Saturday, October 19, 2013

Mastery of the Art: Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity

Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity

Alfonso Cuarón has made only seven full-length movies in twenty-two years, and his latest, Gravity, is the first he’s released since Children of Men in 2006. Gravity justifies the long wait. It’s exquisite and terrifying, a journey through space at 0G, or zero gravity, that Cuarón, the production designer Andy Nicholson, the editor Mark Sanger (co-editing with Cuarón himself) and his favorite collaborator, the cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, have made simultaneously abstract and grippingly real. (This is one of those rare films that demands to be seen in 3D.) Visually it’s as breathtaking as Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but without that movie’s self-consciousness or ersatz philosophizing. The film I thought of more often while I was watching was Brian De Palma’s unjustly maligned Mission to Mars from 2000.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Seven Minutes in Heaven: Love, Trauma, and Choices

Reymond Amsalem and Eldad Prives in Seven Minutes in Heaven

Directed by Omri Givon in his first (and still only) feature, Seven Minutes in Heaven (Sheva dakot be gan eden, Israel, 2008) is a deceptively simple drama that melds dramatic realism with metaphysical and psychological drama to tell a powerful story of love and survival. We meet Galia (Reymond Amsalem, The Attack) at the hospital bed of her boyfriend Oren, roughly a year after the suicide bus bombing that left him in a coma and her badly burned. Galia’s memories of that morning, and the days leading up to it, are fragmentary and intermittent, and it is only after Oren finally dies that she begins to deal with her own pain. A new chapter of her life begins with the mysterious arrival of a necklace in the mail – one she at first barely recognizes as her own, and only later realizes she’d lost at the scene of the attack. With this small object as a touchstone, Galia is challenged to re-assemble and re-examine her recent past, and begin to live again in the present.

During her search for the paramedic who pulled her from the bus and ultimately saved her, she discovers that she was clinically dead for seven minutes before reviving (presumably the inspiration for the film’s title). Along the way, she meets another emergency volunteer who relates to her a mystical belief: when a soul is taken before its time, it is given the choice to return to earth, but only after being given glimpses of the life it will lead. Without giving too much away, those seven minutes are the metaphysical axis on which the narrative revolves.

Based on an original script by Givon, Seven Minutes in Heaven has the scope and slow, deliberate pacing of an ambitious short story. The film’s power comes from its tight focus on Galia’s point of view – Amsalem appears in every scene –  and its choice to tell a personal, rather than political, story. That narrative restraint pays off: Seven Minutes in Heaven tells a narrow story, but hardly a small one by any measure.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Neglected Gem #47: Gun Shy (2000)

Sandra Bullock & Liam Neeson
From the time Sandra Bullock started getting prominent movie roles in the early 1990s, she’s always had the sexy, shiny-faced glow of a  star, and she’s so easy to like, and so emotionally open, that it’s been fun watching her learn to act. Bullock, who’s currently showing just how much she’s learned in Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, has had something of a stealth career, quietly mixing a steady stream of successful commercial comedies with Oscar-bait projects like Crash and The Blind Side, while avoiding the kind of missteps that badly dented the careers of some other actresses who were once touted by the media as being much smarter, such as Geena Davis’ decision to forsake her own romantic-comedy gifts to become Renny Harlin’s action-blockbuster muse. Bullock also makes her own luck. She started to branch out into producing into the late ‘90s, taking charge of George Lopez’s highly lucrative TV sitcom and several of her own movie hits. She also produced one terrific commercial dud – Gun Shy, a crime comedy released to near-universal indifference early in 2000, which marks the writing-directing debut of Eric Blakeney.

Blakeney, who hasn’t made another movie (or, for that matter, worked on another TV show) since, wrote several classic episodes of the better TV crime dramas of the ‘80s, including Wiseguy, Crime Story, and The Equalizer. His script for Gun Shy carries some of the ideas in those shows to another level, and the movie looks like TV, especially compared to the kind of scuzzball flash and jumbled time frames that Quentin Tarantino and his imitators had made the fashionable style for crime movies in the late ‘90s. The hero, Charlie (Liam Neeson), is an undercover federal agent (like the hero of Wiseguy). When we meet him, he hasn’t recovered from his last assignment, which ended with a blown cover, the murder of his partner, and a bloody shootout that kicks off when Charlie is tied up and laid out on “a silver serving tray” with his face pressed against “mushy watermelon.” (The opening flashback to this traumatic massacre is as flamboyant as Blakeney’s filmmaking gets, and it’s so choppily edited as to raise suspicions that the footage was salvaged from a longer sequence that was meant to play out in full, but that Blakeney couldn’t get to work.)

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Cycle of Sin: Christian Themes in The Godfather

In a 2011 article for The New York Times, novelist Marilynne Robinson states that, “The Bible is the model for and subject of more art and thought than those of us who live within its influence, consciously or unconsciously, will ever know.” This thesis, which she subsequently demonstrates through a brilliant reading of The Sound and the Fury (not to mention in her own sublime fiction), comes from the literary critic Northrop Frye. He used his titanic studies The Great Code and Words With Power to illustrate how the Bible creates the “mythological universe” of Western literature–the creative playground of every artist’s consciousness and imagination. Any work of letters references, depends upon, and derives power from, the Bible. To write is to trade in the primal myths, language, archetypes, and metaphors that originate in the biblical narrative. Thus, every novel, poem, and play mediates that narrative’s meaning whether the author intends it or not – even when he intends the opposite. ‘Biblical meaning’ doesn’t equal ‘Christian doctrine’ though, but rather the instinctive way we thematize life.

The same principle applies to film – a cousin of literature, after all. And Francis Ford Coppola's twin masterpiece The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II makes for a paradigmatic example of how a movie can bear a Christian (in this case, Catholic) dimension without its doctrinal agenda (let's all agree that the third movie was a misbegotten fiasco). Coppola doesn't tell the story of the Corleone family through a Catholic lens, but the Corleones and their interlocutors are steeped in a tapestry of tradition, ritual, and code that grants them the mystique so evocative of Catholicism's archaic aura. Indeed, Coppola pulls the films' major visual and narrative motifs directly from the meaning-making worldview of its Italian American Catholic characters. And it's this worldview that imbues the story with such tragic weight.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Redux: The Mirvish Production's Les Misérables

There are several interesting story lines to Mirvish Productions’ revival of the grand musical Les Misérables, which opened last week at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre. First there is the fact that it has been rethought and reconfigured from its previous incarnations, in Toronto and elsewhere, by directors Laurence Connor and James Powell, and designer Matt Kinley. Then there is the return to Toronto of the leading man, Ramin Karimloo, raised in Peterborough and Richmond Hill, who went to England to pursue a career in musical theatre, and who eventually starred in London’s West End with the title role in Phantom of the Opera. And of course there is the musical’s story itself, inspired by Victor Hugo’s epic novel, a tale encompassing love, revenge, revolution, social justice, politics, poverty, crime and punishment, all delivered by an enormous – and in this case enormously talented – cast of characters. The redesign, said to be inspired by Hugo’s own illustrations for the novel, is wonderful. In the magic-box set, a variety of “locations” – homes, street scenes, an inn, a cathedral and assorted city buildings, as well as the famous barricade and the eerie sewers of Paris – are established with intricate precision, all supplemented and loaned detail by large-scale back projections.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Politico: Robert Schenkkan's All the Way

With the U.S. government in shutdown and voting rights in peril in a number of red states, it’s hard not to feel nostalgic about All The Way, Robert Schenkkan’s chronicle of the year between Jack Kennedy’s assassination and the 1964 re-election of LBJ, which just wrapped up a sold-out run at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA. (The title is, of course, derived from his campaign slogan, “All the way with LBJ.”) The political landscape covered by the play’s three hours is thorny: as the curtain falls, many of the architects of the Civil Rights movement feel betrayed by the president, who has overseen the passage of the Civil Rights Act but has had to excise the section on voting rights, and who failed to support the seating of the Mississippi Freedom Democrats with full voting privileges at the Democratic Convention. J. Edgar Hoover (Michael McKean) has ramped up his campaign to discredit Martin Luther King (Brandon J. Dirden), who has just won the Nobel Peace Prize, ferrying tapes of his motel-room adulteries to his wife Coretta (Crystal A. Dickinson). And LBJ has turned his back on his aide, Walter Jenkins (Christopher Liam Moore), after Jenkins was arrested, drunk, for solicitation in the men’s room of the Washington YMCA during the celebratory aftermath of the election. The play is about the political costs of social gains, about the balancing act of power, careerism and social change, and its subject is the last great old-style political animal to occupy the White House. But I don’t imagine there was anyone sitting in the house at Wednesday’s matinee who wouldn't opt for the world of Schenkkan’s play, where social progress is held dear, over the one we walked back into at the end of the afternoon.

Its built-in appeal to a contemporary liberal audience doesn’t make All the Way a good play, however – and that includes the rabble-rousing scene where David Dennis of CORE (Eric Lenox Abrams) yells up and down the aisles, demanding to know if the treatment of blacks in Mississippi can be called fair and just. At the matinee, audience members yelled back in support, though the show had, in my estimation, hit a low point: a playwright and director – Bill Rauch – who rev up a crowd so they can feel virtuous for being on the right side of a half-century-old political issue are merely indulging in a theatrical form of ass-kissing.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Critic's Notes & Frames, Vol. VI

Late last year, I included a few samplings from my Facebook page, which I've been treating as an ongoing dialogue with friends about social and cultural matters. (Some have described it as a salon.) Here is even more of the same. As before, it includes borrowings of songs and photos that others have posted and that I've commented on:

Despite looking like wax figures from the Revolutionary War wing of Madame Tussaud's Museum, Paul Revere and the Raiders were a pretty solid Top 40 pop band. Besides their famous anti-drug hit "Kicks," which lived up to its title, "Just Like Me" (in its sound) created the template for the early Elvis Costello & the Attractions, and "Hungry" (in spite of its collection of clichés) was sung by Mark Lindsay with a lustful abandon. "Good Thing" has that even more of that bounding optimism, and a try-it-on spirit that made many a hit in 1965-1966 despite riots, wars and assassinations.

My Sweet Ford.