Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Movie Review - Gravity / TV Review - Ironside

  I went with Kathy to see Gravity on Saturday night in a half-filled theatre occupied mostly by senior citizens. I didn’t know anything about the movie except what I saw on TV: it was a sci-fi movie with at least a portion in outer space and it starred George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. Based on that little information I assumed the movie would either be a sort of light hearted romantic comedy with the aging Bullock and the aging roguish Clooney falling in love in outer space during a dangerous space mission or an outer space version of Open Water (the hopeless tale of 2 divers stranded in a shark infested parcel of ocean). The movie was nothing like what I thought it would be.

  Clooney is his typical role as a roguish space shuttle pilot and Bullock is a scientist sent to space to modify the Hubbell telescope. The first 20 minutes of the movie show Bullock on the outside of the telescope trying to install a new part, Clooney spinning around in an experimental jet pack and an astronaut named Shariff (whose voice is heard but face never seen) doing acrobatics while the rest of the crew is in the space shuttle. The opening scene has breathtaking scenery with the telescope in minute detail and the earth in the background. The scenery is set off by the camera moving around in circles around the astronauts and zooming in on the occasional nut, bolt, or wrench floating away from its owner towards an eternity in space unless retrieved by its owner.

  During the opening scene, the only conversation is between the astronauts and mission control in Houston with a lot of silence. All seems normal except for the harbinger announcement from Houston that a Russian spy satellite had blown up and spitting some space debris that posed no danger until Houston informs the astronauts to abort the mission and get back to the shuttle because the satellite has caused a chain reaction of debris that was going to hit within minutes and disable all communications. When the debris storm hits the shuttle is destroyed and faces other than Bullock and Clooney’s are seen for the only time in the movie but only as frozen corpses.

  Clooney and Bullock then attempt to make their way to the international space station 100 kilometers away to find an emergency space capsule to use to get to earth using Clooney’s jet pack. The rest of the movie is a battle to get back to Earth while racing against a diminishing air supply, the cloud of space debris circling the globe to make a return attack, and the human struggle against fear and hopelessness.

  I’m not going to give away the ending, but except for one implausible escape from disaster the movie was a thriller that kept me on the edge of my seat throughout. The special effects are awesome with the vacuum of space terrifying, the point of view scenes from inside the spacesuits suffocating, and the space capsules cramped and grimy with stuff floating all around. There was a minimal amount of dialog which served to highlight the loneliness of outer space and at only 90 minutes of running time the lack of character interaction had no time to get boring. It is a great movie with epic special effects and pair of A-list (if a bit over the hill) stars but without the epic movie trappings of a cast of thousands, insanely long running time, and a convoluted multifaceted plot. Clooney and Bullock gave great performances in difficult roles and the movie was rightly the top box office draw of the weekend and almost universally lauded by the critics. The only people who won’t like this movie are ones who need their movies to have a lot of dialog, gunfire, zombie, vampires or some combination of the four.

  As I was watching the double episode season premiere of Law & Order: SVU, there was a lot of advertisements for the season premiere of a remake of the 1960’s and 1970's detective show ‘Ironside’ following the next week’s SVU. At the end of last season’s SVU, Detective Olivia Benson was taken prisoner by sadistic serial rapist William Lewis (expertly played by veteran Law & Order character actor Pablo Schreiber. After some typically heinous acts by Lewis, Benson managed to break an iron bar off the bed she was chained to and beat Lewis half to death with it 45 minutes into the premiere. The reminder of the double episode and all of the next has been standard SVU stories with the subplot of Benson visiting her therapist in between solving cases. I tried to stay up to watch Ironsides but seeing Benson emoting with her therapist got me too tired to stay awake and even made me wish for the days when the main subplot was watching Benson’s biological clock tick or retired detective Elliot Stabler going into one of his fits of rage.

  Missing an episode of a TV series as little as ten years ago meant a long wait for the rerun or possibly never seeing the show in case of a cancelled series, but in the modern world a missed episode is generally available on a computer with just a few mouse clicks. The original Ironside lasted eight seasons due to the popularity of star Raymond Burr who had just left the lead role on the Perry Mason show after eight years as the title character. I never thought too much of the Ironsides show. While Burr as Perry Mason was a slick lawyer with a sharp sense of humor with what seemed to be an unspoken romance with assistant Della Street, Ironsides had Burr portraying a San Francisco detective crippled by a snipers bullet and confined to a wheelchair. He seemed all business to me and the action was left to his chief detective Ed Brown, ex-con bodyguard Mark Sanger, and a pair of policewomen whose main jobs were to not dress like policewomen, seduce potential suspects, and find themselves in some sort of danger just before a commercial break. It was a stereotyped show (of the four main characters guess which was the only actor of color – yes – the ex-con assistant) which was devoid of humor until the bad guy was put away at the end.

  Having said all that I was still interested in seeing what the new Ironside would look like after almost 40 years so on Saturday morning I checked it out on www.nbc.com. A lot has changed in 40 years and about the only thing that was kept from the original was the wheelchair. While the original show was in San Francisco the new show is in New York City (I hope to facilitate crossover action with SVU). Raymond Burr as the original Ironside was an overweight white detective with little interest in women – I thought this was because of his disability but perhaps his at the time undisclosed homosexuality also played a part in the script writing. The new Ironside (Blair Underwood) is a fit trim black man with a sense of humor who works out with weights and knocks around suspects. To dispel any doubts about his sexual orientation or ability, Ironside has a make out session with a lithe personal trainer within 24 hours of interviewing her as part of his investigation into a suicide/murder.

  Ironside still has a team, but instead of taking care of most of the action like they did in the 1970’s, this team does the mundane police work and leaves the action to Ironside himself. One of the members of his team was none other than Pablo Schreiber who the week before was raping women, murdering men, and tormenting Detective Benson on Law & Order as the infamous William Lewis. Schreiber plays Virgil, a detective who has as little use for the law as he did as a serial rapist the week before. In the opening scene of the series, Virgil beats up a kidnapper and throws him in a car for Ironside to interrogate and when searching the suicidee’s apartment just throws everything on the floor. While Virgil and the other two nondescript detectives on the team were chasing a suspect it is left to Ironside to complete the chase by opening his van door at just the right moment. The show’s website hints that the characters will be fleshed out but for now except for Virgil they are just minions for Ironside to give orders to.

  The initial episode was well written and had a lot of detective work. The only thing I didn’t like were the obligatory flashback scenes of Ironside getting shot and ending up in his wheelchair which seemed to be included to show the angst of his old partner for not having his back when he was shot. I imagine the ex-partner will be a recurring character but I wish I could watch more detective work and less angst-ridden characters. Blair Underwood is a great Ironside and an incredibly street-smart detective. He likes to bend the rules and plays the part almost in a Columbo way except instead of making people think he is an incompetent he plays it like he knows everything before asking. As much as I liked the initial Ironside episode I can’t see myself staying up late to watch it on a weekly or even an occasional basis. Now that the USA network has ditched much of their Law & Order reruns in favor of Modern Family (a show I don’t find especially funny) reruns, I’ll have some time to view Ironside on the internet. I can’t rate the show ‘Must See TV’ but I hope the series has a long run and stays available for me to watch.

  My main question about Ironside is why NBC is recreating the show and then changing the characters so much. Whatever Ironside fans are still capable of handling a remote control 40 years later won’t be tuning in more than once for old times’ sake. Blair Underwood is more than capable of being the star of a detective show but if the only thing his disability keeps him from doing is walking, I’m not sure why NBC didn’t just put him in charge of a detective team and make him the main character instead of having to share billing with a wheelchair.