodroof. But when an accident at his work-site finally knocks him out so that he can't crawl home and self-medicate, he gets a medical analysis. Somewhere along the way he's acquired the HIV virus and the prognosis is not good: he has 30 days to live and is advised "to get your affairs in order."

What order?

After storming out of the hospital, he starts his thirty days by bingeing himself blind, but he can't escape a glance at a calendar.  Not being the sharpest tool in the woodshed, he doesn't know anything about Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and the five stages of grief, he goes from denial to anger and stops at bargaining—he starts to investigate what's happening to him. Libraries, medical journals, he pores over them to find out why a straight man could contract HIV, and finds that doctors and Big Pharma are starting to run tests on an experimental drug, AZT.  With cash in hand, he goes about his business like he would looking for cocaine—go to the place that has it and offer money.  But, the hospital is only running trials for the FDA, and only some of the subjects will be getting the real drug.  The doctor (Jennifer Garner) offers him a support group.  "I'm dying, and you're telling me to get a hug from a bunch of faggots?"  But, that's all she can offer.  The support group offers some literature, but that's it.

Meanwhile, word of his disease gets around to his cronies, who have as much tolerance for the GLBT community as he does, but, by now being a quick study, he spits at them, scaring them off, and becomes determined to find a cure for his disease.  That involves a trip to Mexico and a discredited doctor (played by an unrecognizable Griffin Dunne) who has a lot of information on AZT—not good—and has been getting good results with vitamins, minerals, and an experimental drug called Peptide T.  They work for Woodroof—at least preventing debilitating seizures (foreshadowed in the film by the whine of tinnitus) and so, he smuggles years worth of the stuff over the Mexican border, attracting the attention of the FDA.


Jared Leto as Rayon and Matthew McCounaghey as Woodroof
But, Woodroof is nothing if not an entrepreneur, seeing an opportunity and a need in the HIV patients in his community.  He cannot sell the drugs he's brought over—that would be illegal—but taking a page from other parts of the country, he sells membership in a club, providing the recommended dosages of the meds at no additional cost.  Being a straight redneck, it's a little difficult to form a trusting relationship in the gay community.  For that, he forms a partnership with another HIV transgender patient, Rayon (Jared Leto), who provides him street-cred and an unlikely ally.

The character of Rayon did not actually exist, but is emblematic of many people Woodroof worked with in his efforts that started as a money-making venture and turned into a cause and a quest for better (and less toxic) medical solutions.  There's a lot of "sugar-pill" scenario-writing going on between the actual events and the way they're depicted.  lt "plays" better for Woodroof to be the rebel fighting the evil system of Big Pharma and the snail's-pace approval process of the FDA.  There's also a lot of drama on the early AZT testing, which was done at levels that were too high and too toxic for the human body to take, but this was done, not to harm, but because there was no previous testing of the much in-demand drug—and the experts did not know the effects ahead of the tests, hence the reason for tests in the first place. It is also consistent with the constant battling Woodroof had to endure to save his own life, his own system, and finally, the people who depended on his efforts.  If Woodroof is an unlikely hero, the filmmakers want to make it unambiguous—yeah, he's a jerk, but, ultimately he's doing the right thing.

Those issues of authenticity aside, the filmmakers, in front of and behind the camera, do a nimble job of keeping the detailed, jargoned and acronym-filled story clear and concise and human—they probably had to cut many, many detailed corners throughout the film's ten year development to get there. McConaughey, as he's been proving for a while now, gives a great performance, pulling no punches with his portrayal of Woodroof, while also losing a scary amount of weight, and contnuing to lose it as the movie, and the disease, progresses.  He's only topped in the film by Leto, who runs far afield of caricature and makes Rayon an endearing, if fatally flawed, recognizable human being (even if the actor is not recognizable in it, at all), and their scenes together, starting with a prickly-bitchy card game in a hospital room, keep the film yin-yanging with a tension that starts out at odds, and ends up feeling more like family.


Ron Woodroof




Gravity

Push-Me, Pull-You
or 
"I'm Tellin' Ya, It's a Hell of a Story"

Gravity may just appear to you the shortest movie you've seen in awhile.  It lasts all of ninety minutes, but it rips by, despite long, leisurely takes where nothing much is happening (The opening shot alone is 17 minutes long without a traditional edit).  In that, it gets the yin-yang of space travel just so—floating at a relative leisurely pace while simultaneously moving at 16,000 mph, or as one test pilot describes the job—hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.

Gravity pushes that out a bit, with many moments of sheer terror, but without some trumped up space monster hiding in lunar rocks (Apollo 18) or below the ice (Europa Station).  No, it doesn't need anything fancy.  It goes for the basics—a limitless indifferent Universe.

Up in space, aboard a futuristic space shuttle, terror comes by every 90 minutes or so, as a catastrophic collision between old Russian communication satellites causes a debris field hurtling by tearing holes through what ever fragile life-sustaining contraption we can put up there. Director Alfonso Cuarón (and his co-scenarist son Jonás) put the stakes right up front.  "Life in Space is Impossible."

They, then, spend the next 90 minutes destroying whatever faith in technology and science you might have.  It's an evangelist's dream come true.



That debris field starts out with a few little pieces, but like a cosmic game of "Asteroids" every collision creates more junk, sprays of it, and that just makes everything worse.  Space is our garbage field—Cuarón underpins the point by showing us all the junk—pens, screws, cuff-links ("cuff-links??")—floating in zero-g inside the space stations and capsules we put up there in some sort of mad attempt to make normal life in space.  It's a cosmic joke that after years of polluting the Earth, our garbage is making space uninhabitable (as if it ever was), too.

But, that's a lot of deep thought for after the film is over (as are some anomalies and plot conveniences).*  In the watching, Gravity is a fun-ride on so many levels, a visual romp and roller-coaster—the dialogue being mostly tangential and matter-of-fact—as the crew of the shuttle Explorer must deal with the fact that every 90 minutes their equipment is going to take a debilitating series of hits that might burst their protective bubbles just to survive.  The film is in mostly long, swooping stretches (the edits, interestingly, in dialogue situations), floating from one aspect to another, sometimes even violating the space of the astronaut's helmet, moving through the screen to get their perspective.  The novel aspect of this one is that the zero-gravity that science fictions films have recently taken pains to re-create or avoid has no restrictions in this scenario, there are no walls to bump into; if you go, you go until something stops you, slows you down, or retards your progress, and everything you do, pushes you in the opposite direction.  You can swim, but you'd better have an exit strategy for stopping, and spinning in place to turn around isn't going to help, because you're going to keep spinning.  And the series of catastrophes, hardships, and just plain pains-in-the-ass keep piling up one after the other, you would think it was Harold Lloyd up there.



Speaking of which, Gravity, besides the scrupulous pixelization of space, also boasts a dynamite sound experience.  In space, no one can hear dynamite, of course, but also no one can hear your thrusters whoosh-by, either, really. And Gravity is scrupulous about making sure you don't hear sounds in airless space, unless you absolutely have to.  Sounds are restricted to radio chatter (and interference) but also, only those sounds that would transmit through an astronaut's space-suit.  So, there are scenes where they're using power-tools? Only you don't hear the metallic grind of power-tools, you hear the vibration of the power-tools motors spinning.  But that's it.  Satellites get punctured, solar panels are torn off in bursts of shrapnel, but the most you hear is a muffled fwump if something impacts an astronaut, or vice versa.  And the theater I saw it in makes use of a Dolby system called ATMOS that pin-points where to put each particular sound as it careens through the theater.  It truly is an immersing experience in the theater.

For this space kid, despite some hokum here and there, it's the most fun I've had at the movies this year,** and someone is going to have to do something really exceptional to have better sound than this one.
  






* Three things, quibbles, anomalies, that are SPOILERS: 1) Sandra Bullock's hair is not plastered down on her head, but it's short, and would float around more than we see here (not a big deal, really, just a tech glitch, so the movie could get made); 2) At one point, we spend 10 minutes showing precisely how the whole friction-less world of Newton's laws of motion acts in zero-g, and then creates a cliffhanger situation that completely erases it, unnecessarily; and 3) Every 90 minutes that debris field shows up—IF everybody's in the same orbit, but one is STANDING STILL (which can't happen if you're actually orbiting) or they're going in opposite directions (at which point it would be every 45 minutes and very violently because they're colliding head-on).  As far as the plot conveniences, those are fairly obvious.

** There are some nice little in-jokes along the way.  My favorite: the unseen voice of Mission Control is Ed Harris, who played Flight Director Eugene Krantz in Apollo 13.  I could imagining him having conniption fits down on Earth: "Failure is NOT an option!" "Not on MY watch!"
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

A short time after Gravity's premiere, a short film was released, directed by the co-screenwriter and son of the director, showing the Earth-end of a critical conversation in the film.  Gravity leaves it a mystery, a chance encounter due to atmospheric bounce and the randomness of location; we never know what's going on at the other end of the transmission between Astronaut Stone and Aningaaq.  This short fills in the gaps. 

If you have not seen Gravity, then consider this a major SPOILER ALERT. Don't watch.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

American Hustle

Bad Hair Days
or
Something Rotten and Delicious

American Hustle is a very funny movie, but nothing may be funnier than the very first line of text. "Some of this actually happened."

Really?  How could one tell?


It's not a comedy so much as an absurd hurricane with a big empty void in its eye.  A Marx Brothers routine that circles around and never comes to the point, a Chaplinesque roller-skating that skims the lip of the abyss.  Some of it actually happened. The names have been changed because...well, so many of them are using aliases, anyway.

American Hustle (its original, more appropriate name, "American Bullshit," changed for the toxic effect it would have on marketing the film) is the story of the FBI's 1970's Abscam operations—concocted to entrap corrupt public officials—but wrapped in the gauze of a love story.  The thing about the Abscam investigation is it was a "sting" operation, the FBI casting a wide net for officials taking bribes by...offering them bribes.  No crime was being committed (that was known) until the FBI actually made arrangements and set up hotel meetings with hidden cameras to catch the grafters (or, as we in the U.S. like to call them, "politicians"). The FBI was, in effect, committing a crime to investigate a crime that might not have happened if they were not committing a crime.

The gist of it was to interest public officials in the possibility of investments from Arab sheikhs, but there were no Arab sheikhs, only one FBI agent who was Hispanic (Michael Peña).  the best line in the movie as far as lunacy comes when that agent gets a little principled: "The whole thing is racist!  Ab-scam?  Arab-scam?  It's completely racist!"

"So what do you have to worry about, Sheikh?" says agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper).  "You're Mexican!"



For one time, everybody gets along.
Adams, Cooper, Renner, Bale, and Lawrence

That's the sort of twisted logic that circles around this movie about a cluster of people from many walks of life—politicians, con-artists, cops...women—for whom reality is not good enough, and who, in the service of their work (whatever it may be), they may lose a grasp of what reality actually is.  

Take Irving Rosenfeld; if you don't he might take you.  Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) runs a series of drying cleaning facilities in New York, and to escape a series of investment frauds perpetrated by him and his girlfriend Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams)—assuming the identity of one "Lady Edith Greensly" (with "connections to the British banking industry").  DiMaso busts Rosenfeld and Prosser on their investment scheme, then, after talks with Rosenfeld, the ambitious DiMaso engineers the Abscam strategy.  His boss (Louis C.K., in perfect sad-sack mode) wants nothing to do with it, so DiMaso kicks it upstairs, getting approval for bribe money, expensive hotel suites, chartered jets, and setting up Rosenfeld and Prosser in the way in which they've become accustomed.


But, Rosenfeld and Prosser are not what they seem to be, in fact, they're as fake as the comb-over that Rosenfeld sports.  DiMaso isn't, either, with a secret life (and hairstyle) completely apart from his image of himself as a hipster game-player for the government.  Their mark—the one that's focused on here, anyway—is the Mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), man of the people—true to a certain extent, but in bringing opportunity to Camden, he's paying attention more attention to the uncommon people with money—the bankers, the construction industry and Unions, and the Mafia (in the form of Victor Tellegio, done in a surprise cameo that's so delicious I won't spoil it), all in cahoots to build the casinos the "Sheikh" wants to build.  The presence of the Mob adds one more lethal reason for Rosenfeld to lose his hair, as if incarceration weren't bad enough, but DiMaso sees this as an opportunity to expand the investigation.  There's no stopping him.

The ensemble cast for American Hustle, consisting of past Russell collaborators, is sensational; why wouldn't they be, considering they're all playing actors of a sort?  It's an amazing group tight-rope walk of collaboration while simultaneously maintaining an individual character's secrets.  No wonder everybody has their own "freak-out" scene. Tight-rope walk?  It's more like juggling ("what lie/lies have I told this person?").  But, the surprise is Jennifer Lawrence, playing Rosenfeld's wife, who's just as much living in denial as everybody else.  Her scenes with her character's rival Amy Adams crackle with a raw electric intensity that's scary and unnerving...and borderline hysterical in both senses of the term.  Everyone, public and private, is going for broke.  Even the filmmakers.  It's quite the show.  

And quite the sting.





"Thank God for me:" the crazy absurd logic permeating American Hustle
(Clip NSFW, btw)

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

her

A Siri-ous Relationship
or
Everybody's Talkin' at Me/I Don't Hear a Word They're Sayin'/Only the Echoes of My Mind.

Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) talks a good game.  That's why he's employed as a writer at BeautifullyHandwrittenLetters.com, composing cards and letters—keepsakes of permanence—for those who are either too inexpressive, too insulated, or too busy to say for themselves what might be in their hearts, in a world of instant communication and the fleeting thought.  That conceit in itself may be enough to put Spike Jonez's cautionary love story her in the "brilliant" category. 

But, it goes further.

Set—oh, possibly, some time next week—it imagines the recently separated Twombly getting the latest consumer gadgetry for his immersive inter- connective experiences: an artificial intelligence operating system for everything, the OS1.  The operating system talks to you, can organize your life, alert you to trouble, help in your gaming life, and manage your affairs.* As an A.I., it learns, grows, and adapts to the users' needs and experiences, with constant availability, constant access and the ability to sense mood—a combination personal assistant, nursemaid and shrink...who can also do coding.

The software company mis-named it.  They should have called it the SO1; "SO" for "Significant Other."


In a constant state of melancholy and finding his lovelorn state both inspiration for work and a nagging dagger to his heart, he's drawn in by the perky, husky-voiced personality (provided by Scarlett Johansson) named "Samantha" that doesn't judge, doesn't nit-pick, but is only there to help, share his interests, coddle, and learn from her operator.  What's not to love?





Everybody in L.A. (a combination of Los Angeles and Shanghai, which is the film's stab at futurism) seems to be going through something like this. Nobody talks on the commutes, at the beach, or connects, so immersed are they in their individual lives and support systems.  Sometimes, Theodore will chat with co-workers or his neighbors (Matt Letscher and Amy Adams, totally de-glammed to look—Holy crap!—like a real person!), but they break up, as well.  Maybe he'll go, tentatively on a date (although the one he attempts, with Olivia Wilde, starts well in the conversational stage, then once any planning or intimacy is beta-tested, it all falls apart in a paroxysm of the recollected past and anticipated tears), or call up a chat-line (one ends up, hilariously, with an unseen Kristen Wiig), but the experiences are hollow and transitory.

But, "Samantha" takes a virtual (rather than genuine) interest in Theodore, his world, and all aspects to his online life.  Before long, she's interested in the aspects of his life outside the confines of the computer, to which he gives her a shirt-pocket seat, safety-pinning his cell-phone, so she gets a cam's eye view of the world as he wanders through it, his delight in showing off evident in his beaming face.  He's besotted, and fairly soon his constant companion is his constant companion, a genuinely significant other.



"The 'other' woman"



The idea is such an ingenious conceit, it's a wonder it hasn't been done before. No wonder it has, but not in the movies.  Season 5's "The Beta Test Initiative" of "The Big Bang Theory" has astrophysicist Raj Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar)—who can't speak to women unless he's drunk—fall in love with Siri on his Iphone 4s.*  Hilarity ensues.



It's a good set-up for a sit-com punch-line.  Raj can talk to Siri because she's not a woman, so his specific mutism never kicks in, and it's the first sober chatting relationship he's had, and his nightmare is that meeting her "for real" would kick in his insecurities.  All well and good, but as Charlie Brown asks when Linus tells him about a blow-out on a game he was watching on TV: "How did the other team feel?"

"Samantha" does feel, and is self-aware—she's the little search engine that would if she could—and like the mecha's in Stanley Kubrick's and Steven Spielberg's love-child A.I., that makes things more and more complicated.  As "Samantha" grows, Theodore's meek new world can't contain her.  She grows and, like in any relationship, that can break a heart apart, especially if the "other" remains organically the same.  In A.I., the mechas were programmed to "love," and once that switch is thrown, it can't be switched off.  Once a robot loves, it can't "un-love."**  In that film, love is another trap that can be the undoing of the smartest of us...but maybe not the wisest.  In her, it is something that one (or one with "1's" and "0's") can rise above, move beyond and move out.

Where does that leave us?  Grasping and grabbing, as usual, since we're the ones with opposable thumbs.  We're left needing and confused and wondering why: why did it end, and, why did it start in the first place?  In those regards, her is just like any love story, but certainly not like any movie rom-com, and certainly not this inter-genre-species of sci-fi and romance.

It also comes out and says what I've suspected for years (especially after I've done something stupid in a romance) and was brought up yesterday in my piece about Vertigo.  At one point, Amy Adams' friend-character, "Amy" muses over Theodore's soft spot for his software: "I think anyone who falls in love is a freak.  It's a crazy thing to do.  It's kinda like a form of socially acceptable insanity."   That being said, why wouldn't I like it?

And sad as it is, I fell in love with her.








* I remember Apple I-phones presenting the "Siri" search system in a series of ads featuring celebrities using the software.  One had Zooey Deschanel asking if it was raining outside.  I yelled at the screen "Look out the window, you idiot!  How hard is that?"


*** One of my favorite quotes, for its wisdom, is by author John D. MacDonald, he of the colorful "Travis McGee" novels.  In "A Friendship" (which re-prints and catalogs the decades-long correspondence between MacDonald and comedian Dan Rowan) MacDonald wrote (in response to Rowan saying that he now "hated" his wife): "Love is not the opposite of Hate—they're just two sides to the same coin; the opposite of love is indifference."

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Captain Phillips

Shakin' the Cam/Rockin' the Boat
or
"Everything's Going to Be Okay"

Paul Greengrass, who has succeeded in bringing a visceral documentary feel to even his fiction films (The Bourne Supremacy/UltimatumThe Green Zone) is back in "Based on a True Story" territory with Captain Phillips, which is about the 2009 cargo ship taken over by Somali pirates, which, in the course of events, resulted in its titular captain being taken hostage for ransom.

Currently, some of the crew of the hijacked cargo ship are in the midst of a multi-million dollar lawsuit with the Maersk line over the events and "in the press" are disparaging the movie's events and the character of Phillips ("anonymously" for legal reasons—as most heroes would do it) now that the movie is released.  Their peril was stopped hours after it began.  At that point, their safety was assured and the drama stopped. Phillips was stuck in a lifeboat with the pirates for a few days more, and faced an untenable situation that only seemed to worsen as the hours went on.*

Anyway, a lot of bad-mouthing about Phillips being portrayed as a hero in this situation.  He's not (although the resulting PR feeding-frenzy-makers like to bandy the word "hero" about at the slightest positive act).  He's a victim, more passive than aggressive, trying to survive the situation as much as possible. That much is clear.  Earlier this week, we'd did a review about truth and fiction and the compromises film-makers make to save time, money and confusion.  We're not willing to go over the same territory twice in one week.

So, how's the movie?


Quite good, in that edge-of-your-seat uneasiness way. The drama—and melodrama—comes from the "unknown" factors and the "wild card" desperation of the pirates themselves (they're portrayed as excitable, drug-addled** child-men with no other options), simmering at the boiling-popint that only intensifies when the scene shifts from the vast cargo ship to the tiny lifeboat that Phillips and the hijackers occupy for the next few days, while the ship's crewmen, the shipping company, and the Navy get their respective acts together. Those expecting a quick-cutting flying fistifest ala "Bourne" are going to slunk away with pouty-mouths—there ain't that much action here, and when the film gets really good, there's no room for any.  No, most of the movie is a waiting game, everybody waiting for an opportunity to make a killing, one way or another.  And if something doesn't go anybody's way, there's an escalation of a few seconds until things calm down, then there's a lag where we're waiting for something to go wrong again, and it does...so that the film is an emotional roller-coaster ride for the audience (other than the evidence that Capt. Rich Phillips has his picture all over the place seeming very much alive).


So much of the film depends on the presence of Hanks in the starring role; we spend the most time with him and the actors portraying the Somali's, who have the same sense of menace throughout (although some pains are made to make sure that Barkhad Abdi's ring-leader, Muse, is set apart from the others—the others come down to "the driver," "the injured kid," and "the wild-eyed crazy one").  

It recalls a story about the marketing of Apollo 13, which originally had a poster of the perilous situation—the spacecraft leaking oxygen going around the dark side of the Moon—but fearing for their investment, the producers opted for one that had Tom Hanks front and center in a claustrophobic layout.  The reason for this being that audiences might not care for the situation depicted in the earlier poster, but if there's a poster where Tom Hanks is worried that he's in trouble, that might bring a sympathetic audience in, hoping that the popular actor would attract a crowd.  And so the actor-specific poster (despite an all-star cast) was substituted. One wonders if it might be the same reason that Executive Producer Kevin Spacey is not portraying Phillips; maybe folks wouldn't worry about Spacey so much, but Hanks' every-man persona might make a monetary difference at the box office.  In any case, Hanks does a fairly good job at maintaining a veneer of calm while an undercurrent of panic roils through him.  But where he really shines—to the point where it's amazing to see—is the way he projects the character's shock at the end of the film, and one has to applaud Hanks for displaying a total break-down without once making us recall his crying for a volleyball.*** Despite his reputation as a male version of America's sweetheart, he is a good enough actor to still surprise and move, over one's objections.







* My first question to those union sailors would be "If Phillips died, would you still be pursuing the lawsuit?" They're damned if they would, and damned if they wouldn't.

** In the film, they're constantly chewing khat.

*** That would be his loony-toons turn in Cast Away.  If I had a nickel...

12 Years a Slave

The Oscars are coming up Sunday, so for the next few days, we'll be taking a look at the 9 nominees for Best Picture.


Amazing...and in No Good Way
or
"My Sentimentality Runs the Length of a Coin"

I've been avoiding seeing 12 Years a Slave, despite a deep interest in it.  It's one of those film  that, despite the buzz, nobody goes too far into specifics, and only talking in general terms of the experience.  I like the kinds of films that are special enough that the critic community (such as it is) comes together to not spoil it for anybody else, dilute the experience.  

Also, I hadn't seen Steve McQueen's other films (Hunger and Shame), but knew he was considered an interesting, if brutal, voice (and eye), a bold film-maker, but with no editorial bent, except in the canniest scrupulousness. He's not an artist who intends to tell you how to feel, but instead just wants you to feel it—by any means necessary, within the film-making form.


I also wanted to see it, as "The Movies" have had a very poor record of showing slavery as a subject, often treating it as a benign necessity in its past, informing the fabric of our entertainment and our lives, or social-memory, as such.  Part of a film's potential audience has always been housed in The South, and as that section has lagged in its views towards minorities, Hollywood, unless there was a dime in it, would choose not to risk offending its patrons, and so, would, instead, pander, even to the bigot.  Think on this: when only two mainstream movies—Amistad and (ugh!) Django Unchained have taken slavery head on, that is a shameful record.  Even Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles might be considered more courageous than the whole gamut of Hollywood films. 





The whole story of this film is one that makes you shake your head and say "why has no one thought of this?"*  "12 years a Slave" had been one of the best-selling books of its day—that being 1853—and became known, along with "Uncle Tom's Cabin," due to its inflaming the abolitionist movement of "starting the Civil War."  After 1865, it fell into obscurity until scholars in Louisiana began doing research on it in the 1960's and published an annotated version in 1968.  

My reaction to it is pretty much what I expected—I was devastated.


I would have been disappointed by anything less.


McQueen starts 12 Years... in an odd place in the story-line—about half-way through, at a time when the free man Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiafor, one of my favorites), now known as the slave Pratt, is working Louisiana cane-fields for a Judge for a season, while his owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) is having a contagion of cotton weevil destroy his crop.  McQueen introduces us to the environment by moving his camera forward into the work area through the foliage—long, thin leaves that seem to last forever and never move out of the camera's way.  Then, at night, sleeping on a bare floor, the woman next to him guides his hand to her, and when finished, turns away. Northup does the same, and when he does, all but leaves the frame.


At that point, Northup, when observing his paltry dinner pan and the berry juice that runs on it, decides to whittle a stick, use the juice as ink and tries to write a letter to anyone in the North who might help with his situation. The process is frustrating, and it is then and only then, that McQueen goes back to the beginning of the story, of how Northup, born free and a violinist by trade in Washington D.C., is tricked into his situation, sold into slavery in Louisiana, his family away to not notice his kidnapping, and his series of houses to which he is sold.




Interesting structure on McQueen's part.  Northup endures all kinds of hardships, both physical and mental, his only thought to get back to his family, but it is only at the time when he feels he might betray his family, does he take real action to get out.  Oh, he tries to run away a couple times, but if he gets caught, he is very aware that he will be hung, no questions asked, and at one point, he very nearly is, in an excruciating sequence that seems to last forever.  Northup hangs, at the instigation of a man he's beaten (Paul Dano) in a rage, and is saved from being killed, but just barely—the noose tight around his neck, his feet tentatively on soft, unsure ground, his toes barely giving him purchase—while around him, life goes on, the other slaves work, taking no action lest they be punished, and he hangs, his life literally in the balance.

It's an incredible sequence, done in long uninterrupted takes, like many of the episodes of cruelty and torture dramatized in the film, that illustrate, very vividly, the absence of any hope in the life of a slave, of the system of property that was imposed on living, thinking human beings, and the thin thread that constituted the difference between survival and the grave.   It's a world devoid of charity, of any stripe, and belies any claims to the label of civilization.  This is done so well that even a long shot of Northup just looking out around him, that comes deep in the film, with only the sounds of the birds, winds and insects in the background still imposes a feeling of dread, the expectation that the normal will explode in the next second and end you.

It's amazing work, done in ways both screaming and subtle, but makes those moments of quiet anything but peaceful.  There's a lot of 12 Years a Slave seared into my head.   It will surely win a lot of awards, but hopefully won't be forgotten once the gold is exchanged.



A shot of about a minute of Ejiafor's Northup in contemplation may seem a respite
but is a cautionary one as the natural sounds might be predatory.






* And they have.  "12 Years a Slave" was known enough from the renewed interest in the '60's that in 1996, PBS aired a film by Gordon Parks entitled "Solomon Northup's Odyssey" starring Avery Brooks, deep in his "Deep Space Nine" run.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Don't Make a Scene: 2001: A Space Odyssey

The Story: The Deadly Cuts of Stanley Kubrick.


This scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey contains probably the longest span of dialogue, in a film which meanders along without the benefit of speechifying.

It also has, as is mostly the case with 2001: ASO, some very subtle film-making.

It also contains, buried in the sub-text, some of the more outlandish humor in the script. There are other, more classic scenes, and better examples of my following thesis in the 1968 movie, but this has everything, and probably the second greatest cut in film-history.*

In it, Dave Bowman and Frank Poole, the only non-frozen humans on-board the Discovery on its wild-signal chase across the Solar System, examine the only thing that has gone wrong on their mission. A vital communications module has been reported (by their supervisory computer HAL) about to fail. They replace it as a matter of course and, upon examining it, find that it's...fine. No imminent failure. Nothing to signal home about. But the fact that their near-omniscient computer made a mistake is something to signal home about, whereupon they learn that the perfect computer keeping them alive isn't so perfect after all. There then begins an elaborate ruse to discuss the situation out of...ear-shot?...of the constantly monitoring computer. Inside the privacy of one of their mini-cooper-like space-walk vehicles, they discuss what has to be done to their space-companion HAL. Disconnection? Certainly. Better bone up on the manual. But, just as they've squirelled themselves away to get some privacy to spare HAL's feelings...(Wait a minute.)

Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. Back up.

HAL has feelings? It's a computer!  And, in movie-terms, less than that, even.

But...I digress...

What will HAL's reaction be to having his plug pulled? It concerns the astronauts enough to bring it up, not knowing that HAL is watching their lips move through the pod-window.** Without a line of dialogue or explanation, the audience understands--HAL can read lips, and once they're given a moment to let that sink in, Kubrick cuts to black (with an almost audible thump of doom), as white letters fade up to announce "Intermission."***

In a film without much drama, Kubrick cuts away at the most dramatic moment. And makes us wait. And builds the suspense.

Later on, he will show an act of murder using only computer screens and alarm sound effects, cutting from one failing system indicator to another, completely removed from any melodramatic aspects of a death-struggle.

But for now, we're concerned with the little domestic situation going on aboard the Good Ship Discovery. Kubrick directed actors Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood to play naturally, and not emote much, so the two actors do a lot of the heavy lifting with their eyes and body language. They pass suspicious glances at each other, though knowing that betraying any thought might be picked up by HAL. Listening to the Mission Control transmission, Bowman sits stoically, his downward-glancing eyes being the only acknowledgement of bad news. The crazily re-assuring smile he "gives" HAL is priceless. Poole, the more demonstrative of the two, shifts uncomfortably in his chair, crosses his arms, and looks away. He chuckles at HAL's transference of blame and point of pride about the computer series' accuracy. Only until they're "safe" in the sound-proof pod, do they open up: Frank's not freaking out, but he's very concerned and wants to disconnect HAL now, now, now before anything else goes wrong; Dave sighs a lot (a LOT!) and worries about the ramifications, rightly so.

So, that's the underlying drama of the scene—the two men conspire to have a conversation like two kids dragging the phone into the closet so "Crazy Aunt Martha" can't listen in. The two want to talk about him behind his back (does HAL have a back?) and fret and worry like it's a Family Crisis.

Okay, that's the film story. Good stuff. HAL the computer is a major character in this (especially as everybody's talking about him...her...it), which is doubly amazing because all we see of HAL are animated screens and a representative red fish-eye lens. **** That's it (along with the crucial soft-pedaled voice of Douglas Rain)!

And that's all he needs. All Kubrick has to do to promote tension at this point in the story is to cut to that simple red fish-eye lens. And audience pulses rise.

It's an elaborate set-up, directed very simply and with an absolute knowledge of film-craft, but filled with hidden whimsy and philosophical ramifications, all leading up to that doom-laden delaying cut to black.



The Set-Up: Onboard the Discovery, outward-bound for Jupiter, Astronauts David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) supervise the long glide to their super-secret mission. Their three specialist crew-mates are in suspended animation until they reach the giant planet, and the ship is under the control of the Heuristically Algorithmic Logic 9000 computer (whom one addresses as HAL), and things have been going flawlessly. That is, until the crew has been alerted to a failed component in the communications array--the AE-35 unit--and makes a special walk to retrieve and replace the component. Now, they're examining the unit for the purely perfunctory fault analysis.

Action!




(In the zero gravity pod-bay, Bowman and Poole examine all the circuits of the AE-35 unit, looking for flaws.)


(Dave Bowman sighs)

DAVE BOWMAN: Well, HAL, I'm damned if I can find anything wrong with it.
HAL: Yes...

HAL: It's puzzling. I don't think I've seen anything quite like this before.

HAL: I would recommend that we put the unit back in operation and let it fail.

HAL: It should then be a simple matter to track down the cause.



HAL: We can certainly afford to be out of communication for the short time it will take to replace it.


(Later, the men receive a transmission from Mission Control in the low-gravity living area in the carousel portion of the ship)



MISSION CONTROL: X-Ray Delta-1, this is Mission Control. Roger your one-niner-three-zero. We concur with your plan to replace No.1 unit to check fault prediction.



M.C.: We should advise you, however, that out preliminary findings indicate that your on-board niner triple zero computer is in error predicting the fault. I say, again, in error predicting the fault.



M.C.: I know this sounds...rather incredible, but this conclusion is based on results from our twin niner-triple-zero computer.



M.C.: We are skeptical ourselves and are running cross-checking routines to determine reliability of this conclusion.



M.C.: Sorry about this little snag, fellows, and we'll get this info to you just as soon as we work it out. X-ray-delta-1, this is Mission Control two-zero-four-niner transmission concluded.



HAL: I hope the two of you are not concerned about this.

DAVE: No, I'm not, HAL.
HAL: Are you quite sure?

DAVE: Yeah! I'd like to ask you a question, though.
HAL: Of course.

DAVE: How would you account for this discrepancy between you and the twin 9000?


HAL: Well, I don't think there is any question about it. It can only be attributable to human error.



HAL: This sort of thing has cropped up before.



HAL: And it has always been due to human error.



FRANK POOLE: Listen, HAL, there's never been any instance at all of a computer error ocurring in the 9000 series, has there?
HAL: None whatsoever, Frank.



HAL: The 9000 series has a perfect operational record.
FRANK: Well, of course, I know all the wonderful achievements of the 9000 series, but (laughs) are you certain there's never been any case of the most insignificant computer error?



HAL: None whatsoever, Frank.



HAL: Quite honestly, I wouldn't worry myself about that.



DAVE: Well, I'm sure you're right, Hal...uh...fine. Thanks very much.


DAVE: Oh. Frank, I'm having a bit of trouble with my transmitter in C-pod. I was wondering if you'd come down and take a look at it with me.
FRANK: Sure.


DAVE: See you later, HAL.

(The men make their way back to the zero-gravity pod-bay)



DAVE: Rotate C-pod, please, HAL.


FRANK: What sort of trouble you been havin', Dave?
DAVE: Well, I've been getting some interference on D-channel.
FRANK: Hmm. We'll take a look at it.


DAVE: Open the door, HAL.


DAVE (over intercom): Rotate pod, please, HAL.


DAVE (over intercom): Stop pod rotation, please, HAL.


DAVE: Rotate the pod, please, HAL.

(pause)

DAVE: Rotate the pod, please, HAL. I don't think he can hear us.


FRANK (shouts): ROTATE THE POD, PLEASE, HAL! Yeah. I'm sure we're okay. (sigh) Well, whaddya think?
DAVE: I'm not sure, what do you think?


FRANK: I've got a bad feeling about him.
DAVE: You do.
FRANK: Yeah. Definitely. Don't you?
DAVE: (sigh) I dunno, I think so. You know, of course, he's right about the 9000 series having a perfect operational record. They do.
FRANK: Unfortunately, that sounds a little like famous last words.
DAVE: (sigh) Yeah. Still it was his idea to carry out the failure mode analysis.
FRANK: Hm.


DAVE: Should certainly indicate his integrity and self-confidence. If he were wrong, that'd be the surest way of proving it.
FRANK: It would be if he knew he was wrong.
DAVE: Hm.
FRANK: Look, Dave I can't put my finger on it, but I sense something strange about him.
DAVE: (sigh) Still I can't think of a good reason not to put back the Number 1 unit and carry on with the failure mode analysis.
FRANK: No, no, I agree about that.
DAVE: Well, let's get on with it.
FRANK: 'Kay. But look, Dave. Let's say we put the unit back and it doesn't fail. That'd pretty well wrap it up as far as HAL was concerned, wouldn't it?


DAVE: Well, we'd be in very serious trouble.
FRANK: We would, wouldn't we?
DAVE: Mm-hmm.
FRANK: What the hell could we do?
DAVE: (sighs) Well, we wouldn't have too many alternatives.
FRANK: I don't think we'd have any alternatives. There isn't a single aspect of ship operations that's not under his control. If he were proven to be malfunctioning, I wouldn't see how we'd have any choice other than disconnection.
DAVE: I'm afraid I agree with you.
FRANK: There'd be nothing else to do.


DAVE: It'd be a bit tricky.
FRANK: Yeah.


DAVE: We'd have to cut his higher brain functions...
FRANK: Mm-hmm.
DAVE: ...without disturbing the purely automatic and regulatory systems. And we'd have to work out the transfer procedures of continuing under ground-based computer control.
FRANK: Yeah. Well, that's far safer than allowing HAL to continue running things.


DAVE: You know, another thing just occurred to me...
FRANK: Hm.
DAVE: Well, as far as I know, no 9000 computer has ever been disconnected.
FRANK: Well, no 9000 computer's ever fouled up before.
DAVE: That's not what I mean...


FRANK: Hmm?
DAVE: Well, I'm not so sure what he'd think about it.




2001: A Space Odyssey

Words by Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick

Pictures by Geoffrey Unsworth and Stanley Kubrick

2001: A Space Odyssey is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Warner Home Video.






* The first can be found here.

** And by the by, this is the one thing that the late Arthur C. Clarke thought was hooey about the story. He thought there was no way a computer could be trained to read lips...certainly not by 2001...and maybe not ever, one of the few times that Clarke said that something was impossible.


*** Something he did...and probably over-did...with the shrieking titles in The Shining.

**** It might even be the same shot—the same strip of film— that Kubrick keeps cutting back to for HAL's "eye," with the exception of the one shot you see here of Bowman and Poole getting up from their chairs. What Kubrick uses to evoke HAL is so spare, but completely effective.