Oceans (2010)

April 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

A film by Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud (and no doubt the spirit of Jacques Cousteau) Oceans really does have some remarkable footage that’s well worth the trip to the big screen, ranging from Blue Whales to the Blanket octopus (pictured here).

And without laying it on too thick, the film also takes the time to show satellite scans of pollution making its way out into the oceans in the form of darker, poisonous veins. I guess it’s asking too much of a documentary to end by pointing the viewer towards the kind of special-interest groups that are trying to help, or directing them to complain to a politician or two. Perhaps it’s assumed that just about everything has a website these days.

The narration is about my only other criticism of the film.  I’m fascinated to learn that the Blue Whale is half a city block in length, but just as often the narration voiced by Pierce Brosnan makes vaguely poetic statements comparing fish to dragons, or something similar. The footage is already quite wonderful and enthralling, and there wouldn’t have been anything wrong with narration that provides a little more data to compliment it. The film ends on a half-statement of sorts, along the lines of “Maybe instead of asking what is the ocean, we should ask who are we?”  Um, you mean who are we to pollute it?  Who are we to ignore it? The film is distributed by Disneynature in North America (Earth was also distributed last year), and I’m not sure if the process of translation resulted in narration that seems to want to go a few different directions.

Aside from this, I feel I shouldn’t nitpick too much about Oceans as it’s an impressive film to children and adults alike, and if it does anything to instill a sense of reverence and respect for the planet, it’s worth it. See it while it’s in the theatre, both to support the film and catch the footage on the big screen.

Watch the trailer here.

Tron (1982)

April 19, 2010 § Leave a comment

Tron has a curious place in science-fiction film history — some of the visuals make it feel like the grandson of Metropolis (1927), even as some of the themes and ideas make it feel like the grandfather of The Matrix (1999). The film is anchored by a remarkably relaxed and charming performance from a young Jeff Bridges, who does a great job considering he probably acted the part with no surroundings, and they were all added later in an early production to make use of computerized effects.

In a nutshell, the plot has programs running around in a digital world de-rezzing when killed, and vying for power despite the autocratic control of a master control program. All the lesser programs are played by the same actors that create the programs in the “real” world, and at times the programs sit around musing about the possibility of a creator, known as a User. Do User-Creators exist or not? Jeff Bridges is somehow scanned and deposited into the computer world, and as a User begins to find he has the ability to manipulate it. The idea of a creation meeting its God isn’t played out to great effect, though there’s a good scene where a program assumes Bridges has been doing everything according to a greater plan, and the Bridges character just laughs. I was a little surprised by this. I expected an entertaining film I vaguely remembered from my childhood, not a film that manages to imply life is an impressive-looking accident and you’re a bit naive to believe anything else.

All the anthropomorphism in the film leaves me with mixed feelings, and it’s also something Disney tends to do a lot (yes, this is a Disney film). It’s thanks to this kind of thing we can feel more empathy for a program, but also thanks to this we don’t even begin to see it for what it actually is.  A donkey with a Texas accent might be lovable, but it certainly isn’t a donkey. And the language the programs use only goes part-way to producing the feeling they actually live in a different world. In fact, I think it’s fair to say the script needed a little work, overall. The central program / villain speaks like a parody of a gangster (“Somebody pushes me, I push back!”) and David Warner as the henchman serving the program is possibly the best actor in the film, but he’s reduced to lines like “Get them,” a lot of the time. Still, this is nit-picking, and was undoubtedly easy to overlook when the filmmakers were juggling so much, and paving new ground at the same time. Tron might be a little clunky in parts, and the effects certainly don’t compare to what can be done decades later, but that’s all fairly standard for science-fiction. It’s impressive because it breaks new ground visually and creatively, and new storytelling ground as a film about the marriage of organic life and technology. One of the filmmakers has commented that the film should remind the viewer of something they’ve never seen before, and I think that works for me. The creations that both break new ground and enter the popular consciousness have one foot in this world and one in a more innovative one, as a way to allow viewer to relate and connect but also lead them somewhere new. Tron follows film conventions a little too closely to feel shockingly new, but it does have a lot of originality on display.

The Upturned Glass (1947)

April 4, 2010 § Leave a comment

Along with actors like Cary Grant, James Mason must among the few British actors that can so effortlessly convey sophistication and intelligence. It’s an interesting premise, then, when the viewer follows such a character very closely as he carefully plots a murder — after all, nothing could lure the viewer into believing he’s justified more than the kind of charm he manages — before the final reels of the film suggest the possibility that he might be completely mad.

Mason plays a neurosurgeon named Michael Joyce who falls in love with a patient, but when she apparently falls to her death, he begins to suspect it’s the work of a relative of hers, and starts to quietly investigate the matter. In a clunky, improbable and unnecessary structure for the narrative, he lectures a class on the criminal mind, and begins to tell his story (at least up to a certain point), providing such a remarkable level of detail that it should be plainly obvious he’s talking about himself. And since he doesn’t eventually take questions from the class, the scene doesn’t even serve the purpose of illustrating that he’s questioning himself. Clearly he doesn’t, and clearly the viewer isn’t meant to question him much either. The film even makes the relative he plans to murder into a pushy (pardon the pun) self-centered person, a long-standing technique in drama that’s designed to soften our judgement of Joyce.

The lecture is the only clunky part of the narrative. Once he’s finished, and heads out to try and pull off the murder, the film really takes off. His elaborate plan has involved dating the woman he firmly believes shoved her out the window, and tossing her out the same window. But far from some kind of neat execution, the actual act is a cringe-inducing scene that reminds the viewer it’s a messy and unpleasant business he’s confidently strolled into. Additionally, her hysterical accusation that he’s completely mad is where his neat world and confidence begin to unravel, even if he doesn’t recognize it yet. After this, there’s a final set of scenes with another doctor who arrives quite literally (and symbolically, in a great scene) out of the fog, waving at Joyce in need of a ride. This other doctor is remarkably cynical (It’s “all one to him” whether people recover or not) but he gives Joyce the push towards a more objective viewpoint, and that’s all Joyce needs in order to see the hideousness of his actions. There’s one short speech given by the other doctor (who has spotted the body hidden in the backseat, and has a good idea what happened) that makes his diagnosis of Joyce clear:

“Not you, I’m not speaking of obsessionals. I’m speaking of the normal, the perfectly sane. Let me put it this way. The vessell which we normal people use for imbibing experience is a stout austerity model which doesn’t crack. With others, like yourself, the glass, though of superior design, cracks quite easily.  Now, instead of of leaving it upturned on a shelf, a danger to all, it should be thrown away.”

Of course, the statement is loaded with generalizations. Who is he to declare himself normal, when he’s so dispassionate about his patients recovering or dying? Joyce, however, recognizes he likely killed a murderer, but acted without solid proof, or any kind of confession. It’s a film that’s interesting both for the plot twists and the psychology of the characters, as well as managing to ultimately leave some questions open-ended. Those viewers that have run out of Hitchcock can turn to The Upturned Glass for a film inspired by his work, but worthy enough to stand on its own.

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