Friday, September 17, 2004

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow exists as a cross between a classic film noir and a 1930’s comic book. Most comic books are only as good as their illustrations, and Sky Captain possesses gorgeous style. The other side of this coin is that most film noirs are only as good as their characters. Sky Captain is the biggest summer film that was held back for a fall release, and it could have been a wonderful summer action film; it also could have been an intriguing film noir. As it turns out, it’s not enough of either.

The story is set in a fantastic, futuristic vision of 1938. The opening scene shows a massive blimp docking atop the Empire State Building, and the visuals here harken back to classic concepts of the future; everything is sleek, metallic and overly shiny. We meet Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), an ambitious reporter covering the disappearance (and possible murder) of seven scientists. While hot on a trail of newfound evidence, Polly witnesses the invasion of New York City by an army of building-sized robots. Of course, there can now be only one hope for humanity: Sky Captain.

Actual name Joe Sullivan, Sky Captain (Jude Law) flies his plane into the very heart of danger, fighting evil as only a super hero can. As he flies over the city, Joe looks down and sees Polly running through the streets. She sees his plane, and they simultaneously utter each other’s names. These two have a history. Polly desperately wants her news story and holds the crucial piece of evidence concerning the mystery of the invasion, yet can hardly go alone. They suddenly find themselves dependent upon one another to unravel the mystery of the robots and save the world.

Sky Captain is the premiere for writer/director Kerry Conran, and he certainly presents a glorious vision. A computer effects extravaganza, Conran’s film has tremendous style. The action sequences are exciting enough, but the visuals are at their best in the first fifteen minutes. While characters and plot points are being established, the imagined city of New York provides the perfect backdrop. Every element has an unrealistic glow. The picture itself seems dim and murky so that even the brightest colors are reminiscent of black and white film. These scenes are the opening of a movie that never arrives, a film in which the visuals serve the characters and the story, instead of the other way around.

As the characters leave New York to track down the mad scientist responsible for the robotic mayhem, they also leave behind all sense of intrigue. The color palette brightens as the entire mood of the picture shifts away from character development towards typical action fare. The visuals never cease to impress, however, nor do the performers. Angelina Jolie turns up as Franky Cook, an old friend of Joe’s, but yet another good character is only hinted at. After all, there’s no time to consider her character’s motivations when there’s more robots to blow up. With two Oscar winners and one Oscar nominee at the helm, it’s a shame the cast wasn’t given greater opportunity.

The story ends up taking a turn for the ridiculous as more and more action floods the screen, but the characters themselves aren’t bad. In fact, they all show promise initially. Polly Perkins is the kind of woman who’s always scheming and telling half of what she knows. She follows in the tradition of the seductive woman who cons the hero for all he’s worth, but unfortunately, she’s not that woman. Polly is only based on that stereotype, and stereotypes themselves aren’t interesting. Sky Captain is also bound by a stereotype; he would have been much more interesting as a scoundrel capable of mistakes, perhaps even wrongdoing. As it is, he’s far too predictable, and the hardest stuff he ever drinks is milk of magnesia.

Don’t misunderstand; there’s nothing wrong with a fun action movie. In fact, a simple action film can be great. Take Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example. Indiana Jones is an infallible hero who embarks on one great adventure after another, somehow managing to always keep his hat on. The difference between the two films is that Raiders knows what it is: an adventure film, through and through. Sky Captain throws in elements from all sorts of movies and never quite decides if it’s mocking its genre or embracing it. From jazzy film noir to science fiction to all-out action, Sky Captain would have been much better off choosing one and devoting itself fully, rather than dabbling in all three.

Still, Kerry Conran is to be commended for such a valiant first effort. His sense of style shows great promise; his future work should be the payoff.

Wednesday, September 1, 2004

Vanity Fair

Many artists, both filmmakers and writers, are afraid of period-pieces. Struggles over how past eras should be presented often lead to the wrong, phony solutions. Humans have always shared the same obsessions and felt the same emotions. They have always been driven by love and power, and citizens of 19th-century England were no different. Vanity Fair achieves perfection in presenting believable characters delivering believable dialogue; I can’t remember the last time a period-picture was done so well.

The story follows Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon), a girl whose parents die at the dawn of her adolescence, leaving her to be raised at a finishing school. Having grown into a lady and finding herself anxious to experience the realities of the world, Becky flees the school with her only friend, Amelia (Romola Garai) and travels to London. After becoming a tutor to the children of the wealthy Sir Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins), Becky catches the eye of more than one man. She makes all the right friends and finds herself soaring up the social ladder, causing one character to remark, “I thought her a mere social climber; I see now she’s a mountaineer.”

When Becky begins to “settle down” into a relationship, she learns from experience what matters most in life. All of her acquaintances are trapped by the same rules of high society and everyone struggles with questions of priority. A successful life comes at a terrible price, and what constitutes happiness is constantly under scrutiny. One older gentleman reveals to Becky, “The only thing that matters in life is to love and be loved.” The problem is that Becky’s not fit to love anyone, nor is she capable of giving her love to those who would have it.

While on her quest for success and/or happiness, Becky meets a charming cast of characters. Vanity Fair is based on a famous novel of the same title, and the structure of the story feels like a novel. The film isn’t afraid of presenting a plethora of characters, nor does it hesitate to take its time. There are emotions lurking beneath the witty, razor-sharp dialogue that the novel surely delves deeper into, but enough characterization is given so that the characters feel authentic. There are believable emotions presented, not just formulas.

The set pieces and the costumes are visually lush, bursting at the seams with color and life. All of these elements help reinforce the period, but the film’s true authenticity stems from the look of the city itself. Vanity Fair does a masterful job capturing the truths of everyday life in the 19th century. The camera shows wide, sweeping shots filled with grandiose architecture and elegant clothing, but then remembers to move in close and show the dirty filth of the streets. The film scraps historical stereotypes and goes out of its way to create an authentic representation.

Witherspoon absolutely shines in her performance as a woman confused by a life out of balance. Her accent is so flawless that I never thought about it, and all the subtleties of her performance add up to a great sum. Performances are more than suitable all around, but this is Witherspoon’s show and she delivers a jewel. We begin as mere spectators, but she pulls us closer in record time, making us care about her character. The film is not a suspenseful one, yet the next scene never comes soon enough.

This film left me with no complaints. Vanity Fair presents an engaging story, great characters, memorable dialogue, and beautiful art direction. It doesn’t appeal to any specific audience and is therefore unlikely to be an impressive success financially, but Vanity Fair is one of year’s best films just the same. It’s the kind of movie that stands out and makes us realize what so many others have been missing.