Friday, May 29, 2009

REVIEW: Silent Light

There are moments…many, many moments in fact…in Carlos Reygadas’ latest film that are so deeply moving, so utterly profound in their concept and execution, that I quite often sat in my seat, feeling my brain reaching towards the screen, desperately trying to grapple with what I was witnessing, all the while floating peacefully through the imagery.

This is an odd experience, I must say.

The film is an odd experience, though, so it worked out pretty well. Exploring the affair one man, Johan, has from a religious standpoint—instead of “I am more attracted to this woman than my wife,” it’s “God meant for me to be with this woman; being with my wife was a mistake”—is an interesting starting point, and even besides the film’s obvious capacity for visual revolution (I watch a lot of films, but there are shots in this film that I have never seen before), the film is still quite extraordinary. The plot may be spare, but the characters—despite appearances—are not, and the film’s…let’s be generous and call it an “even pace” (which is to say many will find it “slow”) felt totally earned, as it allows us a way into a community based largely on peace and reflection (the family prayer, which begins with the traditional “let us pray” and “amen,” is filled with silence until the father closes it), and to allow the weight of Johan’s decision and the impossibility of ever again finding that peace he so desperately needs (Cornelio Wall gives a fantastic performance that, for most of the film, is a new landmark in subtlety).

The film’s ability to be anything it needs to be at any moment—a pleasant family memory, a visceral confrontation with oneself, a spare reflection on finding peace—is achieved primarily in Reygadas’ form, which is constantly, overwhelming beautiful, always to an end. Whether it be the elliptical editing that accompanies the family bathing, the use of the sun as a light source to show us Johan and his lover’s affection for each other, the empty, unblemished solidarity of a funeral (white rooms haven’t been as captivating since 2001), or the aggressive presence of a ticking clock, the formal choices always inform what we take from it.

Would that Reygadas’ writing was up to the task his direction is (I should also note that the performances are uniformly astounding, and Reygadas made some of the best use of child actors, often allowing his form to work around the children while still maintaining the aura of total authorship). The story is quite lovely and thought provoking, but a few scenes don’t quite work on their own. The problem is that Reygadas’ dialogue is often overwrought without being particularly poetic. It’s as though his characters are trying to express deep thoughts about the nature of man and the union of marriage, but do not have the capacity to. If this were a creative choice Reygadas made, to illustrate the failure of man’s expression, I suppose it’s an interesting one, but it would still not be particularly successful.

Reading that over, it’s astounding how large a difference that should make, but how little it truly affects the impact of the film, one I’m wrestling with days later. I still have no idea what to make of the end of the narrative, but I’m more than a little okay with that. Godard once said that any great film is so because of some sort of misunderstanding; something elusive that cannot quite be grasped. Silent Light is absolutely that, and wonderfully so. I haven’t been so illuminated, so connected to the world around me, by a film all year as I was with Silent Light.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

REVIEW: Star Trek

Before anything else…yes, I like summer blockbusters. Sometimes, I like them dumb. A quick sampling of films that J.J. Abrams’ latest calls to mind shows I love Bad Boys II, Armageddon, Mission: Impossible III, all three Pirates movies (yes…ALL of them), everything James Cameron has ever done, The Dark Knight, Iron Man, Spider-Man 2, Crank and Crank 2. Speed Racer was my third favorite film of last year. I love action movies, deeply and passionately, and I have no problems with the motivations behind big studios to make fundamentally vapid, but entertaining films. I have no problem with the Star Trek franchise. I believe a good film can be made from any premise.

But Star Trek is not a good film, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Let’s start with a question of form. Films ARE visual mediums after all, or so people say, so the decisions J.J. Abrams makes, visually, as a director should work toward defining the movie. What bothers me most about Abrams’ form isn’t that he has no idea how to frame a shot, or execute a camera movement. Or that he seems to NEED the camera to move, all the time, in every scene, no matter what. No, what I mainly remember of Abrams’ vision for the film is…really bright. And flashy. And glowy. And shiny. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find many shots in this film that don’t feature lights (either flashing or solid), lasers, or, when all else fails (and sometimes when all else showed up, ready for work) lens flares. I’m a guy who likes lens flares, but this got ridiculous, and unmanaged…most of their presence seemed accidental, and not in a way that lent a “verite” quality to the film, or any other quality.

Unless Abrams was trying to distract us from something…

Could it be the absolutely absurd story? It is probably the worst screenplay by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who may not be the worst writers working in motion pictures today, but are surely the most prolific of all bad writers. And this accomplishment, their worst work yet, is a stunning achievement considering these were the guys who wrote The Island, Mission: Impossible III (which, again, I do like quite a bit), and Transformers (why does their presence seem so much more invasive than that, though?). What they’ve crafted here barely qualifies as a story, featuring people who barely qualify as characters, doing things and winding up in situations almost exclusively because the screenplay requires it.

Mild spoilers…

How, for instance, do Kirk and Spock get sent to the same planet at different times, by different people, yet they kind of just run into each other? Then they find Scotty just a few miles away? Isn’t this planet bigger than my neighborhood? Why would Spock mind-meld with Kirk when he ends up just telling him everything anyway? Just what was Nero (Eric Bana) doing during the twenty-five years between killing Kirk, Sr. and doing battle with Kirk, Jr.? And isn’t it kind of a coincidence that it took Spock the same amount of time to go through the wormhole as it took Kirk to grow up?

(for those who didn’t do their studying, the answers to the first two questions are “the screenplay needed them to, and badly,” number three is “yes, but it’s a big dumb movie and that excuses it from even the slightest of consideration of probability,” number four is “because studios believe audiences are incapable on watching people talk for more than a few seconds, and will revolt,” number five is, “waiting for Kirk, Jr. to grow up so the first scene can have something to do with the last,” but we also would have accepted “because the character exists only to be fought, but not in any way that explores the concept of evil, just more in a convenient way,” and number six is the same answer as number three; hope you were paying attention)

No more mild spoilers…

If there is a standout bright light amongst the onslaught of the neonist empire, it’s the main cast—that is, Chris Pine as Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Spock, and Karl Urban as McCoy. I’m told the success of the Star Trek concept rests on the relationship between these three (I have the most tenuous relationship with the series…generally liked what I saw, but saw very little, and never more than once), and I wish that were true, because these three are great, and to Orci and Kurtzman’s credit, they do consistently write likeable characters (although, upon writing that, I realized how noting that as some sort of accomplishment speaks volumes to their inability to do almost anything else).

Granted, Pine and Urban have almost nothing else to do besides be insanely likeable, but for Pine, in the lead role, that counts as an accomplishment, and he deserves the movie star status that will absolutely be awarded him in the next few weeks. The guy earns it. Considering his character never once doubts himself or has any internal conflict, it’s staggering that Kirk comes across as compelling a character as he does, and it’s all to Pine’s credit (with some clever lines on Orci and Kurtzmans’ end).

Quinto has the best role here, since Orci and Kurtzman actually take the time to give him some weight, and explore the natural struggle between his human side and his Vulcan side that was always inherent to the character. And Quinto totally delivers in every single moment he gets, always giving a hint in his expression of his emotions coming through, but a firm desire to suppress them (up until a point, of course).

The rest of the cast more or less does their job. Anton Yelchin is a very likeable actor, even with awful material (I can’t believe I made it all the way through Charlie Bartlett), and it’s the same here. His character, Chekov, is treated like a joke, but Yelchin’s gives him some genuine enthusiasm. Simon Pegg falls along the same lines as Scotty, only he invests even his moments in between great lines with comedy. Zoe Saldana and John Cho do about as well as can be expected of “hot love interest” and “Asian guy,” respectively, and Cho really delivers on a few key lines. Eric Bana’s a bad guy, and his character is one of the most dull in a sea of mediocrity, but he does well enough.

Oh, and for what it’s worth, Orci and Kutzman, especially with Abrams, do absolutely stunning first scenes, and this is their best yet. It’s an absolutely stunning space battle that, theoretically, sets up the stakes for what’s to come, and even though at no point did the rest of the film live up to the promise of that first scene, you can’t take that away from me. It gets off to a little bit of a rocky start, but once it’s moving, it’s a truly great action set piece, where the stakes just get higher and higher, and it’s genuinely moving and emotionally involving. Too bad about the rest of the film, though.

And that’s the biggest problem—the stakes are never very high, or at least they never FEEL as high as they should. You never really feel the danger. You might not guess the action of the next scene, but it’s not really a surprise when you get there, either. It all just sort of flows out in front of you, along Abrams’ constantly-spinning camera. And, honestly, and this is as simple as it gets in the end—I wasn’t entertained, for many of the reasons I just mentioned. I did not have fun.

If I seem overly snarky about this, I’m sorry. I generally try not to do that, but when a film comes along that looks like it’s going to be a massive success both with critics (done and done) and audiences, I get all the angrier (anyone who knew me around the time of Juno can attest to this). Star Trek isn’t outright awful, it’s just really, really not good.