Monday, December 30, 2013

Devil's Life of Mitty's Gravity

Okay, lightning round. I'm hoping to do my annual ranking of the year's movies on New Year's Day so I'll share my thoughts on three movies to-day.

Religious melodrama is made more palatable by incredible long takes that give the viewer an unprecedented perspective on space walks in Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity. The spacing between the characters in the movie's opening title recalls Alien but the broad and unambiguously spiritual aspects of the story make it quite different from Alien. In fact, it may be described as the anti-Prometheus.

Alien expressed its philosophy entirely through character and situation. Prometheus was more explicit in the horror and awe conveyed by a universe that makes no exception for humans, that our religious beliefs, far from being merely wrong, are signs of a deeper, stranger, and far more disturbing reality. Gravity gives us incredible visuals and attempts to tether them to a story that reaffirms the existence of heaven and an afterlife where everything's going to be okay. Like the delicate cable that attaches George Clooney and Sandra Bullock in the film, this tether proves ineffectual, inadvertently casting the greatness of Prometheus and Alien into sharper relief.

But the imagery is amazing. The movie follows Sandra Bullock's character completely from the beginning, where we see her going EVA to repair an instrument on the exterior of the Space Shuttle Explorer, to the end of the movie. So we spend most of the time in space with her, the first shot of the film lasting I would guess slightly over seventeen minutes--not as impressive as the eleven minute shot in Touch of Evil, though, since the space sequences in Gravity are accomplished with cgi. But it helps give one the feel for the environment.

I see on Wikipedia that Angelina Jolie, Marion Cotillard, Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman were all attached to the role of Ryan Stone at one point, any of whom would have been a better choice than Bullock whose doofusy delivery also sabotages the film somewhat. Clooney improves things when he's onscreen with his weird cockiness though, while charming, would run somewhat counter to the experience if the imagery itself weren't so impressive.

Maybe the biggest problem, though, is the melodrama. And, again, I'm not against melodrama, but one can't help imagining how much better the film would have been if the exact wrong things didn't keep happening at the exact wrong times with the clear purpose of moving the plot along. It's another thing that infringes on the wonderful verisimilitude created by the Cuaron's direction and the attention to detail. A particular problem occurs when Clooney and Bullock's characters are separated where we see, as has been pointed out, an inaccurate rendering of how gravity and kinetics would. The problem is so obvious that anyone with even a vague idea of how things move in a low gravity environment would feel something is up--which, even then, wouldn't be so bad except that it's clearly used as a way to shove a crucial plot point into place.

But I will say I thought the last few minutes of the film were rather beautiful.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be. It has some genuinely funny moments and good supporting performances from Shirley MacLaine, Kristen Wiig, Sean Penn, and Patton Oswalt. Ben Stiller doesn't give a bad performance either but as the film's director he's made something that falls rather far behind his own wonderful Tropic Thunder.

Based on a short story by James Thurber, this tale of an ordinary, mousy, daydreaming office denizen who goes on an adventure to impress the woman he has a crush on seems as though it's meant to seem Capra-esque but ends up feeling more like a remake of UHF. We see Mitty's daydreams of himself performing heroic acts or caught up in romantic stories and they feel more like sketch comedy skits than like things a man like Mitty would actually imagine. On their own, they were at times pretty funny--I especially liked a parody of David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button that works partly from the premise that Mitty has never seen the movie and isn't quite sure how Brad Pitt's aging disease works. But within the context of the rest of the movie, an ostensibly earnest tale about a man trying to change his life, the sketches don't quite work.

Mitty eventually goes to Iceland, Greenland, and the Himalayas in an attempt to track down Sean Penn's character and none of his travels feel remotely authentic. Mitty's cell phone apparently has no trouble finding a signal in the Himalayas so he's able to chat with Oswalt's E-Harmony representative. We see Mitty narrowly escape the ash cloud from an erupting volcano and, not long after and at not too great a distance, we see the sky is still a magically clear blue. So we don't have that crucial sense that Mitty is actually experiencing character changing hardships.

One of the reasons I wasn't enthusiastic about seeing the movie is that the trailers made it seem that Kristen Wiig, who delivers such a wonderfully abnormal, funny performance in Bridesmaids, is relegated to the more typical object of the male lead's desire in Walter Mitty and that sadly proved to be the case. But I did really like a scene where she performs "Space Oddity" on acoustic guitar.

By far the best movie I'm writing about to-day is Devil's Pass, a wonderful horror film shot in found footage style about a group of American college students who investigate the real life Dyatlov Pass Incident in Russia's Ural Mountains. This refers to the mysterious deaths of nine hikers in 1959. The film, directed by Renny Harlin, is fiction and provides an explanation for what happened that is interesting but not as interesting as the way in which the film builds to it.

The beginning of the film reminded me of Hostel in that it features a group of ignorant and naive American kids blundering into eastern Europe so conditioned by their own culture to feel so privileged and entitled they don't even bother bringing along someone who speaks the local language. This is despite the fact that their intention is to investigate and film a documentary on the Dyatlov incident. Like in Hostel, the more confident the protagonists seem, the more tension is created, though the protagonists of Devil's Pass mostly seem like nicer people.

The film was shot on location in the Ural Mountains and there's plenty of gorgeous footage of the tiny figures trekking through the snow and rock. One of the things I really like about the found footage format is that it creates potential for the characters to be in real darkness. The fact that audiences are familiar with the green hued night vision function of cameras allows filmmakers to create scenes previously left to literature where we can see characters groping about in complete darkness.

The characters have very credible feeling arguments about the pieces of evidence they discover that there's something very strange happening around them--bare footprints in the snow, an arrival at the pass that seems to come too soon. They accuse one another of pulling pranks or of just being paranoid. At the same time they continue flirting with one another, their habits formed in youthful arrogance can't even be broken even as you get the impression their instincts are telling them something is really wrong.

The last portion of the film is a really great sequence of pursuit and hopelessness. Strange things happen faster and faster, the characters start to come up with theories that may or may not be thoroughly accurate. And then things get downright, wonderfully demonic.

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