Friday, August 28, 2015

LOVE (2011)


Originally published in Cinema Knife Fight, August 28, 2015 

When I see the terms “science fiction” and “independent” lumped together as a film’s category, I usually make time to watch it. When I discovered the movie, LOVE (2011), on Netflix, its categories were “drama” and “independent,” but the cover image showed Earth from orbit, and an astronaut sitting on a park bench in full space-gear, so I knew it was sci-fi. I also expected (and this is critical foreknowledge for most independent science fiction films) LOVE to be very weird. Trippy. A mind-[bad word that means lovemaking].

It was.

I’ll just point this out now and be done with it: if you see this on Netflix, don’t read the short description of the film. It’s not only wrong, it’ll set your expectations in the wrong direction when you sit down to watch it. It did for me. It’s not about time travel. He doesn’t time travel. I don’t think he does. No, of course he doesn’t. Probably. No, there’s nothing like that in the film. Read on and you’ll see.

Of course, I could be wrong. I might be. Probably not. Definitely… ah hell. Let’s start at the beginning:

Captain Lee Miller is an astronaut, recruited as the first person to return to the International Space Station (ISS) after an extended period where it was abandoned. The space program apparently found some extra money in a sock drawer and thought it was time to go back up. Captain Miller is played with quiet intensity by Gunner Wright (J. EDGAR, 2011, DEAD SPACE video game). To be honest, I thought he was Ryan Reynolds for the first part of the film. He’s not. Ryan Reynolds is, in fact, not in this movie. Nevertheless I was very impressed with Wright’s performance, especially considering that he was the only character in the film (for the most part) and spent eighty percent of the time alone in the bowels of the ISS.

But wait, this is not the beginning. Let me back up to the actual opening scene.

Captain Lee Miller is a soldier in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War, pinned down with the rest of General McClain’s regiment as they wait to be flattened by the Union Army. Things look bad, and McClain orders Miller to travel to some other location where a special discovery had recently been made. He asks him to tell the story of it, and of his experiences with McClain’s men. Miller leaves on horseback. Not long after, McClain’s regiment is decimated in one of the bloodiest battles in the war. I think it was. Seemed like the bloodiest battle.

These opening scenes are amazing. Well filmed, dark and moody yet the images are hyper-clear. I know, that’s not an actual filmmaking term. How do I explain this? Sharp focus… no. Never mind. I can’t explain it, except: With so much despair and misery the men in the regiment are enduring, amplified by a narration from Captain Miller, it’s a stunningly beautiful scene to watch. However they filmed this, technically, it’s a visual treat. Granted, there is also much use of the hyper-slow-motion effect I first saw (at least noticed), in MELANCHOLIA  (2011).

After leaving his regiment, Miller eventually reaches a small cadre of soldiers who are guarding something out of frame over the ridge. He steps to the edge of the cliff and looks over. But we, the viewers, don’t see what it is. You might be able guess, I think, but not right away. And it doesn’t matter, anyway, because it has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. Not really. Sort of.

Because then we meet Captain Lee Miller, the astronaut circa 2047 or so, boarding the ISS and doing a series of diagnostics and experiments, floating alone in high Earth orbit. He gets occasional messages from Cambridge, England and Mission Control as he passes over their respective hemispheres, and watches a video from his brother telling him he’s going to be an uncle soon. The days pass.

Until Mission Control tells him something bad was going down on Earth-side, but there is no time to explain. He simply needs to hold on and they’ll be in contact soon.

Miller waits for the follow-up. And waits. And waits.

He’s alone in a metal tube, floating over the Earth with no idea what might be happening back home. This all happens in the early moments of the film, and most of the remaining time is spent with Miller dealing as best he can with the growing isolation, with being cut off from every human being in God’s creation.

I was riveted by this film (always keeping in the back of my mind, however, that the ending would likely be weird and not tell me much about what I just watched—I was right, though it wasn’t quite as cryptic as I feared… oh, yes it was, who am I trying to kid? I get ahead of myself, however).

Written and Directed by William Eubank (THE SIGNAL, 2014), LOVE was entirely funded, interestingly enough, by the band Angels & Airwaves (the members of the band also produced the movie). Did they do it to get their name out there, or promote their songs through film? Maybe. If so, it worked for me. I loved the music. Like many of the films which have left a lasting impression on me (one big example being INK, 2009), music was integral to the mood and overall feel of LOVE. It ran through every scene, with a few breaks of dead silence to make the viewer take a breath. The sound was unique without being overbearing. This worked alongside some interesting editing choices—when panic would set in, we sense the emotion through choppy, staccato cuts in the scene, sudden close-ups transitioning to extended long shots, desperate chords banging on the walls of the soundtrack (yes, my sentences get like this when reviewing artsy films)—to build the internal world of our protagonist.

Another clever bit of directing—or maybe it’s a cinematography decision, I’ll need to ask my daughter the budding filmmaker—was the implication of weightlessness in the station without showing it. I imagine that shooting every scene in simulated zero-gee would be tricky and expensive. Angels & Airwaves probably didn’t have that kind of dough. Instead, director Eubank chose not to do it at all. Captain Miller moves through the ship, reaching and controlling his motions as if in zero-gee, but obviously he’s not. No slow-motion pretend weightlessness, either. If the astronaut drops something, it falls to his feet. Even so, you know he’s floating. Because that’s how he’s behaving. Camera angles also play into this notion, showing him sitting, for example, while filming the scene sideways, or upside down. So Miller is sitting on the wall, or the ceiling. Sounds cheesy, but it works.

So far, this is sounding like a pretty awesome science fiction film. In many ways, when you speak of craft, and acting, it is. However, like I said earlier, this film is a bit of a brain twister. If you get through the Civil War opening without too much confusion (there is a connection later in the film with a book the astronaut discovers which might explain it, or you can try hard to believe that explanation because it’s wrong, because later on things get very, I don’t know… sorry. Need to breathe. Got heightened for a moment. Movies that make brain-cereal in my head tend to do that).

Interspersed throughout the film are sudden, almost jolting cuts to people being interviewed. They’re talking about life, love, dealing with isolation, pushing past the curve balls of life and moving on the best one can. These people are not, in any way, related to our main character, but their words are a secondary narrative for what he’s going through. They’re short, and interesting, so I listened, nodded internally, and wasn’t surprised when these scenes ended and we were back to Captain Lee Miller trapped in the ISS.

Gunner Wright was very believable as a man trapped for a long time with only himself and memories of past lovers for company. The images he conjures of one woman in particular begins to speak to him, and he answers, all the while knowing she isn’t real. But he needs some kind of company, as he staves on insanity. As with many Indy films, I had to use subtitles to catch a lot of the dialogue. Movies that strive for realism seem to think it’s okay for everyone to mumble and whisper their lines. Maybe they couldn’t afford more than one gaffer. Maybe I’m just getting old.

I won’t get into the ending, but I will say there was an ending, sort of, and the filmmakers obviously wanted to pay homage to Stanley Kubrick’s closing scenes in 2001: A SPACE ODDYSEY (1968). All through these final, oh, fifteen or twenty minutes I was like—is this David Bowman reincarnated?…. Oh, hey maybe that’s what it all meant. No, wait, no couldn’t be, because of that part. And that.

Hmm. Sorry. Ignore that. No, I didn’t give anything away. Watch the film (and I think you should) and the above-tangent will make sense. Anyway, for those of you sci-fi buffs out there, the fact that I made a comparison to ODDYSEY‘s ending should tell you all you need to know. It gets very weird. Weird, yet things are happening. Some explanations even cover what was over the ridge back in the Civil War days, if you watch closely. And over the past couple of days some ideas as to the meaning of the ending have come to me. But… but, but.

I love films (usually) that do this to me. I’d better stop, otherwise this review will be just as cryptic and You Figure It Out-ish as LOVE. No, the title doesn’t really make sense. If anything, it relates more to the interviews which crop up throughout the film more than what is happening in the big floating space tube. But for a film on a budget, the effects were well done and clever, and did not try to do more than was reasonable. The acting was true to the characters and at times very intense. Not to mention, if you like Ryan Reynolds then you have the Hydrox version here, so it’s almost as good. (Kidding—Gunner, I was quite impressed with your performance and Reynolds wouldn’t have done half the job you did here—make more movies, please.).

Just go in expecting your cerebrum to be milk-shaked and you’ll be fine. Because of the ending, like most independent films, LOVE is pretentious, but LOVE is also kind and does not seem to boast much.

I give it Three Independent Film Awards out of Five – if you go for this kind of thing. If not, watch GRAVITY (2013) instead. Your brain will thank you.

—Dan

Monday, August 3, 2015

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - ROUGUE NATION (2015)



Originally published in Cinema Knife Fight August 3, 2015

To start this review, I was going to play a cassette tape and have a cute, “Your mission if you choose to accept it…” But no, I won’t do that. And telling you I was going to do it but didn’t is not the same as doing it.

I’ve been a fan of the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE series since the beginning. Granted, some were better than others, for example the original (1996) was great. It was an awesome homage to the original 1966 television series which riveted my parents to the TV set each week (I was too young to stay up that late, being only 3…). The follow-up, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE II (2000) was weaker than the original, with a climactic fistfight that went on way too long. I remember taking a long time to get around to watching MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III (2006) but when I did, I was very pleasantly surprised. It far exceeded the previous two.

After 2006, the franchise fizzled for a time, until M:I III‘s writer, J.J. Abrams (EVERYTHING THAT IS GOOD AND AWESOME ON ANY SIZED SCREEN), and his merry band at Bad Robot Productions took the helm. Abrams took the producer’s office for MISSION: IMPOSSIBLEGHOST PROTOCOL (2011) and reignited what would become a fun, visually-stunning couple of films with a lead actor who would willingly expose himself to the vacuum of space if it meant being allowed to do his own stunts (sorry, getting ahead of myself, back to that point soon). GHOST PROTOCOL was a wild, fun, breathtaking film, and I left the theater four years ago hoping it was not a one-time deal.

It wasn’t.

Yes, I’m actually going to talk about the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLEROGUE NATION (2015) now.

The short version, in case you’re already tired of reading this review: it is one of the most enjoyable, action-packed spy movies you’re probably going to see this half decade. Goofy at times, yes, but a lot of fun. SPECTRE (2015) is coming out in November, and I’m uber-looking forward to this new Bond film, but even that might pale on the fun-meter compared to the movie we’re reviewing right now. (PS: For those of you leaving at the end of this paragraph, I’m going to give M:IRN four knives at the end, but shhh, don’t say anything, so the people hanging around for the whole review will be surprised). OK, short-attention span readers, you may leave.

The “Rogue Nation” of the title is disenfranchised British agent Solomon Lane (played with quiet, Bond-ish menace by Sean Harris, also in PROMETHEUS, 2012)) aiming to unhinge Western Civilization (why do so many bad guys in spy movies hate Western Civilization?). His schemes are so well-planned and executed, one begins to suspect any eventuality that comes his way is part of his overall Master Plan. This is what our hero, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise (JACK REACHER, 2012, and all previous M:I films), begins to fear as he races across the world trying to apprehend him.

One major problem, however: after the explosive events of the previous movie, the head of the CIA, Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin, 30 ROCK TV Series, BEETLEJUICE, 1988) has brought the IMF before a Senate committee and successfully disbanded the organization (FYI, IMF is the acronym for Hunt’s group: Impossible Mission Force), merging them with the CIA and forcing Ethan Hunt to go rogue rather than come back in from the field. So, yes, the IMF itself becomes a “rogue nation,” in a way, and this is where I have one minor problem with the film. The idea of the IMF having to go underground because the US government won’t support them—and in fact wants to apprehend them, especially Ethan—has been done before—in the previous film and the very first M:I movie. Granted, things are more interesting when everyone wants a piece of the good guy and no one supports him (except his crew), but find another way. Fortunately, this repetitive plot device diminishes the enjoyment of the film not a whit.
 
The pre-credits opening scene (the one talked about quite a lot in the web-o-sphere lately) sets the tone for the movie. Ethan and his crew try to stop a cargo plan from taking off with some seriously bad weaponry. In the end, the plane takes off, with Ethan Hunt desperately holding on to the outside of the plane. Yes, that is, in fact, Tom Cruise hanging on to the outside of an actual cargo plane which is actually taking off. It’s a fun, visually arresting scene that ends with a good laugh before we are brought into the opening credits. I’ll get back to Cruise and his stunts in a moment, because I’d like to take a second to celebrate the music.

The original 1966 TV show always began with a catchy opening scene, followed by the familiar sight of a fuse being lit as the theme song, written by Lalo Schifrin, kicks into full throttle. This is one of the best TV theme songs out there.  In ROGUE NATION, composer Joe Kraemer’s score intersperses Schifrin’s song throughout the film, and at just the right moments. Not overbearing, but it never fails to induce excitement in this writer’s head.

So, back to Tom Cruise. Say what you will about the man’s off-screen antics, he is one of the best action stars around. A big statement, you say? Aside from still being one of the (if not the) best-looking actors on any screen (suspiciously so, because how does anyone look that good for this many decades?), he knows how to act. Cruise takes his job seriously, no matter what film he’s in, so much so that he does his own stunts. Yes, that’s not just a rumor going around about the plane thing. In every action scene in this film, you’re seeing Tom Cruise—hanging onto a plane (not to worry, he was also strapped securely to the side), racing along the highways of Morocco on a motorcycle, trying to do something “impossible” while underwater in a tank and holding his breath for an absurd amount of time (in that scene, he actually held his breath for six minutes, twice as long as the character had to, to the point where the director stopped filming because he thought he was going to drown). The guy’s a machine. If you think about it, this is one major reason the action sequences in his films are so realistic. Without a stunt double, there is no need to keep the camera away from close-ups. Because of this and some stellar directing by writer and director Christopher McQuarrie (JACK REACHER, 2012), the action scenes in this movie are way above average with very little CGI used. One of these days Tom Cruise will probably die while filming a movie, maybe (as I mentioned above) after he insists on being sucked out into space, just so a scene has maximum realism. Maybe this is why he’s never starred in a movie that takes place outside of our atmosphere. No one wants to be responsible for killing such a profitable leading man.

M:I has always been borderline sci-fi, considering the technology the characters often use to get the job done. One does wonder how they manage to build such elaborate… let’s just say “devices” to avoid spoilers… when they’re basically cut off from any outside support. Granted, they do have oodles of cash stowed away in various hidey-holes. A certain amount of willing disbelief-suspension is required now and then. The filmmakers, however, imbued the film with such realism in their bigger-than-life situations and effects to make me willing, at least.

The cinematography was quite stunning. From an opera house in Vienna to the streets of Casablanca, Morocco, every scene is shot big, in digital perfection. Especially the Vienna scenes, and a jaw-dropping motorcycle chase later in the film. The shots are from varying angles, all to enhance a feeling of exotic awe with the beauty of the places we are brought into. I’m reminded of Robert Ludlum’s books, where he would choose some of the most exotic and beautiful locales for his stories. This is a big reason I strongly recommend seeing MISSION: IMPOSSIBLEROGUE NATION at the theatres, while you can. Not because the CGI looks better in the theaters, since there’s very little of that, but because the actual footage of real people doing nutty things for our entertainment looks better on the big screen. At least this one does.

What makes this series of films, especially the latter three Abrams-inspired productions so appealing? Look back at the early James Bond films, specifically with Sean Connery and Roger Moore. The Connery films took the exploits of agent 007 seriously, much like the recent Daniel Craig forays into Bond’s world. There was some humor, but the mission (and the women, we’re talking Sean Connery here, after all) were the primary focus. When Roger Moore came onboard, the filmmakers put far too much emphasis on gadgets and bad puns, to the detriment of the franchise (in my opinion, other’s may vary). I lost interest in the Bond films near the end of the Moore era. The exploits of Ethan Hunt in the M:I films feel like the perfect blend of serious action and humor. Simon Pegg (SHAUN OF THE DEAD, 2004, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, 2013) was obviously brought in to help with the humor, though Pegg’s Benji Dunn has his serious moments throughout. I enjoyed Pegg’s performance a lot in this film. He knows when to be comical and when not to (yea, yea, as do the director and writers, I know).

Another dynamite supporting cast member was Rebecca Ferguson (THE RED TENT, 2014, HERCULES, 2014) as Ilsa Faust, an agent working for bad guy Solomon, or is she? This question goes back and forth throughout the film. Though I’m guessing she doesn’t do her own stunts like co-star Cruise, she has a great presence and her action scenes were very well done. Quick kudos also to Jens Hulten (SKYFALL, 2012) as henchman Janik Vinter, aka the Bone Cutter (or something like that). He doesn’t have a lot of lines, but held the screen with an abundance of quiet menace.

Finally, there were a couple of scenes near the latter part of the film which I found a refreshing twist on the way Hollywood usually deals with plot roles for the distinct sexes. That’s all I’ll say, but it was nice to see the We’ve Always Done It This Way model tossed out the window more than once.

As you can tell, I enjoyed MISSION: IMPOSSIBLEROGUE NATION quite a lot. If you’re one to search out thrillers with real-life action and fight scenes that aren’t over-edited to the point of triggering seizures, check this out soon. As the short-attention-span folks already learned, I give this movie Four Knives for one of the most fun, over-the-top thrill-rides in recent movie memory.

© Copyright 2015 by Daniel G. Keohane