July 27, 2007

Movie Review: Sunshine

Posted in Movies at 11:27 pm by Calico Jack

There hasn’t been a more ambitious film released this year than Sunshine, Danny Boyle’s sci-fi epic billing itself as this generation’s Solaris or 2001: A Space Odyssey. While not quite as masterful as either of those two classics, Sunshine is a thoroughly engrossing journey that flirts with greatness before jarring the audience with an ill-advised tonal change late into the final act. Yet even its missteps exhilarate rather than disenchant, and its thoughtful storytelling makes hash out of most other summer fare.

It is the year 2057, and the sun is dying — cooling off a few billion years sooner than expected, and plunging Earth into a solar winter that will eventually mark the extinction of the human race. Seven years ago, a crew set out from Earth on a spaceship loaded with nuclear material, hoping to jettison its cargo into the heart of the sun and reignite the star. They failed, and all were presumed lost. Now the Icarus II (a poorly named successor considering the mythology behind its origin), carrying an international crew of eight astronauts and scientists, is attempting to make the journey once more. It’s a thinly disguised suicide mission, as an incalculable number of variables must fit just so in order for the astronauts to return home safely. It’s also Earth’s last chance; the planet has been strip-mined to produce the Manhattan-sized bomb sitting in the Icarus‘s cargo bay. On their way to the surface of the sun, however, Icarus II picks up a signal from the derelict Icarus I. Now the crew are faced with a difficult decision: is it wise to risk the mission by making a detour when all of mankind depends on that bomb exploding inside the sun? And little do they know that far worse dangers are yet to come…

With Sunshine, Boyle has created a film that dazzles the eye while sparking the imagination, giving a sharp contrast between the sterile, blueish environment inside Icarus II and the deeply golden-hued brilliance outside the ship’s walls. The interior of the ship has all of the standard space-station fixtures: glossy white corridors, metal struts enwrapping the ship like a giant honeycomb, airlocks and bulkheads and even a hydroponic greenhouse, lovingly cared for by the ship’s biologist (Michelle Yeoh). But outside of Icarus II is where Sunshine’s visual spectacle lies: the sun, shown in all of its blazing, terrifying glory, is a character itself, pulsing with deadly energy even as it goes through its death throes. The audience is left to marvel at the radiance of our solar system’s lifegiver; but for Icarus‘s astronauts, one false move — a single step outside of the safe zone — will spell instant annihilation. This combination of beauty and lethality is almost a transcendental experience for the ship’s psych officer (Cliff Curtis), who spends his free time looking through a filtered pane at the sun’s surface ahead, wondering what an uninhibited view of the sun would do to a man’s soul.

None of the characters in Sunshine are movie superheroes. They exhibit all of the quirks and ragged emotions of humans under great stress, and sometimes fail accordingly. Physicist Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy), quiet and thoughtful, often clashes with pilot Mace (Chris Evans), a ruthlessly practical man intent on completing the mission regardless of the costs involved. Capa and Mace are meant to serve as counterpoints to Sunshine‘s most difficult problems, such as whether an innocent person should be sacrificed to save a few; but sometimes there are no good answers. And weighing down on all of the astronauts is the dawning realization that the chances for survival are constantly shrinking. As Cassie (Rose Byrne) says, “The only dream I ever have is the surface of the sun. Every time I shut my eyes…it’s always the same.”

Although it’s not quite as trippy as last year’s The Fountain, Sunshine also attempts to grapple with some metaphysical questions regarding man’s place in the universe. This is done somewhat less successfully than one might hope, since it’s largely a third-act device occurring only after Sunshine‘s sudden peripeteia. One can’t help but think that if Danny Boyle had pushed his film (and its characters) to their natural, terrifying breaking point, we would have been viewing a classic piece of science fiction. Instead, Sunshine is merely really good. Where lesser movies might fill the first half of a sci-fi film with unnecessary exposition, Sunshine grimly lays out the peril facing Icarus II‘s crew before getting out of its own way as mishaps occur, tensions rise, and a dreadful sense of foreboding casts a pall over the last few flickers of hope remaining for the crew. Its last fifteen or twenty minutes are of a much different mood than the rest of the film, but it still holds the audience on the edge of its collective seat. And several closing scenes are breathtaking in their cinematic ambition; if this film isn’t nominated for a cinematography Oscar I’ll be shocked. Sunshine is an intelligent, relentlessly gripping movie that dares to reach higher than most films would dream about. Even if it doesn’t quite attain those lofty goals, it’s still a remarkable piece of cinema.


July 15, 2007

Music Roundup 2

Posted in Music at 10:46 pm by Calico Jack

Ah, summertime. While Top 40 radio fills the airwaves with Fall Out Boy’s consonantal “Thnks Fr Th Mmrs,” Timbaland’s illiterate “The Way I Are” and Fergie’s suicide-inducing “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” there are many bands under the mainstream radar that could — and should — take their place upon the “Song of the Summer” throne. Here are a few that I’m rocking out to right now:

First up is LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends,” a vivacious song that perfectly captures the feel of those random summertime road trips with nothing but good friends and the open road. This is one of my favorite tracks from one of my favorite albums of the year so far:

The National’s latest album Boxer was released in May, and I want everyone to stop reading this post and go buy the CD. Yes, immediately; I’ll wait.

Now that you’re back, here’s their first single off of the aforementioned album. “Mistaken for Strangers” is hard to describe, as the National’s lyrics and music are complex musically and lyrically. But they’re also one of the most dynamic bands around. See for yourself:

This is an NSFW video for the Dresden Dolls’ latest single “Shores of California.” Cabaret music, burlesque dancing and an ocean vista — what better combination is there?

And we finally have Spoon’s “Underdog,” a cheerily caustic and eminently singable track replete with horns and syncopated clapping. Summertime music doesn’t get much better than this:

July 11, 2007

State of Fear

Posted in Politics at 11:44 am by Calico Jack

From John Rogers, via my favorite cartoonist of all time, John Kovalic:

FDR: Oh, I’m sorry, was wiping out our entire Pacific fleet supposed to intimidate us? We have nothing to fear but fear itself, and right now we’re coming to kick your ass with brand new destroyers riveted by waitresses. How’s that going to feel?

CHURCHILL: Yeah, you keep bombing us. We’ll be in the pub, flipping you off. I’m slapping Rolls-Royce engines into untested flying coffins to knock you out of the skies, and then I’m sending angry Welshmen to burn your country from the Rhine to the Polish border.

US. NOW: BE AFRAID!! Oh God, the Brown Bad people could strike any moment! They could strike … NOW!! AHHHH. Okay, how about .. NOW!! AAGAGAHAHAHHAG! Quick, do whatever we tell you, and believe whatever we tell you, or YOU WILL BE KILLED BY BROWN PEOPLE!! PUT DOWN THAT SIPPY CUP!!

Rogers’ entire post is eminently reasonable, and well worth a read. It’s also a little less than a year old, but his comments are still congruent to our situation today.

July 9, 2007

Movie Review: Transformers

Posted in Movies at 11:48 am by Calico Jack

The good news about Transformers is that Michael Bay didn’t quite rape our collective childhoods. The bad news, however, is that he plied us with drinks, whispered sweet nothings in our ear, and took us to the back seat of his car for an illicit makeout session — somewhat enjoyable at the time, to be sure, but leaving a distinctly unpleasant taste afterwards. Transformers is neither the best movie of the summer nor the worst, but it might very well have the shortest shelf life of any blockbuster this year. When the titular characters play second fiddle to a string of moronic humans pontificating and shouting and shooting everywhere (ineffectually, one might add), monstrous explosions and occasionally exciting Autobot-on-Decepticon action do little to alleviate the tedium that invariably sets in.

Shia LaBeouf stars as the unfortunately named Sam Witwicky, a high school student who fits every one of Hollywood’s “Qualities of a High School Boy” checklist. He lives in a nice house, wears the kind of music-labeled clothing that screams “I’m cool!” in a non-understated kind of way, and has a huge crush on the local hottie Mikaela (Megan Fox), a girl who’s been in his classes since the first grade but is too vapid to recognize Sam’s existence. Sam’s two goals in life include getting the girl and getting a car: take your pick as to which is the more important. After fueling his car fund by auctioning off personal items from his adventurer/explorer great-grandfather’s collection, Sam and his father buy a rather decrepit yellow Camaro from fast-talking salesman Bernie Mac.

Sam’s new car isn’t actually a car, of course; but rather the Autobot Bumblebee, one of a race of benevolent robots exiled from their world long ago by evil Decepticon leader Megatron. Now Megatron’s followers are invading Earth — a scorpion-like robot lays waste to a U.S. military base in Qatar in Transformers‘ opening scenes — in a quest for the AllSpark, a giant cube whose energies could turn all technology into malignant mini-robots, or something to that effect. Sam, however, unwittingly holds the key to discovering the AllSpark’s hidden location; and Bumblebee and his brightly colored cohorts are determined to protect Sam, find the AllSpark, and save Earth from mechanical annihilation. There are many problems standing in the Autobots’ way, not only from the drably interchangeable Decepticons but also from a gaggle of clueless humans, including SecDef John Keller (Jon Voight in one of his “how much for this paycheck?” roles), shrilly excitable black ops agent Simmons (John Turturro), and a young, comely Australian hacker (Rachel Taylor) with a fetish for lip gloss.

One of the biggest problems with Transformers is that its various plot threads never really go anywhere. A prominent MacGuffin is ungainly dropped before the beginning of the third act, leaving the audience scratching its head as to why Michael Bay felt the need to spend a good half hour in exposition over it. And a side plot involving teenage hackers as the government’s last defense against an electronic Decepticon invasion is needlessly complicated for a summer blockbuster. Transformers‘ other downfall is its liberal application of cheese in a movie that otherwise tries to take itself somewhat seriously. A judicious bit of humor is always welcome, but there are several “humorous” jokes — involving the Autobots, no less — that completely ruin whatever tone the filmmakers were going for, including a few ill-timed scatalogical jokes and a sequence where all five or six Autobots try to skulk around Sam’s backyard without being seen by Sam’s parents. One wonders why they are so concerned about the mental health of two humans when they don’t mind being seen by the rest of L.A.’s population. These scenes don’t fall within the movie’s own internal logic (one of the most egregious problems in any film) and are symptomatic of the predicament that Transformers‘ screenwriters simply didn’t have enough plot to connect their action setpieces.

Having said that, Transformers isn’t completely worthless; but most of its best moments come from those few interesting action sequences and not from any part of the story. Bay has a love for guns and explosions, and Transformers is his most noisy, bombastic movie to date. But his downfall is that he doesn’t have the restraint to spend time framing his shots, instead jarring the audience with interminable sequences of rapid-fire cuts and jittery camera work. Industrial Light and Magic did the effects work for the Transformers, and it’s technically quite impressive. But Bay doesn’t seem to want to let the audience ever enjoy ILM’s efforts, as most Decepticon/Autobot battles are far too frenetic to either fully understand what’s happening or enjoy them on-screen. For the first five or ten minutes of a battle, spatial cluelessness is forgivable. But the climactic battle at the end of the third act is half an hour long, having the unfortunate effect of making the entire thing wearisome. A bit of constraint would have gone a long way; but judging from the audience I was in, most people didn’t mind being assaulted with noise and pretty colors and spastic action. And overlaying the closing credits with a plaintive rock dirge by Linkin Park is one of the worst scoring choices of the year, thematically and artistically.

In the end, Transformers isn’t so much about Autobots saving the world as it is a setpiece for Michael Bay to once more prove to everyone that he can do explosions better than anyone else in Hollywood. It’s also unfortunate that the plot is ultimately about a boy and his dual lusts for a car and a girl; the mantra “No sacrifice, no victory” is oft-quoted but never displayed. And like all good franchises, Transformers ends with a blatant plug for a sequel. Change directors and hire some decent screenwriters, and Transoformers 2 might just surpass the original. In the meantime, it’s best to shrug this one off as technically competent but thoroughly forgettable fare.

July 2, 2007

Movie Ratings, Part Deux

Posted in Movies at 3:48 pm by Calico Jack

In 2004, when The Passion of the Christ fervor swept across America and many fundamentalists were treating the premiere as the Second Coming, Ebert and Roeper suggested on their eponymous television show that if Passion didn’t receive an NC-17 rating for explicit violence, no film ever would. Their comments were sadly prescient, as Passion was handed an R rating and millions of people subsequently took their kids to see a two-hour film where Christ and flagellation were co-stars.

Several months ago I pointed out the overwhelming hypocrisy in the MPAA’s ratings system, a problem only exacerbated by the ridiculous decision to include smoking in its list of objectionable content. In a followup post, I wondered if there was any way to fix the ratings system; or, failing that, whether or not to just scrap this relic entirely. As a way to inform parents about possibly objectionable content in a film, the ratings board has failed miserably, but parents have also become lazy in what they let their underage children watch. There’s a lot of blame to spread around.

Several critics have lately taken the MPAA to task for its double standards and “What were they thinking?” moments. Entertainment Weekly critic Mark Harris addressed this issue in a recent column, suggesting that the presence of an NC-17 rating gives parents the impression that anything less is possibly acceptable for their children to watch:

Having seen Hostel: Part II, I’ll spare you my feelings about why can you top this? horror comedies about torture are not my idea of a fun night out (although contrary to rumor, Roth is neither untalented nor the Antichrist). I’d rather expend my indignation on the people who gave the movie a rating that, in practical terms, is no different from a G. All that an R rating mandates is that a child doesn’t walk into Hostel: Part II alone, as if the presence of a grown-up ”guardian” magically renders a movie more appropriate for grade-schoolers. Of course, the raters could have given it an NC-17, which would have kept all children out. But they looked at that nude, tortured woman and genital mutilation, and decided it didn’t cross the line. For that — and in the spirit of Roth’s movie — I say off with their heads…

Some have suggested that the U.S. adopt the tiered system of age cutoffs at, say, 8, 12, and 17 that some European countries use. But that’s unfeasible in an era of understaffed multiplexes and Internet ticket purchases. There’s also an argument for putting more teeth in the NC-17, taking a harder line about what’s unsuitable for children. But I’d give that about five minutes before every interest group in America presents its own petition of topics they want to be automatic NC-17s, and we’re back to a prudish laundry list of do’s and don’ts that was abandoned decades ago…

That leaves one solution that’s both radical and sensible: Dump the NC-17 completely. Provide maximum information about movie content, create a website with plot specifics and exact age recommendations, and leave it at that…Today, the NC-17 protects nobody and preserves the illusion that R-rated movies like Hostel: Part II are okay for kids because if they weren’t, somebody would have rated them NC-17. If Hollywood places the decision about what children should see in the hands of their parents, where it belongs, many parents will, of course, make those decisions irresponsibly. But overall, could they possibly do a worse job than the people who are now paid to do their thinking for them?

I’m not sure that Harris’s proposed solution is appropriate. It feels like a half-hearted measure that only tackles part of what makes the ratings system so unworkable. Putting all NC-17 movies under an R umbrella means that clueless parents might take their kids to see something that’s really not appropriate, like Shortbus. When I saw Grindhouse (a film I enjoyed, but one that is entirely inappropriate for kids), there were at least a dozen children in that theater under the age of 10. One small girl, in fact, kept crying throughout the film because she was scared — and her moron of a father simply told her to hush up. It’s only a movie, after all.

The MPAA already has a website which lists the reasons for a film’s rating, although it’s often so vague as to be useless. Quite frankly, I doubt whether many parents would even go to a website with detailed descriptions about a film’s content. It requires additional work, and too many parents are unwilling to take the slightest extra step towards protecting their children. What I would like to see, at the very minimum, are audible descriptions of a film’s rating played after TV and radio commercials. Many TV spots either list only the letter rating or have content descriptions in such small print that one has to squint his eye at the screen to discern anything intelligible. I think having an announcer intone “Captivity has been rated R for strong violence, torture, pervasive terror, grisly images, language and some sexual material” might give a few parents pause before dragging their children to Elisha Cuthbert’s latest torture-porn flick.

The best solution to this mess seems to be one which Harris casually discounts. The British Board of Film Classification has five ratings commonly used for films: U for universal, PG, 12A (no one under 12 admitted unless accompanied by an adult), 15 (no one under 15 admitted — period), and 18 (again, no one under 18 admitted, regardless of whether or not there is an adult present). The major difference between this and the U.S. system is that underage children are restricted from seeing films over their age bracket. This also allows flexibility in rating movies that may be appropriate for older teenagers. And unlike the U.S., Britain has no qualms about slapping a film with a restricted rating due to its violence.

One could argue that the U.S.’s R rating takes the place of Britain’s 15, and our NC-17 is comparable to their 18. But it’s impossible to get around the fact that the NC-17 is useless to American audiences, and parents can still choose to take their six-year-olds to see the latest misogynistic torture film if they so choose. Having a strict cutoff for children’s ages is a bit draconian, I admit; but I have no difficulty believing that seeing gruesome murders committed on-screen is as damaging to a child’s psyche as anything else out there. And contrary to Harris’s opinion, I have no doubt that movie theaters would be able to effectively screen underage children if they so desired.

There are no good solutions to this problem, unfortunately. The most desirable outcome would happen only if parents started caring about their children and started clamping down on the movies they see, but I doubt that’s going to happen. Either way, the U.S.’s system is broken; and only a drastic overhaul will stop the travesties that occur when a film like Hostel II gets a rating that lets unwitting six-year-olds witness genital mutilation in the comfort of their parents’ arms. People really are that stupid.