Archive for August, 2011

Another Earth

Posted in Drama, Science Fiction with tags on August 5, 2011 by Mark Hobin

A contemplation on the mistakes we make and how we pay for those transgressions. Our chronicle concerns a bright 17-year-old astrophysics student who has been accepted into MIT. Upon leaving a party one night, she gets into a serious collision with another car. Shaken, she is able to walk away, but the 3 passengers in the other car are not so lucky. Sent to prison for vehicular manslaughter, she is released 4 years later. Racked with guilt she seeks out the sole surviving man whose life she shattered in that terrible accident.

The script also develops a fantasy element into the story with the discovery of an identical planet Earth which sustains life forms that mirror our own. In spite of the futuristic development, Another Earth is an ultra low-budget indie drama much in the same manner as Pi, Primer or Moon. This raises the possibilities of exploration and meeting our second selves. But it really isn’t a sci-fi film per se. That’s merely the framework employed as a device to explore ideas. Save for a few images of Earth 2 in the sky, there is little in the way of special effects. The budget was reportedly so low, the production couldn’t even justify purchasing a complete Nintendo Wii system. In the scene where the two protagonists are playing its version of boxing, only the controllers were used. They were not actually attached to anything.

Another Earth’s most affecting moments involve young adult Rhoda and her relationship to the stranger, a husband and father, whose existence is forever changed by her. John Burroughs is a broken shell of a man and Rhoda’s remorse compels her to visit him without revealing who she is. You see as a minor, her true identity was shielded from the public and him. Her effort to make amends is highlighted by many quietly acted intimate conversations. The pace is extremely deliberate, but actress Brit Marling gives a most impressive performance. Beautiful, likable and natural, she has all the qualities of a star. Marling furthermore co-wrote and co-produced the feature with her college friend, Mike Cahill who directs. Her interaction with actor William Mapother as a renowned composer who suffers the tragedy, is very touching. They have genuine chemistry, despite the fact that Mapother’s creepiness is better suited to villainous parts. There’s actor Kumar Pallana’s stereotypical role as a blind and later deaf, janitor as well. (The actor has previously played janitors in The Royal Tenenbaums and The Terminal) Unfortunately, his corny, poorly developed character is cringe inducing.

It’s hard to get past the notion that this is just a redemptive fable much like hundreds of others. The pacing is so lethargic, the action comes off as rather dreary. The events are dark and somber in tone. At times the drama becomes so understated that the plot feels skeletal. Although I’ll admit the bare aesthetic does support the story’s stripped down, confessional nature. What you’re honestly left with is a poignant tale of how one woman faces her earthly sins. However, the ending manages to address the narrative’s sci-fi aspect and it cleverly concludes the film on a high note.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Posted in Action, Drama, Science Fiction with tags on August 5, 2011 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketScientist Will Rodman is working on a cure for Alzheimer’s disease by conducting tests on chimpanzees. He soon produces a substance designed to help the brain repair itself. But ALZ-112 appears to do a lot more. The medication has unexpectedly radical results in a test subject. Although it shares story elements with 1972′s entry Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, director Rupert Wyatt has stated that this is a prequel to the Planet of the Apes series instead of a direct remake.

This is essentially a B movie dressed up with an expensive production budget and an A-list cast. The events are simplistic and predictable, with nary a plot twist in the entire 105 minutes. Don’t get me wrong, in spite of the predictability, the movie is still entertaining as all get out. As the action unfolds we clearly witness a detailed evolution that leads to a climatic battle. The buildup is beautifully done. The machinations are far fetched, but the intellectual advances of the chimps are presented in a most credible fashion. Not only will you accept a chimp could acquire super intelligence, but you’ll cheer their ascension to power.

The tale’s allure is thanks in no small part to the principal chimpanzee’s emotionally engaging portrayal. Dispensing with makeup applied to human actors that has been the method in past installments, this reboot relies on major strides in computer technology to create the simian characters. The star chimpanzee, Caesar, is a brilliant use of CGI created from a motion-capture performance by Andy Serkis. Renowned as Gollum from The Lord of the Rings trilogy, he’s crucial to the enjoyment of this science fiction. I’d actually go as far to say the full picture’s success rests with him. It’s a wonderfully expressive depiction. Caesar has an emotional progression that is comprehensive. A revolt becomes logical because his emotional trajectory is so believable. We truly mind what happens to this central figure since we’re emotionally invested in his growth. Even a simple scene where he corrects the way Will’s father holds a fork, is remarkably poignant.

The script takes frequent emotional shortcuts in the development of personalities. Except for Caesar, none of the actors register anything remotely resembling a three dimensional person. There’s precious little emotional investment in Will’s father or his cure for example. We’re supposed to care because he has Alzheimer’s. We know that to be bad, but not because we’ve seen how he used to be and feel sorrow at what he’s become. I must also call out 23 year old Tom Felton, best known for the villainous role of Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter series. He’s an animal-control officer here. His acting is such a caricature, all scowl and unredeeming nastiness, it verges on camp. He does everything but twirl a long handlebar moustache. Why he’s so nasty is never explained. He just is. When he barks Charlton Heston’s famous line from the original, it feels awkward. The feeling is more groan-inducing regret than warm nostalgia.

Despite these deficiencies, the simplicity of the script surprisingly works in its favor. Old fashioned storytelling doesn’t demand much of the viewer, it just wants to entertain. The individuals are painted in bold strokes, but the conflict between good vs. evil is rather stirring in an undemanding sort of way. You’ll know where the adventure is headed, but the anticipation is tangible. Andy Serkis is compelling as Caesar. He gets credit for making the character fascinating. It gets better as he evolves. As his mental capacity increases, so does the audience’s interest.

Tabloid

Posted in Biography, Documentary with tags on August 1, 2011 by Mark Hobin

Documentarian extraordinaire, Errol Morris turns his attention to the authentic story of a former Miss Wyoming. Her obsession with her one true love compelled her to venture to Europe to find the man who mysteriously disappeared from her life. The title refers to the British tabloids that had a field day with the scandal back in 1977. “The Manacled Mormon” was how the case came to be known. “Kinky sex, religion, a beauty queen, Mormon missionaries, forcibly kidnapped. There was something in that story for everyone. It was a perfect tabloid story,” affirms a tabloid reporter. Apparently it dominated the English tabloid papers in the late 1970s, but I have yet to encounter someone in the US who was familiar with the crime before this movie came out. No matter. The account is a perfect example of how “truth is stranger than fiction”.

Errol Morris’ unbiased presentation of the facts, or at least how the principals see them, is riveting. On the one hand, there is a woman who claims she went to England to rescue her husband from the Mormons who brainwashed him. On the other hand, you have a man who alleges he was kidnapped at gunpoint, then raped while shacked to a bed. Perhaps reality is somewhere in the middle as one ex-Mormon suggests.  He recounts how the church exploited the controversy as an ominous reminder of the feminine wiles of the fairer sex. Despite the sensational and salacious details, the tone is clearly tongue in cheek. The information is presented with animations and collages that recreate scenes and old film stock that illustrates the points being made. They’re humorous and keep things interesting . However, none of that even comes close to being as affecting as the conversations with the woman at the center of the situation.

Only 6 people are questioned, but boy does Morris makes those interviews count. They each help clarify a most bewildering matter. Joyce McKinney is quite a character. At times she seems humorously charismatic, at others pathetically delusional. I suppose it’s those contrasts that make her statements so fascinating. There’s also Jackson Shaw, the pilot she hired to fly her to England, the Daily Express reporter Peter Tory who covered the exploits back then, ex-Mormon missionary Troy Williams, the photographer for the Daily Mirror Kent Gavin, and lastly Dr. Hong the scientist in Korea who cloned her beloved dog years later. None of these people can be considered a reliable narrator, but Morris isn’t really concerned with authenticating anyone’s story. They’re all presented as mere parts to a larger puzzle that the viewer must assemble and understand. Markedly absent is Kirk Anderson, the object of her desire. Sadly he is never interviewed as he (not surprisingly) declined to be interviewed for this feature. Although even his absence sheds some light on the events in question.

In the end, we really aren’t any closer to a certainty than we were in the beginning. It’s not even clear what the director thinks about his subject. But  Morris definitely shows an interest in his topic that comes through.  The drama is intriguing and worthy of his talent.  Tabloid may not have the sense of importance of his best work, but it is entertaining and well produced. It’s like a good mystery that lacks an ending that neatly explains everything. In a documentary, that’s actually kind of admirable.

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