Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Movie Reviews: Passengers, Your Name, A Tale of Love and Darkness, Hidden Figures

Passengers: I am astounded that this Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt disaster was (supposedly) a "great script that needs to be made" for several years, and no one in all that time was able to see the Big Problem with it. Insider sources confirm that it wasn't a matter of a late script change; the script was always this disturbing.

There are actually two parts to the movie. The less significant is the disaster movie in space, which is filmed well but entirely contrived. The disaster and all of the circumstances that lead to it are contrived. That there is no one but two useless passengers able to address the problem (instead of competent ship pilots, autopilots, or engineers that are awakened on a rotational basis to check the ship) is contrived. That the problem is exactly enough of a problem to threaten the ship but (ultimately) easily fixed by a single dangerous act (which fixes EVERYTHING that went wrong, instantly) is so contrived and silly that you wonder that this movie could be made only a few years after similar and far better movies like The Martian or Interstellar. The acting is okay, and there is one nifty shot of what happens to you when you're in a swimming pool and the gravity stops; that's about the only good thing to say about the movie.

The engineers who made this ships must be morons. No backups for things that "can't possibly fail". Right. No waking up the crew once in a while to perform maintenance or check that everything is okay? Right.No avoidance of hurtling rocks while traveling through space for 120 years? Right.

But who cares? The main concept of the movie is about a guy who accidentally wakes up on a ship that has 90 years to go and is, therefore, faced with the prospect of living and dying on the ship instead of on the world he was supposed to reach at the destination. The movie contrives most ridiculously that there is no way to reenter suspended animation (no backups!). And so, after going a little loopy for a year, the man does the vastly horrible and immoral act of choosing and condemning another passenger, a beautiful woman that he lusts over, to suffer that same fate because he doesn't want to suffer alone. Of course, he hides what he did and we know she is going to discover it eventually. And then the ship starts breaking down.

Spoilers ahead, but you should just skip the movie anyway.

The idea for the movie isn't terrible: the act is terrible, and the movie sort of acknowledges this. The movie is supposed to make us feel that he has done a wicked thing, but instead of punishing him the movie presents us with a freaking romance movie, and not a good one. We are supposed to be sympathetic with him and root for him. Thank god I was able to fast forward through much of the romance, because it made me ill. The two leads have some chemistry, but very little in the way of character .. but again, who cares? The act was the act of a desperate, drowning man, so maybe, MAYBE it is at least understandable, and maybe MAYBE if he was portrayed as horrible, and realizing how horribly he acted and immediately confessing his sins, she could come to forgive him for stealing her entire life from her. But not telling her for months and romancing her for an hour of movie time is unforgivable. Instead of the movie stressing that this is a sick man and his act was revolting, and his not telling her is even more revolting, it wants us to enjoy their burgeoning romantic chemistry.

She gets rightly pissed off after she finds out, but the movie doesn't end with her killing him and finding out what it means to be alone, or afraid of a man who would destroy her life, imprison her on a ship, and lie to her for many months just so he could trick her into sleeping with him. Instead, when they face the possibility of losing the entire ship, she realizes how much she loves him after all and can't face living without him. Oh. My. God.

And we're not even done. Through more idiotic movie contrivance, after saving the ship, he discovers a way to put only her (or any one person) back into suspended animation, and she chooses to stay and live her life with him on the ship.

Who thought this was a good idea?

Just to complete the stupidity, we also have a black guy who wakes up just long enough to help save the cute white couple and then die, because what would a sci-fi movie be without that?

Your Name: A beautiful, subtitled, animated body-swap film from Japan. Something like Charlotte Sometimes, a high school boy from Tokyo and a high school girl from a small mountain town near a lake begin to switch bodies through mysterious circumstances. This disrupts their lives in several ways, and they try to communicate by leaving notes. But most importantly, they try to find each other. And, for various reasons, it's not that simple.

This is a rich, complex tale. There are several points where you might expect the movie, if it were American, to end, but it just veers off in yet another direction. And yet, it all works beautifully; nothing is added just for filling, and all elements foreshadow or recapitulate other elements with perfect sense. The only thing I found extraneous were the Japanese pop songs, several of which intrude upon the film at various points. in my opinion, all of these but the last one should have been ditched (not that my opinion on Japanese pop music means much, but I think they were not particularly good, and in any case they tried to impose emotions in places where the movie was doing a perfectly fine job without them.) The brief song and graphics at the beginning actually hurt the movie by making the whole production look like a typical anime TV show.

Aside from the music, it was haunting, sweet, romantic, and tragic all at once. A great film.

A Tale of Love and Darkness: Based on the book of the same name and the autobiographical story of Amos Oz's childhood in Jerusalem before, during, and just after the founding of the state of Israel, this is Natalie Portman's baby: her first time directing, she also wrote the screenplay and starts as Amos' mother. While the book focuses on Amos, his parents playing significant but secondary roles, Natalie is the central figure in the movie sharing equal (or a little more) screen time with Amir Tessler playing the young Amos.

The movie shows a lot of promise, in that it is a lovely work of art but not particularly entertaining. There are grim and harrowing movies that are also entertaining (not fun, but emotionally investing, captivating, involving you in the story). This movie doesn't do that very well. Instead, it plays as a series of film scenes, all rather grim and bleak, some of them well shot, all well acted, but not very involving. Scenes seem to come and go without any warning or connection. The night when the radio announces the vote to create a state shows jubilation, but there were no scenes leading up to it that would have made us care. An early scene involving young Jewish and Arab children who were trying to be friendly until an accident drives them apart should be prescient but is never followed up in any meaningful way on screen, and the characters never reappear.

Natalie makes us understand the allegory of the scene, of course, and the omniscient narrator bemoans the senseless conflict with his personal political views. Shot well, voiced beautifully, but they're not the story. The story is that of the mother, her dreams of what Israel would be like and her descent into depression and - ultimately - suicide when the dreams don't become reality. Again, Natalie makes us understand the allegory of the mother's dreams with the unrealized dreams of the state, but only as that: an allegory. Not a movie, not a story. An art piece, not entertainment. Unfortunately, for most people this movie will drag on for far too long. It could have been cut down to focus on the art and statement, because as far as the story goes, it's just not interesting.

The film making is interesting, the movie is bleak but watchable, and the art is good. Hopefully her directing will be matched with better screenwriting the next time around.

Hidden Figures: Many women, as well as women of color, contributed to the success of America's space program through their hard work in engineering, math, and supervisory skills. In particular for the women of color, this was a challenge, since they did this work at a time when segregation was in effect in the south, which was where NASA's offices were.

I just saved you from having to see the movie.

Like other dull biopics, the screenplay presents the most obvious, unchallenging, straightforward scenes without a whit of depth. The acting, directing, set and costumes are all fine. But when a movie presents a story where the ending is known, there has to be something else there to keep the viewer's interest. There's no there, here. One of the characters is great at math. So - surprise, the white men scorn her until she proves she is capable. She has to run half a mile a few times a day to get to the colored bathroom. So - surprise, everyone wonders why she is absent for so long a couple of times a day. These are scenes that could have been incorporated into a great movie. Instead, these scenes ARE the movie, and that's it. And oh yeah, we send some white guys into space.

One of the real women (now in her 90s), expressed surprise that anyone would want to watch a movie made about her. This movie doesn't challenge that question.
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