Saturday, April 21, 2012

Favorite Films: "Contact"

Robert Zemeckis is a fascinating filmmaker, a director who pushes the technical boundaries of filmmaking in unusual ways, melding innovation with storytelling in ways that often end up cold, distant and frustratingly unfulfilling.  When his films work, they work spectacularly well -- just look at Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit or Cast Away, all movies that used visual effects so seamlessly and dazzlingly that the effects were as much a part of the story as the actors.

Then there are the failures, and I have often found myself apologizing for feeling the Best Picture-winning Forrest Gump belongs in the same category of Zemeckis films as Death Becomes Her, Beowulf or The Polar Express, though mostly because of its odd insistence that a dim-witted idiot savant should be hailed as some sort of hero for life acting upon him, hardly the kind of character we usually see or respond to in movies.  Zemeckis has most recently been focused on motion-capture animation, taking real actors and creating animated characters on top of them.  These films are emotionally lifeless and visually disturbing.

Not so with Contact.  For a movie as grandly conceived and massive in scale -- encompassing the entire universe -- it is surprisingly personal, a sincere and deeply felt effort to examine the surprisingly un-cinematic concepts of Carl Sagan, who wrote the underlying story and novel on which the movie is based.  For a story about space exploration, it is rather steadfastly earthbound, except for two remarkable scenes.

The first is the film's opening, inspired by the short film The Powers of Ten, which underscores one of the central themes of Contact, and the great contradiction of humanity: We are insignificant, yet our minds and souls are infinite.

This is not an easy thing to show on film, and Contact increases the difficulty level by embracing the endless division between science and religion by presenting the argument of faith from both sides.  Religion, any religion, is built on the faith of many people believing something they could not possibly prove.  Science, all science, is built on direct evidence, yet there are many things science cannot explain -- scientists rationalize this by saying that the answers simply haven't been discovered yet, but will.  They hold that faith.

Contact shows us a woman who has no religion, a scientist named Ellie Arroway, and brings her into the orbit of a deeply religious man named Palmer Joss.  Ellie's job is seemingly fruitless; she is a scientist who "listens" to the stars with massive telescopes, searching for any sign that there is other life in the universe.  Not only does she find it, but she also finds a message -- one that is tantalizingly tied to that opening shot.  The apparent contents of the message are at first alarming, then confounding.  Cleverly, they are decoded and revealed to be thousands of pages of blueprints for a machine whose purpose is unclear.  Mankind joins together to build it.

It's an act of faith on a massive level, masked by science, wrapped in an ugly coat of politics, and Contact both cleverly and persuasively approaches it all head-on.  Zemeckis uses digital trickery to blend real-life footage of then-President Clinton with his actors, often showing them on TV the way the public would consume the story as news.  If the way it's presented feels a little too pat and partisan at times -- well, as we've come to see 15 years later, that's indeed the way it would be packaged.

After a spectacular (and horrifyingly convincing) event destroys "The Machine," Ellie learns that there is, in fact, another -- and gets the opportunity to find out exactly what it does.

This is when Contact, already a gripping and compelling science-thriller, transcends ordinary science-fiction and pulls its themes together.  Ellie indeed seems to travel across the cosmos in spectacular fashion, appears to see things no human has ever seen, and even meets the extraterrestrials themselves, who take on a more familiar appearance in an effort not to thoroughly overwhelm her.  Looking out on what she sees, a stunned Ellie cries, "They should have sent a poet."

Her wide-eyed disbelief is disarmingly embodied by Jodie Foster, whose sharp, angular edges belie her soft soul.  Ellie is much like Foster's Clarice Starling, a woman determined to prove she is right, but deeply concerned that doing so may hurt others, or herself.

Palmer Joss is her opposite, and as played by Matthew McConnaughey would appear to be the movie's central liability: He seems too lightweight and jocular to be taken seriously as a religious leader and adviser to the president.  Yet, isn't that exactly what we've come to want from preachers, for them to be telegenic and non-threatening?  Look a little deeper and Palmer Joss is a man who does not dare show that he may have his own doubts about faith, tainted as he has become by politics.

All of this leads to a conclusion that is thought-provoking and emotional: To the naked eye, the hyper-expensive Machine seems to have done absolutely nothing.  To Ellie, it took her beyond the infinite.  She uses theoretical physics to explain this, the concept of an "Einstein-Rosen Bridge," a wormhole that opened up and led somewhere inexplicable, then returned her to Earth in what appeared to be a fraction of a second later.

Agnostic Ellie finds she has to plead for others to believe that she has experienced something real.  There is simply no way to explain this, she says through tears and a quavering voice.

That, of course, is what religious faithful have said for millenia: You get it, or you don't.  Contact suggests, directly and memorably, that science and religion are actually not as far apart as they might appear, that faith is faith, that a journey through the stars and a journey of the soul are equally momentous.  Zemeckis uses his digital prowess and experimentation to its best possible effect, along with fine performances from his actors.

We often wonder, at a grand, cosmic level, whether we are alone.  We hope we are are not, and cannot imagine we are.  Yet, there is no evidence to suggest otherwise.

It's the same thing philosophers have long wondered about ourselves.  Just as we are surrounded by billions of stars, we are surrounded by teeming humanity -- so, how is it possible we spend so much time feeling so alone?

Contact is among a very few films, along with 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, that can make you look differently at the stars.  Impressively, singularly, it can also make you look differently at yourself.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Catching Up: "Dolphin Tale"

 2.5 / 5 

Take a look at that poster and tell me what happens in Dolphin Tale.  You could do it without seeing a frame of the movie.  But some films, you just don't fight.

Dolphin Tale is one of those movies.  There's absolutely nothing particularly noteworthy or even especially good about Dolphin Tale, but it's a charmer nonetheless, the cinematic equivalent of a cute little puppy just sitting there waiting to be loved.  Or, at least, liked a whole lot.

The problems in the movie aren't all that worth mentioning; most of them are what you would expect from a movie made for undiscerning children.  There's a young child actress who mugs insanely for the camera, as if her parents are standing just beyond the edge of the screen shouting, "A casting agent might be watching!"  There are not one but two grizzled, veteran actors who are too good for this stuff, but who are doing it anyway, possibly not just for the paycheck but because they think this is the kind of movie that they can take their grandkids to see.  They're right.

There's also a wonderfully adorable dolphin who gets caught in a crab trap and loses his tail.  "No dolphin has ever survived without its tail," the widower oceanographer (Harry Connick Jr.) says ominously, while the young boy (Nathan Gamble) who found the dolphin looks on, accompanied by his pretty, widowed mother (Ashley Judd).  That the oceanographer and the mother don't fall madly but chastely in love is a bit of a surprise.

The movie takes place in Florida, and it perfectly captures the laid-back, amiable atmosphere of a coastal town that could hardly be more low-key.  Sawyer, the young boy at the center of the story, desperately needs to find something to do, and he's lucky to live in the kind of place where exploring is still encouraged, particularly by old-salt sea captains like the one played here by Kris Kristofferson.

He finds the titular dolphin dying on a beach, and becomes intrigued by the rescue effort.  The dolphin and the boy bond, and while it's easy to show movie audiences how a dog or a horse and a boy might bond, a dolphin presents some particular challenges that the filmmakers meet quite nicely.  But the dolphin will need a new tail, and Sawyer is struck by inspiration when he goes to visit his Iraq War-veteran cousin, who has lost the use of his legs in combat.

That's where Morgan Freeman comes into play, with his sonorous voice and his uncanny ability to make even the most underwritten character feel at least moderately real.  He brings such unexpected conviction to the throwaway role that you can't help but smile when he finds that he, too, has come to love this plucky little dolphin.

It's all serviceably directed by Charles Martin Smith, who starred in one of the most memorable of all wildlife films, the 1983 Disney movie Never Cry Wolf.  Dolphin Tale is a long, long way from Never Cry Wolf for many reasons, not the least of which is that, sadly and puzzlingly, most of its underwater characters aren't real.

In a bone-headed move, the filmmakers decided that modern young viewers would rather see dolphins, sea turtles, stingrays and fish rendered in computer animation.  The opening shots of Dolphin Tale are cringe-inducing because instead of offering up the real wonders of the ocean, they're animated.  So, too, are shots of the residents of the aquarium at the heart of the film, and the fake characters sap authenticity from the film at key moments.  It's hard to share (much less believe) the look of wonder on the faces of characters when you know that they're looking at green screens with fake fish added in later.

Dolphin Tale should have celebrated the beauty of the oceans, not the abilities of CG animators.  But the story at its heart is nonetheless hard to resist.  If you need a pleasant time-filler, or want to keep kids and yourself occupied on a rainy day, it's a good choice.

Viewed April 9, 2012 -- Blu-ray

Friday, April 13, 2012

"The Cabin in the Woods"

 2.5 / 5 

The Cabin in the Woods is a master's thesis in Fanboy Filmmaking, a movie that slyly blends and bends genres with flair and ease, but that is so self-satisfied it's surprisingly hard for outsiders to like.  You'll most enjoy The Cabin in the Woods if you are familiar with the work of Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard.

Whedon created fanboy-favorite TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, which were like pop-culture secret societies -- if you didn't follow along from the beginning, you weren't invited to join the fun.  Goddard was a key writer on Lost, an insider show if ever there was one, and wrote Cloverfield, a movie I liked a lot even though I didn't understand the intricately designed backstory created on the Internet almost as a secret handshake that you sensed the movie's creators would have liked to have made a requirement for buying a ticket.

The Cabin in the Woods is simultaneously more and less accessible than any of those TV shows and movies.  It's enjoyable enough for hip, smart mass audiences, but will be most appreciated by people who understand the many in-jokes and sardonic winks the movie throws at its audience.

That The Cabin in the Woods isn't just about said cabin is made clear with the first shot, which isn't of the college students who are about to venture into the woods to find the rustic abode, but of actors Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford as workers in some vaguely sinister looking, high-tech lab.

This part is hinted at in the film's trailer -- the cabin is much more than it seems, and the kids are going to discover this at some point.  Whedon and Goddard are up front about this much: The Cabin in the Woods isn't a horror film, it's a comedy, and its humor relies on us knowing what's about to happen to the most archetypal group of characters to assemble since Oceanic 815 crashed in the South Pacific.

That director Goddard was so intergral to many of the best episodes of Lost is something I didn't realize until after I saw The Cabin in the Woods, but it makes sense now, because the central mystery to be solved in the movie -- why exactly these kids are here to be slaughtered -- is more than a little similar to where Lost was headed before veering so disastrously off course.

Yet, that pop-culture in-breeding is also what unexpectedly softens the blow of The Cabin in the Woods.  It's all a little too manufactured to appeal specifically to the tastes of people who spent a lot of time watching similar stories play out over the course of hundreds of hours on TV.  In many ways, The Cabin in the Woods is too smart for its own good; it can't stop laughing at its own jokes long enough to offer something really new.

Oh, it's a good deal of fun while it all plays out, all right.  Yet in its final revelations, The Cabin in the Woods is just too bloody familiar.  It takes the worst of '80s slasher films and mixes in the best of the science-and-literature-based pop culture touchstones of the '00s, but that's about the extent of its innovation.  Grafting one kind of story onto another is clever and so well done that it elicits generous laughs from knowing audiences.  But that's the thing: Enjoyment of a film shouldn't be predicated on being in the know.

The Cabin in the Woods stands on the shoulders of some great entertainment that is revered among people (me among them) for whom Comic-Con is one of the cultural highlights of the year.  For them (or, if you prefer, us), it's entertaining, daffy fun.

The big trouble is, it can't really stand on its own.

Viewed April 13, 2012 -- Arclight Sherman Oaks