Friday, October 4, 2013

In Space, No One Can Throw You A Life Preserver

Reel To Reel: Gravity

Going Rate: Worth full price in 3-D and then some
Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Mild Language, Two Disturbing Human Images (I don't count scenes of peril as a red flag, but they're too intense for young children)

When 2001: A Space Odyssey opened in 1968, it enveloped audiences with an astoundingly original view of the universe coupled with hints of where we came from, and where we were going. Gravity is every bit as stunning and original, but on a terrifying scale. Yet this film has its influences: along with 2001, it draws from Marooned, Apollo 13, and Alien along with Alfred Hitchcock's non-sci-fi classic Rope. Director Alfonso Cuarón, who co-wrote the screenplay with his son, turns the beautiful void of space into a claustrophobic deathtrap that reminds you of the dangerous of space exploration.

The premise is simple. A team of astronauts are in the middle of a routine space shuttle mission -- as close to routine as space flight can get -- when their shuttle is pelted by debris from a satellite explosion. NASA and others have warned us about the risks of flying space junk: it doesn't float aimlessly; it hurls around the Earth at thousands of miles per hour, meaning any fragment larger than a baseball can do serious damage to orbiting spacecraft. Suddenly the routine mission becomes a survival mission, led by space ace Matt Kowalski (Clooney) and newbie Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock). Kowalski is the cool pro who knows all the moves, and gets to show a few as he flies around on an experimental jetpack during the film's opening scene.

About that scene: it is one continuous shot that runs at least five minutes long. I didn't time it, but it probably runs longer than that. The second shot also runs several minutes long. These are the kinds of long shots Hitchcock used so effectively in Rope, ones people more often attribute to Brian De Palma, but I'd like to see De Palma pull off this flawless blend of special effects and tension. Cuarón knows exactly when to let his shots breathe for the maximum effect. He also embraces the scientific reality that crashes don't make a noise outside of Earth. The result is an unnervingly silent, uninterrupted realism hyphenated by Bullock's breathing and sparse dialogue in a performance that's a lock for an Oscar nomination, and it's a crime if doesn't get one. We feel ourselves floating next to the characters, even inside their space helmets in some sequences before seamlessly venturing out again.

Delving deeper into this film's technical brilliance and hair-raising plot would deflate the bulk of its tension. I can only tell you it does things we have not seen done before on film because technology has finally caught up with imagination. reports the filmmakers used a compositing system to create the space flight scenes which involved putting the actors in a specially-lit box to capture their faces, which were combined with the computer graphics. Yet for all this wizardry, the picture maintains a minimalist structure and a tight narrative. Cuarón shows remarkable restraint for this genre, where pictures try to out-do each other with their scope, relevance, or explosions. Instead, he focuses on the minutia; a small electrical fire on a space station has a freshness to it. Ordinary objects like pens drift around the actors, not only justifying the 3-D component, but reinforce the haunting sense that everything is coming apart around us.

Yes, this film is that good. I thought 2004's Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow was that good too. Do any of you remember that film now? I think I've only applied the term "Instant Classic" to one other film, Minority Report. That film earned it at the time, but times have changed, and now the sci-fi bar just lifted a lot higher.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Fast And Loud

Reel To Reel: Rush

Going Rate: Worth full price
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl
Rated: R
Red Flags: Adult language, several lusty sex scenes

Formula One racing takes a backseat to NASCAR in terms of popularity in the United States. So it's good that Rush is more about competitive drive, much in the vein of Chariots Of Fire, except this film is a briskly-paced thriller that won't put people to sleep.

We first meet James Hunt (Hemsworth), a driver with Austin Powers' DNA in 1970's England. He's a boozing, womanizing speed freak who lets the good times roll. Hunt is doing laps on the Formula Three circuit -- racing's equivalent of the minor leagues -- when he spins out alongside Austrian racer Niki Lauda (Brühl), a disciplined racer from a blue-blood family with the personality of tire tread. Thus begins a rivalry that will lead up to a climactic 1976 season.

Lauda buys his way into racing though a bank loan after a falling-out with his father, eventually joining the Ferrari team and moving up to Formula One, but he has to haggle his way into the driver's seat. The wealthy financier of Hunt's racing team takes a page from the Lauda book and buys into racing's big leagues without the need for sponsors. Both drivers make pit stops for ladies: Hunt scores supermodel Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde), and Lauda picks up Marlene Knaus (Alexandra Maria Lara) after a social outing flames out.

On the track, Hunt is the. risk-taker. He merrily flirts with death, something that helps him flirt with the ladies, and he'll push the bounds of safety and sanity. Lauda is the brains, figuring out how to make cars run faster and trying to race smarter while staying alive. We see reminders Formula One racing devours its own in deadly crashes and fires, and still these race on.

Rush shows us the intensity of Formula One with crisply photographed race sequences and montages that guide us through Hunt and Lara's quest for the championship, which like NASCAR, works on a point system accumulated over an entire season of racing. For the uninitiated, it could be like trying to comprehend the BCS. Director Ron Howard also re-uses a technique that worked well in Apollo 13: use snippets of sportscasters and reporters as a stealth narrative track.

Off the raceways, Hunt faces sharp curves. His racing team folds, leaving him to scramble for another. He sputters in his marriage to Suzy, who can handle a husband who boozes, cheats or speeds, but not all three. Lauda begins winning races after changes in Formula One rules force Hunt's team to reconfigure his car. Both drivers keep throttling up. Eventually, somebody's gonna spin out again.

I saw Rush with my Royal Father, racing fan for as long as I can remember. Although it was my Uncle Bob who ended up getting behind the wheel on the track, Dad also did some rallying. My racing career never developed beyond the Pinewood Derby in Cub Scouts. But like I mentioned, your enjoyment of this film is not dependent on your affinity for racing. Ron Howard has crafted a highly-watchable sports film that's not really a sports film or a racing film. It's an accelerated run through the lives of two people who love fast cars, danger, winning, and beating the competition.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

State Of The (Dis)union

Your humble servant imagines what he would say to a joint session of Congress.

"Mr. Speaker, Mr. President, members of Congress, I thank you for this opportunity to speak to you on this day, in the midst of a national crisis. I further thank you for allowing me to do so wearing my Colonial regalia and my three-cornered hat. I love GOD, my country, and my heritage.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, here is the state of our union:  we are hurtling towards dictatorship and we deserve it.

"I'm not going to lecture you on the challenges of democracy or the so-called American Experiment. I am speaking to you candidly and directly, because that's the way men talk when they need to pound something through the walls of another man's cranium. If I couch it subtly, I have no guarantee you will refrain from reaching for your smartphones to get in a quick round of Candy Crush.

"I'll give you a quick history lesson. A little more than 200 years ago, President George Washington warned us about the problems of political parties behaving the way you do. You remember George, don't you? He's on those bills you toss around like Kleenex. Anyway, he said in his farewell address from the presidency: 'The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissention, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual: and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.

"Allow me to translate: keep pulling this garbage, guys, and people will wish they had a king again. Think I'm kidding? When saddled with a dysfunctional, bickering, over-partisan, anti-social Congress for long enough, they'd rather have an authoritarian who can act decisively.  People will run the risk of putting a despot in power because they're tired of the alternative. We're getting there faster than you'd like to admit. President Washington saw this coming, but y'all didn't listen. I get to say 'y'all,' having lived in Texas five years.

"I once read a blog post by an Arizona politician saying one of the most important skills of public office is knowing how to count. In last year's election, we counted 51 percent of the vote for President Obama and 47 percent for Governor Romney. We counted 231 seats in the House for Republicans and 201 for Democrats. We counted 53 seats in the Senate for Democrats and 45 for Republicans. Pretty close.

"The rational takeaway is this country is more purple than red or blue, and that our collective best interests lie in a coalition that is amenable to a country largely split down the middle. But no, this is Congress. The people in this chamber don't think rationally. Those who did got run out of here, or they saw the light, and they escaped with their hides intact.

"The raw numbers, the fact so many voted for you, and yet so many also voted against you doesn't inspire a lick of humility. From your warped perspective, you refuse to consider the possibility that your particular party may not be the glimmering beam of hope, and it may not be ruling by Divine Right -- or Left. So your rationalization becomes that the people who voted for the other guys must be ignorant, or the votes must be fraudulent. No way, no votin' way could these people actually know for whom they're casting a ballot. They're the hicks in the sticks, or the bums in the slums. They're LIV's - low-information voters. They're in flyover country, the left coast, the Bible Belt, or Hollyweird. And so you excuse yourself from considering the merits of what the voters are trying to tell you by dismissing the vote as tainted. This is despite your best efforts to rig the game through gerrymandering. In the old Soviet Union, people who didn't see Communism as the best thing since indoor plumbing got sent to the gulags. Be honest with yourself, Representatives and Senators. Aren't there people in your constituency you've dreamed of seeing locked up?

"It gets worse. After you've dehumanized your opposing constituents, it's not much of a stretch to dehumanize your opposing colleagues. Commanders do this in war to make it easier for soldiers to shoot the enemy. You've transformed politics into war, holy war. The greatest jihad threatening this republic comes not from Al-Qaida but from Al-Congress.

"You can tell me you took an oath to support and defend the Constitution, but let's get real. This present holy war has nothing to do with the Constitution, or freedom, or liberty, or the rights of the people, or any noble superlative you want to throw at me. This is about one thing: power.

"You crave power. You eat it up. You want seconds and thirds. You are not content to have a slice of the pie when you think you can own the bakery. And because of your warped perspective and thin margins of either victory or loss, you are convinced you can do it if you just crank it up another couple of notches.  The cooler heads that would've stopped you in the old days aren't around anymore. In every war, we have collateral damage, and you've managed to decimate the moderates. Their chief role now is to lament the mess while ducking for cover.

"So now we arrive at another startlingly sad conclusion: you really don't care about America. You say you do, but we all know actions and rhetoric exist on different planes. I'm sure of this because there are a few specific actions you could take to convince us you care more about this republic than your power, and yet you have not done any of these things.

"First, you refuse to junk the filibuster. It's a procedural dirty trick you can't part with because it gives you power when you're in the minority. Even when you complain about the other guy using it, you know there will come a time when you will use it. Both parties have griped about it, but none of you want to get rid of it. The irony is nobody has to do any actual filibustering.  The lack of 60 votes to end debate works better than anybody talking their face off.  And I hate to break this to y'all, but on those rare occasions when you pull an all-nighter, you're not Jimmy Stewart's noble Mr. Smith; you're some sore loser stalling for time.

"Second, you refuse to give the president the line-item veto. As thus, you protect your power to pork up budgets or hold them hostage. The president is powerless to carve out the waste.  Before you start worrying about that whole checks-and-balances thing, need I remind you the vetoed parts would get sent back to you for up-or-down votes to override. We'll see what's pork, and you'll be on the record for where you stand.

"Third, you find ways to exempt yourself from your own bills. You barely read your own bills, but I shall mercifully avoid ripping you on that one. Still, the net result is that you don't put yourself under the full weight of your own authority, thus protecting the power you crave.

"Mr. President, I'm not letting you of the hook, either. If it makes you feel any better, I'm not letting your predecessors off. All of you have had opportunities to be the adult in the room and push Congress to do the above three things. But you want to play the game, because you know you can run against Congress to your advantage.

"I know some people who remember when United States Senators used to be appointed, not elected. I bet a few of them wish that were still the case. Maybe, just maybe, by picking somebody of character, tact, and maturity, we could start cleaning this mess up. We can only dream.

"So let me boil this down for you: keep it up, and this government will collapse. Maybe not in your term, maybe not in the next term, maybe not in the next guy's term, but it will collapse, because that's the net result of congresspeople who love power above everything and hate their constituents. It they don't hate their own constituents, they hate they other guy's constituents, the ones who elected this guy or that guy, whom they also hate, and who won't let them have what they want.

"And finally, I have a word for the millions of American voters watching this. We've got to do better. I know we didn't create the deadlocks and the filibusters and the jihads now infecting this place like cancer, and I'm sorry that you have had to suffer for them, but we have a role to play in the solution. How many times have you gone into the voting booth and held your nose? You have looked at a long list of rotten choices and thought, 'Well, I gotta vote for somebody.' No, you don't. You'll notice each office up for election has a blank line for a write-in candidate. This is your opportunity to write in 'None Of The Above.' Your vote is your voice. You owe it to yourself and your nation to say what you're really thinking. If nobody is worthy of your vote, it's time to mark it down.

"Mr. and Ms. American Voter, don't let these guys in Washington try to talk you out of this by warning of dire consequences for our republic if you vote your honest mind. You can't do anything worse to this nation than what they're doing right now. And frankly, they dread looking up at the returns on Election Night and seeing more people voting for nobody than for the somebody they thought they were.

"I believe GOD has Blessed this nation. I believe HE will continue to Bless this nation if we let wisdom rule in place of ego. One day, I'm hoping Congress will once again overwhelmingly attract the best and the brightest who now avoid this cesspool for good reason. Negotiation and coalitions will once again rule. We'll say "The Distinguished Gentlemen" in the floor debates and mean it. We'll have showdowns, but we'll have boundaries. We'll be proud of our lawmakers for a change. We'll want our children to grow up to be Representatives and Senators.

"Until then, we can pray and we can work. But we can't shrug it off and say, 'These things happen in cycles,' because eventually we'll run out of time."