A Space Program


A tea service on Mars.

A tea service on Mars.

(2015) Comedy (Zeitgeist) Tom Sachs, Hailey Gates (voice), Pat Manocchia (narrator), Mary Eannarino, Sam Ratanarat, Chris Beeston, Evan Ross Murphy, Patrick McCarthy, Nick Doyle, Van Neistat, Kevin Hand, Jeff Lurie, Jared Vandeusen, Gordon Milsaps, Sarah Hoover, Bill Powers, Sarah Vasil, Greg Vane, Sarah Sachs, Arthur Sachs, Max Ellenbogen, Aunt Irma, Lila Ellenbogen. Directed by Van Neistat

 

There is art and then there is Art. The difference between the two is that art is reflective, stimulating, inspiring and Art is pretentious and arrogant. Art talks down to people; art brings them into the conversation. Art is made for the artist; art is made for the people.

Tom Sachs follows the dictates of bricolage, in which the artist uses mainly found materials and a fairly strict list of other materials to create. In this case, at a large space (normally used for things like basketball games) in New York City, he decided to do something about the space program and NASA. Using mainly plywood, steel and other mediums, he and his team crafted an environment of Mission Control, a lunar landing and a faux Mars to merge performance art and bricolage into a kind of art environment. Not being the sort of person who pays much attention to art (other than the cinematic kind), I’m not certain if this is innovative or not but something tells me it’s been done.

Probably not in this manner and on this scale, to be fair. The storyline posits a manned mission to Mars in which two female astronauts (Eannarino, Ratanarat) are sent on a mission to the Red Planet to research whether life exists there. While they are there they perform a traditional Japanese tea service and plant poppy seeds (off of a hamburger bun) in order to grow poppies so that heroin can be distilled, helping NASA defray the costs of sending an expedition to Mars. You have to give them points for out-of-the-box thinking.

There are certainly elements of whimsy here and some of the constructions are quite clever. I’m never quite certain whether the artist is poking fun at man’s pretensions of space conquest, or honoring human ingenuity through ingenuity of his own. As with all art – or even Art – it is open to the interpretation of the viewer and there is no wrong interpretation.

One of the problems I have with the film is that it almost has an obsessive-compulsive disorder in certain ways, endlessly discussing the materials used by the bricoliers in constructing the installation (do we really need to know why plywood was an ideal medium?) which does little to enhance our appreciation of the artwork and quite frankly feels like it’s being used to pad out the film, which clocks in at a short 72 minute running time, but feels much longer – also thanks to assigning each character a code name using military call signs based on their first and last names (Evan Murphy becomes Echo Mike, Tom Sachs becomes Tango Sierra and so on). They also flash to a faux ID badge for each cast member. It gets monotonous.

I will admit freely I’m not the intended audience for this; I am neither a hipster nor an art geek. People who are into art, are into trends or are into more intellectual pursuits might well find this fascinating. There is certainly some reflection on the process, although it is mainly in the execution rather than of the conception; the film doesn’t go into at all why Sachs chose this subject, or how he got the idea of creating Mission Control and Mars in a performance space. I would have liked to have seen a little bit more from that angle.

So not my cup of tea really, but as a document of an important work of modern art, it can be said that this is vital work. From the aspect of the layman however, there is an air of self-important smirking that didn’t really go down well with me. Maybe because I’m a bit of a space buff, I found it a little more irreverent than I was comfortable with. Then again, good art does make you reconsider your position while skewering the icons of culture. In that sense, this is a successful film.

REASONS TO GO: A record of an important piece of modern art.
REASONS TO STAY: The obsessive discussion of the materials used is pretentious. Not sure if this is hipster art snobbery or an attempt at sacred cow tipping. Despite a 72 minute running time still overstays its welcome.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is a recording of Sachs’ 2012 installation at the Park Avenue Armory.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Forbidden Zone
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: High Strung

Gravity


In space, nobody can hear you scream "OH CRAP!!!!"

In space, nobody can hear you scream “OH CRAP!!!!”

(2013) Thriller (Warner Brothers) Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris (voice), Phaldut Sharma (voice), Orto Ignatiussen (voice), Amy Warren (voice), Basher Savage (voice). Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

Some movies go for a visceral experience, using special effects to bedazzle and wow their audience. Others go for an emotional experience, using the dialogue and characters to create a response in their audience. It is a rare thing for filmmakers to attempt both in the same film.

Gravity is a game-changer in almost every sense of the word. Here, we are treated to a magnificent view of a space shuttle mission drifting in space with the curve of planet Earth hanging above them. It is breathtaking in and of itself. The mission to make some software updates and minor repairs to the Hubble Space Telescope is commanded by Matt Kowalski (Clooney), an affable, devilishly handsome country music fan on his last mission hoping to break a Russian cosmonaut’s record for longest space walk. With him is Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock), a mission specialist on her first trip into the great big out there. Kowalski is testing a brand new thruster pack that is working much better than the repairs and upgrade to the Hubble are.

Then Mission Control (Harris) orders them back to the shuttle for an emergency evacuation. It seems that the Russians have spontaneously decided to destroy one of their spy satellites but in typical Russian fashion haven’t really thought it through. The resulting explosion set off a chain reaction of debris impacting other satellites which in turn sends off more debris to impact more satellites. Small pieces of satellite are hurtling through orbit at speeds faster than bullets, wiping out everything in their path. GPS and communications satellites are going down rapidly as the debris approaches the shuttle and its crew.

The shuttle and the Hubble are destroyed in a silent, spectacular spray of debris. Only Ryan and Matt survive the initial disaster but they are far from out of the woods. Their ride home destroyed, they will need to find some other means of getting back. The International Space Station is near enough by that they can use the Soyuz craft as a lifeboat but that too has been hit by debris, leaving only a Chinese space station as a last hope. Dr. Stone, living with her own tragedy and with little experience, must summon up every bit of training she’s received and every ounce of courage she possesses to find a way back home against all odds.

Let’s look at the visual aspect of the film first – in a word, stunning. I think it’s safe to say that this is the most immersive special effects experience in any movie since Avatar. You are brought into a world that is made utterly believable and real and at the same time utterly alien. While in Avatar that world was Pandora, here it is outer space. You never for an instant doubt that these are astronauts floating in the weightlessness of zero gravity. It is an astonishing achievement of special effects. Don’t be surprised if there are Oscars awarded for it in February.

The collisions of debris and machine take place in absolute silence. Since sound doesn’t travel in space this is as it should be. It is also completely terrifying. Don’t let the sounds of collisions on the trailer fool you – the studio insisted on them for the trailer but they are absent in the final film. We are often treated to the point of view of Dr. Stone, seeing things through her helmet. We see her breath fogging the helmet glass; see the panic in her eyes and the spinning of her horizon as she hurtles through space in the initial cataclysm. It is breathtaking in its simplicity, devastating in consequence as the audience gradually realizes what these shots mean. The enormity of what these characters face is unstated; it is left to the imagination of the audience to conjure up their own conclusions.

Looking at the emotional aspect, we have to first start with Bullock. This is clearly her movie and she is the avatar of the audience, representing us in the film. She is inexperienced because we are as well; it is far more effective to have her trying to guess and figure out what to do rather than see things through the eyes of Kowalski who is better trained. He is there mainly to offer encouragement to Dr. Stone and a bit of comic relief here and there.

As impressive as the special effects are, this is a very human film. As we see the astronauts struggle to survive and figure out a way against all hope to get back home, we see our own struggle to survive in a world just as inhospitable and unforgiving and cold as that of outer space. We become invested in Dr. Stone and in no small part due to Bullock’s performance. This may well be her crowning achievement as an actress; it’s note-perfect capturing the flaws and frailties of a character who is brilliant but terrified. She is in fact brilliant enough to imagine the negative outcome of what is happening to her. Clooney gets to essentially play himself; wise-cracking and devilishly handsome but entirely competent at what he does.

In a nice little grace note, Cuaron casts Ed Harris to be the voice of Mission Control; Harris also played Flight Director Gene Kranz in Apollo 13. That aside, there isn’t much in terms of in-film references to please the fanboy contingent which I think has stuck in the craw of some of that ilk.

From a scientific standpoint, Cuaron has said that some liberties were taken with science in order to advance the story – one of the most egregious of these is that the journey from the Hubble to the ISS was not possible with the equipment shown in the film simply because of the distance involved. Simply put, if this had happened for real (and some scientists have warned that it potentially could), the chances are that the astronauts would perish right then and there. That would have made for a depressing film and wasn’t the story that Cuaron wanted to tell. Once again, this isn’t about the effects – it’s about the human beings inside them. From that standpoint, it’s a marvelous film. Whatever your feelings about the space program – gigantic boondoggle or absolute necessity – you will be blown away by the special effects but more importantly you will be moved by the human story, a rare achievement. This is one of the best films of the year.

REASONS TO GO: Phenomenal special effects. Tense, edge-of-your-seat throughout. Bravura performance by Bullock.

REASONS TO STAY: One or two nitpicks.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few images that are pretty rough and a bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The length of the movie at 90 minutes is exactly the time it takes for the actual International Space Station to make one complete orbit of the Earth.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/10/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 96/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marooned

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: The Tigger Movie

The Box


The Box

Frank Langella really needs to buy himself a better razor.

(Warner Brothers) Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella, James Rebhorn, Holmes Osborne, Sam Oz Stone, Gillian Jacobs, Celia Weston, Deborah Rush, Lisa K. Wyatt, Mark Cartier, Keith Robertson, Michelle Durrett. Directed by Richard Kelly

Our lives are often a test, one in which we are called to make choices between short-term self-interest and the long-term benefit of the entire species. It is a test we continue to take over and over again, not always successfully.

It is 1976, and the Mariner project is sending data back to NASA at their Langley research facility in Virginia (and if you’re not sure what state you’re in, the filmmakers helpfully tell you in big bold letters at the beginning of the film). Arthur Lewis (Marsden) is a scientist who worked on that project (he helped design the camera that sent back those shots from the surface of the Red Planet) who dreams of being an astronaut, dreams which are dashed when he receives a rejection letter from the powers-that-be.

His wife Norma (Diaz) is a teacher at a ritzy private school where their son Walter (Stone) also attends. Norma walks with a limp and has to take pain pills because of a doctor’s who left her foot under an x-ray machine until it charbroiled. She’s just been told that the school is eliminating employee discounts for student tuition, which means that the already-financially strapped family (since when does a rocket scientist not make enough to make ends meet?) will have to live even more within their means.

Enter the Mysterious Man, in this case Arlington Steward (Langella). With a severely disfigured face that looks like one of his zits might have had C4 in it as a teen, Steward bears a mysterious wooden box that contains nothing except a glass dome that can only be opened with a key, and a large red button. He gives Norma the key and explains, in clipped cultured tones, that pushing the button will accomplish two things. First, someone unknown to Norma and Arthur, somewhere in the world, will die as a result of them pushing the button. Second, they will be paid one million dollars, tax free, in large crisp hundred dollar bills. In order to demonstrate his sincerity, he gives Norma one of them “for her trouble.” The two of them have 24 hours to decide whether or not to push the button – otherwise the offer is withdrawn and the box will be given to someone else.

The couple goes back and forth. Their conscience dictates that it is never all right to kill, even for a large sum of money but their immediate needs say that a million dollars can make their lives a hell of a lot less complicated. As the minutes tick down to the deadline, one of them will make an impulsive decision that will change their lives forever, put them all in mortal danger and introduce Arthur to a mysterious conspiracy between the NSA, NASA and other governmental organizations that may affect the future of the human race.

This is based on a short story by the great Richard Matheson (and was later developed into an episode for the 1986 version of “The Twilight Zone,” albeit with a different ending) who has given us stories that have become movies like I Am Legend, What Dreams May Come, Somewhere In Time and numerous episodes of “The Twilight Zone” and “Night Gallery,” to name a few. He is one of the most imaginative writers of the 20th century. Here what he has is a morality play that is as relevant now as it was the day it was written – the battle of short-term gain and long-term care. In other words, doing the right thing vs. doing the easy thing.

Director Kelly has an affinity for science fiction and, well, creepy stuff. He creates an atmosphere in which anyone at any time can be “an employee” as Steward terms it, his eyes and ears on the subjects of what he labels “a test.” I know I’m being a bit vague, but I don’t want to ruin any of the twists that give the movie some of its spice. One of the things I can talk about is that he nicely re-creates the era.

Langella is fabulous as the mysterious Arlington Steward. He is creepy and not quite normal but at the same time urbane, polite and charming. He tips his fedora at a jaunty angle and walks with the deliberate pace of a man who knows exactly where he needs to be and is quite sure he isn’t in a hurry to get there. Marsden also does a fine job in the lead role of the disappointed rocket scientist who goes from financial problems to fighting for his survival.

I’m not usually a big fan of Cameron Diaz – for some reason she seems a little neurotic to me usually – but she does a solid job here. There are some nice supporting roles here too, particularly the veteran character actor Rebhorn as Arthur’s boss.

One of the biggest problems with the movie is the score. Members of the Montreal-based rock band Arcade Fire are responsible for it and I was frankly quite disappointed. It’s intrusive, overbearing, somewhat cliché in places (I don’t know about you but I am quite tired of having an Important Event or a Big Scare announced with screeching strings) and comes damn close to ruining the movie. I would have preferred something toned down a bit; a bit more minimalist.

Kelly, who wrote the movie, chose to flesh out the script with a good deal of business involving the government agencies mentioned above as well as a series of nosebleeds, slack-jawed observers, a wind tunnel and mysterious gates that may very well lead to Eternal Damnation. These sideshows, while visually effective, tend to take the focus from what was the main crux of the original short story, to the detriment of the film. That’s a shame because it might have gotten a higher rating otherwise.

There are elements of science fiction, horror, political thriller and historical drama here, so you can’t say that you didn’t get your money’s worth. What you can say about The Box is that it’s got the best use of Sartre I’ve ever seen in a horror/science fiction/thriller/drama before. Hell is other people according to Sartre but in Richard Kelly’s vision, we are all caught in our own boxes that we are stuck in until we’re planted in a pine box, and what we make of it can be Hell – or it can be something else. It’s a test that the human race continues to take – and fail.

REASONS TO GO: You can’t go wrong with Richard Matheson. A modern morality play that is an essay on human nature that is even more true and contemporary now than it was when the original short story was written. Langella gives a marvelously creepy performance.

REASONS TO STAY: An overbearing score is intrusive and nearly ruins the film. Some of the action is a little bit over-the-top. It feels like the script was fleshed out with some unnecessary business.

FAMILY VALUES: Some horrific images and a few good startle scares are sure to give the little ones nightmares. Okay for teens though.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Kelly is best known for directing the cult classic Donny Darko.

HOME OR THEATER: There are a few grand effects shots and a couple of other sequences that would look better on the big screen but otherwise just as effective at home.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: He’s Just Not That Into You