“Space Station 76” Review

The awkward indie comedy scene need not be relegated to the hipster landscape. ‘Space Station 76’ defies that sub-genre by injecting a similar writing tone into the setting of an isolated space satellite, ala ‘Space: 1999’. Rather than filling this retro vision of the future with stock characters constantly flipping switches and speaking technobabble, this is a collective of bitter and tired people bred from the sterile and lonely environment they occupy. It’s that harsh light of insecure reality shining down an otherwise whimsical location which gives the film its very weird and watchable charm.

Introduced into the hive of silent turmoil is the new co-pilot Jessica (Liv Tyler), a genuinely sweet personality that does her best to make friends on the station. She tries to maintain the station’s safety, but the drunken Captain Glenn (Patrick Wilson) dismisses her words as he struggles to deal with his closet homosexuality. She does seek some kinship with residents Ken and his daughter Sunshine, but is viciously despised by Ken’s drugged up wife Misty. While the trio of good-natured individuals struggle to keep a stiff upper lift, the adulterers of the station battle their own personal demons through drinks, smokes and robot-operated psychiatry. They hate their jobs, their relationships and the lives they find themselves saddled with out in space.

This is the type of film that sort of catches you off guard luring you in for what may seem like a campy satire of  ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ that ends up being a rather peculiar dramedy. You can feel seething hatred and jealousy emitting from this group within the hospital-style interiors.  Even within the characters that seem more pure like Ted, there is an almost haunting presence of temptation. He looks out into space and fantasizes about a naked woman within a star. Sunshine discovers a pornographic magazine in her parent’s dresser and begins to have doubts about her body. These scenes may make the film seem like a depressing journey, but I found it more intriguing for the fact that in a wondrous future people still have the same social problems. A space station free of alien monsters and looming intergalactic threats breeds its own difficulties. It doesn’t help that the robot they all rely on for psychiatric help is only programmed to respond to certain key words and doesn’t actually help them.

With so much vitriol, it doesn’t seem like the best idea for a comedy. In fact, it’s almost hatable for the first act. There are some redeeming factors that prevents it from being completely soulless as with Sunshine’s anti-gravity game in which her dad cheers her on as she float around the room. And the inevitable climax which could’ve easily taken a disastrous turn winds up being a more touching ending that brings the characters back to what’s really important. This is a very strange type of genre blending that I can’t exactly say I loved, but didn’t really despise all that much either. I got a few laughs even though it was mostly that awkward kind of amusement that comes from dark improv. I had some fun following these flawed characters even though most of their issues seem to pile up too quickly. The real deal breaker for me were the special effects and set design of a space station that embodies the 1970’s era. Popped collars, brown wallpaper and Beta tapes litter the halls of a very familiar looking design for a livable space environment. It’s those moments that give the film its true edge of speculating a future with more advancements in everything except people.

“Night Moves” (2014) Review

In the quiet drama of ‘Night Moves’, Jesse Eisenberg plays an extreme environmentalist who teams up with two like-minded individuals who conspire to destroy a hydroelectric dam. His two companions are Peter Sarsgaard as the veteran hippy of the group and Dakota Fanning as the feisty, but dedicated player somewhat new to this operation. They secretly acquire all the tools they need and silently carry out their sabotage. While they are successful at destroying the dam, the resulting damage manages to kill one singular camper near the area. All of the players break contact with each other and try to keep their mouths shut, but the murder lingers on the minds of Eisenberg and Fanning. Couple that with the crippling realization of how much of a difference they may actually be making with their actions.

These are very rich and deep characters so well-defined that we see can clearly read the mental fury pulsating through the three leads. They’re not just passionate college kids either. They are hardcore environmentalists that live on communes off the grid. These three are so committed and dedicated to the cause of crippling human sources of pollution that they’ve close their minds off from questioning any of their motifs. Perhaps they’ve gone so far down the rabbit hole they’re afraid to look back at any point. The film eventually hits on that moment of hesitation that brings things into darker realm, but it doesn’t play out as a Mexican stand-off or everybody getting caught. Instead, the film leaves us with an uneasy feeling lodged in the heart of Eisenberg’s character about how easy it is to lose sight in passion.

‘Night Moves’ is directed by Kelly Reichardt with a somber and eerie tone. Most of the film follows around Eisenberg silently as his mind does mental somersaults coming to grips with his fears. It’s the fear of paranoia, the fear of trust and the fear of humanity. He delivers a fantastic performance as does Fanny and Sarsgaard as focused group of terrorists. The film is also incredibly well shot as in an unforgettable moment when the trio is nearly caught while working under the cover of night. We see the car lights coming from high up on a hill as if we’re looking up directly at them with the characters. We feel the same tension and unclear nature of their perspective. It echoes that of a Hitchcock film which draws intensity from the long-shot unknown.

It’s brilliantly shot with great locations, it’s dreamlike in its surreal nature and gives the actors plenty to do when there is hardly any dialogue on the page. This is a very well-done piece of filmmaking that gets inside your head and never lets you go. It’s a very worthy purchase.

“American Hustle” Review

Director David O. Russel takes a con job tale and transforms it into a fast and stylish ride. He doesn’t gussy it up with lots of guns, gangsters and explosions, but keeps the plot moving so quickly with so many characters working on multiple levels. When it logically makes sense to take a dramatic approach, it goes for it. When there is a perfect moment for some comedy, Russel takes advantage of it. All of this feels organic and looks pretty darn sexy with the late-70’s backdrop.

Based on a true story, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) figures himself to be a mastermind con artist. He swindles many with various operations and his female partner Sydney (Amy Adams). They keep getting better and eventually fool around, despite Irving’s bitter wife (Jennifer Lawrence) and innocent son at home. Their scam operations are soon foiled by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), but he’s willing to let them off the hook if they work undercover to scam and blow the lid off a corrupt congressman. Irving ends up using all of his smarts to pull off a successful scam when the odds keep raising with so many changing variables involving the FBI, the mob and even his wife.

‘American Hustle’ has an organic flow, but still moves at a breakneck pace. It knows exactly when to be emotional, when to be hysterical and when to be sexy without wasting a beat. There are so many levels at play in this script for all these characters to shine and there is an undeniable charm in how they set out to achieve their own goals. Every character feels real and smart, including Jennifer Lawrence’s character. At first she just appears as an obnoxious wife who smokes too much and blows up the microwave, but she’s smart enough to keep a grip on her husband until she finally discovers what truly makes her happy in life. Needless to say, the performances from this all-star cast is a joy to witness. Christian Bale proves that he can fill just about any role as he embodies Irving with a potbelly and comb over.

At over 2 hours, ‘American Hustle’ felt like it went by too quickly given the quickness of the script and direction. We get to spend a lot of time with these characters and witness only the important and juicy scenes of this operation. Everything is kept extremely tight with hardly a single scene that doesn’t garner a laugh, a cringe or leave you salivating for more. At times the movie moves so fast that if you blink you’ll miss the ending. This may be a deterrent for some, but I just couldn’t get enough of how director David O. Russel was able to keep things moving with a smart and sexy vibe. It’s most certainly a film I’m going to want to come back to if not for the layered performances than for the amount of details that zooms past the screen.

“Saving Mr. Banks” Review

If you’re familiar with the life of Walt Disney, you know there was a little more than fairy dust and magic that went into his works. There’s a tale to be told of just about every film he’s credited on with some charming and some scandalous. ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ is a little of both in how the cocky dreamer attempts to acquire the rights for adapting ‘Mary Poppins’ into a feature film.

His biggest hurdle is the original author, P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson). She completely loathes the Disney machine and can’t stand the thought of her novel being slapped up on the big screen by a cartoonist. It’s especially insulting given how personal the story and character are to her, relating to her rocky childhood in Australia. As we’re slowly given bits and pieces about Travers’ youth and the relationship with her father, the author finally decides to sell her novel to avoid poverty, but only under her conditions. A jaded Traver’ pops on over to Los Angeles where she supervises the writing process with meticulous and absurd demands. She even comments on the way the script should appear as she doesn’t understand or much care for the script writing format. The majority of the movie is a battle of personal goals as Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) and his team attempt to woo Travers into reaching a compromise.

The film jumps back and forth between Travers’ youth and her fight with Disney. Sometimes the two stories match up with the tone and other times it feels like an opportunity was missed for transitions. The story of young Travers’ eccentric father (Collin Farrell) and his downward spiral is certainly a tragic tale, but it feels very melodramatic in several aspects. To tell the truth, I was much more moved by the relationship adult Travers forms with her limo driver (Paul Giamatti). He first appears as an over-eager Disney servant, but ends up being the most sympathetic and interesting character that Travers comes into contact with. That’s not to say that Tom Hanks doesn’t do an exceptional job as the legendary Walt Disney. I honestly couldn’t imagine anyone else in that role and the playful bickering he has with Travers is priceless. Credit should also be given to the ‘Poppins’ creative team (Bradley Whitford, B.J. Novak, Jason Scwartzman) who put up with most of her crazy suggestions including the removal of the color red entirely from the film.

Ultimately, the performances were the main draw of ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ more than anything. Considering the film was actually a Walt Disney production, it does embellish the story in how Travers eventually comes to accept the screen version of ‘Mary Poppins’ (despite going against many of her initial wishes). The drama of both Travers’ father and her acceptance of what her novel really means feels a tad bit overdone the way it was written. Thankfully, the performances by every single cast member is pitch-perfect. I especially couldn’t keep my eyes off Thompson and Hanks whenever they’re clashing on screen. The most memorable moment is when a stone-faced Travers is lured into Disney Land with a vibrantly grinning Walt. She isn’t impressed or swayed by his words, but Walt is still happy as he was at least able to win a bet by getting her on the carousel. The constant back and forth between them make this otherwise exaggerated script much more appealing and entertaining than it should be.

“About Time” Review

Time travel isn’t a science fiction element exclusive to the genre that birthed it. If I’ve learned anything from the Back to the Future trilogy, it’s that the ability to manipulate the past and future can spawn many different stories. About Time does just that: it takes a character with the ability to change the past and has him use his powers to find the perfect woman romantic comedy style.

Right off the bat, I had serious doubts about this story. I’ve been burned before with this concept as with the incredibly boring The Time Traveler’s Wife and the predictably routine Click. Luckily, this was a movie in the hands of Richard Curtis (Love Actually). And while Curtis doesn’t really think through the whole time travel angle, he does know how to craft an enjoyable rom-com.

When Nick has finally come of age to move out of his parents lush home, his dad reveals that the men of the family have the amazing ability to turn back time by simply thinking about a point in time. He tests this out by going into the closet, thinking about the New Years party he was at last night and ends up back at that very point in time. Every element recurs unless of course Nick desires to change it. This allows him to craft the perfect life where just about every mistake he makes with the girl he desires most can be averted. Every line can be a gem, every kiss can be the best and every move will be perfect. But there’s always a catch when it comes to messing with time and Nick soon learns the consequences and how he can’t exactly save everyone.

Though the film’s main goal is to present a charming romantic comedy involving time travel, it also has a lot to do with the relationship between Nick and his father. The two of them, sharing the same ability, chat a lot about what good can come of this power and how best to use it. You really get a sense of more or less the reality of these powers as Nick’s father covers what he’s spent most of his life achieving and regretting with changing time. You can use this power to read every book in the world twice or become a famous actor several times over, but none of it beats a date with your favorite girl or a game of ping pong with your dad.

As a warning, don’t go in expecting a satisfying portrayal of time travel. The whole concept of time travel itself doesn’t make much sense in cinema to begin with, but the inconsistencies are a little more visible here. The rules of Nick and has dad’s abilities are played very loose as you can apparently take others with you as you travel to the past. The implied paradoxes of adding another character for the journey not to mention that Nick at one point uses his power to travel back to his childhood would make one’s head explode. Take a cue from the Austin Powers films and don’t overanalyze it too much.

If you’re willing to go along with suspension of disbelief, About Time is a very pleasing romance romp with a unique concept. There are plenty of likable characters, genuine comedy and real emotion to fuel the entire redoing a timeline concept. As someone who wasn’t fond of the concept or romantic comedies in general, I was very surprised at how entertained I was by the whole scenario. For being Richard Curtis’ final film, he certainly turns in an astonishingly heartwarming story that touches so many bases about life, love and family. It’s not exactly a masterpiece of the genre, but the movie is irresistible enough to bring a smile to even the most jaded audience.