Saturday, November 8, 2014

Intergalactic Planetary

Christopher Nolan's movies have tended to be plotty puzzle boxes that delight in staying one step ahead of the audience right up until the end. This worked, just barely, in 2009's mind-heist Inception but became too ungainly for its own good with The Dark Knight Rises a mere two years ago. Interstellar represents a turn away from that towards a more straightforward style making nakedly emotional appeals to its audience. This would be refreshing except that Nolan doesn't really know how to do that.

The Setup: In the near future, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) was a NASA pilot once, but now spends his days tending a farm, raising what crops he can with his two children Murphy (Mackenzie Foy, later Jessica Chastain) and Tom (Timothée Chalamet, later Casey Affleck) with his father in-law Donald (John Lithgow). The earth is subject to frequent dust storms and blight that is steadily wiping out entire crop species, and the Coopers seem to be at the center of some strange magnetic forces that lead them to a secret NASA base led by Cooper's old mentor Professor Brand (Michael Caine) that's planning to evacuate humanity from the Earth, which requires finding a habitable planet to colonize, which in turn requires making contact with members of the exploratory team, including one whose identity I won't spoil, that was already sent out. Cooper arrives just in time to pilot this expedition, with a team that includes Brand's daughter Amelia (Ann Hathaway) and a personable robot assistant, TARS (Bill Irwin), who is so much less annoying than it could have been. To everyone's surprise things do not go as expected.

Simple, no? No elaborate mechanics of dream extraction nor unwieldy conspiracies to unravel, just a straightforward tale of setting out to do a big thing or two to save the world. There are complications along the way, and a few Big Questions that the plot is going to eventually solve, but the answers (in the broad sense if not their weird details) are kind of obvious, and once it gets going the film becomes mostly concerned with wowing the audience visually, when it's not lecturing them about love (and sometimes even when it is!).

That's once it gets going: the first act is an odd beast, with character-building exercises that function to set up later plot developments for both this movie, and one that doesn't exist (I have no idea what to do with the knowledge of Cooper's cancer-killed wife, and neither does the film). On the plus side, its world-building is refreshingly unfussy. The blight crisis is spelled out in no uncertain terms, but the implications that it's had for society--which has apparently shrunk so drastically that the crowd size for a New York Yankees game is appropriate for a Little League match--is understated. The film doesn't know how to transition out of this into space exploration mode, though, at all, so it more or less cuts to liftoff rather gracelessly. It feels like a whole act has been sliced out of the movie, but I cannot imagine anything of importance being included in it and am grateful that the movie is not longer than its epic two hours and forty-five minutes.

Once we're off to the (space) races, the movie Interstellar most brings to mind is Danny Boyle's Sunshine, both in its 'last-ditch mission to save humanity' setup, and also its abrupt third-act shift out of an unhurried storytelling mode into tension and white-hot action. The difference, though, is galactic: for where Sunshine has an unimpeachably brilliant build-up that is thrown away for hectic film-breaking bullshit, Interstellar's extended dual climaxes save it from the insubstantial naval-gazing that has come before. There so much talk, about love as a force like gravity, and there is so, so much crying. It is not without reason, certainly, but it is an emotional cheat. Even with Nolan's usual plot knottiness stripped back the characters still feel like devices rather than people with interior lives that we are privy to, and so the weepiness has little impact.

Nolan is on much surer footing when he's trying to knock our socks off, which he does spectacularly and often. The images (which I saw in glorious IMAX 70mm film projection) are rich and frequently mind-bending, and they're paired with some choice sound design. There's a moment where a shot of a shuttle orbiting Saturn is juxtaposed with the sound of rainfall and thunder that approaches sublimity, and the success of the movie's third act that I mentioned is largely owed to the sturm und drang of Hans Zimmer's hulking score, which over a sustained half hour mutates from strings into pipe organ into electronics, building and releasing tension masterfully.

With much of this approach, it seems Nolan wants more than anything to recall the heady sci-fi of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. He comes close in parts, especially the climax of the climax, but he is hamstrung by his (and his brother Jonathan Nolan, with whom he wrote the script) insistence that everything make narrative and logical sense in the end. 2001's success rests entirely on matching its unforgettable visuals with elliptical storytelling that leaves much unexplained and invites the viewer to provide meaning. Nolan's got the visuals down pat, but he tells us everything (including when to cry) to considerably diminished effect.

It didn't have to be this way; Inception's dream logic was undermined by a similar heavy-handedness, but The Dark Knight used its very messy structure--which would normally be a liability--to formalize the story it was telling: it made the audience feel the Joker was an agent of chaos, rather than just telling them. Interstellar falls short of its lofty ambitions, much as Inception did, but it's still very entertaining and awe-inspiring on its own terms. It shows Nolan loosening up, perhaps too much in the waterworks department, but it's a welcome development all the same, and the craftsmanship is as impeccable as ever.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Notes on Godzilla

Because it's quicker than an essay.

- The opening credits are the best I have seen in years, since Watchmen at least. Big, exciting music set to blocks of classified text that are swiftly redacted leaving only the cast and crew, all superimposed over "stock" footage that I only realized toward the end was in fact giving us a condensed version of the movie's Godzilla's origin...

- ...which it strangely elects not to tell. There's sentimental value in having had him originally make trouble in 1954 and only now  reawaken, but beyond that...why? The film never really explains why he's around and has it out for these giant bugs that are the real enemy. This is a reboot if anything, and though superhero origin stories are by now well-worn, it would have been interesting for the humans in the film to treat Godzilla as a force of nature rather never before encountered than to be largely taken for granted. A big part of characterization, even of characters who only roar at things, has to do with how they are regarded by the other characters; having Godzilla be treated as not that big a deal, makes him not that big a deal.

- The biology of those giant bugs makes no sense. They are originally introduced as parasites, discovered inside the fossilized remains of a giant...something. But their whole mission in the movie is to incest mate, in some hole in the ground. If anything they should be trying to fuck each other through Godzilla, which would certainly give the movie the horror kick that monsters seem to lack these days.

- The humans' strategy doesn't make much sense either. If you're trying to get a nuclear bomb past the baddie that we know doesn't fly, why send it on a train to be attacked, and then airlift it? (Because a train attack looks cool, of course, and I'll admit, the shots of the female bug passing over and under and around the bridge are pretty neat.)

- I like the Godzilla design. Much good use is made of the dorsal fins, cutting through the surface of the ocean like a shark times a million, and the face, while strangely dog-like in its nose, is quite expressive. He's got a nice 'fuck you' sneer to these giant bugs.


- I guess this is the closest I'll come to knowing what it felt like to watch Psycho when it first came out, because I was genuinely shocked that they killed Bryan Cranston not even halfway into the movie. It's a bold gambit, but it doesn't pay off because there's no Anthony Perkins to replace his Janet Leigh. The ostensible star of the movie, the big lizard, is deliberately only glimpsed through much of the film to keep from spoiling his mystique. Which is all well and good, but that leaves us with the other humans, none of which step into the celebrity void to anchor the film that Cranston leaves behind him. Ken Watanabe has the most natural gravity, and I was hoping that Cranston's death would clear the way for the story, such as it is, to focus on a character who is actually from the nation that gave us Godzilla. But Watanabe is reduced to spouting pseudo-profundities about Godzilla 'creating balance' and man trying to control nature. After being introduced as the leader of the lab that's been keeping the bug egg a secret for a decade-and-a-half, he ends up having nothing to offer and unlike Cranston isn't allowed to die when he's outlived his usefulness. Aaron Taylor-Johnson instead becomes our ostensible lead, but he is no more memorable than whatshisface from Pacific Rim was. None of the characters are so stock-y, but neither are they compelling in their own right either.

- Pacific Rim was dumb by design, and its humans generic ciphers. Godzilla tries to put some meat on these bones, the better to give some weight to the events at hand. The scenes have a greater visceral thrill by giving us so much of a worms-eye view of the destruction, but the consequential violence is all front-loaded, and none of the characters matter enough anyway. And there's some good monster action to be had, including some applause-baiting money shots. But the movie's coy approach to its monster star and undue emphasis on its human stars eventually works against it by cutting away from its final battle to characters who have long since ceased to be interesting.

- So the human : monster ratio in these movies has yet to be perfected. Godzilla is probably the better film, but I can't help but wonder if Pacific Rim is the better monster movie.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Driving Each Other Crazy

Many a short play revue are organized around a theme. Love, for instance, or the number ten. In Neil LaBute’s Autobahn, the unifying characteristic is the automobile, that symbol and begetter of American sprawl and freedom. The car is not a thematic interest, though, only the setting. Big Intimacy Group’s recent production of the short play cycle, directed by Rob Mueller, doesn’t belabor this point, with Colin McIlvaine’s straightforward and unfussy set, a couple elevated car seats with a steering wheel in front of a scene-setting scrim, being all that it needs to be without feeling just so. The plays showcase what kind of scenes can be staged within a vehicle, but cars in themselves do not figure much into the plays’ inquiries—that would be word games and Labute’s somewhat alarming gender politics. The production is, barring a few missteps, the best treatment the material could receive.

The proceedings start strong with “Bench Seat.” Two young lovers (Emma Thorne, Logan Sutherland) are up on a secluded hillside overlooking town to make out, or, maybe, to break up, as it becomes clear that the young lady has serious, serious issues. The piece is a neat study in contrasts, with Sutherland’s smooth jocularity (which eventually shades into a passive resignation) juxtaposed with Thorne’s jagged, twitchy paranoia. Like several of the pieces it goes on for too long, circling back to the same topics and comic devices, but the performers’ energy never flags and it entertains and unnerves in equal measure.

Said energy carries over to the next playlet, the best of them, “All Apologies.” It is a comic monologue, given by a man (Jonathan Berenson) to his wife (Jill Durso), in which he apologizes in his own fashion for being an abusive sack of shit. It flips the dynamic of the previous scene, with the woman now reacting, this time silently but so intently, to the increasingly unhinged man. His rambling is a tour-de-force performance in bullshit-spinning peppered with digressions on the origin and meaning of words like “awesome” and “golf,” in the end punctured simply and devastatingly by the wife’s incredulous laughter. The laugh is not in fact in LaBute’s script--she merely stares instead--but it’s a welcome addition that opens the storytelling perspective beyond the captivating and entertaining monster at the piece’s center and keeps it from letting him off the hook.

The same, alas, cannot be said for “Merge,” in which a husband (Anthony Taylor), having picking his wife (Haley Palmaer) up from a convention, tries to parse her ambiguous testimony about having been raped in her hotel room. She wasn’t raped, we learn, for she drunkenly invited all those/both those (the use of the word ‘all’ is a detail the husband clamps onto with the tenacity of a pit bull) men to join her. The script’s one-sidedness--we never get an explanation for or exploration of her nymphomania--makes the play problematic to begin with. Coupled with Anthony Taylor’s furious, accusatory take on his character, it makes the play an ugly exercise in slut-shaming which reaches its terminal conclusion in a nihilistic ending, a murder-suicide traffic swerve that is merely hinted at in the title and stage directions. Of the night’s proceedings, it’s a considerable bump in the road.

The show gets stuck in second gear for the the next piece, “Road Trip.” We’re presented a man (Todd Litzinger) and a young girl (Caroline Jordan) on a seemingly innocuous excursion. We learn that he’s a predator, and like most predators he’s family or something like it, probably her step-father, and this trip, for the girl at least, is decidedly one-way. The relationship between the two characters and the reveal of its true horrible nature is drawn delicately, but the tension of the play exists only between the audience's omniscience, and the limited perspective of the girl. Between the girl and the man there isn’t so much friction, and the piece never quite takes off because of it.

Though it shares similar subject matter, this is not true of the final and most intriguing piece, the show’s namesake, “Autobahn.” Like “All Apologies” it’s a monologue, this time given by the woman (Annie Grier) ruminating while her husband (Jonathan West) drives, about their troubled foster son’s accusations of sexual abuse. The play rightly doesn’t belabor the reveal of what it’s about and so spends its time exploring the two characters’ responses to this situation and, accordingly, forcing us to wonder what exactly the situation is. The wife’s chatter, her rationalizations and can-do optimism, increasingly feel like an evasion of a horrible truth. Meanwhile Jonathan West wears a mask of the most profound sadness--but is it a mask? Is it guilt? Self-pity? Manipulation? The play never tips its hand in either direction. This can be frustrating, playing up an ambiguity for which, as Dylan Farrow’s recently renewed allegations against Woody Allen have shown, there is no luxury in real life. As a work of drama, though, the did-he-or-didn’t-he question works, especially as a contrast to the other the earlier plays, whose creeps we were allowed to feel much more certain about.

The production, it should be noted, eliminates two of the seven vignettes, "Funny" and "Long Division." They are missed not for the plays in themselves, though "Funny" is quite good, but for their casts, two women and two men; the one man-one woman dynamic of the other plays, especially given Neil LaBute’s fixation on abusive sexual relationships, could use some variety. What we are given, however, is a solid offering, directed and performed with energy and attention, in service of an at-times uneven collection of plays. As a vehicle for drama, the engine occasionally threatens to stall, but the body is ever polished.