Sunday, January 17, 2016

Retro Trio: Sunshine (2007); The Big Lebowski (1998); Shall We Dance? (2004)

Sunshine (2007)

Director: Danny Boyle

Smart, intriguing sci-fi that goes a bit off the rails in the third act.

Sunshine is set in a future where our sun is slowly dying, leading to a gradual cooling of Earth and the impending, subsequent death of all living things on it. To prevent such a complete devastation, a crew of astronauts is piloting a ship, the Icarus II, towards the sun in order to deliver a nuclear payload to the star's center. This will trigger a rebirth of the sun's energy and allow life to continue on our planet. A similar mission had been sent a few years prior, on the original Icarus craft, but it failed with no word from the crew, who have been presumed dead.

Of course, the Icarus II's trip does not go as planned. Once they get close enough to the sun, they receive some form of message from the original Icarus. The crew make the risky decision to investigate. Technical problems start to emerge after the detour is taken, and lives are lost. Matters go from bad to worse when one of the original Icarus's crew members, Pinbacker, is discovered to be alive and completely insane. Pinbacker sneaks aboard the Icarus II and, convinced that humanity deserves to die, does everything he can to sabotage their mission to deliver the payload.

Sunshine boasts a great many strengths as a film. Written by Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Dredd, Ex Machina), the story is wonderfully smart science fiction. Beyond the mere adventure of the Icarus II's mission, there is plenty of character conflict and psychological probing. The crew must repeatedly make extremely difficult decisions, similar to what is seen in the predecessor film Alien, and also later space travel movies like Europa Report and Interstellar. Such films are all the stronger due to the stakes on every level.

The acting is also top-notch. There are many actors who either were already well-established, like Michelle Yeoh, or have since become so, such as Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Rose Byre, and others. Every one of them displays their characters' stengths and weaknesses phenomenally well, which is essential for such science fiction movies to ascend beyond a mere genre piece.

My only real issue with the movie comes from its third act. When the tension is at its absolute peak, the visuals and editing become extemely trippy and herky-jerky, which is a technique that director Danny Boyle has put to good use several times in his career. For Sunshine, however, I found it unnecessary and disorienting. Simply, I lost my sense of spatial orientation bewteen characters and actions. I realize that this might have been Boyle's intent, but this knowledge didn't make it any easier to watch.

This aesthetic gripe aside, I thought that Sunshine was a great piece of science fiction cinema. Along with other Alex Garland-written movies like Dredd and Ex Machina, I've found that rare, reliable sci-fi writer whom I plan to follow faithfully for at least the next several years.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen

Like many fans of this film, I could probably write a doctoral thesis on what I love about it. For the purposes of this blog, I'll keep it relatively short and sweet. I think this movie is an absolute classic, and I can't imagine it ever getting old.

The entire concept has "Coen Brothers" written all over it. What if we tell an LA noir crime story, a la Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, only instead of a weary but capable PI in the middle of it all, we thrust a burnt-out stoner into the role of protagonist? It's a great starting concept, though it was one which required a lot more spice to make a memorable movie. The Coen brothers were up to the challenge.

If you read a bare-bones, general plot synopsis of the tale, it would bear a striking similarity to film noir - an unsuspecting citizen is mistaken for a wealthy local by a shady and powerful figure. The young wife of this shady and powerful figure is soon after kidnapped, at which point, the protagonist is soon thrown into the machinations of various parties who are interested in the million-dollar ransom put up for her release. The path to resolution is a winding one, along which the protagonist meets many strange characters, each with his or her own motivations.

That blueprint could just as easily have been some lesser-known Hammett or Chandler novel. Instead of Sam Spade trying to navigate the troubled waters of the tale, though, we get "The Dude," a loveable but interminably lazy stoner whose sensibilities never escaped the hippie movement of the 1960s. The powerful figures he meets include the self-aggrandizing Jeoffrey Lebowski, porn producer Jackie Treehorn, and the son of Arthur Digby Sellers ("you ever hear of a little show called 'Branded,' Dude?!"), among many others. Each and every appearance is hilariously memorable, all done in a style that only the Coen brothers would even attempt to pull off.

One of the countless moments of hilarious banter between
oddballs in the movie. This one involves nihilists, marmots,
and the Dude possibly getting castrated. Where else
would you possibly find such a thing?
While the Coen brothers have made snappy, memorable dialogue a regular feature in their movies, none is as highly quotable as The Big Lebowski (Raising Arizona is a contender, but it falls short). Thanks to sharp and quirky comedic writing and brilliant comic acting on the parts of over a dozen actors, nearly every line humorously expresses something about the oddball character who delivers it. From "It really tied the room together," to "The bums will always lose," to "Nobody fucks with the Jesus," and endless others, fans of this movie can send themselves into a tantric frenzy when they get into a room and start firing off line after memorable line.

It is arguable that The Big Lebowski is not "great cinema," and that it is not the Coen Brothers' best movie. However, it is certainly their most beloved. Being such a strange fusion of their unusual, and ususually effective, comic sensibilties and their passion for classic noir cinema, this movie is such a singular work that its cult classic status is more than well-deserved.

Shall We Dance? (2004)

Director: Peter Chelsom

Certainly not my cup of tea, but it's easy to see the appeal for many.

Shall We Dance is the story of John Clark (Richard Gere), a family man in New York City who seems a bit discontent with his normal, though very enviable, life. On his normal bus ride home, he spies a beautiful young woman staring forelornly out of a window to a dance school. He eventually and reluctantly enrolls in dance classes there, albeit without telling his wife, Beverly (Susan Sarandon). He even gets a bit of instruction from the sad muse from the window, Paulina (Jennifer Lopez), an exceptional dancer and teacher.

The movie is almost pure fluff. There is very little that is dangerous or challenging. A few of the characters do experience a tribulation or two here and there, but none of them is so great that it can't be overcome with some laughter and a touch of attitude. The main comic relief comes from the characters Bobbie and Link (Lisa Anne Walter and Stanley Tucci), two oddballs with great passion for dancing. Along with the mere presence of these two, there is plenty of light humor sprinkled regularly through the film, in the form of slapstick on the dance floor or airy dialogue.

The movie accomplishes its goals, thanks mostly to its incredibly talented cast. Supporting members like the aforementioned Walter and Tucci, along with Bobby Cannavale, often sell some rather tepid gags through sheer force of acting talent. Also, having Richard Jenkins give a great deadpan performance in a small role is a welcome element. These things were just enough to hold my attention. They help buoy the primary husband/wife/hot dance instructor relationship drama that takes very few risks and I found only slightly interesting.

Shall We Dance is probably not a movie that I'll need to watch again. It was certainly a good enough movie for those in a rom-com kind of mood.