Category: Sci-Fi Drama


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One of the great myths of life is that love is something magical, that it exists beyond our electrochemical human functions, that it is pre-ordained and written in the stars. It isn’t. We love because of chemical reactions in our body, socialization, and the pool of people we have the geographic (or, in our modern time, digital) capability to love. But, just because something is natural doesn’t mean it can’t be beautiful and just because you can love others doesn’t mean that your love for a specific individual is lesser. Love would be less messy and less painful if we could recognize that we will never truly be one with another human being and simply celebrated the moments we can share with others who value our presence and affection. Perhaps more efficiently than any film since Manhattan, Spike Jonze‘s Her cuts straight to the core of romantic love, wrapping it all in a sci-fi world that seems all too real now.

It’s easy to talk about love in a logical way. It’s easy to recognize the evolutionary functions it no longer needs to serve. But living life in a way that maximizes your romantic pleasure and minimizes yours and (just as importantly) others romantic pain isn’t as easy as philosophical discussions. To err is human and we want to possess our partners. We want to be the missing piece of our partner’s existence and for them to be the same for us, but no one can meet those expectations and fantasies. And romance wanes and dissolves when the person we love isn’t the person we fell in love with and the cycle of loneliness and misery begins anew. So, it’s no wonder it takes a machine to solve this most human of dilemmas.

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(A quick aside before I begin my actual review. I promised you all in my last Best Of list [well, actually, it was in the post explaining why there would be major differences to my Best Of lists and arranging all the films I viewed by score] that I would start at least reviewing the “A” and “A+” films that I’ve watched again. Well, last week, I finally got around to watching one of those films. And in an instant reminder of why I’d had to retire this blog, I’ve only just now found the time to do this write-up. But, I really have a lot to say about this film so here goes.)

Terrence Malick’s last two films, The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, both dealt with questions as old as mankind itself. Why are we here? Is there a purpose to my life? Are we alone even when those we love are physically in our presence? What do we do when we don’t have the answers to our own existential queries? What makes Terrence Malick so special is his own humility in knowing he can’t possibly hope to provide a definitive answer to those questions. At best, he can speculate on what he believes and capture the despair of our mortal need for answers in a world where those answers are impossible to grasp. And if a mainstream American blockbuster has ever come close to matching Malick’s existential introspection, it’s Steven Spielberg‘s 2001 science fiction opus, A.I. Artificial Intelligence.

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Discarding fears of artificial/synthetic intelligence overlords like Skynet or Mass Effect‘s Geth, we live in an exciting era of machine intelligence. I’m skeptical of a truly intelligent/sentient machine existing in my lifetime (although Ray Kurzweil’s prediction for the technological singularity places that in 2049 which would be the year I turn 60. So, maybe…), but programs like Wolfram Alpha or even less complex virtual intelligences like Apple’s Siri mean that an age where computers can be trained to understand natural language systems and return answers based on those queries is already upon us. And what happens when we have machines that can not only process information and provide answers but can also draw inferences and attachments to the sensory input they take in? Which is to say, what happens when a machine begins to have emotions?

What could have been a redundant and unnecessary question, one that had been thoroughly analyzed through Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation, is given new life and greater insight in Spielberg’s A.I. A.I. is the story of David (Haley Joel Osment), the world’s first “mecha” capable of genuine, unconditional love. Set in a world where global warming has raised the sea level and destroyed all of the world’s major coastal cities, population is strictly controlled, and few families are lucky enough to be given the license to have children. One such family, led by scientist Henry (Sam Robards) and his wife Monica (Frances O’Connor) have an ill son kept alive through cryogenic sleep until scientists can find a cure for him. And, in the meantime, they are the test parents of David, designed to be the world’s perfect mecha son.

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Although Monica does not appreciate her husband’s decision to bring a robot boy to their home as a substitute for her sick son, she quickly warms to David, and once she “imprints” on him, he more than warms to her. He experiences the obsessive, protective, desperate love towards his new mother that only young children can understand. But, through a set of circumstances beyond David’s control, Monica is forced to abandon David into the cruel, dystopian world in which she lives. And David starts a manic and crazed quest to find the Blue Fairy of the Pinocchio myth which he is convinced will turn him into a real boy so that he may finally have the love of his mother which he so desperately craves.

If A.I. were simply about whether or not David were a sentient being capable of emotion and genuine self-awareness, it would be unnecessary. And the film dispenses with those questions almost immediately. As soon as David’s capacity for unconditional love is awakened, he becomes a boy. A boy that is slightly off but a boy nonetheless. He is capable of hopes and dreams and aspirations. He wants love and affection. He wants to impress his mother. He ignores the logical and sane response to the Blue Fairy myth (which is to say that it is a myth) and believes that he can actually become a real boy. Therefore, he is capable of that most human of responses, self-delusion.

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And because A.I. has the sense to be about more than whether or not David is a sentient being, it is able to ask deeper questions. Was it ethical to create David at all? The world is a cruel, miserable place, and is it right to create a being as innocent as David and then thrust him into this misery? Of course, by the end of the film, David’s woes and journey and existential quest become a stand-in for all of humanity. Is there something inherently selfish about the act of human procreation? Is our human habit of creating grandiose justifications for our own existence desperate self-delusion or beautiful despite its falsehood? Can our existence be its own justification? Is our human need for love a strength or a weakness that consumes us when it’s not provided?

And through Steven Spielberg’s marvelous direction and a story conceived by the late Stanley Kubrick, A.I. takes a long, hard look into the potential nihilism of our own existence and manages to provide something beautiful and meaningful at the end. Let there be no mistake. A.I. is not the cloying melodrama that Spielberg is prone to in his weakest moments, but it also refuses to be an empty reflection of the abyss that happens in Kubrick’s darker pictures. Instead, A.I. paints a heartbreaking and horrifically sad portrait of growing up, loss, mortality, and parenthood while also saying that the beauty of some of those experiences and the narratives we craft in our lives makes our existence worthwhile.

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A.I. Artificial Intelligence isn’t a perfect film. There are moments where its most heartbreaking moments wildly shift from genuine despair to forced melodrama. At two and a half hours long, the film has more than enough to say to suit its lengthy run time, but there are still scenes that could have used more editing simply because a number of scenes just run slightly too long. Although the film is very much meant to be a science fiction fairy tale, it is a science fiction fairy tale grounded in realism, and one scene involving fish in the submerged ruins of New York City breaks that illusion of realism.

But these are minor complaints about what is easily one of the finest science fiction films of the aughts. Great science fiction holds up a mirror to modern society and forces you to engage with the great questions of your time, or in the case of the best science fiction works, of all time. And A.I. Artificial Intelligence will have a shelf life that I hope lives on even into the days where artificial intelligence isn’t simply something we see in works of fiction. If you want a film that presents a marvelous fairy tale and thrilling adventure for chidlren but poses the kind of questions and insights you expect as an adult, A.I. is everything you could wish for.

“I am. I was.”

Score: A

 

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I’ve reviewed Todd Solondz’s brutal dissection of the possibility of human contentment (and the facades that mark all our lives) in Happiness. I’ve lauded the transformative power of the existentially challenging final sequence of Charlie Kauffman’s Synecdoche, New York time and time again. I’ve peered into the nihilistic desperation of Christopher McCandless during the haunting final stretches of Into the Wild. So, it should mean something when I say that perhaps no film has ever presented as powerful an argument for the meaninglessness of life as Lars von Trier’s indie sci-fi drama, Melancholia, a highly flawed picture with moments of astonishing clarity and vision.

I should stop tweeting about the movies I review on Netflix before I write these reviews because I’ve already used up some of the jokes/insights I had into this film but beyond describing Melancholia as Life Is Meaningless: The Movie (Now Shut the Fuck Up About It), I also told a friend that I thought it could have been called Depression: The Movie. Melancholia has many things going for it, but highest of all, it is easily one of the most realistic portrayals of severe clinical depression that I’ve ever witnessed in a film. And the raw details of the hell of chemically induced clinical melancholia (one of two sources of the film’s title) is worth the two and half hour time investment alone.

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Broken into two parts (with each part named for one of the film’s two female leads), Melancholia is a peek into the lives of two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The film begins with a surrealistic montage of slow-motion, seemingly disconnected images of the film’s cast as a large planet collides with Earth and destroys. And from there, we flash back a week prior to Justine’s wedding reception (to True Blood‘s Alexander Skarsgard) at the palatial mansion where Charlotte and her husband John (The Lost Boy‘s Kiefer Sutherland) live.

But, all is not well in the lives of this family. Justine is a self-destructive mess, suffering from severe melancholia and as her wedding reception begins, her brief period of respite is coming to a crashing, cataclysmic close with her mood disorder returning with a vengeance. Her husband is seemingly a good man, but with the presence of her controlling sister, her lecherous father, and her equally depressed mother, Justine has few pillars to rely on, and besides, her illness isn’t simply something that she can just will away.

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Compounding this family’s domestic problems is the present of a massive planet, Melancholia, that has been hiding in the sun’s shadow (Lars von Trier understands depression and family resentments; he doesn’t get astronomy or general physics) will be doing a perilously close fly-over into Earth’s orbit. Scientists and Claire’s husband are convinced the planet will simply fly past Earth and do no harm, but we no from the film’s opening sequence that isn’t the case, and the air of an impending apocalypse hangs over the film’s entire proceedings.

I don’t believe that there is any inherent, a priori meaning to life. I suppose I’m an existentialist of the Sartre bent and I believe that we create the meanings of our lives through the actions we take and the values we adhere to. And that is to say that I don’t believe life is without meaning or value. It just doesn’t exist alone in a state of nature. Lars von Trier clearly believes that life is a futile struggle full of nothing but suffering and pain and then suddenly, in a blink of an eye, all we’ve endured will mean nothing as we disappear into the nothingness of the ether.

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And while I may not agree with Mr. von Trier’s philosophical position, he presents it in stark and convincing terms. Von Trier stacks the deck by placing his story at the end of the world, but he isn’t so cheap as to make that the crux of the argument. Instead, he uses the apocalypse as a way to examine how we deal with the inevitable end of our own lives, particularly when we know the exact moment that it shall arrive. It’s easy to internalize our own mortality when it’s going to happen at some unknown juncture in the future in a way that we can not guess or control. It’s entirely different if we know the exact moment and context of our own demise.

And that raises questions in our mind. If I were to die tomorrow (and I have to drive back to Morgantown in terrible road conditions, so, hey, it’s a possibility), will my life have meant anything? I’ll be dead and I don’t believe in an afterlife so I thankfully wouldn’t have to wrestle with that question, but suddenly, everything I’ve ever been will have no meaning to me. There will be no me. And if, when we die, we cease to be what was the point? And if you argue, “the future of our species,” what’s the point if at some moment, humanity manages to wipe itself out (through nuclear war) or is itself wiped out (aliens/supernova/heat death of the universe)? When life itself ceases to be, what was the point of it ever being in the first place?

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And, Mr. von Trier’s aim is to show that life itself is a cruelty that humanity endures because the only other alternative, non-existence, is hard-wired into our genetics as being unpalatable even if its the far more merciful option. The films I mentioned in this review’s first paragraph dealt with nihilism without being nihilistic themselves (except maybe Happiness). Melancholia is the closest I’ve ever come to understand and agreeing with the basic tenets of nihilism as a philosophy. And, even on some level, I suspect I only disagree with Mr. von Trier because the only other option would be too unbearably sad.

Moving past the philosophical implications of the film (which are vast and will likely consume my thoughts for days to come), Melancholia succeeds on other fronts. It is an absolutely gorgeously shot film (which is ironic considering Lars von Trier’s status as the founder of the minimalistic Dogme ’95 school of filmmaking), and even though I thought the film’s surrealist opening montage was one of the film’s more glaring flaws, no one can deny how well it’s shot. When Melancholia begins to inch closer and closer to Earth, the film’s otherworldly lighting adds not only to the science fiction feel of the film, but it shines a more than metaphorical light on the truths Claire would like to escape.

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And Kirsten Dunst’s performance is a revelation. She’s become something of a running joke to me. Any time I want to bring up a terrible performance in an otherwise great film, I’ll talk about her in Spider-Man 2. In those films, Tobey Maguire’s mask was more expressive and emotional than her. But as Justine, there’s a fearless vulnerability and edge in Kirsten Dunst that I’ve never seen before in her career, and I doubt I’ll ever see again. Her usual air of “What’s happening right now” works great as Justine loses herself further and further in the pits of her crippling depression and alienates and infuriates everyone around her.

And Lars von Trier mainstay Charlotte Gainsbourg is even better as the beset Claire. At first, Claire seems to be the only person in her family that has it at all together. She runs Justine’s wedding even as Justine seems to be going to great lengths to ruin it. She puts up with her status-obsessed husband who may or may not have a sexual attraction to her sister. But, when existence itself crumbles around her, we quickly learn that Charlotte is even more lost and confused than her sister. At least Justine can face the reality of their situation. And Charlotte Gainsbourg does a marvelous job of portraying Claire as her carefully built world explodes in her face.

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Despite the brutal existential queries of the film’s second half, it was never as good or focused as the first part which takes place during Justine’s doomed wedding reception. The value of the examination of the destructive nature of Justine’s depression far outweighed the fiery call of nihilistic futility. And, it also doesn’t help that the film’s focus was (even in the superior first part) never particularly tight. There were too many excursions into aspects of character that while perhaps interesting, they weren’t interesting enough to justify their place in the story.

Melancholia isn’t for everyone. My dad considers it one of the worst films that he’s ever forced himself to sit through (though, had he read this review before he watched it, he might have known it wasn’t his cup of tea). Melancholia requires not only a dedication from the viewer to be willing to dive deep into the flaws and impulses of its female heroines but also an ability to not flinch away from the true horrors of the nature of life itself. If that sounds like an intellectually invigorating way to pass your time, then few films will challenge you the way that Melancholia intends to.

Final Score: B+

 

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Shane Carruth is a demanding filmmaker. Like David Simon, Charlie Kaufman, and David Lynch before him, Carruth refuses to hold audiences by the hand and offer simple solutions and recognizable tales. If you’re willing to devote the intellectual resources needed to comprehend one of his stories, Carruth rewards you with mind-bending science fiction unlike anything else out there. And, if you won’t…, well it’s clear that Carruth isn’t interested to catering to the Michael Bay audience. And, his total refusal to make anything other than the art he wants to make is what makes him such a special and valuable artist.

2004’s Primer took inaccessibility to new heights with its graduate-level physics technobabble, but if you pierced its thick veil, you were taken down a recursive rabbit-hole and got to engage in Olympian mental gymnastics. And, because of the intricately complex nature of Primer‘s plot, it’s become the very definition of a modern science fiction cult classic even if I bemoaned the film’s almost total lack of an emotional context. But, by taking a cue from a fellow Texan, Terrence Malick, Carruth has answered all of my complaints about his debut feature by revealing the marvelous Upstream Color, which is quite possibly the best science fiction film since Children of Men.

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I bring Terrence Malick up because, despite the labyrinthine nature of his plots, Shane Carruth is proving himself to be a master of minimalism. Going beyond the fact that Primer was shot for $7,000 and Upstream Color was rumored to be made for somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000, Carruth is a master of stripping away the non-essentials of his storytelling. Although Primer got by on occasional expository speeches, Upstream Color is the closest thing to The Tree of Life in modern film-making to almost totally eschew exposition. The plot occurs, often not even on screen, and Carruth requires you to pay attention and put the missing pieces together yourself. And it is magnificent when that happens.

Much like Primer, much of the fun of Upstream Color will be trying to piece the plot together for yourself so I fear spending too much time discussing the story on the off-chance that I spoil something. But, even a cursory introduction of the plot should entice viewers to lose themselves in the mystery at the heart of this tale. Kris (Amy Seimetz) is a young professional that finds her laugh destroyed when she is kidnapped and drugged by a thief. But her captor doesn’t have her under the sway of any ordinary drug. This drug, distilled from orchids and the worms in their soil, allows for the brainwashing and control of anyone in its thrall, and the Thief (Thiago Martins) steals every last penny of Kris’s savings.

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And when the Thief has taken all he can from Kris, he leaves her without a second thought, but her troubles are only now beginning. With no memory of what happened to her, Kris loses her job (for missing work for so long with no explanation), loses her home (the Thief took out equity against her house), and the life she’s known and loved, and she simply thinks she’s going crazy. And that’s when she meets Jeff (Shane Carruth). The two are immediately drawn to each other, and Jeff has gone through what neither of them can remember happening. And all the while, a mysterious man, the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), seems to be toying with his power over this pair.

And, that’s all I’ll say about the plot of Upstream Color except to add that just when you think you know what’s going to happen next, you’ll be shocked to discover just how wrong you are. Like Synecdoche, New York and Primer, it’s clear that Upstream Color will only grow in power with repeated viewings as the subtle implications you may have missed on your first go will suddenly make sense when you see them a second time. Carruth is a big fan of “Chekhov’s guns” and he has them laying all over the place. When it comes to tightly scripted stories that emphasize masterful foreshadowing, Carruth may only be bested by Robert Towne’s Chinatown.

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Minimalism isn’t the only area where Carruth is clearly inspired by Terrence Malick. Somewhere between 2004 and this year, Carruth learned a thing or two about cinematography, and Upstream Color is a stunningly gorgeous film to behold. There are numerous, lengthy swaths of the film where dialogue is at a minimum, and the story is conveyed through hauntingly beautiful shots and creative editing. Shane Carruth did virtually all of the major technical jobs in the film (directing, editing, writing, cinematography, music), and not for a second do you get the impression that he was stretched too thin.

My biggest complaint about Primer was that I had virtually no reason to care about its protagonists. While the puzzle aspect of the film was deliciously complex, I could never emotionally invest myself in the world of the film. And it’s a testament to the tightness of Carruth’s time-travel plot that it didn’t bother me more. Upstream Color obliterates that concern. Though Carruth isn’t capable of a Sunday Bloody Sunday-style of character depth, it’s not his goal, and through strong writing (and even stronger performances), I found myself enticed and enveloped by the trials of Kris and Jeff.

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If it wasn’t clear from all of the surprisingly accurate (despite the technobabble) engineering and physics at play in Primer, Shane Carruth loves science, and though Upstream Color may not seem as immediately high-concept and as directly sci-fi as Primer, it tackles an equally esoteric (but fascinating) field of science as Primer did with time travel. Without wanting to spoil too much, for anyone interested in quantum entanglement theory (but played from a psychological perspective rather than quantum physics) should find plenty to love in the nuts and bolts of Carruth’s story.

Science fiction this smart comes along so rarely that when a director with Carruth’s vision and intelligence comes along, he must be prized. Ten years is a long time to wait to follow up a beloved debut feature, but the wait was well worth it for Upstream Color is an undeniable science fiction masterpiece. Although I hope we won’t have to wait this long again for another Carruth picture, I suspect it will be years and dozens of viewings later before I’m finally able to piece together every part of the Upstream Color puzzle. And it’s a guarantee that at least the attempt will be made.

Final Score: A

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Though any look at the score distribution of my films will inform readers that my taste in movies leans towards the high-brow and artsy, I am not ashamed to admit that I am as capable of enjoying low-brow, broad cinema as anyone else. I only dismiss low-brow cinema out of hand when it’s intentionally as idiotic and crass as possible (i.e. late period Adam Sandler). Otherwise, if a film is enjoyable but meant for the masses, who cares? Funny is funny, and while no one would confuse Sex Drive with Woody Allen, I still really enjoy that movie despite it’s stupidity. However, the most unforgivable cinematic sin that I can think of is a movie that thinks it’s incredibly intelligent and profound but turns out to be as shallow as a dinner conversation at the Kardashian household.

I’ve tried to rewatch the original Matrix film years ago (and actually sat through twenty minutes of the first sequel before I started laughing uncontrollably and gave up), and, boy, is that film perhaps the shining example of a movie that will make stupid people think they’re smart. With it’s faux-philosophy and psuedo-scientific bent, The Matrix talked a big game but fell apart if you spent even half a second thinking about any of the absurd things Morpheus was saying. The Wachowski brothers (well technically, one of them’s a woman now) have managed to tread those same laughably asinine waters again with their bloated sci-fi epic, Cloud Atlas. It is not an understatement to say that Cloud Atlas is one of the most astoundingly deluded and self-important films I’ve ever forced myself to sit through for this blog.

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Cloud Atlas‘s narrative conceit probably worked much better in David Mitchell’s original novel but mostly leaves everything feeling rushed and half-cocked in the movie (despite the fact that it ran an agonizing three hours). The film is a series of six interconnected and metatextually nested tales featuring many of the same actors in a large number of roles in the different stories (including Big‘s Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Four Weddings and a Funeral‘s Hugh Grant, and Jim Broadbent). Touching on themes of slavery, free will, and the eternal consequences of our mortal actions, Cloud Atlas weaves a centuries spanning tale that leaves more than a little to be desired.

Certain episodes of the film work better than others, and perhaps not surprisingly at all, it is the portions of the film most dedicated to character and actual human storytelling that shine through more than the action/sci-fi/noir-ish pretentions the film wishes to hold. There are six stories in all in the film but only two made any impression with me. One is the tragic tale of Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), a talented Victorian-era English musician whose homosexuality puts him on the run. He moves in with the aged but brilliant composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) as Ayrs’s assistant, but when Frobisher’s talents prove a threat to Ayrs’s legacy, Frobisher sees the elderly man’s true nature.

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The only other story worth it’s salt in the film is that of Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent again), an older literary agent who is tricked into locking himself away in a sadistic nursing home by his brother as pay back for sleeping with his brother’s wife years ago. It’s a kafka-esque dark comedy, and it was probably the only moment where the film didn’t have a cockamamie and unearned high opinion of itself. It let it’s hair down so to speak. But the other tales, ranging from typical sci-fi cloning blues, a postapocalyptic wasteland, a troubled 19th century sea voyage, and a silly detective story were all totally forgettable and generic.

And that consistent air of “generic” and “been there, done that” becomes the film’s biggest problem. A sense of deja vu in plot is not a cardinal sin of movie-making. The year is 2013 and the plot well isn’t as deep and untapped as it used to be. But, with the exception of the bisexual and doomed Robert Frobisher and the hell-raising Timothy Cavendish, not a single one of the characters in the film had any life or purpose other than to be used as plot devices. They were uniformly dull and uninteresting and when all of the stories in the film are intentionally cliche-ridden spins on classic genres, you need something sharp and fresh to hold audience’s attention. And at virtually no point did Cloud Atlas‘s writing accomplish that goal.

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I must give the Wachowski’s credit (as well as the movie’s third director, Tom Tykwer) for milking some visual inspiration out of their otherwise tepid tales. the sci-fi cloning nonsense is set in a dystopian future where rising sea levels have virtually annihilated the surfaces of many major cities and crippling poverty permeates Neo Seoul unless you’re the very elite. And when the Wachowski’s want to display their flare for science fiction splendor (which was perhaps the only redeeming quality of the Matrix sequels), they are nearly peerless, and Cloud Atlas is no exception.

That’s probably the last nice thing I can say about the film other than the performances of Ben Whishaw and Jim Broadbent. For a man who was old when he won an Oscar for Iris in 2001, Jim Broadbent brought a bon vivant feeling to the film that was missing throughout. He seemed like he was having fun and actually wanted to be there. It probably has something to do with the fact that he was acting in front of actual actors on actual sets and not in a never-ending sea of green screens (whose presence was painfully obvious most of the film). And Ben Whishaw (who I’m not entirely familiar with) marked himself as a potential talent with his sensitive turn as Frobisher.

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But even more than the problems I’ve laid out so far, Cloud Atlas‘s troubles can be rooted down to one major and defining issue. It believes that it as insightful, intelligent, and profound as The Tree of Life, but it is in fact as obvious and unnecessary as they come. When the deepest notions that your film can come up with is “Slavery is bad” or “Humanity is inter-connected” or “Our actions have consequences,” it becomes very easy to laugh away any philosophical ambitions you pretend to have. And, that is as deep as the film gets. Kenneth Lonergan it is not.

What astounds me the most about Cloud Atlas though is how people I respect and appreciate intellectually seem to adore and idolize this film. Either they watched a different, better movie than I did or they allowed themselves to be suckered in by the surface beauty of the movie and it’s simplistic themes. I can’t in good heart recommend this film to everyone. I feel compelled to read the novel now to see if I find it to be as much of a trainwreck as the movie was, but somehow I feel that isn’t even possible. Unless you’re looking for a chance to laugh at really awful “yellowface” make-up, give Cloud Atlas a pass.

Final Score: C-

 

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If you’ve been reading this blog for any extended period of time, you know that my tastes in cinema tend towards the obscure and artsy. And, generally, this makes me the perfect candidate to enjoy movies that have gained “cult” status over the years. Although I’ve never been to a midnight showing (cause I never had a way to get to the ones in Morgantown when we still had them), I consider myself to be a pretty huge Rocky Horror Picture Show fan, and I know far too many of the words and choreography to that show, and the list of cult films I enjoy goes on. 2001’s Donnie Darko is one of the most popular and defining cult films of the 2000s. I last watched it when it was first released (I was 12 at the time), and I did not like it. At all. Over the years, I’ve grown to think maybe I was too young to appreciate it. Well, as a 24 year old, I still find it to be mostly muddled gobbledygook with some occasional great elements thrown in. And I still can’t for the life of me comprehend why this has become such a modern cult classic.

And before some Donnie Darko fanboy jumps down my throat for not understanding the film (which seems to be the case whenever I criticize either this film [which I find to be sometimes bad, usually good, once or twice great]) or Inception, which I legitimately enjoy), I get the movie. Although the theatrical version (which is what I watched earlier today and which will be the version of the film that I review) has a fairly open-ended finale, there are still only two real ways to interpret the events of the film (either a Looper-style stable-time loop or the film is essentially David Lynch’s Lost Highway with a talking bunny. I realize that it’s the former in the Director’s Cut). It’s that I find Donnie Darko to be a ham-fisted tale, bloated with half-assed subplots and at a mere two hours, I still found myself constantly begging for the film to draw to a close. If the Director’s Cut is longer, I honestly can’t imagine any way it made this film better.

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In October of 1988, on the heels of the Dukakis/Bush election, Donnie Darko (End of Watch‘s Jake Gyllenhaal) is a troubled young teenager living with his family in the Blue Velvet-style suburban Hellhole of Middlesex. Donnie’s not your average angsty teenager though. He is potentially a total crazy person showing all of the signs of classic paranoid schizophrenia. With chronic sleep-walking (he may wake up later at the top of a mountain or at the local golf course), Donnie begins to see an “imaginary” talking man in a bunny suit who tells him that the world will end in 28 days. And as Donnie spends the next 28 days battling with a puritanical teacher, a phony self-help guru, and the douche bags who attend his high school (as well as his own mental illness), it might be for the best for Donnie if the world ends after all. The only thing keeping him attached to anything is the appearance of new girl Gretchen (Saved‘s Jena Malone) that Donnie quickly falls for.

There are, in my mind, exactly two consistently excellent things about Donnie Darko. The first is the soundtrack which is a great collection of 1980s alternative/indie rock hits. And let’s face it, I’m not sure if there was ever a better era for alternative rock. A lot of great Oingo Boingo, Tears for Fears, and Joy Division. You can’t ask for more than that. Also, Jena Malone was a marvelous breath of fresh air in a film full of awkward, stilted performances. She was (she’s not that young anymore) one of Hollywood’s most interesting and talented young actresses, and it’s really a shame that she never got more mainstream exposure. She’s beautiful and talented, and she put more nuance and subtlety into her portrayal of Gretchen than everyone else was able to find over the course of the whole film. That’s not necessarily true. Mary McDonnell also found some real emotional gravitas as Donnie’s beleaguered mother.

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The movie’s called Donnie Darko. Donnie is the main character. So, if you’re assuming that a significant portion of the film rests on Jake Gyllenhaal’s shoulders, you’d be right. This was one of Jake’s earliest high-profile roles (along with October Sky). I think Jake’s a great actor. His performance in Brokeback Mountain is mesmerizing and a perfect display of male vulnerability and sexual aggression all at once. He’s not good in this role. He has some good moments. But when he’s trying to look demented and mentally unhinged, he succeeds, but it’s also so comically over-the-top that I begin to wonder if he’s trying to be satirical. The film hinges on me believing that he’s crazy, and while I believed he was crazy, I would have appreciated a little restraint. It’s good to know that by the time Zodiac and Brokeback Mountain came around, Gyllenhaal had matured as an actor.

I mentioned this earlier, but this film is the rare movie that clocks in at under two hours (I think I had it at an hour and forty-seven minutes when the end credits began to roll), but it’s just overflowing with material that needed to be cut. There are at least half a dozen subplots in this film that supplement the central story of Donnie losing his god damn mind and worrying about the impending apocalypse. And there isn’t a single one that works. It’s almost as if director Richard Kelly realized he didn’t have enough material for a full-film but didn’t take the time to write out at least one or two good subplots and just made six insultingly thin ones instead. And, while the film does do a really excellent job of stringing together some of the seemingly random shit the movie throws at you just in time for its ending, that was the rare beam of proficiency in the film’s storytelling.

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As an allegory for modern teen angst, the film is just as hit or miss. There are times where it captures the pain and heart-ache that we feel as teenagers as well as anything else. It has highs that are nearly as high as The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It just doesn’t seem to understand the meaning of the word consistency. While I admire characters that defy easy categorization (it’s what makes the people that populate the films of Kenneth Lonergan so entrancing), Donnie’s characterization often defies any human logic. And not often in a good way. He’s dickish to people he has no reason to be an asshole to, and while I understand that he’s a crazy person, his acting out doesn’t always seem centered in whatever psychosis he’s suffering from. As a character, Donnie is a hot mess (and gives a bad wrap to all other Don’s out there. *cough cough* me.)

Despite the total thrashing I just gave this film, it does have its moments. The score is amazing (not just the soundtrack). Jena Malone solidified herself as a rising indie talent in this film. In terms of sheer atmosphere, Donnie Darko captures something essentially anxious and fear-driven in both its visuals and its thematic content. I just wish that Donnie Darko could keep up the illusion of competency over its entire run-time. I understand how many people LOVE this movie, and my mostly indifference to it isn’t meant as disrespect to a film that so many hold dear to their heart. It’s just a statement of both my inability to connect with the film as well as what I hope is a logical pointing out of some of the myriad flaws working against this modern cult classic.

Final Score: B-

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To paraphrase Dean Pelton from Community, “time travel is really hard.” To wit, writers who are able to do it well seem to exclusively be Steven Moffat, J.J. Abrams, Carlton Cuse, and Damon Lindelof (it’s weird how three of those individuals are involved with the greatest science fiction show of all time). Writers seem to either hand-wave the ontological paradoxes they inadvertently create or they bury themselves under technobabble explaining the pseudoscience their premise seems to be operating on. Great time travel stories are lean and efficient, write as few paradoxes into their tale as possible (or none at all if you’re 12 Monkeys), and give characters a front-and-center view. It’s what’s made Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who years work and it’s what made season five of Lost so brilliant. The third directorial feature from Brick‘s Rian Johnson now puts him in the ranks of the time travel masters with the thrilling and wicked smart Looper.

In the year 2042, time travel hasn’t been invented yet. But in about thirty years, it will (I think I might be directly quoting exposition from the film at this point). Joe (The Dark Knight Rises‘s Joseph Gordon Levitt) is a “Looper.” Time travel will become illegal, and the only one’s that use it are criminal organizations. They send people they want killed back to the past so that hit men called Loopers can kill them and dispose of bodies that don’t even technically exist yet. It’s an easy job for easy money but there’s a catch. Time travel becomes such a touchy subject in the future that the criminal syndicates force Loopers to “close their own loop.” If the Looper is still alive in the future, he’s sent back to the 2040s where the present time Looper has to kill his future self. And he severs ties with the syndicate to enjoy his remaining thirty years.

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Joe’s life is one of beautiful women, fast cars, eye-drop drugs, and old-fashioned guns. With his telekinetic fellow Looper Seth (Paul Dano), Joe is living the life until it’s time for him to finally close his own loop. After a moment’s hesitation, Joe is unable to pull the trigger on future Joe (Bruce Willis) and future Joe gets away. Now both young Joe and old Joe are being hunted by the criminal syndicate who wants to take them both out before either can screw things up even more. Young Joe wants to find and kill Old Joe so that he can get what remains of his life back and Old Joe wants to find the young version of the head of the crime family from his time and kill him before he can start closing everyone’s loop. And so young Joe finds the boy and vows to protect him and his mother (The Adjustment Bureau‘s Emily Blunt) as he waits for Old Joe to make his move.

I don’t know exactly when Joseph Gordon-Levitt became the thinking-man’s action star (although my guess is that Inception was as good a launching pad as any) but god bless America that that finally happened. With a subtle application of make-up (or maybe not so subtle if you know what Joseph Gordon-Levitt actually looks like), Levitt becomes Bruce Willis. I mean it. If you’ve ever seen a  Bruce Willis movie, you know all of Bruce’s mannerisms. The way he manages to both open his eyes wide but also seem to somehow be closing them at the same time. The little drawl he uses when he talks. The cocky swagger. Joseph Gordon-Levitt finds all of it. If there’s ever a Bruce Willis biopic, I nominate Joseph Gordon-Levitt for the role. Yet, he also (as he does in virtually all of his roles) adds the emotional pathos needed for the role and to have us cheering for someone who is more or less nothing other than a hired gun.

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Anybody who’s seen Brick or either of the episodes of Breaking Bad that Rian Johnson directed know that Johnson (who also wrote the film) is a master of both pulp dialogue and head-spinning visuals. And Looper is no exception. We’re about ten films deep into our current 50 film crop (for the superlatives of the last 50, you can go here), and out of those so far, Looper has been the only one with a real sense of visual flair. Johnson’s world-building is impeccable and the film’s western/mobster/steampunk vibe is one of the most original sci-fi aesthetics this side of Firefly. And much like Children of Men (which became an allegory for illegal immigration at times), Looper infuses it’s future tech with a sense that mankind is slowly destroying itself through greed and violence. And a recurring visual motif is one of desolate economic squalor.

Now what I’m about to say may seem contradictory but bear with me. Looper‘s only flaws lie in some pacing problems that drag down the middle section of the film. A more lean, 90 minute run time could have made this an all-time classic. Rian Johnson admirably tries to build up the characters during quieter moments of the film and mostly he succeeds. We watch as Bruce Willis struggles to retain the memories of his past life as new memories are constantly being created as he broken the causality of his previous life. We watch Emily Blunt and Joseph Gordon-Levitt bond as he comes to care for her and her child. But not everything works as smoothly, and when scenes seem artificial (the first stirring of romance rather than simple affection between Blunt and Levitt or the implied ease that Willis has in killing children to save his future wife), the film starts to drag and you wish that Johson could return to the kinetic pace of the opening sections of the film.

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Despite its flaws and the occasional thinness of its characterizations, Looper is a hell of a ride. We are living in a golden age of intelligent science fiction from District 9 to Children of Men to Watchmen. I’m not saying that Looper is as good as those films (it’s certainly nowhere near as good as Children of Men) but for fans of sci-fi with brains and a little bit of testosterone, Looper gets the job done. Joseph Gordon-Levitt continues to establish himself as one of the most exciting and fresh young faces in Hollywood and Bruce Willis continues his bad-ass ride into the sunset as one of Hollywood’s premier bad-asses. Don’t miss one of the best science fiction films of last year.

Final Score: A-