Monday, November 12, 2012

Reverend's Report: AFImpossible

I have to come to admire the annual AFI Fest greatly, not only for its programming mix of potential end-of-the-year awards contenders and US premieres of acclaimed foreign language films but because tickets are provided free of charge to many festival attendees thanks to presenting sponsor Audi.  However, this year's fest, which ran November 1st-8th at Graumann's Chinese Theatre and neighboring venues in Hollywood, proved frustrating to me and numerous other people with whom I spoke.  Free tickets ran out quickly online, and some hopeful attendees who secured them were ultimately turned away from over-filled capacity screenings.  Even holding a press pass, which I had, was no guarantee of admission.  Press were permitted in the priority admission line for some screenings but, inconsistently, not for all.  And many of us journalists were denied tickets for the fest's opening and closing night gala screenings of Hitchcock and Lincoln.

Fortunately, I got into a special screening of the family drama/disaster movie The Impossible but not without overcoming unexpected obstacles in the form of the film's uninformed PR reps and an overzealous security guard.  You know a situation has become intense when I -- a generally rules-abiding, non-threatening type open to dialogue -- and said security guard were angrily staring each other down from a maximum of two feet apart at the gate in front of the Chinese Theatre entrance.  Two other journalists were detained with me for not having hard tickets to the screening, which bearers of press passes weren't required to have, but our initial attempts to clarify that fell on deaf ears.  Thankfully, an in-the-know AFI staffer intervened and let us into the theatre after several harrowing minutes.

Our uncomfortable dilemma was nothing, though, in comparison with the horrific destruction and loss of life depicted in The Impossible that many Thai nationals and holiday tourists endured on December 26th, 2004. A massive tsunami generated by an earthquake in the Indian Ocean struck the coast of Thailand and 13 other countries that tragic morning, killing approximately 230,000 people.  Ewan McGregor, who was on hand to introduce the AFI Fest screening, and Naomi Watts star as a real-life married couple on vacation with their three sons when disaster struck.

The Impossible is undeniably compelling and frequently harrowing thanks to its very impressive visual and make-up effects.  The always likable Watts (who spends most of the film’s second half incapacitated) and McGregor have no trouble gaining audience sympathy for their characters’ terrible plight, and the young actors playing their sons are similarly good and charming.  Unfortunately, Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage) unnecessarily piles on foreboding touches such as extreme airplane turbulence during the family’s flight to Thailand.  He also employs a  new 3D sound system so loud and strong that it literally made my teeth vibrate.  Such excesses tend to distract from rather than augment this otherwise solid drama.

There is annually a “secret screening” or two announced during AFI Fest, and this year’s biggie was the Los Angeles premiere of Skyfall on November 7th.  This 23rd James Bond adventure is indeed (in keeping with its advance buzz) one of the very best in the series’ 50-year history.  Daniel Craig truly owns the role now, and his steely blue eyes are more piercing than ever thanks to Roger Deakins’ superb cinematography.  Theatrically-trained, Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road) gathered a superb cast and technical team for this 007 outing and their collective proficiency shows.  Judi Dench as M gets a fitting send-off, Javier Bardem as the possibly gay villain is simultaneously terrifying and comedic, and series stalwarts Q and Miss Moneypenny, both MIA in recent episodes, make welcome returns.  Bond is back after a 4-year hiatus and the series is in its best shape since the 1960’s.
Of course, AFI Fest is primarily construed of smaller independent films, many of which receive their world or US premieres.  One lovely example this year was Joe Swanberg’s All the Light in the Sky.  The increasingly revered writer-director, who also photographed and edited here, is also an actor who made a memorably graphic appearance in 2010’s gay indie Blackmail Boys.  Jane Adams (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Brave One) headlines Swanberg’s latest as Marie, a 40-ish actress quietly questioning her career and life in general as she finds herself increasingly losing roles to the likes of Kristen Wiig.  A visit from her young, relationship-testing niece (well played by Sophia Takal) helps give Marie some perspective.  The film, beautifully shot in Adams’ own Malibu beach property, is observant, gently adult and wryly funny.  Meanwhile, the festival’s Audience and Jury Awards went to the similarly low-budget Eat Sleep Die, A Hijacking, Only the Young and Nairobi Half Life. 

Two of the best films I’ve seen in recent weeks weren’t at AFI Fest but had played other festivals prior to their current theatrical releases.  Cloud Atlas is a stunning romantic-philosophical spectacle that gleefully mixes genres as it hops back and forth through 500 years of past and future history.  Its spectacular cast includes Tom Hanks, Halle Berry (the best utilized she has been in some time), Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, Jim Broadbent and Bond’s new Q, Ben Whishaw, among others.  Sadly, the pricey film — co-directed by trans filmmaker Lana Wachowski, formerly Larry of The Matrix series’ Wachowski Brothershas been a box office flop in the US, so I encourage anyone remotely interested to see it on the big screen for which it was intended immediately.

Then there is Flight, the Denzel Washington-starrer instantly notable for its standout shot of a passenger jet flying upside down.  Once that intense sequence ends in a crash thirty minutes into the film, there are still 100 minutes to go that serve as a very effective and positive exploration of the time-honored Twelve Steps in overcoming addiction.  As one of those steps prescribes the recognition that there is a Higher Power capable of restoring an addict to sanity, there is considerable and welcome discussion of faith during the movie.  Washington is award-worthy as the denial-plagued pilot, and it is great to have Robert Zemeckis directing flesh and blood characters once again after his motion-capture opuses The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol. The screenplay does get a bit heavy-handed bordering on the preachy at times, but Flight succeeds as thought-provoking and inspiring cinema.

Reverend's Ratings:
The Impossible: B
Skyfall: A-
All the Light in the Sky: B
Cloud Atlas: A-
Flight: B+
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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