Saturday, July 28, 2007

Picks and Pans


With all respect to Danny Boyle's newest genre-bending experience "Sunshine", it's going to die a slow, unprofitable death at the box office. Not only is there no marketing push for this film, but the theater I saw it at today had only 25 seats or so filled. That doesn't bode well for an opening weekend strategy. Is it because the studio doesn't fully understand how to campaign for such a well-crafted, eye-popping science fiction thriller in the midst of the remainder of the summer shallowness? Either way, I can only do my duty and use this meager space to shout to the heavens that everyone should see "Sunshine" immediately. It's the most visually arresting and emotionally charged thing you've seen in the theater all year long.

The plot, even though its often caught up in technological science-fiction babble, remains lucid when it comes to the characterization. Cillian Murphy plays Robert Capa, a physicist on board space station Icarus 2. Along with seven other astronauts (featuring a largely international cast including Cliff Curtis, Michelle Yeoh, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rose Byrne and Chris Evans), their mission is to travel to the sun and implode a nuclear device in order to save Earth from an enveloping solar freeze. Of course, this is 50 years in the future and the majority of Alex Garland's script deals with the psychological fissures that develop as the crew mates descend further and further into space. The sun (and mission) pale in comparison to the internal explosions of the characters' psyche. While "Sunshine" borrows alot from previous cinematic forays into science-fiction, it also distinguishes itself from its predecessors by tripping in and out of genres with courage. What begins as a typical space thriller (featuring the ubiquitous repairing the outer ship panels and computer malfunction) soon evolves into a nightmarish collision of slasher flick and psychological thriller.

Heightening the perfection of mood is not only Alwin Kuchler's daring cinematography, which feels like an Edvard Munch painting in the way it bends light and reflection to maximum effect, but also the contagious scoring of John Murphy and the band Underworld. "Sunshine" is that rare blend of science-fiction fantasy entertainment that intermingles loftier ideas with varying degrees of success. For the art house fans, there's Tarkovsky's "Solaris" (and to some extent Soderbergh's remake that hits alot of the same notes for modern audiences) and no doubt "Sunshine" will be paired with that achievement. Some will be turned off from "Sunshine's" final act, but for me, it invigorated an already competent film. Not only do writer Alex Garland and director Boyle handle the wild shift in genres well, but they amp up the tension to undeniable degrees. This is one of my favorite films this year.


Why did I pay to see "Transformers"? Because nothing these days beats seeing a movie in digital projection, and what better movie to see than the big summer action blockbuster? Even in digital projection, I want my money back. There's probably not enough space here to define my dislike for Michael Bay's latest..... but I"ll try. Transformers are certainly within my generation. I had them as a kid and played with them everyday. Honestly, I liked my G.I Joes better, but that's a minor quibble. I can see some of my generation enjoying this film, but this is not a film for adults. Not when you have shallow and insulting stereotypes; the high school teacher is a sweater wearing geek, every black person in this film screams and acts foolish, such as when they yell at their 'grandmammy', and the fathers are all uptight white guys concerned about their yards and pools. Even when the Transformers themselves are given voices, they're relegated to stereotypical sounds that murmur childish things and bellow empty things such as "we are here now, and we are waiting". "Transformers" is a colossal disappointment for me. The heart gets racing a little when the Autobots and Decepticons finally meet in a grand finale battle that teats apart a city and utilizes some nifty CGI, but the heart of this thing is empty. This is an assembly-line production that exists solely for marketing and children under the age of 13. And even though I'm usually not affected by the depiction of US soldiers on the screen, I was a bit disturbed by the film's universal unacknowledgement of the consequences of violence. I guess that's how it got its PG-13 rating. Terrible, insulting stuff here.

DVD Pick 'o' the Week- The Missouri Breaks

There are very few things that can usurp the performance of Jack Nicholson in the 70's, but Marlon Brando does just that in Arthur Penn's magnificent 1976 western, "The Missouri Breaks". The story follows Tom Logan (Nicholson) as he and his gang of horse thieves buy a farm next to their sworn enemy, Braxton (John McLiam). In addition to stealing his cattle, Nicholson also steals the affection of his daughter, played with loving precision by Kathleen Lloyd. In retaliation, Braxton hires a contract killer and from the first time he arrives on screen, Brando embraces his performance like an un-performance. I'm not sure if we're witnessing acting or the personification of Brando doing anything he can to turn acting inside out. He wears dresses, mutters off-the-cuff lines of dialogue that could never be scripted, and waifs through the film with a deadly sense of perverse fun. And it all makes sense. Director Penn holds the entire affair together and manages to make some nifty conceits about violence as well. This is new on DVD as part of the Brando set released late last year. Put this high in your Netflix queue.


Burbanked said...

Your post comes very fortuitously for me tonight because I recently saw Transformers and I'm contemplating seeing Sunshine, so thanks for these.

Your Transformers analysis is spot-on. It has some nifty visual moments but overall feels so superficial and so moronic that it's hard to ever get excited about it. The movie's apologists will claim that it's supposed to be popcorn eye candy and nothing more, but I don't buy it. Terminator 2 is a pretty big action movie about robots and humans and it still manages to have a boatload of emotion, believable characters, real stakes and action scenes that aren't headache-inducing.

I think you've swayed me toward Sunshine, so maybe I can help it die a slightly less painful death.

Joe Baker said...

Great point about "Terminator 2". I hastily wrote up the Transformers review and wanted to include something to that extent. You're right- there are exceptions to the empty Hollywood blockbuster, but when its done this badly, there are no excuses. Yes, please go see Sunshine!