Sunday, August 30, 2009

In Theaters: Ponyo

Ponyo poster and IMPAwards link
I’m cheating a little putting PONYO in the theatrical category, I think, because the film is probably now at the end of its weirdly abbreviated theatrical run. In Kansas City, it is impossible to throw a brick five paces without hitting a multiplex; we have approximately eighteen kajillion screens, and a hefty assortment of art house theaters picking up the less mainstream business. PONYO, as best as I can tell, played one screen in all of this, in a multiplex in Merriam, Kansas, that took me way too long to reach. It’s not quite a wide release, but not a gradual rollout; even an art house release would have made more sense, frankly. So, if it’s already left your area, just keep this review around for future reference.

Hayao Miyazaki has, as far as I can tell, been on the brink of retirement for about 5 years now. At one point I had the impression that HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE was going to be his last film, and fortunately that’s not the case; the picture was good, but suffered from a convoluted and weirdly-adapted story. PONYO is a much simpler picture, and no less beautiful for it; in its lightheartedness and sheer appeal to cuteness, the film will remind Ghibli fans of MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO. While not quite up there with Miyazaki’s best, PONYO is unbelievably charming and creative.

Ponyo (voiced here by Noah Cyrus) is a goldfish, albeit one with a red body and human face, but everyone calls her a goldfish so I assume that’s an artistic choice. She escapes from the submarine of her father, a mysterious wizard (Liam Neeson) who regulates the life force of the ocean, and gets herself trapped in a glass jar before being rescued by a young boy named Sosuke (Frankie Jonas.) Being a little bit magic, she heals a cut on his finger, and this starts to transform her- she’s already learned to speak when the wizard Fujimoto shows up to reclaim her. But Ponyo has learned how to transform herself into a person, and, now in a kind of love with Sosuke, escapes again, this time in a tumultuous flood of magic and life that plays havoc with Fujimoto’s elixirs, and sets a major tropical storm on the coastal/island community where Sosuke lives with his mother Lisa (Tina Fey). The boy’s father, a sailor (voiced, briefly, by Matt Damon), is at sea when the storm hits, and for a while they fear he may be lost. And it seems Ponyo’s escape and the craziness she caused on Fujimoto’s sub has upset the balance of nature, filling the oceans with extinct Precambrian life and putting humanity in danger. Though no fan of humanity, Fujimoto knows something needs to be done, and turns for help to his great love, the sea goddess Gran Mamare (Cate Blanchett).

The early parts of the film are the most beautiful and baffling, as Ponyo’s escape from a magic sub is presented almost entirely without any context. It’s a good while before we start getting explanations as to what in the Sam Hill is going on here, but for a long while this doesn’t matter, because Ponyo is very cute. Studio Ghibli has always had a special hold on the adorableness market, what with TOTORO’s dust bunnies, SPIRITED AWAY’s soot creatures and hamsters, etc. The sheer “aww” factor of the film is high from the start, and doesn’t diminish when the story gets going. As a human, Ponyo is sometimes too much in the way that excitable little children are; there’s still something magic about her, but you’ve met girls like her at some point.

Indeed, as weird as the whole story is, the human relationships are beautifully rendered. Sosuke’s family life is complex- his mom sometimes gets angry at his dad when he has to stay out at sea for another day or so, but it’s obviously because she misses him, and their relationship is portrayed in an amusing and realistic way. (Tina Fey really does some great voice work here, putting a lot of energy and texture into a character that’s not the kind we normally see her play.) There’s something poignant, though sadly underdeveloped, about Fujimoto’s troubled relationship with his goddess; he loves here, he tries so hard to please her that he’s turned against the world of men, it doesn’t seem like they can ever be together for long, but even when he goes too far in his zeal, she is always forgiving and hopeful. There’s also a subtle environmental theme to the picture, as in a lot of Ghibli pictures, and the ocean setting is particularly relevant since nowadays that seems to be where we’re doing the most damage.

The animation in PONYO has a childlike simplicity to it, moreso than other films by the studio- backgrounds in particular have a painted quality. It’s pretty consistently gorgeous, and there are some wonderfully subtle moments of expression, particularly when Ponyo meets a grouchy baby. There is, appropriately enough, a fluidity to the action and visuals- Ponyo becomes a little fishlike whenever she uses her magic, and slides back in a way that only animation can pull off. (There’s some dispute among animation fans over whether this film was completely hand drawn, but it certainly looks like it.)

I’m still not entirely sure whether I feel the film is too slight or just what it should be; there’s not a lot of suspense to the climax, per se, but that’s because we trust the characters so much by that point, and- again, like TOTORO- this is meant to be a light picture. The dubbing and overall translation of the picture is quite good, as diligent as Disney/Pixar’s other Ghibli imports, though the remixed version of the theme song is, well, not so much good.

But overall PONYO is terrific fun; it contains a lot of little touches that build up into a surfeit of good will, and the people in it are interesting and well-rounded enough to make us really care what happens to them, even if it rarely seems they’re in much danger. On top of this it’s a gorgeous picture that proves that 2-D animation can be as big-screen worthy as anything else. PONYO is one of those films that takes the adventurousness of childhood and expands it into a grand fantastic narrative, and in doing so rings true in a way that many children’s entertainments don’t. A marvelous little film about an adorable little fish.

Written and Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Grade: A

Friday, August 28, 2009

Random Movie Report #69: Mothra

Link to the Toho Collection (Mothra inc.) on Amazon
Sony have recently released a three-disc set of Toho sci-fi epics directed by Inoshiro Honda, and though it has some technical problems (all three discs are stacked on top of each other on one spindle, so be prepared to do a variant on Towers of Hanoi each time you want to pick a film) it’s great to see these films available at last. The most famous film on the set is, no doubt, MOTHRA, the most successful of Toho’s non-Godzilla monster movies and one of their most ambitious full-color Tohoscope fantasies. The simple story of a radioactive island, a giant bug, and two tiny twin singers is rendered with lush detail, with a touch of social satire and daring international commentary. It’s basically their version of a Pixar movie- heartwarming and colorful and sweet, but with more buildings exploding.

A typhoon forces a ship aground on Infant Island, an island reportedly contaminated by radiation from atomic tests conducted by the nation of Rolisica (the United States with the serial numbers filed off, basically.) The place is supposed to be uninhabitable, but some time later, the survivors are rescued, with no trace of radiation and stories of being treated well by the natives. Japan and Rolisica send a scientific expedition, which finds that beyond the rocky shores of the island there’s actually a thick jungle, with natives, bloodsucking plants, and two beautiful foot-high fairy girls whom a tag-a-long reporter (Frankie Sakai) dubs the “shobijin”, or “tiny beauties” as the subtitles translate it. The girls (Emi and Yumi Ito) are kidnapped by unscrupulous Rolisican adventurer Clark Nelson (Jerry Ito, presumably no relation), who exhibits them as an elaborate theatrical attraction. As reporter Sen, photographer Michi Hanamura (Kyoko Kagawa), and Dr. Shinichi Chuju (Hiroshi Koizumi) work to free the girls, the island’s protector, Mothra, hatches from an egg as a giant caterpillar and begins a trek to Japan. Soon, freeing the fairies becomes not just a question of morality, but one of preventing the entire country being destroyed by a giant insect.

Though written and directed by the same team that brought Godzilla to life, MOTHRA has a different look and feel from the start. It’s a more delicate, childlike movie, with a mostly innocent monster saving two innocent creatures from the corrupt world of man. For a film which satirizes American pushiness (though the script makes pains to point out that Nelson is worse than the rest of the Rolisicans), MOTHRA has the feel of an Old Hollywood adventure movie, with native pageantry and elaborate song numbers to complement the traditional mayhem and destruction. There’s a particularly brilliant and evocative scene where the larval Mothra attacks a ship at sea, following the ethereal voices of the fairies and mysteriously lit from below.

A lot of the film’s atmosphere owes to the score by Yuju Koseki, which is of a different tenor than the themes Akira Ifukube was composing for Toho’s other monster epics. Koseki is responsible for the famous “Song for Mothra” that Toho has used for the monster ever since, and his other compositions are similarly distinctive. Mothra himself (or herself- Toho officially has said that Mothra’s a he, but a lot of people think of the creature as female) is a striking creation; the scenes of the monster as a caterpillar are frequently shot with the camera low to the ground, the creature’s bulk and tiny blue eyes looming in front of the camera in a way both surreal and effective. Mothra doesn’t do much fighting with the military, not really having any weapons, but the critter’s wings create gusts of wind that can easily level cities, and again, mankind’s weapons are useless.

The film’s human story is especially effective, rendered simply as a look at greed and the unintended consequences it can have on the world. Even more than in GODZILLA, the monster in MOTHRA is a symbol of nature’s revenge, striking at man for the destruction he wrought on the world, be it through nuclear weapons or simple plundering of its resources. (One interesting element, not explored much, involves the theory that the fairies are survivors of an ancient civilization which used to connect all the major South Pacific islands, and that Mothra is also part of this ancient culture.) It helps that Nelson is such a wonderfully scummy character- Jerry Ito gives an excellent performance, making the scientist-turned-huckster both believably influential and completely unlikable. Frankie Sakai, a veteran comedy actor, is also charming as the bulldog-like reporter who bluffs his way onto the scientific expedition, only to be legally forbidden from reporting anything about it.

After a few years of trying to top GODZILLA for action and spectacle, Toho hit on a different approach. MOTHRA is very distinctly a Japanese monster movie, with all the chaos and flattening of elaborate miniatures that entails, but it’s also good-natured, with well-rounded characters confronting moral problems and trying to do their best. It’s a genuine epic, going from tropical islands to downtown Tokyo to the almost-European-style “New Kirk City”, and the breadth of its spectacle and the wild creativity of it all helped establish the big, colorful, crazy style of its science fiction spectacles in the coming decade. It’s something of a triumph for everyone involved, and a bit of old-fashioned fun that’s long overdue in our region.

Based on the novel “Hakkou Yousei to Mothra” by Takehiko Fukunaga
Story by Yoshie Hotta and Shinichiro Nakamura
Screenplay by Shinichi Sekizawa
Directed by Inoshiro Honda

Grade: A

Monday, August 24, 2009

In Theaters: Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds poster and IMPAwards link
I’m still not entirely sure what to make of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, even though I like it. It’s an extraordinarily well made movie that basically delivers what it promises, but it does so in the last way you would expect. At this point, I’m convinced that Quentin Tarantino genuinely enjoys confounding audiences; what’s been promoted as a simple war movie about a group of Jewish-American soldiers killing as many Nazis as possible is, instead, a more complex story about revenge and propaganda and art, that nonetheless, in the course of events, involves killing a whole bunch of Nazis. It’s definitely the most challenging project Quentin Tarantino has undertaken since the underrated JACKIE BROWN, and it succeeds in provoking a lot of conflicting emotions in the audience; it’s alternately thrilling that arguably the most evil group of men in history are getting theirs, horrifying how brutal it all is, amusing how blatantly the story disregards history, and fascinating how it gives us an alternate narrative. It’s powerful on a level I never expected.

The Basterds (sic) are a company of Jewish-American soldiers organized under Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), who teaches them guerilla tactics so that they can be parachuted behind enemy lines in advance of D-Day and set about striking terror into the Axis forces by killing anyone and everyone in a Nazi uniform (excluding undercover operatives, one presumes.) Word of their prowess spreads to Berlin almost overnight, thanks to them occasionally letting one or two be released with swastikas carved on their foreheads. Meanwhile, in Paris, Frederick Zoller, a German sniper turned movie star (Daniel Brühl) falls for a theater owner (Mélanie Laurent), who unbeknownst to him is the sole survivor of a Jewish massacre carried out by the sadistic and enigmatic S. S. officer Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz.) Frederick’s affection for her, which she barely acknowledges, leads to the premiere of his self-starring biopic being moved to her theater. Knowledge of the premiere, which is sure to be attended by top Nazi brass, reaches the British, who plan to blow up the theater, and enlist the help of the Basterds for what they call “Operation Kino”. What they don’t know is that the theater owner, called Emmanuelle Mimieux but really named Shosanna Dreyfus, plans to burn down the place herself.

So there’s a lot more plot to this movie than you’d think, and the brutality you expect, while present, isn’t quite wall to wall. The film lets scenes build slowly to eruptions of swift violence, creating suspense from the growing realization of what’s coming. The film plays a lot with expectation and rhythm, though it’s unlikely to frustrate audiences quite as much as DEATH PROOF did. (It is worth pointing out that I think DEATH PROOF was not only awesome, but justified the buildup completely, but to explain why I’d have to spoil the whole plot and this isn’t a review of that film anyway.) Frankly, I think you have to respect a director who understands the importance of the setup, and rewards attention to the little things, and here Tarantino does both.

Much has been made of the performance of Christoph Waltz as Col. Landa, with good reason. On one level his character is not all that unusual; World War II movies often have a Nazi who is capable of being pleasant, is motivated by something other than pure anti-Semitism, is fiercely intelligent, and is all the more hateful for being so complex. And yet Waltz takes it one step beyond, makes Landa a fully three-dimensional character, with a silly demeanor masking the fact that he is usually the most perceptive and intelligent person in the room. The actor’s already won a prize at Cannes for his work, and hopefully he’ll get a push for Oscar consideration as well. Brad Pitt plays Raine with a broad accent and comic flair, which leads to some brilliant moments in the film’s final act. Laurent is a striking beauty in the thoughtful French New Wave mode, and to a certain extent her character’s attitude about film stands in for the changing attitudes that would sweep the continent when the war was over. Of course, the Germans get Diane Kruger as film-star-turned-informant Bridget von Hammersmark, so it balances out.

In blatant defiance of modern action movie aesthetics, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS features rich, natural colors, long takes, and a steady hand at the camera at virtually all times. It’s a pleasure to look at, at least when the Basterds aren’t scalping their enemies (Raine wants 100 Nazi scalps per man, though there’s no indication where he keeps them.) The music, as per usual, is a compilation from other sources, mostly Morricone, which befits the film’s spaghetti Western tone.

The climax is something I don’t want to spoil but feel the need to discuss anyway. Normally when a movie changes history, it fools around with things the average audience member isn’t likely to notice; obscure personages get their personalities screwed with, battles are altered, America takes credit for British victories, etc. (Seriously, I’m surprised they even let U-571 be released in the UK.) What happens at the end of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is a fiction that should be obvious to anyone who wasn’t completely asleep during every history class he or she ever took, and also missed out on the History channel, a lot of other WWII movies, there was an episode of FAMILY GUY- I’m sure there will be people who don’t know it’s fake, but for them there is no hope. In any case, it’s an astounding scene- it’s cathartic and hellish, a portrait of pure revenge that makes the whole film a sort of replacement narrative, how things ought to have ended, but even though just about everyone has it coming, there’s something kind of hard to watch about it.

Of course, that’s the beauty of the film; it’s not clear how you’re supposed to feel about anything. The picture is alternately thrilling, disgusting, hilarious, and elegiac, and the overall effect is that of a true rollercoaster. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is Quentin Tarantino’s best film in a long time, and another great example of something weird and original sneaking into mainstream cinemas. Something very interesting is happening with the movies this year.

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino

Grade: A

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Random Who Report: Destiny of the Daleks (1979)

Destiny of the Daleks DVD link
With the Daleks now an annual guest on DOCTOR WHO, it’s interesting to think that their appearances used to be more spaced out. Terry Nation took them on a forced hiatus for five years starting in 1967 as part of an unsuccessful attempt to give them their own series in America, and after GENESIS OF THE DALEKS in 1975, they took another, shorter siesta. DESTINY OF THE DALEKS marked their return to the series, and also Nation’s final work for the show as a writer. It also has the unusual distinction of being the most highly watched story in the show’s history; the BBC’s main competitor, ITV, was temporarily blacked out by an industrial strike, and over 13 million people tuned in to watch this story. And yet, for its various distinctions, the story itself is unmemorable; a sequel to GENESIS in many ways, DESTINY has little of the former’s atmosphere and energy, often presenting itself as the generic archetype of a DOCTOR WHO story, right down to being filmed in a quarry. Some good ideas almost save it in the last episode, but it’s otherwise a rote affair.

The Doctor and a newly regenerated Romana (Lalla Ward) pop up on a rocky alien world and go exploring, not realizing that it is, in fact, the Daleks’ home planet of Skaro. The Daleks have been bringing human slaves to their planet to work on a massive excavation of their own ruined city, a project which has drawn the attention of their major rivals the Movellans, an enigmatic race of dreadlocked, androgynous warriors. (One wonders if the designers were doing a riff on the glam rock movement.) After various captures and escapes and so on, the Doctor and Romana discover that the Daleks are, in fact, digging up their creator Davros, who survived his apparent extermination in GENESIS and has been waiting in suspended animation ever since.

From the opening sequence in which Romana casually tries out a few bodies before settling on that of Princess Astra from the end of last season (Ward played her, too), to the Doctor’s pronouncement of “Oh look, rocks!” upon checking out where they’ve landed on the TARDIS scanner, the story establishes a very light tone. The show had been moving in this direction for a while under producer Graham Williams, and with Douglas Adams editing the scripts a bit more quirkiness and comedy than usual was bound to seep in. This isn’t a bad thing in itself, obviously, and was used to great effect later in the season in CITY OF DEATH, but it has the effect of making this story feel inconsequential.

The structure doesn’t really help- Terry Nation came up with some interesting themes and concepts for the story, centered on the Daleks’ dependence on logic, but the revelations which make all this work all come in the last quarter of the story. Which means that for the most part, we’re reliant on a bog-standard series of serial setpieces: the Doctor and companion clamber around some rocks for a while, get separated, run up and down corridors, etc. It’s all very boilerplate, and the art direction is a bit bland and monochromatic as well. Not helping things is the near-total lack of a music score; Dudley Simpson is trying for some sort of weird atonal minimalism, which doesn’t exactly ramp up the drama.

The story does have some things to recommend it, one of them being the lovely Lalla Ward. The second Romana’s personality is a charming combination of youthful giddiness and aristocratic ease, and she would soon establish a chemistry with Baker’s Doctor that added a lot to their stories together (and would lead, with less beneficial results, to the brief marriage of the actual actors.) Despite lackadaisical direction, the actual performances are enjoyable.

This really wasn’t the best story for Terry to go out on, let alone the best for the Daleks to return with. It’s kind of sloppy, the sort of thing a show puts out when they’ve had trouble getting their ducks in a row. But there are some nice bits to it, and it’s interesting to see how this sets up the next couple of entries in the Dalek saga. So, a minor footnote in the show’s history, but I kinda think the Movellans are cool.

Written by Terry Nation
Produced by Graham Williams
Directed by Ken Grieve

Grade: C+

Thursday, August 20, 2009

In Theaters: District 9

District 9 poster and IMPAwards link
Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) looks doomed from the start. In DISTRICT 9 he is a functionary, a corporate bureaucrat sent to manage affairs with a population of insectoid aliens living in slums in Johannesburg, South Africa. He looks like Peter Sellers and acts awkward, silly, and weak; the trailer implies something horrible happening to him, so presumably he’ll die and someone more grizzled and brooding will come in to handle the action bits that the movie is supposed to have.

After a half hour or so, though, I realized a surprising thing. He was, in fact, the protagonist. And that’s just one of a number of daring things done by DISTRICT 9, a science fiction picture made outside the conventional blockbuster process that delivers many of the expected thrills nonetheless. Its success at doing so on a low budget, with an original story and no stars to speak of, is inspiring; the final product is not without its flaws, but it works well enough to give one hope that the digital revolution is finally giving filmmakers the freedom it promised over a decade and a half ago.

The aliens living in the slums of District 9 are unnamed refugees from an unnamed world, derogatorily referred to as “prawns” by a human race which instantly distrusts them. Forced to live apart from mankind, they scavenge and steal and are exploited both by criminals and the unimaginatively named Multi National Unlimited or MNU. Wikus, an MNU employee and married to the daughter of one of the higher ups, is given the job of informing the aliens that they’re about to be moved to an even less hospitable environment, and while he’s knocking on doors and helping mercenaries hunt down criminals, he accidentally gets sprayed by residue from a mysterious alien object. He feigns wellness for much of the rest of the day, until he becomes violently ill, and in the company’s private hospital, doctors discover that he is somehow taking on the form of one of the creatures. The upshot of this is that he is now able to use some of the futuristic weaponry confiscated from the aliens, weaponry keyed to their DNA and thus unusable by normal humans. When a surprisingly blasé surgical team sets about trying to harvest his mutated organs for science, Wikus breaks out and heads for the one place he can hide, which, of course, is District 9.

The slow way in which this transforms from drama, to thriller, to action picture is reminiscent of THE MATRIX; the film doesn’t feel forced to establish its exact genre in the first five minutes so that nobody gets confused. It allows itself the luxury of a slow buildup, because what we’re watching is fascinating on its own. The film actually has the framing device of a documentary on District 9 and the aliens’ imminent move, and what happened to Wikus, but that pretext quickly melts away- we get angles and camera feeds and cutaways that a legit doc would not have access to, and though the transition is odd, it’s sort of smooth. Unfortunately, throughout, the film retains a shaky, handheld aesthetic, and once again the filmmaker has a reason for it but don’t they always. The shakiness isn’t overdone by any means, but it is distracting, particularly in shots that would make perfect sense as more sedate angles.

When someone says a movie is reminiscent of a video game, they usually don’t mean it as a compliment. But the alien weaponry Wikus ends up using in his fight against the system clearly takes a page from science fiction first person shooters; you have guns that shoot lightning, guns that shoot blasts of explosive force with no apparent projectile, guns that manipulate magnetism and/or gravity, and at one point, a full-on suit of powered armor. Of course, director Neill Blonkamp was once on tap to direct the film version of HALO, with Peter Jackson producing as he does here; the studios balked at handing a large budget to an untested director, the project died, and Blonkamp made this to show what we missed out on.

Blonkamp has gone on record as saying he didn’t want to spoon-feed the audience, and the film doesn’t go to great lengths to explain things that aren’t immediately vital to the story. We never quite work out how intelligent the aliens are; we meet one, named Patrick Johnson (seriously), who is something of a mechanical genius, but he seems to be the exception. Some characters theorize that they’re drones without a leader, but nothing confirms that, and it’s possible that they’re acting wild and savage because they are being treated like savages. Arguably, the obtuseness goes a little too far; so many questions are left unanswered by the end that it seems to be specifically made with a sequel in mind (another trait this has in common with recent video games, oddly enough.)

One of the really daring things the film does is dare to make its protagonist less-than-morally-pure. “Prawn” breeding is strictly controlled, and he casually, almost brightly aids in the destruction of illegal egg nests, and is more concerned with what’s happening to him than what’s happening to the aliens. Through the film this changes, but slowly, and you get the sense that he has a long way to go.

DISTRICT 9 does, in the end, occasionally fall prey to action film logic, and some more time to develop the other characters- Wikus’ wife, the MNU baddies, the sadist they’ve got heading up the mercenaries- would have been appreciated. It feels like the filmmakers really wanted to peel down the picture to its absolute essentials, and though that no doubt helped it get made on a low budget, one is left wishing more concepts were developed. Still, what’s there works extremely well; DISTRICT 9 is a lean action picture which, in between social commentary and black humor, delivers a bit of excitement and even wonder. It leaves you hoping that more filmmakers are able to create ambitious and dazzling productions without having to go through the blockbuster machine. And if not, well, it was nice to get this one at least.

Written by Neill Blonkamp and Terri Tatchell
Directed by Neill Blonkamp

Grade: B+

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

In Theaters: The Hurt Locker

Hurt Locker poster and IMPAwards link
THE HURT LOCKER suffers from being an Iraq war film in a marketplace that is really, really tired of Iraq war films. It’s an uncomfortable subject to start with, and pictures like JARHEAD and STOP LOSS pretty much scared audiences away from theaters (note that I have no idea whether either film was any good.) To be sure, THE HURT LOCKER is a grim picture about a grim subject, but at heart it’s an action film. Veteran action director Kathryn Bigelow (she of the wonderfully psychotic POINT BREAK) has crafted a film in the tradition of gritty epics like THE WAGES OF FEAR, mixing action and drama and drawing thrills from the heroic efforts of everyday people. Or, in this case, everyday soldiers, who happen to have some problems lurking beneath the surface.

Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) is a demolitions expert, sent to work for Bravo Company in Iraq near the end of their deployment. While the last guy working this job was meticulous and methodical and was blown up for his troubles, James seems to play things loose. He knows what he’s doing- he’s disarmed over eighty IEDs in his day- but team leader Sgt. J. T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) fears for his safety even more than usual whenever they get called out. The story is an episodic ticking down of the clock until the day when James, Sanborn, and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) can go home, and in a little over a month the company must defuse or contain several bombs and deal with a number of logistically and ethically complicated situations, with the enemy often in sight but always just out of reach.

In many ways this is a classic war story, almost weirdly traditional given how nontraditional the war itself has been. James’ character seems to have roots in the archetype of the hero who never quite follows the rules but gets results, but there’s a justification of his behavior beyond that. The boys of Bravo Company are in a situation where it seems that the standard procedures are no help; whether or not you have a helmet on, if you’re sitting in a hummer and get fired on from the side you will be shot. James’ body armor is rarely useful; when he comes across a car loaded with bombs, he takes it off, on the grounds that an explosion will kill him either way and he may as well be comfortable. At the same time, James is not cavalier; he is acutely aware that anything could kill him at any moment, and the title seems to refer to a small box the character keeps under his bed, full of components of bombs he’s disarmed, as a reminder that a cheap drug store battery or set of wires bundled into a dead man switch could have taken his life. Renner’s performance is rightfully attracting a lot of critical acclaim; the character never seems unreal for a second.

Though the film uses a good deal of handheld camera work- perhaps inevitable these days, but at least justifiably realistic in a film about urban combat- Bigelow does not fall prey to the temptation to shake the thing around so much that images become artistic blurs of color. The action sequences are always clearly laid out, and the use of angles to reveal information (as in a destined-to-be-classic overhead shot where James follows a wire leading from a single bomb to several laid out around him) is clever without being gimmicky.

In the end, of course, the real problem James has is that the best he can hope for at the end of each day is survival. This is not a war in which the bad guys are easily engaged, and even when they are- as in a harrowing detour in the desert- there’s no satisfaction to be had in victory. There’s always another bomb, and our characters are beaten down by the sheer grind. But there are also bonds to be forged, and Renner, Mackie, and Garaghty establish a very interesting dynamic. And of course, there’s the opening quote informing us that war is a drug. James finds a purpose in what he does even when any sense of justice or triumph eludes him, but it’s as much a compulsion as a drive.

I would only take issue with a couple of things in the film. There is one supporting character whose fate is obvious from the moment he is first seen, and who is never developed much beyond stereotype. Also, in the aforementioned desert engagement, a famous face appears out of nowhere, which is kind of disconcerting. Otherwise, this is a very tight picture.

To be utterly clear, THE HURT LOCKER is not the depressing ordeal one envisions when one thinks of a realistic Iraq war movie. It’s intense, but in a white-knuckle sort of way where you don’t have time to be depressed, because you’re wondering when things are going to get worse. There are moments of humor, and briefly warmth, and parts of the experience are what one might describe as fun. It’s one of the best films of the year, easily, and if it takes a while to find its audience, it’ll have lasting value as one of the first really compelling films made about the second Gulf War. Also, it’s just a damn good movie.

Written by Mark Boal
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

Grade: A

Saturday, August 15, 2009

For Your Ears Only: NPR's Star Wars

Link to STAR WARS on CD from Amazon
The NPR adaptation of STAR WARS is a bit of a legend among audio theatre buffs, for reasons that aren’t too difficult to guess at; it’s a large-scale, professional adaptation of a beloved story, one that doesn’t seem at first glance to lend itself to an audio-only format, and in most people’s opinion, it worked. But the STAR WARS radio drama is more than just a translation of the story from one medium to another. Three times as long as the movie and then some, the radio mini-series takes time to expand on the characters and universe we all know and love, adding backstories and interstitial scenes that frame the story in an interesting context. It’s better when it’s introducing this new material than when it’s replaying familiar scenes, but the overall effect is pleasurable, like getting to know a friend in greater detail.

You probably know the basic story. Galactic war, rebels vs. empire, a young farmhand buys a couple of robots and meets a Jedi which leads to high adventure and princess-rescuing on an enemy battle station. But it’s actually not until three episodes in that we get to the action that we saw in the first minutes of the film. The first and second episodes are all backstory, the first revolving around Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill again) and his friends on Tattooine, including Biggs Darklighter (Kale Browne), a pilot at the Imperial Academy who’s planning to jump ship for the Rebellion shortly. This is based on material that was actually shot for the movie but left on the cutting room floor, and it’s interesting to hear it play out (without having to search video sites.) The second episode gives us some of Princess Leia’s story, as the young Senator (played by Ann Sachs) witnesses the cruelty of the Empire firsthand and comes into possession of the plans for the dreaded Death Star.

As the familiar story unfolds, we’re treated to scenes like C-3PO (Anthony Daniels again) and R2 hiding from Stormtroopers in Mos Eisley, Han Solo (Perry King) meeting with Jabba the Hutt’s representative Heater (Joel Brooks) in a scene like that which was eventually completed for the Special Edition of the film, and most interestingly a lot more material set on the Death Star, with Grand Moff Tarkin (Keene Curtis) seeing himself as a potential challenger to the Emperor and Darth Vader (Brock Peters) now that he’s in command of the Empire’s main means of keeping order in the universe. It’s a neat bit of pageantry that foreshadows the villainous double-crosses that would drive the action of the next two installments.

I guess what I find most interesting about all this is that the universe of the first STAR WARS is so very simple. The sequels and prequels and various Expanded Universe stories would do a lot to flesh out the details and feel of Star Wars as a franchise, but the spin-offs which were built solely on the first movie seemed to rely more on its purer blend of fairy tale and space opera. The mental images conjured up by the radio play are iconic; the rugged gulches of Beggar’s Canyon where Luke and friends race T-16s, the pastoral peace of Alderaan, the oppressive machinery of the Death Star. It’s all rendered with high spirited performances and appropriately hammy dialogue (and it’s nice to remember a time when bad dialogue in Star Wars was part of the fun rather than something to be ashamed of.)

Things are a bit more scattershot when we’re replaying the action of the film. Given that this was, at the time of broadcast, still the highest grossing movie ever, and with Lucasfilm watching over the whole thing, the adaptation is faithful to a fault. A good example of this is Han Solo’s now infamous confrontation with small time bounty-hunter and eternal mook Greedo; in the play, as in the film, Greedo speaks an alien language, except on radio there are no subtitles, so Han has to give us leading lines like “Yes, Greedo, I was going somewhere...” to make sure we know what’s happening. When he shoots (presumably first, but don’t get me started), he has to exposit that he shot from under the table because that’s how it happened on screen. Some of the action sequences are adapted pretty smoothly, but there are times when the dialogue tries too hard to spell out the action, as when Luke swings with Leia across a chasm on the Death Star.

Now, I need to point out two things; one, the action sequences are never, ever incomprehensible or even terribly hard to follow. This is a big deal, because when you’re dealing only with auditory information it’s possible to lose track of the action more easily than if you’re looking at something. A bit of clumsiness on the dialogue’s part can be forgiven, because writer Daley was nice enough to err on the side of clarity. Just as importantly, the climactic action sequence, the Death Star attack, is executed terrifically, generating the same suspense as its cinematic counterpart. NPR ended up using most of the original film’s signature sound effects and, of course, John Williams’ music, and this helps drive home to fans that it is the same world after all.

With strong voice acting (listen closely for Adam Arkin as one of Luke’s friends), solid production values and unobtrusive narration, STAR WARS is a fun listening experience. It’s not quite as good as the film- it inevitably drags in a couple of places (and the story’s first act was pretty long to start with)- but it’s a great companion piece, letting us spend more time with the characters and learn a little more about everything. If you liked STAR WARS on film, you pretty much can’t go wrong. And anything that gets more people listening to quality audio theater is good by me.

Based on characters and situations by George Lucas
Written for radio by Brian Daley
Directed by John Madden

Grade: A-

Thursday, August 13, 2009

For Your Ears Only: Ruby: the Adventures of a Galactic Gumshoe

Ruby CD cover and Amazon link
A week’s vacation in Colorado was the perfect opportunity to catch up on some of my audio drama. I’d bought RUBY: THE ADVENTURES OF A GALACTIC GUMSHOE a couple of years ago, but only recently had the chance to listen to it. One of ZBS’s older productions, it’s outwardly your standard mix of sci-fi and film noir, but it throws in a hefty dose of postmodern reality-bending and off-kilter comedy. It’s the better of the two ZBS productions I’ve reviewed, more absorbing in its atmosphere and creative in its story, and while the actual plot can get kind of scattered, strong characterizations hold it together.

Laura Esterman plays Ruby, who is, as the title suggests, a galactic gumshoe (a good one, she is often inclined to say.) On the distant alien world of Summa Nulla, Ruby’s on an assignment trying to uncover what her employers believe is a conspiracy to manipulate the media. She’s sidetracked, however, when she runs across an android dressed like her and being chased by genetically engineered assassins called “Slimeys”. The android, Angel Lips (Robin Karfo), is a pleasure model who once belonged to lonely and crusty archaeologist T. J. Teru (Bill Raymond) , who has discovered a lost city beneath the planet’s jungle. Angel Lips, programmed with a degree of independence and inquisitiveness, goes off for repairs and ends up making a Digital Circus techie named And/Or (Tom Stewart) go completely crazy for her. The Slimeys are still on Ruby’s tail, and she decides to make rooting them out her priority, but there’s the question of mysterious signals being sent from somewhere, signals that may or may not have anything to do with the conspiracy she’s trying to hunt down. Ruby’s got her hands full, but she’s still got time to visit Casino City and head underground to play cosmic pinball with the pun-happy mole people.

As far as I can tell, people have been trying to mix film noir with sci-fi ever since the former was invented. To be sure, we’ve got the everpresent narration, which Esterman is quite good at delivering; the writing itself isn’t overdone, but is just vivid enough to evoke some powerful images. In fact I’d say the blend of sci-fi and detective conventions is just about right overall; you’ve got your set-ups, double crosses, and conspiracies, but also some genuinely interesting science fiction concepts and imagery. There’s a lot of light humor to ease things along, and it definitely helps the play’s metaphysical and philosophical discourses go down. As with the Jack Flanders play I reviewed, RUBY invokes the theme of consciousness altering reality at many points, along with other related ideas of mental expansion, questioning social paradigms, etc. It sounds dry, but it’s quite well integrated into the actual story; the closest it gets to just stating these ideas is in a number of segments featuring media darlings the Android Sisters (Ruth Maleczech and Valeria Vasilevski), but it feels nuanced and kind of tricky since we don’t know what their agenda is.

Ruby herself is what ties the whole surreal shebang together; as mentioned before, Esterman has the right voice and personality for the character, and she comes across strong from the start. The character has a good bit of texture; she sometimes makes wrong decisions, but she grows on the listener, and when she disappears from the story for a spell, she is sorely missed, as boldly as Teru tries to take up the slack.

RUBY has an odd structure, as it was originally aired as a series of three-minute drive-time radio segments. Listened to as a whole, it has a lot of overlapping exposition but still manages to pull forward substantially each time. The sound effects are strong throughout; the narration covers the bulk of the action, but the technicians never fail to convey a strong otherworldly atmosphere.

As mentioned above, there’s a part where the series drags a little, and it ends with a few things in the air, partly in accordance with its postmodernist bent but still slightly frustrating. Fortunately, RUBY was a success and there are currently 8 separate series featuring the stellar detective. It’s well worth listening to, delivering more than you’d expect and confounding expectations in a very pleasurable way.

Grade: A-

(I tried to get the name of the writer, but for the life of me couldn't make it out. Something Fulton, I think. If anyone wants to give me that info, I'd be grateful.)