Wednesday, 8 January 2014


Gravity (2013)

Starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney

Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

The film has been making the 2013 Top Ten or even Top Five lists of pretty much every critic - and filmgoer - in the world lately, and as they say, there's no smoke without fire.  It cannot be convincingly argued that "Gravity" is not an amazing, encompassing sensory cinematic experience.  It's a deeply immersive film, and if that sounds pretentious, note that British film critic Mark Kermode, notorious, or celebrated, depending on one's point of view, for his anti-3D opinions, actually advocated seeing this film in 3-D (threed) over 2-D (twod), the first time he has ever crossed the fence (although I'm surprised he didn't for his pal Werner Herzog's "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" a couple of years ago).  It has picked up a number of Golden Globe nominations and will surely go on to do well at the BAFTAs and maybe the Academy Awards too; not that this is a significant indicator of a great film, but sometimes a great film can both make a lot of money, and garner awards validly too.  "Gravity" is a flag-bearer for that philosophy.  It's a decent 90 minute, punchy, not outstaying-its-welcome film with a simple story but amazing, groundbreaking effects (massive cudos to Effects House Framestore) and not one for which the 3-D has been un-necessarily tacked on to raise a few extra dollars, as most are, but because it genuinely enhances the experience.  Once in a while a film comes along which can be claimed to be a genuine game-changer; think "20001: A Space Odyssey", "Star Wars", "Terminator 2: Judgment Day", or "Avatar" and you'll get the idea.

The film is a fairly simple story of an individual in a highly perilous situation trying to escape it, and the breathlessly exciting depiction thereof.  Mission Specialist Ryan Stone played by Sandra Bullock (yes I know, what kind of a name is Ryan for a woman?) who is in orbit above Earth with a specific directive to carry out a mission to make an adjustment on the Hubble space telescope (which, incidentally, just sent back these pictures  She and her crewmates learn whilst up there that a collision between satellites is sending a mountain of space-debris their way and that they are in serious trouble.  They, in particular, are Stone, and Mission Commander Matt Kowalski, played by Clooney.  When it hits, a few "red shirts" but it, their shuttle is destroyed, they are seemingly stranded in space, and have to work together to figure out how to get  back to Earth.  Needless to say, things don't go smoothly...After the initial strike it's anticipated the next will come in 90 minutes, during which a series of tense and not entirely predictable scenes play out.

Bullock is incredible in this film, as hers is the main survival attempt upon which we focus.  There is some resonant imagery throughout as she fights for survival, all the while recalling her lost daughter.  This is why I love this film, because although it's a simple escape-from-peril movie, and a very entertaining one at that, doesn't also hint at themes of love, redemption, and re-birth.  It doesn't matter if one doesn't pick them up, the story can still be very much enjoyed, but if one does, it gives a kick to it all.  Clooney too is fantastic - I'm not sure he's been in a lousy movie since "Batman and Robin" - although comments are welcome.  The initial spacewalk was amazingly well realised, to the extent that celebrity astronaut Chris Hadfield (former Commander of the International Space Station) commented that the depiction of spacewalk in the first section of the film was *exactly as it really is*. He famously posted photographs on Twitter that he had taken from orbit, and a number of times a shot in the film made me think "that looks EXACTLY like what Commander H posted from space".  "Gravity" should certainly make up for realism in what it misses out on in plot points or scientific accuracy!  The initial spacewalk scene was where the 3-D especially comes into its own for me, because as Stone carries out her mission on the telescope, Kowalski, on his final mission indulges in one last spacewalk which sees him pop up in all areas of the screen at random times - the idea he could be 5 feet in front of Ryan or 50 behind is brilliantly depicted in the 3-D print.   This is not to say that the film wouldn't still look amazing in 2-D (I know some folks who have seen it in that format and been similarly blown away) but it's just to say, if you're ever going to see a movie in 3-D see this one and not "The Croods" (although, see "The Croods" in 2-D because it's charming).  You get my drift.

Really, I think this is an exceptional film, which, if you love cinema, you should make an effort to see it on  the big screen.  3-D, 2-D, irrelevant.   Just see it on a big screen whilst it's still playing, as it will be worth it.  Of course, the film will live on forever on Blu-Ray and with some of these 90-inch screens coming in, you may feel no different.  The film is not profound, and has nothing much (arguably) to say about the Human Condition but why should it?  It's an amazingly executed romp through space, thoroughly absorbing, gripping and reliable depiction of an adventure film.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

Quintessence (Who knew?)

Starring Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig

Directed by Ben Stiller

Ben Stiller's latest offering as a director and actor has him tackling James Thurber's original story of a dreamer who goes on to better things, but in a radically, totally different, 21st Century incarnation.  The finished  film is an absolutely magical triumph, which, in the old cliche, will appeal to audiences of all ages. The audience I was with consisted of those all ages in question (15 to 75, I'd say), and they all sat in their seats as the end credits rolled.  It's happening all over the place, I hear, (look at the message boards on IMDB, for example) and whether it was the music, or the impact of the film, it was quite remarkable not to have everyone streaming out of the auditorium the second the film fades to black.  Personally, I think it was the film itself.  It's easily one of the best films I've seen all year - oh, hang on, it's 2014 now, and I've only seen two films in the cinema - an interesting double bill, (about which to follow) - but I'm 100% sure that come the end of the year this will be in my Top Ten of the year - make that "one of the best films I've seen in in ages" It's funny (not much laugh-out-loud funny, although there are quite a few moments) but wry and amusing throughout, completely, but it passes the six-laugh-out loud-test with flying colours.  What really stands tall this movie out is that it is truly inspiring.  It makes you think, "what could I do to be a better person?"  And for that reason, I absolutely loved it.  I *loved* it.  It made me feel proud to be myself and I wondered what I could do to be better. I had tears in my eyes as the credits rolled (although I guess this is not such a big thing - I cry at movies all the time nowadays). Be a better person. Simples.


The story centres, obviously, around the eponymous title-man, played by Stiller ,who works as the photo negative manager for "Life" magazine, and has done for 16 years.  He's clearly hugely talented, imaginative, but stuck in a rut and wasted in his role. A great touch comes in the first scene, in which he tries to summon up the courage to send a "wink" to a lady on e-Harmony (other dating websites are available), but can't do so.  He retreats from the table where his laptop sits, and disappears from focus.  It's a brilliant moment which subtly shows us that Walter has no focus in his life.  Frequently, and we see this, he disappears into fantasy-land whilst in the middle of talking to someone.  His sister calls it his "zoning out".  These scenes are great, and funny; there's a moment when he imagines diving off a train platform to rescue a dog from a burning building.  There's a wonderful, extended scene where he has a massive, Avengers-style fight with an annoying executive from his company, spinning around and carving up the New York streets as they go toe to toe.  As the film goes on though, and Walter becomes more focused, the fantasy scenes thin out, and it's all the better for zeroing in on his story.  The McGuffin is thus: Walter has a big problem; Life's star photographer (a freelancer, Sean O'Connell, played by Sean Penn) has sent them a reel of pictures ("Sean still shoots on film.  I respect that") but the key negative, which O'Connell says is the best one and rerecommends to be used for the cover of the final issue, is missing.  So, Walter feels he has no choice but to go in search of the legendary lensman in order to find the picture.  Brilliantly, as Walter gains focus on something, his fantasies more or less dry up.  It gives the film a refreshed sense of purpose and believability as the craziness isn't going on...

What follows is a rollicking, but frustrating tour of Greenland, a fishing boat in the North Atlantic, Iceland, and ultimately the Himalayas as Walter closes in on Sean. Walter goes on search of the famous photographer constantly seeming to be one step behind his charge. This is the true driving force, and nature, for the film, and at times it feels like a travelogue!  These scenes yield some of the standout moments of the picture.  They have clearly filmed on location and actually gone to Iceland; the scenes shot there are stunning, capturing fully the vastness and beauty of these northern lands.The landscapes are *incredible* and amazingly well captured.  It's utterly utterly beautiful.  There's a fantastic scene where Mitty, drastically trying to keep up with Sean, jumps on a skateboard, bartered for from an Icelandic kid, and scoots down the road at high speed through mesmerising Icelandic mountains, unaware that a nearby volcano is about to erupt... To an amazing, driving soundtrack...<think ukulele, humming, and hand claps - I'm not doing it justice but it has to be heard> It's an exhilarating scene. I'd be surprised if this isn't nominated for Cinematography at this year's Oscars - it looks constantly FANTASTIC.  From Icelandic landscapes, to volcano eruptions, to tranquil arctic seasets, it looks awesome.  Lenser Stuart Dryburgh ASC can be mightily proud.  All the locations scenes look fantastic and it's a credit to Stiller as Director, and all the powers that be, that they actually went on location to film these scenes instead of, say, green-screening Stiller beside a mountain.  They are truly beautiful shots.

Of course the driving force of the movie is Walter's mission.  He has to find Negative 25 (of the reel) and thus he has to find the photographer...Remarkably there is a beautiful, touching love story running parallel, in which Walter falls for co-worker Cheryl, played with suitably adorable restraint by Kristen Wiig.  Their relationship is so natural and understated that one never believes it won't work out between them - despite the little murmur when she deletes her online profile and he believes she is back with her ex-husband.  That's a running gag too - Walter works with her, but would rather give her a wink on e-Harmony than go and talk to her in real life..So he keeps getting calls from a worker for the site, constantly trying to help him update his pprofile . It's all too believable.  It's unusually, uncannily natural though.  They behave the way real people behave, instead of the way "movie people" behave. Cheryl helps him out on his quest, and becomes a new touchstone in his formerly drifting life...It's amazingly insightful peek into human behaviour and makes you want to know these characters more closely - and hug everyone you love.  That, I think, is the real point of this movie.  Life shouldn't be about the drudgery of the day-to-day job, as it is for so many.  Life should be what you can do, if you try. A poignant moment comes when Walter finally tracks down Sean, and finds him waiting to capture a picture of a snow leopard (rarely seen), or ghost cat. "Beautiful things don't ask for attention", says Sean. When the animal finally appears, Sean doesn't even take the shot, he just looks on in wonder. Walter can't believe it, but Sean just says "stay in the moment".

Honestly, this film was not what I expected at all.... One normally associates Ben Stiller with slapstick comedies along the lines of the (both awesome) "Dodgeball" and "Zoolander".  Having seen the trailers, which front-load the fantasy element, I was expecting essentially more of the same, and not at all prepared for the second half of the film.  It's not so much a comedy, or even a romantic drama.  Walter's story is one of inspiration, of a man who comes out of his shell and performs when it counts.  It's a great drama about the need to do more (as we all do). It's a great film, about achieving your dreams at all costs.  That Stiller is directing himself is all the more remarkable given that he is in almost every scene; and he turns in a fantastic performance as the self-doubting but eventually self-confident Walter. The music, as hinted, is fantastic.  Many of the supporting actors, aside from Kristen Wiig, were unknown to me, although Adam Scott as an uppity executive was brilliantly funny ("Who looks good with a beard? Dumbledore.  Not you!"), and Shirley MacLaine's role as Walter's mum was all too brief. 

It's a change in tone for Ben Stiller though, a much more mature approach which is both incredibly moving and extrextremely accomplished. I'd highly advocate catching this in cinemas so you can appreciate the beautiful landscapes.  This was a really satisfying film about which I'm still thinking... and thinking...-


Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Miracle Mile

Miracle Mile (1988)

Starring Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham

Directed by Steve De Jarnatt

It seems so long ago now that it's easy to forget that the Cold War lasted for over 30 years, seeing the USA and the USSR insanely pointing their respective nuclear arsenals at each other and poisoning the public mind with worry for years on end.  The world lived with the constant threat of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction - as if that would be some consolation) in the event of the balloon going up and both sides launching their missiles.  The Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest it came actually to happening, but the fear and paranoia continued in many people, looming large in the public consciousness.  This was often  reflected in the films, plays, tv programs and artworks of the period.  Just look, for instance, at "Fail Safe", "Dr. Strangelove", "On the Beach", the British-made tv movie "Threads", or even "War Games".  "Miracle Mile" is another, slightly lower profile, to join that list.

Named for the famous street in LA,the film has dated severely, both in terms of its subject matter, and stylistically.  It's oddly reminiscent of that mid-80s "Miami Vice" style - all swaying palm trees, filtered sunsets, neon signs and synth music.  But it remains eerily disturbing and truly memorable.  Our story sees musician Harry Warshello meet and fall for Diner waitress Julie Peters whilst visiting the Natural History Museum by La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles.  The romance aspect shown in the first 20 minutes of the film is fairly strained, and definitely reflects the most dated part.  But 20 minutes in, the real film begins.  One night before Harry goes on tour the couple are due to meet by Julie's diner after her shift for a late, late night date, but due to a power failure at Harry's hotel his alarm doesn't go off and he oversleeps till 4am.  Racing down to the diner he finds Julie long gone, obviously, and whilst trying to call her home from a phonebox outside the diner, to apologize, the phone rings, and he answers.  The caller, it transpires, is a soldier at a US Army missile silo in North Dakota, trying to reach his Father in Orange County but has mis-dialled the area code.  He's calling to warn his dad that a nuclear strike against the USSR has been triggered inadvertantly, and the retaliation will be hitting American cities in 70 minutes. "We're locked into it... It's happening... it's really happening" yells the caller.  A dumbstruck Harry says "This is a joke, right?", unable to digest the awful news.  After an audible burst of gunfire, another voice comes onto the line and chillingly says: "Forget everything you just heard. Go back to sleep."  Harry starts to believe that the worst could be coming true...

What follows plays out in real-time (eat your heart out Jack Bauer!) as Harry and the fellow patrons of the diner, after initially squabbling and not believing, trying to verify the validity of the call, the most awful of news, desperately struggle to make it to a helipad on one of the city's skyscrapers, and get to the airport to escape the city before the strike hits.  Harry has to pick up Julie and her parents, who are obviously asleep.  It's a frantic, incident-laden race against time, punctuated by a series of encounters with a wide range of characters, and things are getting worse by the minute.  There is a car robbery from an innocent bystander, to whom Harry has to tell a made-up story for fear of not being believed about the terrible apocalypse to come, to an accidental murder of a Police officer at a petrol station, to the subsequent killing by police of the perpetrator of that act.  Then when word starts to spread, all hell breaks loose and the streets become utterly chaotic, making things that much harder for our hero to reach his goal.  Carnage certainly reigns on the streets of L.A. and these scenes are noteworthy for their scope.  It's worth noting that the film's score, by German Electronica band Tangerine Dream is completely haunting and effective, pumping when necessary, and really helps to build up tension in these scenes, whilst lending an ethereal air to the proceedings with their alternatingly tense pounding, and beautiful ambience.

The film's main strength is in its vivid portrayal of the weakness and desperation of knowing this could be the final few minutes of ones life, and asking if there is anything to be known for it to be avoided, and if there is any greater purpose in having been given life in the first place - the scene at the museum foreshadows this - for it to be evaluated.  There is a tender love story between Harry and Julie, which, while eliciting little sympathy initially during those awful 80s neon moments, becomes wholly believable and careworthy towards the end of the picture when carnage breaks out.  But the main selling point is the real-time countdown to an end, semi-credulously believed by those on screen; some say "get me out of here, I have to survive", some say "f*** it, let's have a drink".  Direction, by necessity, is taut, gripping, and interesting.  It reminded me a lot of 
"The Terminator" due to the apocalyptic tone, and the late night L.A vibe.  As Harry lurches from one nightmare scenario to another, we are never made to forget about THE nightmare scenario underlying the whole picture.  Thus, De Jarnatt constantly reminds us of where our sympathies should be lying, as human people.  For that reason mainly, I remember this film.  Once seen, the scenes of L.A. in uproar and crisis as everyone tries to escape, will seldom be forgotten. 

Having recently re-watched the film for the first time in, say, fifteen years, I can say only a few things pertinent.  One, for sure, it is dated very much to its time of the late 1980s. Two, it is a spectacular depiction of the carnage we would see at the end of time - of the sort popularized and leered over by "Independence Day" and subsequent ludicrous alien / terrorist films of late.  Here, however, the camera is on the ground as it unfurls, and it is all the more affecting for being so. Three, though, it is a fantastic human drama, right through to a climax which is both surprising yet strangely fitting, not to mention deeply moving.  Edwards - of "Top Gun" and "E.R" fame - gives an unquestionably fantastic performance as the increasingly frantic Harry, singularly carrying the film, and he is in most scenes.  Winningham - most recently seen alongside Judi Dench in "Philomena" - a little less so, altough still heartbre!aking and effective - it's a bit hard to see what Harry sees in her, as much as we sympathise with their nightmarish situation.  That she spends a great portion of the movie passed out on valium is a bit of a problem... but even then, it allows Harry to show his care and humanity, as he tries to keep the truth from her as they make their way out of the city.  The film is not without flaws.   As mentioned it is apallingly dated and the perilous scenarios just hurl themselves thick and fast... but the awful situation depicted is so damned memorable.  If you've ever seen this film, or if you see it in future, you won't ever forget it.

So, "Miracle Mile" is a deeply flawed but utterly compelling and a noterworthy 1980s triumph.  It gives a vivid nightmare version of what people 25 years ago thought could really happen.  Heaven forbid! Thank God I am here to write this today.  It's kind of obscure - known but not that widely distributed, so you may not come across it easily, but if you do, have a look.  It's definitely worth a watch.