GRAVITY (2013) – Film Review by Paul Laight

A nice little review with a well-spotted callback to The Wages of Fear.

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GRAVITY - FILM REVIEW

GRAVITY (2013) – Film Review by Paul Laight

If there is a better film to see at the cinema than GRAVITY this year then I can’t wait to see it because Alfonso Cuaron’s space opera is a masterful cinematic vision which combines beautiful vistas with knuckle-biting tension.  Indeed, director Cuaron has carved out an impressive sci-fi story: economical, tense, thrilling, touching etc. which will deserve all the awards coming to it.

Sandra Bullock’s novice Space Doctor and George Clooney’s charming veteran Astronaut are on a mission to service the Hubble Telescope via the Space Shuttle Explorer but before they can complete the job catastrophe strikes. What then follows is a white-knuckle ride of tension and excitement with action unfolding with breathless pace. The writing is so lean and precise that there is little in the way of backstory before we’re propelled into the astounding action. I hate spoilers in reviews so won’t go divulge anymore but it is pure cinema…

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Film trailer – Gravity

It’s all gone a bit Major Tom in Gravity, the latest film from director Alfonso Cuarón that looks like a hat-tip to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity“.

A disaster befalls the crew of a space shuttle and the International Space Station (ISS). Two astronauts, Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) are on a spacewalk when an explosion sends the shuttle into a spin that rends the station apart, leaving it to fall out of orbit and burn up on re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere. After what poet Wilfred Owen would call “an ecstasy of fumbling” to try and grab hold of something, Stone is catapulted into the solar system. Alone.

It’s all quite timely, what with the public profile of the ISS at an all-time high thanks to the spectacularly popular tweets of former station commander Chris Hadfield. Before leaving the station, Hadfield signed off by broadcasting to Earth an adapted cover version of “Space Oddity” – a song originally about a man launched into orbit before a malfunction sends him careering off into deep space – his resigned, final communication with mission control is the last that is heard of him.

It will be interesting to see what scale Cuarón chooses to fill this film. I hope he challenges himself to focus on Stone’s feelings of increasing isolation rather than use her as a cut-away from any frantic Earth-bound rescue efforts. It would be nice if this was a minimal space capsule of pure film-making.

Cuarón‘s IMDb profile says that he “always wanted to be a director and an astronaut” so it looks like this could be a labour of love for him. He’s previously handled intimate relationships in Y Tu Mamá También, death in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and apocalyptic disaster in Children of Men. I’m looking forward to a good helping of dark matter.

Gravity will be released in 3D on Friday 13 October and, given the celestial setting, this could be one of the few films worthy of a trip to an IMAX 3D screen.

Books – The Queen of the South

the-queen-of-the-south-978033041314503I’ve just finished The Queen of the South by Arturo Pérez Reverte for the second time and it is no less enthralling for the intervening years.

Pérez Reverte, a Spanish former journalist, published the story in 2002 (2004 in the UK). It begins in Sinaloa, Mexico; Teresa Mendoza, the young morra of a “narco” (drug smuggler),  receives a phone call that warns that her boyfriend will not be returning home and that she should start running to escape the inevitable hitmen who will kill her too as part of the rules by which that underground world lives – that the “slate be wiped clean” as a warning to others.

The novel takes an epic 600-page plus narrative arc that follows Mendoza as she takes flight to hide in Spain, initially drifting through menial jobs but always with a sense of acuity for her surroundings and the players within it, a sense that will serve her well. Through circumstance and situation she finds her past does not leave her and she becomes a drug lord in her own right, commanding a huge transportation enterprise with ruthless and dispassionate efficiency.

What is compelling is the uncertainty that Pérez Reverte allows the reader to see within Mendoza; her confusion and the gradual separation of the young self of her former life in Mexico from that of the colder, more calculating businesswoman later in the novel. And yet, there are moments when she does not seem to have changed at all, but is wrestling with two different identities; an innocent and a battle-scarred warrior.

Two narrators guide the story; in first person, the author as a fictional journalist researching Mendoza’s story, and in the third person, flashbacks as we observe Mendoza and her thoughts throughout her flight. But, as do the characters that surround Mendoza in the novel, we never quite get close enough to get a good look at what makes her tick and that is what makes her such a cypher. She is at once vulnerable and impregnable.

There was an attempt to make a film of The Queen of the South some years back, starring Eva Mendes and Josh Hartnett, but threats to the lives of production personnel appear to have prevented it from filming. Part of me is happy that the miscast film did not go ahead. It’s such an introspective story, the Hollywood action treatment would probably not have done it justice. From what I’ve seen on YouTube, a South American telenovela seems to have achieved only a sense of melodrama and sensationalism. Much better that the mysterious Queen of the South slips into the shadows, never to be seen again.

As, for the second time, I read the final words of the story and scoured the brief author’s end note crediting the real people who helped in the research for the novel, I found myself gripped by one thought: that I want to know this mysterious woman, to meet Teresa Mendoza, a person driven from herself.

I can’t explain this visceral reaction. The novel is not an example of perfect prose, but it is an extraordinarily well-researched piece of writing with believable details of the Mexican and Mediterranean underworlds, how they intertwine with local and national politics and drug agencies, the technicalities of maritime navigation, rendezvous and high speed pursuits on water at night. There are moments when the writing is a little clunky; devices of Mendoza’s characterisation are repeated needlessly, but I love this book and it has the power to make me think, even hope… surely, out there somewhere, Teresa Mendoza exists in all her flawed regal glory.

Cover photography: Stefanie Hafner

Star Trek: Into The Darkness – where did you get that warp core?

Scotty (Simon Pegg, in red shirt) and Captain Kirk (Chris Pine, far right) in a scene shot at the National Ignition Facility, California

Scotty (Simon Pegg, in red shirt) and Captain Kirk (Chris Pine, far right) in a scene from Start Trek: Into The Darkness that was shot at the National Ignition Facility, California

I was sitting in the cinema watching JJ Abrams’ Star Trek: Into The Darkness, when I felt a flash of recognition as Captain Kirk and Scotty walked around the engineering decks to stand before the warp core of the USS Enterprise.

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The spherical chamber buried in a mass of gleaming ducting and pipework is actually the target chamber for the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in Livermore, California. Filming took place during a scheduled maintenance period in 2012.

The laboratory houses “the world’s largest and highest energy laser system”, delivering 2m joules of ultraviolet laser energy in pulses of a billionth of a second. Experiments provide data about nuclear reactions for use in weapons, energy generation and analysis of the reactions taking place within stars.

The 192 lasers are amplified by passing through lens arrays in two vast warehouses, bouncing back and forth before they are diverted and focused on to a target – not dilithium crystals but a 2mm capsule filled with super-cooled hydrogen fuel. When the lasers strike the capsule it is vaporised in a reaction that creates temperatures of more than 100m degrees centigrade and pressures 100bn times that of the Earth’s atmosphere.

That’s pretty impressive, even if it doesn’t make warp speed. lasers.llnl.gov

Photography: Paramount Pictures; National Ignition Facility

Music – Maps A.M.A.

I heard this preview of a single from Maps’ new album Vicissitude (Mute, 8 July) and I had to share it. Zephyr vocals soar over gently pulsing synths. Heavenly.

Film review – Star Trek: Into The Darkness

JJ Abrams serves up an entertaining but surprisingly shallow sequel to his hugely successful Star Trek reboot of 2009. It is ultimately a glossy remix, which under scrutiny falls well short of maximum warp speed into your wonder cortex.

Anticipating the stylish lens flare on the whiter-than-white decks of the USS Enterprise, and with the same young cast of the previous Trek film, it looks like we are in for another treat from this director in his Hollywood ascendancy – Abrams was announced as the first director of Star Wars Episode VII while Into The Darkness was in post-production.

The film opens on a primitive world with an Indiana Jones-style pursuit of shrouded people by members of a tribal culture in threat of extinction from an erupting volcano. The white-painted tribal humanoids have glossy black eyes that are remarkably similar to the engineers from Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. Behold, the same screenwriter, Damon Lindlehof, has his fingerprints on this film, too. It’s a stunner of an opening as Abrams again pushes the interaction of the Enterprise and the physical world to achieve a strange sense of astonishing scale.

The problems come when we get into the main plot: a terrorist, Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch), previously a Starfleet agent, has blown up a sensitive Starfleet installation to attract the attention of its best and brightest to his nefarious doings based on the Klingon home world of Kronos.

As seen in the trailer, he shoots up the resulting Starfleet security meeting, scattering chocolate bourbons, spilling coffee and top brass blood that is close to the heart of Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine). And pine he does, very suddenly with tears rolling down his face as if he’s been kicked in the balls. The Enterprise speeds out to Kronos with specially issued high-powered weapons and instructions to fire them at Khan’s location, with the dubious side effect of a possible escalation to war with the Klingons and an analogy to Obama’s use of drones to fire and forget on enemy combatants (maybe, I dunno). Hmm, best furrow your ethical brow on that one, Kirk old boy. But before Admiral Akbar can say “It’s a trap!” from a galaxy far, far away, it turns out… it’s a trap.

The logic of the plot feels rushed, with extra stuff added in great arcs of improv screenwriting to quickly justify the machinations of the bad guy(s). There is much crying (characters, not the audience) in this outing and it felt odd. Out of character performances forced by direction occur incongruously again and again at moments that feel like speed bumps in the flat emotional terrain of the film. And that’s the real problem with Abrams, he’s great at style, wit and panache, but awful at building a real relationship between characters, so that when a credible level of threat approaches, the sobbing has no value post disaster. The near death of a major character is solved in a lightning fade to black with none of the poignancy of, say, oh I don’t know, a certain scene from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That film contained real emotion and a moving speech after the death of a fellow crewman.

Zachary Quinto takes more of a back seat as Spock, with some truly strange moments of domestic dispute between him and Uhura (Zoe Saldana). There are also some (surely?) unintentional comedic dramatic pauses, for instance, when Khan reveals his real name to Kirk in a blistering close-up using his most deranged English accent, there is the mother of all pauses where the audience at future Prince Charles Cinema quote-along screenings will say, “Dun-duh-daaaah!” in dramatic tones to Kirk’s befuddled expression.

Posters advertising the film show a badly bruised Enterprise descending through the Earth’s atmosphere, sans shields and power, at risk – it is said quite clearly – of burning up on re-entry. But wait, the next shot we see is of the ship dropping through clouds post re-entry, fully intact. So JJ, was there really a threat of losing the ship, or were you just throwing some drama at the grand finale wall to see if it stuck?

The film asks for investment in story arcs that exist for only a few of seconds at a time, like some kind of Goldfish-memory concept of screenwriting. I’m looking at you, Lindelhof. It’s not particularly engaging for the audience and I really wanted to invest more emotionally and be rewarded for that. We never did find out what the “Darkness” was that the title promised. Never mind. At least it looked pretty and things went bang.

Film review – Mud

America’s rural backyard has a tradition of coming of age tales. In 1986, director Rob Reiner made the film Stand by Me, a story of four boys (amongst them a young River Phoenix with a buzz cut), setting out one summer into Oregon County’s forests and rivers, in search of the mythical body of boy left by a railway track. It has become a touchstone for many 80s boys… and perhaps girls, too – a cinematic rite of passage.

On the subject of youth, do you remember the first time your heart was broken and that pure ideal of love seemed shattered? Set in the southern US, writer and director, Jeff Nichols presses Mud from a Stand by Me-shaped mould; a coming of age tale set against the backdrop of the brown Mississippi river that is the backbone for a small rural community.

Ellis (Tye Sheridan) lives with his parents on a floating house permanently moored to the riverbank and surrounded by forest. His father is a fisherman, landing his freshwater catch, processing then delivering it to customers in the nearby town. Ellis’ mother and father are obviously going through marital strain; they argue in the night as Ellis sneaks out his bedroom window and runs to meet his best friend, Neckbone.

Remember that River Phoenix buzz cut? Well just take a look at young Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) and tell me he isn’t the spitting image? Lofland plays him as calm and cocksure, supporting Sheridan’s lead in every sense of the word. Neckbone lives in a trailer with his uncle James; a laissez-faire man who just likes to play guitar, chase women and work at picking oysters off the wide riverbed. There is a knowing moment when James’ girlfriend storms out after an unusual sexual request (his “doing it” music, as Neckbone calls it, the Beach Boys’ “Help Me Rhonda” is a “keep out” sign to his nephew). The gift he tries to placate her with – a necklace made of real pearls – is rejected so it is given to Ellis, who will gift it in his first romantic encounter with an older girl. The sexual allusion is cheeky, but symbolic of the adult world with which they are to collide.

The two boys steal away at night in a small motorboat, out to an island in the wide river, where a boat sits high in a tree after a flood. They only have fifteen minutes before the tide turns, so their first excursion is brief to claim ownership of their boathouse. The problem is, someone’s been living there.

His name is Mud, and his character is as clear as. Matthew McConaughey plays the sun-ripened, dirt-ingrained refugee living on the island. Superstitious and surrounding himself with talismans of protection against the “evils of this world”, he first appears like a ghost, leaving boot prints with crucifix imprints that stop suddenly in the sand. And then he is there. A gun pushed into the waistband of his jeans. It’s that delicious moment of fear you have as a child when you encounter a stranger in your territory. The adrenaline pumps, and this uncertainty could have been held for longer, though Nichols wants to get digging into the story, which is fair enough.

Mud has marooned himself to escape those from his past who wish him a sticky end, all except his beloved Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), for whom he waits with fevered anticipation. But a fever can also be a delusional illness, and love is in the dock to be judged, as young Ellis sees Mud’s mission to be reunited with Juniper as a winnable game compared to his parent’s fractured relationship. Reality will bite unexpectedly, like a snake in the safety of your bed, and Nichols questions the foundations of love, who might be the real snakes in life, and, with more than a little sting, the loyalty of some female partners. He asks us to consider, what does it take to be a man and where does the blame lie, for people are not always what they appear to be. This is the path along which Ellis fights his way, in that tumultuous period between boy- and manhood.

We’ve all been there; disappointed by the illusion of the relationship that was drawn flawless in our mind’s eye, and Ellis is no exception. Mud is a gripping tale of the lack of clarity in first and subsequent loves, its bitterness and confusion, but also the redemption of unhindered optimism. It seems you must seek the antidote before the poison sets in and protect yourself from being bitten again.

Both Sheridan and Lofland give outstanding, naturalistic performances, but it is the former’s film, with McConaughey as his adult reflection. The anguish Sheridan brings to Ellis is heartfelt and palpable. McConaughey continues his reinvigorated screen presence as a dramatic and complex leading man, enjoying his “McConaughssance” as he coins it. May it continue.