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‘Spaceship Earth’: When Hippie Dreams Went Crashing to Earth

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Spaceship Earth is the Story of a Very Different Kind of Quarantine

The Biosphere 2 was a project in the early 1990s meant to replicate the Earth’s ecosystem within a contained sphere, in which, on the first mission, eight people spent two years living inside.

The idea of the Biosphere, which was built in the Arizona desert, was to study whether the idea could be replicated to human life settling on other planets, possibly in the aftermath of a nuclear war. 

More than that, the Biosphere was a clear outgrowth of the Bay Area counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s. In a forerunner of the way the elite of Silicon Valley these days are always regulars at Burning Man, the project grew out of philanthropist Ed Bass and ecologist John P. Allen having met in the ’70s at Synergia Ranch, and the project itself often resembled a hippie commune. The project was called Biosphere 2 because the original Biosphere, they said, was the Earth. 

However, the project soon ran into trouble, in terms of science, finances and public relations, and was eventually taken over by, of all people, future Trump adviser Steve Bannon. The biosphere, ultimately, did not lead to its lessons being used in space. 

The Biosphere 2, from “Spaceship Earth” (NEON Pictures)

Spaceship Earth, a new documentary from NEON and director Matt Wolf, looks at the entire Biosphere 2 project, from its hippie roots to the complications raised once it was operational, to the eventual bitter boardroom disputes that emerged later on. The film focuses mostly on the Biosphere’s original mission, which ran from 1991 to ’93; Spaceship Earth is not to be confused with the giant dome at Epcot Center at Walt Disney World, which also goes by that name.

Wolf’s film is an eye-opening look at an ambitious project that may have fallen short, but still provided illuminating lessons about the earth, the environment, human relations, and the limits of utopian dreams. The mission took place around the time Bill Clinton assumed the presidency and it’s another example of the ’60s generation taking charge, and the mixed results that followed. 

There’s plentiful use of vintage footage filmed inside the Biosphere itself, and the shots of the teams entering and exiting the complex are filmed remarkably similar to those of space shuttle launches, right down to the orange uniforms. 

There’s also plenty of news footage, first focusing on the initial ambitions of the project, and later on the various minor scandals associated with it. A Biospherian who lost the tip of her finger was able to leave, and return with forbidden contraband, while there were separate controversies involving both the artificial siphoning out of Co2 and the siphoning in of oxygen. (Wolf, who also directed last year’s outstanding  Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, about a Philadelphia woman who recorded decades of TV news broadcasts, knows his way around news archives.) 

A double rainbow over the Biosphere 2 in “Spaceship Earth” (NEON)

By the end, the Biosphere was widely seen as a joke and boondoggle, and was even the basis of a lowbrow Pauly Shore comedy, Biodome, in 1996. 

Most of the rest of Spaceship Earth consists of talking-head interviews with the Biospherians and others. Bannon, despite his usual penchant for never avoiding an opportunity to appear on camera, did not participate in the documentary, although one participant is moved almost to tears by the observation that Bannon’s involvement in the Biosphere means he almost certainly knows that climate change is real. 

A January Sundance debut that’s arriving simultaneously on VOD and Hulu, Spaceship Earth is a timely arrival: It’s the story of a very different kind of quarantine, about a small group of people stuck together in a confined space for a long time.  

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and RogerEbert.com. In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

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Netflix’s ‘Enola Holmes’ is Neither Afoot of Her Older Brother or Her Own Genre

It is neither brilliant nor absolutely rotten, but it is rubbish, to say the least. Enola’s first outing is not afoot of her older brother’s lineup of thrilling interpretations or the film’s broad genre in any way…

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Netflix Enola Holmes

Netflix’s Enola Holmes Review

Despite what you may have already heard, the game is not quite afoot with this one. Netflix’s Enola Holmes is the streaming giant’s latest mystery film based on Nancy Springer’s series of young adult fiction novels starring the younger sister of London’s finest consulting detective Sherlock Holmes- more specifically The Case of the Missing Marquess, the first book in the author’s franchise. For those expecting a mind-bending mystery comparable to BBC’s excellent Sherlock or the exciting Robert Downey Jr. films, you best grab a cabbie and leave before touching this one. Enola Holmes will without a doubt be a fun family film for kids captivated by its promising cast of actors, but any true crime solver will be scurrying from the scene faster than you can say “The Hounds of Baskerville” by the time the second act even hits.

Enola Holmes seems to initially build towards the story of the title character finding her missing mother after she seemingly disappears one morning, but in reality, this story quickly takes a hard turn after its introduction. It manages to become a tale of conquering a characteristic the title character’s name spells backward (alone) all while untangling another family conspiracy that is beyond anticlimactic. There is certainly a mystery to be solved within this flick, but not one you are expecting to find on the surface as Enola Holmes has no idea where exactly its focus should lie. It is constantly jumping between ideas and never manages to find a footing until the third act is in session. Millie Bobby Brown is arguably the main reason Netflix audiences will be flooding to see Enola Holmes and they certainly will not be disappointed by the young Stranger Things actor’s witty performance. However, it might as well be the only aspect worth sitting through in this disrespectful misfortune of an adaptation.

While the actor is certainly flaunting her accent and enjoying her eighteenth-century mishaps, it is just a shame Brown did not get a stronger script to work with. Enola is spunky and clever, but acts like a Deadpool or more so Harley Quinn as she constantly communicates with the audience through wall-breaks- a creative choice that is never properly utilized and results in the movie having to close on an odd note that does not properly bookend the character’s story. The character has no compelling flaws or established reasons as to why her quest is supposed to come off as a challenge for her. Outside of Enola and the young Marquess heir she encounters, the only other interesting talent holding up this story that is worthy of a mention is of course Sherlock Holmes, but he rarely ever appears in the movie or has any importance.

Henry Cavil plays a great Sherlock Holmes except he never receives any moments to truly shine by showing off his masterclass detective skills everyone is constantly on about during the whole film’s two-hour runtime. In fact, by the end of the movie, the character somewhat falls off the high horse as what honestly seems like a simple case flies overtime for him- somehow young Enola can outsmart a veteran Sherlock Holmes? While I am glad they kept Sherlock out of the spotlight as the focus should be on his younger sister, it is hard not to acknowledge the genius consulting detective audiences are accustomed to is just not as quick or clever as he should be. As for the other mainstay characters, Mycroft Holmes (Sam Claflin) plays a key role yet there is nothing striking to say about Sherlock’s brother who only appears to really throw a wrench into Enola’s plans and generally is portrayed as an idiot rather than the arrogant mastermind that he is supposed to be.

It may seem packed with problems so far- especially when it comes to keeping up with or respecting the source material, but the largest issue Enola Holmes helms is the way in which its mystery unfolds and how it unsuccessfully incorporates its forced theme. In comparison to previous on-screen interpretations of Sherlock Holmes- or even the Enola Holmes novels for that matter if you are the type of reader so keen on not comparing the two characters- the mystery being explored lacks much depth or development from beginning to end. Sure it builds upon the character of Enola in tons of great ways as it shows off her personality and skills adopted from her childhood, but it never truly does what a good mystery story is out to accomplish. Here we have two different stories intertwining, the search for Enola’s mother and the whereabouts of her male friend.

Both are without a doubt compelling ideas except for the fact that the latter abruptly becomes the focus at around the halfway point for what is seemingly going to be a few minutes but ends up being the entire film. On top of this, we have a consistent theme being thrown around that “girls can do anything” which is completely fine, except for the fact that its female lead is, as previously stated, practically flawless and is often played out as superior to everyone else by one-upping her older brothers or being better than the pretty boy who has little character development. The movie takes place during the perfect time period to use feminism as a theme and while it does mention the world’s current politics multiple times it never actually draws a focus towards those enticing problems. The film leaps over so many possible compelling character points and plotlines as it treads around a mystery that is not all that much of an enigma.

Without taking into account the other various pieces of Sherlock Holmes media available- including BBC’s terrific modern take on the franchise which is streaming on the same platform, Enola Holmes is a substandard film that younger audiences will likely more so enjoy than the older folks accustomed to London’s greatest detective. For those completely unaware of the lore behind Sherlock Holmes and are here for the recognizable actors being marketed at the forefront, the cast will without a doubt help end your viewing party on a less than sour note as Brown provides one of her best performances yet in a somewhat fun though messy detective flick. It is neither brilliant nor absolutely rotten, but it is rubbish, to say the least. Enola’s first outing is not afoot of her older brother’s lineup of thrilling interpretations or the film’s broad genre in any way.

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Shaw Bros. Spotlight

‘The Boxer from Shantung’ Does Not Aim High Enough

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The Boxer from Shantung

Anyone who has seen just a few Shaw martial arts films has noticed a trend: all of the stories transpire centuries ago, during the era of the many Chinese dynasties. The beautiful costumes, the intricate set designs, the legendary figures upon which writers and directors can find inspiration, the admiration of tactical warfare during the times, all of these and much more are reasons why the studio chose to set its stories in the distant past. As with all rules, there are exceptions. Just as not every single Shaw film is martial arts-based, not everyone is a period piece either. This week, the column takes a look at yet another Chang Cheh picture, The Boxer From Shantung, although this one is set in the 20th century in the city of Shanghai.

Ma Yung Chen (Chen Kuan-Tai) and Hsiao Chiang Pei (Cheng Kang-Yeh) are two friends working blue-collar shifts making water pipes for the city of Shanghai. The pay is as small as their landlord’s attitude is deplorable. While Chiang Pei is a rather fun-loving character, honest, friendly, uninterested in creating mischief, Yung Chen is cut from an altogether different cloth. His desire to leave their lifestyle far behind is far more ferocious. Determined to make a name for himself and his friends, along with earning tons of cash, Yung Chen’s rambunctious attitude almost gets him in deep trouble when stumbling upon the evil doings of a local mob, ‘The Four Champions’, whose leader, Boss Yang (Chiang Nan), does not take kindly to intruders. Lucky for Yung Chen, he knows a near-impenetrable style of boxing studied back home in Shantung. The volatile and cocky young man beats the living daylights out en entire hoard of Yang’ men. On that same day, he earns the favourable opinion of another, more benevolent boss, Tan Si (Chang Cheh regular David Chiang). With plenty of friends to help him out and a powerful, newly found ally in Boss Tan Si, Ying Chen makes his way up in the world as an enforcer, a protector, and finally a boss.

The Boxer from Shantung

The Boxer from Shantung may appear as a unique experience for its setting but said uniqueness is mostly a deception. Yes, a tale of gangsters in a much more modern setting does make for a fresh change of pace. The greater truth of the matter is that the screenwriter and directors (two principle directors for a single film being a first so far as this column is concerned) emulate the exact type of story familiar to fans of gangster flicks. Boxer is, at its core, a ‘rise and fall’ story, with the central character, the charismatic Yung Chen, works his way through the concrete jungle of gang warfare amongst heated rivals in order to make a living for himself, as well as gain increasing wealth and influence over local businesses and prominent individuals. Hence, the general story arc reserves few surprises for the audience, following the genre’s blueprints to near perfection, which is a bit of a shame given that one hopes that with an entirely new setting would liberate the filmmakers from the some of the tropes. Instead, they opt to follow the predictable plot points beat for beat, with only precious little signs of deviation, one example being the development of the love angle. There are not too many false notes per se, but the lack of chances taken is unfortunate.

The Boxer from Shantung somehow goes for something new, yet lacks originality…

It is a little strange to be watching a Chang Cheh (partially) directed film which features David Chiang playing only a supporting role. Chiang is a loveable type of actor, who can win an audience thanks to his easy charm and wit, and therefore the actor taking center stage has some rather big shoes to fill. In the case of Boxer, that actor is Chen Kuan-Tai, who fills is a perfect fit for said shoes, bringing his own brand of energy to the fold. It is always reassuring to see young, up and coming actors bring the best they have to offer right off the bat. Chen Kuan-Tai is definitely the sort of performer who adds barrels of life to a scene. It helps that the character he plays is cocky, street smart, ambitious, and remarkably gifted in the martial arts of his home province. It may be guessed that since the script treks a familiar path, the film could be used as a vehicle of sorts for young Chen Kuan-Tai. It does not necessarily make the film better, but the film’s star is now someone readers may want to peel their eyes for from now on. A little bit of credit should be shared with his co-star, Cheng Kang-Yeh. While he does play the supporting role, serving mostly as comic relief more than anything else, the performance is a fun one, if a little bit on the cheesy side.

The Boxer from Shantung

The necessity for not one but two directors is one to cause perplexity. As has already been written in this review, the story is easy to follow due to its familiarity, therefore causing one to wonder how exactly Chang Cheh and Pao Hsueh Lieh collaborated on the project. There are few tonal inconsistencies and it is fair to wonder if their dual participation has anything to do with it. Some scenes are filled to the brim with energy and spunk, whereas others fall incredibly flat, lacking any momentum whatsoever. Oddly enough, the scene introducing David Chiang’s mob boss character is one such scene, in which he playfully taunts Ma Yung Chen, who at that point is just a nobody in the underworld, wandering the streets looking for a job opportunity. The scene is abnormally long, with each subsequent character reaction delayed for some unexplained reason, not to mention that there is no music, thus making it seem all the more hollow. This happens on a few occasions throughout the film and every time it plays out very strangely.

The action, when it erupts, is not of the most imaginative variety (nor is star Chen Kuan-Tai the most impressive fighter, moving a little bit slowly all things considered, even though he does give it is all), but what it lacks in creativity it makes up for in scale. Almost every single action scene involves the protagonist, sided with perhaps a couple of allies, fending off armies of Boss Yang’s men, many of whom enjoy attacking with little hatchets. These brawls en up being rather fun romps, wit plenty of bodies running, flipping, and falling all over the place. The best is saved for last, as Chen Kuan-Tai finds himself all alone against Yang, his strongest enforcers, and tons of other hoodlums inside a tea shop, fighting on both the second and first floors. To top it off, he receives a hatchet to the stomach, but of course, refuses to back down and takes out as many villains as he can anyhow.

There are a few significant opportunities that are lost in Boxer. Providing the film which a context so vastly different from the majority of other Shaw productions, in addition to favouring a lesser-known actor in the lead role with the more accomplished ones serving the secondary participation brought with it plenty of potential. Admittedly, upon learning that Chang Cheh had in fact directed a more contemporary action film, this martial arts fan’s curiosity was very much aroused. Ultimately, it gets the job done, which still means something at the very least. It is a competently made production. The problem is that it does not aim high enough.

-Edgar Chaput

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Friday Film Noir

‘Laura’— More than Enough to Satisfy Fans of Film Noir

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Larua 1944 Film Noir

Friday Film Noir

A detective’s work is challenging enough already without the complications that arise when he or she is involved with one of the suspects of a crime. Determining the innocence or guilt of an individual or party would be a lot simpler were it not for the mind games suspects so often play with investigators, evading conviction with lies and half-truths. The sudden emotional attachment to one of the targets of police suspicion could send everything into a tailspin, provided the assigned investigator is capable of keeping a lid on his or her emotions. However, what if a detective grew attached to a person he could not physically relate to, such as the victim of a murder? What if, after believing the object of one’s desire was unattainable, a new reality suddenly set itself in which made the impossible possible?

Laura, directed by Otto Preminger, starts with a newspaper columnist, the unforgivably snarky Waldo (Clifton Webb), explaining to the viewer the circumstances under which detective Markk McPherson (Dana Andrews) arrived at his lush Manhattan condo: the shocking murder of his beautiful protégé Laura (Gene Tierny), shot in the face with a pistol filled with buckshot. From there the film follows Mark as he jumps down the rabbit hole of excuses, evasive answers, and the like provided by Waldo, Shelby (Vincent Price), another man vying for Laura’s heart, her housemaid Bessie (Dorothy Adams), and her aunt Ann (Judith Anderson), also a rival for Shelby’s affections. More than anything, it is the portrait of Laura herself that hangs above the fireplace in her living room that fascinates Mark the most. Everyone’s description of her makes the victim seem quite the extraordinary woman, and judging by the painting, she was especially alluring. One cannot fall for a painting, however…

Laura is much ado about love, much of it quite evil in fact…

It might feel somewhat odd to include this Preminger effort in the noir category. On the whole, the movie masquerades as a romance story stuck in a murder mystery. It is indeed both of those things, unmistakably so even. That said, noir has a funny way of continuously shape-shifting itself to conform with other genre staples. Sometimes one stumbles onto a noir without even knowing it, the familiar traits seeping their way into the fabric of a picture like black ink sinks into a white dress. Romance, in the case of Laura, enables the picture to take on an altogether different identity than originally anticipated, playing into the hands of noir’s more gloomy aspects. Whereas by and large antagonists make their presence known quite clearly in films of this nature, here the villains are, in many ways, decent folk at their core, compelled to act out against their better instincts for love’s sake. There is no big cash prize to snatch after knocking off rivals, no criminal dynasty to control, no great escape from gangsters to perform. Nay, everything almost every character does in this film is out of some form of love for the titular victim. Director Preminger, working with a script ripe with potential, exquisitely plays on this idea of love perverting people’s behaviours. Laura herself is provided some scenes via flashbacks to flesh her out somewhat, yet she represents more a symbol of love in the early stage of the film than a three-dimensional person. She is what corrupts those around her but only despite herself. Laura is a perfectly good person by and large (she is also by far a more engaging personality than Waldo) and to think that the picture is sexist in any overt way because of her role as a concept, so to speak, is off the mark. People do silly, regrettable, and even awful things to obtain and retain love, something money cannot buy. The mistakes and lies the suspects engage in are not the result of who she is in the traditional sense, but because of what they think they can get from her.

As was the case with the film reviewed two weeks ago (The Chase), there is not much else that can be written without revealing the film’s big secret. In a dreamy scene about 40 minutes into the film, detective McPherson, at this stage clearly in love with the victim and having decided to stay the night in Laura’s Laura’s condo, takes a few stiff drinks before slumping into a chair in the living room. Moments later, whom other but Laura herself walks in. She had gone away for the weekend and a classic case of mistaken identity has led to the death of another person!

In what is perhaps the director Preminger’s most interesting coup, Laura‘s narrative does not make a dramatic shift after this startling revelation. Suspects continue to either tell lies or the truth depending on what will have them gain the upper hand over McPherson’s sharp skills as he tries to unravel the new identity of the victim and the killer. The only major added level of tension is that the detective has fallen for Laura, placing him in the most awkward position possible. Yet another curious aspect to this portion of the film is the relative ease with which the love between Mark and Laura blossoms. The lack of time to fully develop their relationship, not to mention that their bond only adds to the two romances already boiling feverishly, partially explains this. That is but one way to interpret the situation, however. Another, more thematically rich understanding is that Laura and Mark are falling prone to the same mistakes witnessed up until then. Just as Waldo and Shelby craved for Laura, the latter who sought after her like a true playboy with only limited knowledge of who she was, so is Mark. It is a little bit of history repeating in a perverse way. To make matters even more interesting, knowing how Laura has behaved in the past, there is no guarantee that she and Mark will live happily together. She had quickly responded to Waldo’s advances once he began to promote her career in advertising and was easily swayed by Shelby once he began to woo her. This is not to argue that Laura is a tramp or anything along those lines, only that her idea of what sort of man would best suit her as a companion is not well defined as of yet. A possible case in point is the movie’s final shot, a broken clock that was a gift to Laura from Waldo, obviously a symbol of their no longer existent relationship. The viewer is not even given the satisfaction of a shot with Mark and Laura in a loving embrace.

On the topic of Mark and Laura, Dana Andres and Gene Tierny are extremely captivating in their respective roles. Tierny carries the heaviest responsibilities as the center of attention. She has to convey the attraction, sweetness, and confidence for which Waldo, Shelby and Mark think so highly of her for and she is aces in all three respects. Stevens is convincing as the no-nonsense, tough as nails detective who asks the hard questions, even when the suspects take offense to his lines of inquiry, yet it is in the brief, subtler moments when he lets his police detective guard down that the viewer recognizes a softer, emotionally driven person behind the stern mask. Such moments stand out much more than those emphasizing the hard-edged persona. The same comments are applicable to Clifton Webb, whose performance is showy for the most part, in an amusing way, but really shines when his recollections of Laura reveal his genuine affections for her. As self-aggrandizing and antagonistic as he can be, there definitely exists a beating heart somewhere inside. His own relationship with Laura was complex, never reaching the level of true love, if only because the latter never reciprocated. That lack of fulfillment goes a long way in explaining the sense of loss. There is so much great acting on display that the iconic Vincent Price comes off as rather ordinary by comparison. Seeing him a meeker character than usual is a bit strange, especially considering his gigantic figure. Price is fine, although the panache and charisma he is mostly known for are missing.

Laura has built itself a tremendous reputation throughout the years and it is easy enough to understand why. Under Otto Preminger’s guidance, the film has more than enough to satisfy many pallets, from a unique romance story to a depiction of the desperation of men when love is at stake.

-Edgar Chaput

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