Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)

Advance rave reviews can spoil a film, but not nearly as much as active 3d glasses with a flat battery. Not my experience but…

When even noted 3D-hater Mark Kermode says to watch this film in 3D, it really does seem worthwhile making the effort of seeing it at a 3D projection at the cinema, rather than waiting for a DVD release. And the special effects were indeed pretty damn impressive. As debris flew towards us, I flinched, several times, something that the gimmicky lobbing of spears or things exploding has never tended to make me do before. More importantly, the absence of gravity (itself brilliantly shown) and its effects in removing the ideas of ‘up’ and ‘down’ are more convincingly rendered with the addition of a sense of depth.

The story: astronauts are fixing the Hubble Space Telescope when they are informed that Russian attempt to destroy one of their redundant spy satellites has set off a catastrophic chain reaction of exploded satellites and a shower of debris is headed towards them at supersonic speeds, with potentially devastating consequences. As the debris crashes around Hubble, Mission Specialist and space rookie Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) fails to get back to the shuttle and drifts away, until veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) rescues her and the two make their way back to the shuttle. Stone is running short of oxygen and Kowalski’s space walk thruster pack is ‘running on fumes’. Alone in space, with no communications with mission control (and later separated again from Kowalski), Stone has to work out how to stay alive and return to Earth.

Even though I had a pretty good idea where the film was heading and how it would end, a sense of dramatic tension was maintained, occasionally lightened by Kowalski’s calculated silliness. It is a tad gloomy though, and with a few moments of gore (amazingly, some parents had brought very young children to the cinema, rather ruining the film’s declaration of there being no sound in space!); yet it was still, just in terms of simple drama, a successful film, raised to another level by some fantastic special effects.

And the dodgy 3D glasses? My partner’s weren’t working, although she thought at first that the dark, green-tinted screen was deliberate and it was only as she realised that the 3D wasn’t rendering properly that it might be the glasses but, by that time, the film was properly underway and we were stuck right in the centre of a packed cinema. We were promised a refund but are still waiting…


Thor: The Dark World (Alan Taylor, 2013)

Thor Dark World
I learned to read through Marvel comics. On my seventh birthday in hospital, the interminable boredom was relieved by a sheaf of comics brought in by my family, including The Incredible Hulk, Fantastic Four, Spiderman, Thor and, I think, the X-Men although that might have been a little later. Throughout the ’70s, I read my way through most of the Marvel stable.

I have good feelings towards the current fad of superhero movies, especially the Marvel ones (I never really go into the DC stable). I am indulgent to them, the real stinkers like X-Men: The Last Stand, and Wolverine aside, and I look out for them and go to the cinema to see them whenever I can and I’m not going to join in the criticism of the number of superhero blockbusters being made. Even so, the first Thor film was a nice surprise, a fairly low-key affair that balanced humour, melodrama, romance and superpower shenanigans pretty deftly.

Following the Thor character’s appearance in the Avengers movie, I was intrigued to see what they would do with the sequel, and was reassured that Portman, Skarsgård, Hiddleston and others would be reprising their roles from the first film, promising to continue the good work from the first film, albeit almost certainly on a larger scale. I’m sorry to say I was badly disappointed.

The plot is based around an ancient evil being resurrected and Norse ‘god’ (actually a superpowered alien) Thor (Chris Hemsworth) having to enrol his evil brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) into helping him stop it before all of existance is plunged into eternal darkness, while at the same time reigniting his romance with human scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman).

This sequel isn’t terrible. Individual bits of it are very good, now and again, but it all seems very disjointed, lurching around and not finding any consistent tone. Taylor is unable to match Branagh’s directorial trick of negotiating the changeovers from light to dark, from comedy to romance to thriller to action. The comedy is too broad (poor Skarsgård looks like Father Jack Hackett at one point), the threat too portentous, the romance unengaging. Only the action seems confidently managed but, without my engagement in the rest of the drama, I’m left just watching a display of special effects. That ‘suspension of disbelief’ that allows me to care what happens to the characters is missing.

The acting is fine, given the material. Portman is good, one of the few to convince in her role. Hemsworth bravely delivers some fairly poor lines better than they really deserve. Anthony Hopkins looks utterly disinterested in his role. Hiddleston is, unsurprisingly, terrific. He is a superb actor and, given the best role as the scheming, sardonic villain on the side of good, can’t really go wrong. The person most misused is Christopher Eccleston. A very good actor, he is given almost nothing to do, except deliver some subtitled threats in a fake language while looking a bit weird, and this latter is achieved by make-up and special effects anyway.

I think the bare bones of a good film were here. It might have benefited from some re-writes to improve the dialogue and make the transitions flow better (or perhaps it had already been rewritten too much?) but the failure, for me, of this film has to be chiefly laid at the door of the director who seems not to have settled on what he wanted the overall film to feel like and ended up, as a result, with a mishmash.

And I’m still waiting for Thor’s human alter-ego, Dr Donald Blake, to make an appearance in the film universe.

Moneyball (Bennett Miller, 2011)

Having been introduced to the joys of baseball by my partner, I was assured that we could watch this secure in the knowledge that, unlike most UK viewers, we’d understand what was going on. We needn’t have worried, I think. Despite it not really being the most obvious ‘sell’ to UK audiences, the film is a standard underdog story and, while the details might be impenetrable to anyone without basic knowledge of the sport, the overall message is clear.

Based on a real recent history, and on the book of the same name, Moneyball tells of how the Oakland A’s massively overachieved in reaching the playoffs but then, also massively outspent by their opponents, the Yankees (although there were a few other big money clubs also) falling before the World Series and finding all their star players being poached in the off season. Their coach, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) realises that he simply cannot compete on the field if he cannot compete financially and looks for another way.

On an unsuccessful trip to the Cleveland Indians to try and pick up some new players in trades, he notices a young, but distinctly unsporty, man giving advice against one of his proposals. Intrigued as to who this was and what the advice he gave was, he searches him out. Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) is a Harvard economics graduate and he has some radical ideas about players’ worth. Completely rejecting the old methods of identifying “star” players, they look instead at statistics, trying to identify “overlooked gems”, the players who get good results whilst being consistently undervalued by everyone else. Together, Billy and Peter start a project to remodel the A’s around these new ideas, completely confounding and antagonising everyone else on the coaching staff, as well as their fans. In the face of this opposition, coach Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) chief among the opponents, initial results don’t look good and Billy Beane has to impose his will on the club and try to turn around the club before he loses his livelihood.

The plot is filled out with some background on Billy’s own playing career and a little about his current family life, both put in to explain him as a character and to raise the stakes dramatically. How close to reality the film manages to keep, I can’t say, thought the basic facts of Billy Beane’s team and the introduction of “Sabermetrics” are already common knowledge in the sporting world and a DVD extra makes great play on how much effort was made towards authenticity. Pitt brings a great deal of charisma to the role, and there are laugh out load moments – the relationship with Brand is terrific – but I wonder if, regardless of his sporting achievements, Billy Beane is really quite as damn likeable as Pitt portrays him.

A fun, feel-good movie with some interesting explanation of a modern sporting phenomenon.

Tokyo Story (1953), The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (1941) (Yasujirô Ozu)

Tokyo Story
I am looking at these two films together, simply because they were delivered to us on the same disc from the DVD rental company. It was Tokyo Story we ordered, on the basis of it being regularly listed amongst the best films ever made. Nevertheless, the matching showed some thought, as the films are linked using the plot device, the death of a parent and the deficiencies of (most of) the children in different ways. The great classic can be seen as a reworking of the earlier, slightly flawed essay.

Tokyo Story begins as an elderly couple from the country, Shukichi and Tomi Hirayama, leave their youngest daughter to look after their house as they depart for the Tokyo house of their son, a local doctor, Koichi, and his family.

As they take note of their children and grandchildren’s lifestyle, the parents initially look a little passive-aggressive, to my eyes – though I always have to be careful how I judge behaviour that is not only removed from me by the culture of the time but also of the country.

Koichi and his sister, Shige, who runs a hair salon, are both busy people and they struggle to find time to show their parents around town. An afterthought invitation to their sister-in-law, Noriko, the widow of their brother killed in the war, allows them to foist Shukichi and Tomi on to her to carry out what should really be their own duties, despite her having to, uncomplainingly, make the most difficult rearrangement of work duties. Knowing that Noriko cannot be expected to take care of their parents for the whole trip, but still unwilling to carry out their own duties, Koichi and Shige stump up the money to send them to a spa instead. Unfortunately for everyone, the spa is a noisy, young person’s kind of place, and the parents can’t stand more than one night, returning to Tokyo, only to find their children have already made new arrangements, meaning they have to find somewhere else to sleep. And one of the parents has health problems they haven’t revealed.

In The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family, we encounter a family from very different circumstances but with many of the same issues. This is a family of wealth and status, although with debts that come to light when the father suddenly dies. Selling off all their property to pay the debts, one of the sons, who has until now been the black sheep of the family, leaves for Manchuria to try to make something of himself, while the mother and youngest daughter suddenly find themselves homeless and in need of the charity of the rest of the family.

This film, charming as it is, is severely hamstrung by history. It is set during World War II and, early on in the film, one of the children leaves to go to Manchuria to make his fortune. When Japanese occupied China is held up as an Eldorado, a land of promise where enterprising young people can make a fresh start, I struggle to maintain sympathy for them. How much Ozu, or the Japanese people in general, knew about what was happening is not clear to me; it’s quite possible that the deep humanitarian message of this film is sincere and he and his audience could watch this in complete ignorance of Japanese atrocities and total belief in the good intentions of the occupation. The trouble is, that I can’t.

In both films, a parent dies; in both, the grown children are shown as remiss in their duties; in both, one daughter / daughter-in-law is contrasted as an ideal, even if they are a little too good to be convincing, despite a good performance.

Nonetheless, the films are lovely. Tokyo Story, watched alone, is a meditative joy. The Brothers and Sisters… is less successful but still a good film, and interesting as much for the contrasts with the later film.