Saturday, July 13, 2013

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Apollo 13' (1995)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

Ron Howard's penchant for crowd-pleasing inspiration finds its ideal subject matter in Apollo 13, which is cheesy at times but also admirably authentic, with a commitment to historical accuracy that nicely balances the sentiment. Howard meticulously re-created details of the ill-fated 1970 Apollo 13 mission to the moon, using transcripts from the control room to construct the dialogue, and eschewing all stock footage of rocket launches in favor of constructing his own images via miniatures, CGI and practical sets. He even shot some zero-gravity scenes during actual zero-gravity training flights, which offer only 23 seconds of weightlessness each in which to capture footage.

So even though the story arc is pure Hollywood corn, and the characters come off like movie archetypes, Apollo 13 feels genuine, and that makes it easier to cheer for the three all-American astronauts when they avoid disaster and safely return home. Tom Hanks is of course perfectly cast as the honorable, friendly and ultra-competent Jim Lovell, and Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon do well as his two crewmates. The acting in Apollo 13 is best when it's all about the characters getting things done; Ed Harris has only a few tiny moments of emotion as the no-nonsense mission control commander, but he earns his Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.

It's not easy to generate suspense in a movie based on a true story, when the audience already knows the outcome, but Howard manages to do just that when the Apollo 13 astronauts encounter mechanical trouble and have to turn back for home, unsure if their vessel will make it. The movie spends a little too much time on setup, and the soaring triumph at the end is a little overdone (at 140 minutes, the movie is the typical length for Oscar bait, but does feel too long), but overall it's involving, entertaining and genuinely uplifting. It's exactly the kind of slickly produced populist entertainment that Hollywood is made for.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013


A wholesome family dramedy full of attractive young actors, Camp seems like it would probably be more at home on ABC Family than on NBC. It also makes me miss Huge, the sadly short-lived ABC Family dramedy about a weight-loss summer camp for teens. Like Camp, Huge featured plenty of familiar elements of summer camp movies, but it also showcased the kind of characters rarely seen on TV, and it did so with nuance, compassion and impressive acting. The summer camp on Camp is more standard-issue, although it is a "family camp," meaning that kids, teens and their parents all stay together in cabins and participate in outdoor activities, which is something I'm not familiar with.

Even so, the first two episodes feature a series of stock summer-camp elements, including the talent show, the capture-the-flag game, the snooty rival camp and the summertime-only romances. The cast is appealing, led by Rachel Griffiths as the somewhat neurotic camp owner/director, who's in the process of getting a divorce. The large ensemble means that the characters are a little one-dimensional at this point, with fairly simplistic conflicts, but there are hints of complexity that could develop into something over time. For the most part, Camp is pretty basic and predictable, but if you (like me) have a soft spot for heartfelt teen/family dramas, it could be worth watching, if only to spend time with some likeable, easygoing characters.

Premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on NBC.

Monday, July 01, 2013


Anyone unfamiliar with the premise of NBC's Siberia would be forgiven for turning off the first episode halfway through, mistaking it for another second-rate summer reality show, a derivative take on elements of Survivor and The Amazing Race. But Siberia isn't a second-rate reality show; it isn't a reality show at all, but rather a scripted drama presented in the style of a reality show, in which terrible things start happening on a familiar-looking survival competition series (featuring 16 contestants dropped in the titular location and forced to fend for themselves).

Those terrible things don't really show up until the end of the first episode, which is why less informed viewers might just assume that Siberia is a typical reality show. Creator Matthew Arnold, who wrote and directed the pilot, does a fantastic job of mimicking the style and tone of reality shows, from the time-lapse shots of the outdoors to the talking-head interviews to the pompous host. He copies the style so well that the episode actually gets a little tedious, especially if you know that nasty things are in store for the "contestants" (played by actors all using their real first names), and are waiting for them to show up.

It's hard to tell from this first episode how well Siberia will play out over the course of a whole season. Although its style may copy Survivor, the show that Siberia most closely resembles is ABC's The River, which was also presented like a reality show (albeit a nature-exploration show, not a survival competition). The River started with a very promising pilot before quickly painting itself into a corner, and Siberia could run into the same problems. In particular, I wonder if the reality-TV style will extend throughout the entire season; under attack from mysterious forces, will the contestants continue giving explanatory interviews, and will the cameramen continue dutifully shooting everything? For now, at least, I'm interested enough to find out.

Premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on NBC.