Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Manchester-By-the-Sea

Led by Casey Affleck, Manchester-By-The-Sea had the potential to be the latest installment in the gritty Boston movie kick that Hollywood has been on over the last decade or so. Between The Departed, Gone Baby Gone, Mystic River, The Town, and most movies with Mark Walhburg including the recently released Patriots Day and The Fighter, there’s certainly been enough movies about Boston. But Manchester-By-The-Sea isn’t some excuse to let Casey Afflect chew the scenery with his accent. Rather it argues that there are some tragedies you just can’t recover from.


The film begins with a flashback where we see Lee Chandler (Affleck) on his brother Joe’s (Kyle Chandler) boat, playing around with his nephew Patrick. Their affection for one another is clear. It resumes with Lee’s life as a janitor in Quincy, MA when a phone call lures him back to his hometown of Manchester. Joe has died of a degenerative heart condition and needs his brother to tend to his funeral arrangements and take custody of the now 16 year old Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee, however, is reluctant to relocate back home after having left as the result of great tragedy involving his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams). As Lee settles in back in Manchester he confronts his past and writer-director Kenneth Lonnegan reveals the horrifying tragedy through a series of cleverly structured flashbacks. 

            Casey Affleck offers a deeply internal performance as Lee. He has no loud screaming matches or stirring speeches. Rather he mumbles or sarcastically quips his way through life. He exists—shoveling snow, fixing the plumbing, changing lightbulbs—with a world-weary numbness. He occasionally erupts out of his torpor by punching random strangers in bars. He rejects any attempts at reconciliation or forgiveness, especially in an especially devastating encounter with Randi. Michelle Williams is fantastic as the other half of this tragic couple. She’s believable as someone who was once deeply in love with Lee and someone who has tried to undergo her own healing. Lucas Hedges is the unsung hero of Manchester-By-The-Sea, as Patrick. He’s a relatable and understandable teenager mourning the death of his father. He shifts between happiness and sorrow. He’s also recognizably a teenager. He mouths off to his hockey coach, plays in a believably mediocre high school band, and is desperately trying to get laid by one of his two lady friends. He’s also functionally parentless. Lee is making the decisions about Patrick’s future, but barely seems present. Patrick’s mother is a recovering drug addict and after an awkward reunion, her boyfriend insists that Patrick not contact her again.


            Besides the tragedy, Manchester-By-The-Sea is a very funny movie. It has a situational humor derived from the experiences of its characters and their everyday lives. There’s the dark humor of a family coping with the diagnosis of a terminal illness. There’s the way that Lee and Patrick banter back and forth as Lee insists on his way of doing things as Patrick calls him out for not considering his feelings. Lee sarcastically questions his nephew about whether he has actually managed to have sex with any woman and Lee responds, “I’m working on it.” After Lee attempts to pawn Patrick off on his brother’s best friend George,  George stumbles through an answer about trying to get rid of his own children. There’s also an even darker thread of humor. As paramedics try to load Randi into an ambulance the stretcher gets stuck. In a moment of unfathomable tragedy, when the universe should cut her a break, the paramedics can’t get her in. After going to the funeral home and learning that they can’t bury Joe until the spring and learning that he’ll have to be kept in a freezer until then, Lee and Patrick can’t remember where they park. There’s no escaping the mundane cruelties of the universe, even in light of great tragedy.

            Manchester By the Sea offers a few glimmers of hope, but they’re not much. Lee refuses to move back to Manchester, unable to overcome his grief. Yet, he secures Patrick’s future by convincing George to adopt him. Lee tells Patrick that he’s getting a new place to live in Boston, one with an extra room for a bed or futon. It’s the most that Lee is capable of—giving his nephew the chance to visit. He’s given Patrick a chance for his own life, more than he’ll allow for himself.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Rogue One

In many ways Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a better film than The Force Awakens. Director Gareth Edwards understands the importance of scale in visuals and storytelling. Yet the characters of Rogue One pale in comparison to those in The Force Awakens. J.J. Abrams had the Herculean task of recapturing the trust of the movie-going audience after the underwhelming prequel trilogy while incorporating a new set of characters alongside Han, Leia, Chewie, and the rest. What Abrams’ film lacked in cinematic scale, he made up for in turning Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo Ren into characters that we care about. Edwards’ Rogue One is replete with suicide bombings, kamikaze attacks in space, and assassinations (attempted or otherwise), but not memorable or fully realized characters.

The first half of Rogue One reeks of reshoots and tinkering, leading to underdeveloped characters and a plot that moves ploddingly from planet to planet. Jyn Erso, the film’s protagonist, dramatically shifts motivations every few scenes. Following an introduction that seems to exist to establish her daddy issues, Jyn transforms from hardened criminal to loving daughter to spiritual leader of the Rebellion. To see the shifting nature of Jyn’s character just look at the film’s trailers, specifically her interactions with Mon Mothma at the rebel base on Yavin 4. In the first trailer (below), she’s a back-talking badass. In the second, the scene is played more softly with the “This is a rebellion isn’t it? I rebel” line removed. The third one introduces Jyn’s father as the driving force behind everything (also below). Were Lucasfilm and Disney afraid of having an unlikeable protagonist, so they shoehorned in some family drama to make her more sympathetic? Jyn has no identity apart from her father. She spends the first half of Rogue One looking for him and the second trying to fulfill his wishes.



The rest of the cast is painted in broad strokes. Jyn’s rebel handler, Cassian Andor is a battle-hardened soldier. There’s Chirrut, the blind monk, whose character relies a little too much on the clich├ę of the exceptionally disabled. Chirrut’s friend Baze has a lived-in exasperation from years of dealing with all his fiend’s Force nonsesne. Bodhi, a defecting Imperial pilot, has some unknown trauma, gets tortured, and then flies everyone around. Director Krennic is a social climbing Imperial officer. Saw Gerrera, a rebel leader and Jyn’s surrogate father (there’s those daddy issues again), has dialogue that is nearly incomprehensible as Jyn’s shifting motivations. It’s telling that the movie dramatically improves once Gerrera dies. The most developed character might just be K2-SO, a reprogrammed Imperial droid. Damaged by his experiences working for the Empire, he’s distrustful and sarcastic, but sacrifices himself for his friends and the mission.

Edwards succeeds in making Rogue One the darkest and most morally ambiguous of all the Stars Wars movies. These are not the clean-cut rebels of Lucas’ original trilogy. Differing Rebel groups battle the Empire and amongst themselves over the ideology of insurgency. In his first scene of the film, Cassian kills an informant to protect himself and his mission. Shortly after, he shoots a Rebel insurgent in order to escape an Imperial ambush. Later, a rebel general orders him to assassinate a key Imperial officer. A rebel admiral orders one of his ships on a suicide mission to ram one disabled star destroyer into another. The higher-ups at Lucasfilm and Disney deserve credit allowing Edwards to embrace the dark side of war. In this age of franchise movie making—of which Star Wars is undoubtedly the biggest of them all—no one of consequence actually dies, cheapening the dramatic stakes. Reflecting this darker view of the Star Wars universe, Edwards creates an ending that maintains Rogue One’s narrative integrity.



Edwards also effectively captures the scale of Rogue One’s story and the visuals of the Star Wars universe. He eschews heroes’ journeys and the galactic saga of the Skywalkers by focusing on the foot soldiers and middle managers of the Rebellion and Empire. Krennic, the ambitious Imperial officer responsible for developing the Death Star, learns a harsh lesson about just how replaceable he truly is. The film’s band of rebels are a very small part of a much larger war. Edwards carries over this understanding of scale into his visuals as well. He frames a Star Destroyer in the foreground with the installation of the Death Star’s super-weapon in the background. The Death Star passes in front of a planet’s star. Rebel fighters crash into the front of a Star Destroyer exiting hyperspace.

The film’s climax on the planet Scarif is the best staged battle in all of the Star Wars films. Edwards splits the characters into three groups and cuts between the three levels of the battle: the theft of the plans inside the Imperial Archives, the ground forces outside, and the Rebel fleet engaged in a desperate fight above Scarif. Edwards establishes clear stakes for each piece, building to a tense and tragic conclusion. The film’s final moments pivot directly into A New Hope and feature the most badass Darth Vader we’ve seen since Empire Strikes Back. By the end of Rogue One, Edwards has brought the true cost of war into Star Wars.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Space Center Houston

            Houston, Texas is the home of the Johnson Space Center (JSC), the headquarters of NASA’s astronaut training. While much of the facility is off-limits to the public, Space Center Houston, the facility’s visitor center, offers the general public tours into the history and future of manned space flight.

The New Mission Control Center 

            In the early 1960s, NASA’s ambitious goals, like placing a man on the moon by the end of the decade, meant that they would need a new facility for training the growing astronaut corps. NASA administrator James Webb recognized that NASA’s other two centers, Langley and Goddard, were incapable of handling the increased workload. So he set out to find a suitable location for a newer and more streamlined facility. NASA created a list of essential requirements for the new site. These included water access (to transport rockets and other essential equipment), a moderate climate (no one wanted to deal with ice or snow), accessibility to higher education institutions (for research collaboration), and a suitable infrastructure to support the thousands of employees and new buildings that would be required. NASA whittled its list of sites down to nine. These locations included locations in Florida, Louisiana, Texas, and California. Initially, NASA settled on Tampa since the Air Force was considering closing MacDill Air Force Base. Using MacDill would allow NASA to use and adapt pre-existing facilities rather than construct new ones from scratch. When the Air Force decided to keep MacDill open, NASA turned to its second choice: Houston.

            Once construction began, Houston became the heart and soul of NASA. While space launches still occurred at Cape Canaveral, Houston housed all of NASA’s training and operational facilities. Astronauts settled in Houston with their families. Thousands of NASA employees and contractors flocked to the city. The area surrounding the Space Center became known locally as “Space City.” Importantly, Johnson Space Center housed Mission Control and the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory. From Mission Control in Houston, flight controllers monitored and conducted the Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shuttle missions. Today, they still oversee American operations on the International Space Station. The Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory contains a mammoth-sized pool that allows astronauts to simulate a zero-gravity environment and practice performing tasks in outer space. Currently, there are about 110 astronauts assigned to the JSC along with thousands of civilian NASA employees and independent contractors.

A Saturn V Rocket

            Space Center Houston, the visitor’s center, sits on the campus of the JSC. The highlight of Space Center Houston is the Tram Tour and Rocket Park. The Tram Tours leave every fifteen minutes to half hour. Led by a tour guide, the tram travels past a herd of cattle that remain at the JSC as an ode to the area’s history of cattle grazing. The first part of the tour takes visitors to Mission Control where they show off the new Mission Control Center that will be used for the upcoming Mars missions. The next part of the tour includes a visit to the Rocket Park that features a complete Saturn V rocket. Other highlights of the Space Center include Independence Park, a mock-up of the Space Shuttle Independence perched upon NASA’s shuttle carrier aircraft. Besides the Tram Tour, which runs from 60-90 minutes, there’s a more expensive Level 9 tour, which runs about five hours. It includes lunch in the NASA commissary, a trip to the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, a look at the spacecraft for the upcoming Mars missions, and a visit to the old Apollo Mission Control Center as well as a peak at current operations.

            Space Center Houston is a must-visit for anyone interested in NASA, space, and exploration.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Logan

            Since the release of Iron Man in 2008, super hero movies follow a prescribed formula. There’s a generic villain with an overly elaborate plan, extended fight scenes that drag on forever, some witty banter, and then our heroes fight some giant hole in the sky. By the end, the heroes win, the villain is defeated, no one of consequence dies, and the pieces are set in place for the next installment. Blessedly, Logan, the last film to involving Wolverine from the X-Men franchise, avoids all of these clich├ęs. There’s no big CGI-laden fight scene where everyone clearly stood in front of blue screens and did wavy hand motions at one another. There’s no tedious call-backs to other movies or cameos. Instead director James Mangold and Hugh Jackman offer up a modern Western in the guise of a superhero movie.

            In Logan, Wolverine isn’t trying to save the world; he just wants to make it through the day. The movie opens with Wolverine napping in his car, only to be awoken by a bunch of carjackers trying to steal the tires off his car. One of the gang members shoots him, but soon winds up slashed into pieces by Wolverine’s claws. Meanwhile, Patrick Stewart’s aging telepath Charles Xavier is losing control of his mind. His seizures paralyze anyone nearby. So he and Logan have hid out in the Mexican desert. In between caring for Charles, Logan runs his own private Uber, chauffeuring frat bros and sorority sisters around the Southwest. He’s saving up his money, so he can buy a boat. Then he and Charles can spend the rest of their days living out on the sea. When Logan comes home for the day, he has to deal with the angry, confused, and lonely Charles. It’s part tragedy and part old married couple bickering. You haven’t seen dark humor until you hear Patrick Stewart, with his classically trained diction, extol the virtues of a Taco Bell Chalupa.


            Visually, Logan is the most realistic and grounded of any of the X-Men movies. When Wolverine’s claws come out, they hurt him. His knuckles are bruised and bloody. As he slashes up carjackers and anonymous Blackwater soldier types, the blood and limbs fly everywhere. Logan takes a beating (and numerous bullet wounds) from a variety of bad guys. As the film goes along, it’s clear that he isn’t in much better shape than the Professor. Wolverine’s famous metal claws are slowly poisoning his body from the inside. He grows paler and grayer as the movie progresses. Only a massive injection of steroids can get him ready for the climactic battle. Instead of the bright palette of a cartoon, the landscapes of Logan are pale and deserted. There doesn’t seem to be much left in the world for Wolverine and Professor X.

            Mangold isn’t subtle in making Logan references to classic Westerns. A frightened woman asks Wolverine to care for her mutant daughter. He grumbly refuses, but eventually takes on the job to save her from nefarious forces. Ravaged by guilt about being able to save his friends, Wolverine packs up the Professor and the girl and they take a road trip across the Southwest. They dodge enemies, switch cars, and bond with one another in many of the film’s quieter moments. At one point, Charles watches Shane on TV. If you know anything about Shane then you can guess how the movie ends. Despite its bleak themes, Logan appeals to its comic book roots and to ends on a moment of hope and redemption. In place of CGI vapidity, Logan offers artistry and maturity.