The Workshop #43 – Halloween in the 23rd Century

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Today’s spooky episode of The Workshop is absolutely jump scare free… or is it? Listen – if you dare – to a very special edition of Coffee Drank followed by a discussion of scary movies and Halloween.

Popcorn Not Included – First Man

First Man is probably a good movie that we really didn’t have a good time with.

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First Man

Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Screenplay by: Josh Singer
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Corey Stoll, Pablo Schreiber, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler
Music by: Justin Hurwitz
Cinematography: Linus Sandgren
Studio: Universal Pictures

Popcorn Not Included – The Meg

It’s been a while! Join us for a discussion of The Meg, bad shark movies, good shark movies, and what makes a good “fun” movie as opposed to a lame one.

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The Meg
Directed by: Jon Turteltaub
Screenplay by: Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber, Erich Hoeber
Starring: Jason Statham, Li Bingbing, Rainn Wilson, Ruby Rose, Winston Chao, and Cliff Curtis
Music by: Harry Gregson-Williams
Cinematography: Tom Stern
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures

Captain Phillips

Once a journalist, Paul Greengrass changed careers and entered the film industry. He became a director and proceeded to make a career of doing movies about about tragic events. His films Resurrected, The Fix, Bloody Sunday, United 93, and now Captain Phillips are all “based on a true story.” Most audience members probably only know Greengrass as the director of The Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatum.

Greengrass brings his experience as a director of those action thrillers to bear on the story of Richard Phillips and the crew of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama who are beset by Somali pirates. It’s quite a marvel that I was brought to the edge of my seat watching the story unfold. After all, those of us who remember the news stories from a few years back have already had this “spoiled” for us.

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Greengrass’ signature handheld “shakycam” style seems befitting for a movie set largely on the high seas. The direction is really superb and the action engaging. It all feels very authentic.

But the best thing about the movie is Tom Hanks as the titular Captain. At first I was really bothered by the odd New England accent he was affecting. It’s true-to-life but I’ve heard Hanks’ real voice so many times in other roles that it sounded put on. By the time the pirates were spotted on the horizon I had adjusted to it. When the emotional close of the film rolled around, I was completely sold on Hanks in the role.

As a movie, I really like Captain Phillips. It’s effective, well-paced, and Tom Hanks turns in one great performance as the lead. It portrays the whole event as being pretty unfortunate for all involved. It’s not waving a lot of American flags nor portraying the U.S. as some kind of bully.

The story is a sad one. Out of desperation and greed a couple young Somalis got themselves into the crosshairs of U.S. Navy SEALs where they stood no chance of survival. Although frightened for his life, Captain Phillips is also aware that the Somalis are doomed once the Navy shows up and practically begs them to let him go so they won’t get themselves killed.

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I really appreciated how the event was handled. Except for one thing…

Hey, remember how I mentioned that Paul Greengrass did the second and third Bourne movies? The great thing about them is they were entirely fictional. Unfortunately, to properly consider and discuss this movie, we have to look at how it compares to reality.

Apparently not very favorably.

According to the movie, Captain Phillips was a paragon of virtue. He’s overly cautious about the threat of piracy. He’s shown as a brave and sacrificial leader. In a word: a hero. On the other hand, you get the impression that his crew has a little trouble lining up under their Captain. They’re actually portrayed as a bit lazy in one scene.

The real-life crew tells a different story. The real Captain Phillips was allegedly reckless, arrogant, and a liar when recounting the events of the hijacking. There’s some pretty harsh criticism leveled at the man. If it’s true, that’s really disappointing.

Tom Hanks stars in Columbia Pictures' "Captain Phillips."

For me, that controversy does mar the film because it’s so concentrated on one man who may have been portrayed very, very inaccurately. Captain Phillips is a good movie for its filmmaking and acting, but when it comes to veracity I really have to question it. Then again, what do you expect from these “based on a true story” movies?

Gravity

This summer was a disappointing time for films. Thankfully award season has started. From now until the end of the year is our best chance for movies that hit that sweet spot of artistic integrity and entertainment value.

Most people seem to think Gravity is the epitome of that. Naturally, I disagree.

Let me start by saying I was reallyreallyreallyreally excited for this movie. I love space. I grew up reading books about NASA and the space program. I love space movies. I’m a real sucker for them. I’ll enjoy the space stuff even if there’s not a great movie surrounding it.

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I can say that Gravity is the best sci-fi of the year. It’s not inane and stupid like Oblivion and Star Trek Into Darkness. It’s not “just for fun” like Pacific Rim. And it isn’t preachy like Elysium.

So how is it, actually?

It’s very, very, very pretty. Look at that space! Space! Space!

The movie is an absolute marvel of visual effects and cinematography. The “camera” takes full advantage of the freedom provided by a zero-gravity environment. This leads to some lengthy free-flowing shots including the thirteen minute opening shot. Very impressive stuff.

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Also impressive is the sound design. I love it when there’s no sound in space, but so few movies respect this basic scientific fact. Gravity cleverly maintains scientific accuracy here. It’s only completely silent a few times. Elsewhere, the silence of space is covered by radio chatter, breathing noises, the muffled sounds of objects contacting the astronauts’ suits, and an effective score. Fair enough.

I willingly saw this movie in 3D.

That never happens.

I’ve been an avowed 3D hater for years now, but I read in all the reviews that it was worthwhile so I gave it a shot. I worried during the previews that I’d made a huge mistake. For example, the preview for The Hobbit gave me a headache. It was way over the top. And maybe it was because my eyes adjusted or maybe the effect was more subtle in Gravity but I was actually fine with it. I would be interested to see the movie again in good ol’ 2D just for comparison, but I don’t regret seeing the 3D version at all.

George Clooney and Sandra Bullock star as astronauts who become stranded in space. The acting is good as you would expect from these two though I wonder if it might have been less distracting to have had lesser-known actors filling the space suits.

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George Clooney is playing George Clooney. He’s charming and fun to watch. He’s also a hugely comforting presence in a very frightening situation. That both helps and harms the film. Bullock is the real star here. I’ve heard lots of people rave about her acting here and I find no fault in it, but it didn’t blow me away either. I never stopped seeing her as an actress in a movie.

I think the problem was the writing. In terms of dialogue – there’s not much of it, but there are things that really bothered me. Bullock’s Dr. Stone gets a bit of backstory that I didn’t connect with at all. It came off as a desperate attempt to get the audience to care about her. The film didn’t need that. I would feel sorry for my worst enemy if they were drifting alone in space. That is a completely terrifying thought.

The other distracting “problem” is the scientific accuracy. It’s really, really good in most places, but there are some egregious deviations from reality that, depending on how much you know about physics and space travel, may really pull you out of the movie.

Director Alfonzo Cuarón has freely admitted Gravity is not about being scientifically accurate. Some concessions needed to be made in order to tell the story. Okay, that’s fine. But there’s really not much of a story to tell. It’s a very basic survival story and that’s fine. But for me it isn’t a happy medium. I would have personally preferred either more science or more story.

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For whatever reason, the film never really pulled me in. It is gorgeous to look at but felt distant from it most of the time. There were only a couple times I felt frightened or concerned. It didn’t ask me to invest much and I didn’t get much out of it. It was a fun ride. But it was just a ride.

Nevertheless, Gravity is absolutely worth seeing and I’m glad it’s done as well as it has at the box office. But for me it simply isn’t the transcendent experience I was led to expect and that other people are apparently having. In terms of effects and cinematography it breaks new ground, but it falls short of inspiring my imagination like other science fiction of the past.