Category: Sci-Fi Thrillers


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Have you ever encountered a sequel in a franchise where it’s clear that overall the product is significantly better but because fundamental structural issues haven’t been addressed, it’s hard to appreciate the improvements? It’s a common phenomenon in video games with yearly sequels where significant mechanical tweaks are made but the formula starts to feel stale and basic problems are never really solved. It’s never something I’ve encountered with a film franchise before The Hunger Games though. Long time readers will know that I consider the book to be a considerable improvement over its predecessor, but maybe because the first Hunger Games film was already an improvement over the source material, it’s hard to appreciate the strides this entry made.

Suzanne Collins is a good storyteller but her prose is woefully deficient and it makes reading the books a slog. And one of the wonderful benefits of the film version was that I wasn’t forced to wade through her amateurish mastery of the English language (not to mention Gary Ross’s compelling direction and conception of what Panem would look like). And since the book of Catching Fire improved her storytelling ten fold (by truly fleshing out the world that Katniss and company inhabited), I assumed that the movie would be even better. But, perhaps it was not having the poor prose to distract me, this time I was forced to acknowledge even deeper problems in the Hunger Games universe.

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Before this review takes on an overly negative turn, let there be no misunderstanding that I thoroughly enjoyed Catching Fire and it joins Star Trek Into Darkness and Iron Man 3 as one of this year’s blockbusters with actual brains. As far as modern dystopian science fiction for teenagers go, I’m hard-pressed to name a franchise with wider reach than The Hunger Games that also deserves said fandom. The action set-pieces during the film’s third act eclipse those even in the first, and the number of stars that director Francis Lawrence gathered for this entry is almost mind-boggling. But, and I’ll elaborate on this more shortly, one glaring problem with the film kept me from totally immersing myself this time around.

For those who haven’t seen the first one (or read the book), stop now because I’m about to spoil the ending for you. After finding a way to keep herself and fellow District 12 Tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) alive during the 74th annual Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Winter’s Bone‘s Jennifer Lawrence) quickly discovers that surviving the Hunger Games was the easy part. Forced on a circus publicity tour around the 12 districts of PanEm, Katniss learns that she has become the symbol of an uprising against the totalitarian Capital. But if she wants to keep her and her family alive, she’s going to have to prove to President Snow (Don’t Look Now‘s Donald Sutherland) that her fake love with Peeta which got her through the Hunger Games is real and it’s real enough to subdue the uprising.

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But, the film would be really boring if it was just Jennifer Lawrence pretending to love the emotionally reserved (and supremely dull) Josh Hutcherson, and in order to ensure that Katniss can’t become the face of the revolution, President Snow and the new Gamemaker for the 75th Annual Hunger Games, Plutarch Heavensbee (Synecdoche, New York‘s Phillip Seymour Hoffman), devise a wrinkle to this year’s game. Known as the Quarter Quell, every 25 years the Hunger Games rules are changed dramatically and this year, the tributes are chosen from a pool of past winners and both Katniss and Peeta inevitably have their names drawn.

In my review of the book, I talked about how Catching Fire‘s lengthy prelude (the action doesn’t really begin until the film’s final act) added context to the Hunger Games universe. Not only did we learn more about the different districts and why revolution has been so effectively suppressed (but also why Katniss is the spark needed to make it… catch fire), but by spending time getting to know the other tributes, it allowed their to be more characters with depth beyond Katniss and Peeta. Of course, the introduction of great supporting characters like Finnick (Sam Claflin), Johanna (Donnie Darko‘s Jena Malone), and Beete (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close‘s Jeffrey Wright) is that it subjects Katniss to the film’s biggest problem: boring protagonist syndrome.

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Katniss is one of the great female heroines of the modern age alongside Harry Potter‘s Hermione and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo‘s Lisbeth Salander. She’s a total bad-ass and her life isn’t primarily devoted to her romantic interests (unlike a certain resident of Forks, Washington) though she’s allowed to have a romance. But, Katniss is also something of a blank slate and a cipher for readers to project themselves onto and while she’s usually defined by her bad-ass feat of heroics, if she’s not killing something with a bow, you realize there isn’t any depth to this girl (at least until Mockingjay).

And the first film solved this problem by having Katniss constantly doing something cool. There’s more exposition and universe-building in Catching Fire and, thus, more time to see Katniss interacting with others, and except when she’s playing across the wooden and entirely one-dimensional Peeta, everyone in the film is more compelling than her. Woody Harrelson (Rampart) is particularly magnificent as the drunken Haymitch as he continues to be (despite all conventional wisdom) one of the most compelling actors of the last fifteen years (when he’s given the right roles).

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New-comer to the franchise Jena Malone also steals every second she’s on screen as the deliciously bitchy Johanna who quickly reveals her own hidden depths, but anyone who’s seen Donnie Darko or Saved! knows how talented she is. And Sam Claflin is charming with enough of an edge of “is he good or bad” to make him interesting despite the ultimate conclusion. And of course, Stanley Tucci, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Donald Sutherland all turn in great roles for a series they are probably too talented to be a part of.

That’s not to discount Jennifer Lawrence’s performance. After Silver Linings Playbook and Winter’s Bone, she’s secured her title as her generation’s most promising actress, but Katniss was a particularly thin role to begin with and it feels like she has even little do this time around. Katniss is particularly “ethos”-less in this entry compared to her comrades and that makes it even harder to care for her. Her saving grace as a character this time around is that she’s usually not too far from Peeta and he can make anyone look like a character from a Kenneth Lonergan film (which is so weird cause he’s not that boring in the books).

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By focusing so much on the flatness of Katniss’s character in this entry (and a general sense that the early exposition and world-building didn’t work nearly as well on screen as it did in the book), I should reiterate that I really enjoyed Catching Fire. And, in many meaningful ways, it is a significant improvement over the first film. But, I also couldn’t stop thinking about those things the entire time the film was running. If you’re on the edge about whether or not you should see the film after this review, don’t be. You should. It’s one of the best “event” films of the year. I just wish Katniss was a more well-rounded heroine for our modern age.

Final Score: B+

 

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This review is going to be as much about the fundamental rules of storytelling as it is a traditional critique of Primer. So, if you aren’t interested in a metatextual examination of the limits of cinematic storytelling, you should skip this review. Also, it is beyond impossible to discuss the labyrinthine nature of this time-travel puzzle’s plot without engaging in what some would claim are spoilers and for that I apologize. Primer is the type of film that every fan of high-concept cinema should force themselves to watch. And though I didn’t walk away from this movie with the sort of rapturous adulation that its most ardent supporters bestow upon it, I understand that has as much to do with my structural beliefs regarding the nature of cinema as it does the quality of the movie itself. Taken on its own terms, Primer is a scientific jigsaw puzzle of the highest order; as an entertaining or enlightening viewing experience, it leaves a little more to be desired.

I’ve written four screenplays (haven’t sold any yet; haven’t really tried to yet either though); but I know that I will never in my entire life write a film that reaches the masterful complexity of Primer. I was always a shitty strategist in chess, and I’m just not that capable of thinking that far ahead. Most pieces of fiction are lucky if they include one well-placed Chekhov’s Gun (check the hyperlink if you are unfamiliar with the literary device). Primer is composed almost entirely of subtle and easily-missed foreshadowing. There is so little “fat” in this film that beyond the budget requirements of the film (the movie was made for around $7,000 with most of the money being spent on film stock), the movie’s 77 minute running time could be as much a commentary on reducing storytelling to its essentials as it is an act of frugality.

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However, what qualifies as the bare essentials of Primer could fill up the essentials of around a dozen other films. Calling Primer dense would be like calling the Pacific Ocean damp. I proposed this to an engineer friend of mine and he concurred with my sentiment so I feel comfortable stating it here. Primer is like porn for engineers and practical scientists. Though the basic concept of time-travel used is silly and technobabble to some extent, the scientific and mathematic language used in the film is rooted in actuality. And, thus, if like me you don’t have a Master’s in one of the physical sciences, engineering, or math, Primer can be an impossible cliff to climb. Thankfully, my best friend (a, for lack of a better word, genius and modern renaissance man) was present while we watched the film and he helped to keep me up to speed about what the characters were talking about. Primer exceeds even The Wire in its expectation that an audience will be able to follow its plot without any artificial exposition.

And therein lies the rub of the film. On the one hand, I praise Primer as an intellectual brain-teaser of the highest order. It is so smart and detailed and expertly complex that it is without question that I will watch this film at least half a dozen more times in the next year or two trying to suss out its secrets. It’s the type of movie that I’ll have to watch with explanatory charts open so that I can keep of the various timelines and iterations of the plot. But, and this is incredibly important, once you solve the puzzle of the film, I worry that Primer has little else to speak for it (besides an exceptional use of a tiny budget). Multiple viewings will help me understand the byzantine structure of the film’s narrative. But will it ever make me care about its characters? Will I ever find an actual emotional arc worth investing in? Based on my viewing of the film and a subsequent obsessive consumption of synopses of the film’s plot, I think not.

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It is a testament to the outlandish, almost Lynchean complexity of the film (more on why I prefer a Lynch-style puzzle later) that I haven’t even actually touched on the plot of the film yet, the idea that I needed that sort of preface to any sort of analysis of this film. Four friends run a small-scale lab out of the garage of Aaron (Shane Carruth) as a way to make money on the side apart from their boring day jobs as engineers. But a schism over the direction of their entrepreneurial activities causes a schism in the group, and without informing the others, Aaron and Abe (David Sullivan) begin work on their own invention, a room-temperature super-conductor. But, without realizing it, the pair have also invented a machine whose contents are shuttled back and forth through time roughly 1300 times. And that’s not the complicated part of the film.

After realizing the potential of their machine (which goes beyond their original hope to create a cheap, more efficient energy source), Aaron and Abe decide to create a larger version of their machine, which they now call the box, which would be able to fit a person inside of it. And, thus they invent man-made time travel, but with serious limitations. The box can only send someone back to the time that the machine is turned on so in order to travel six hours in time, you have to turn the machine on, wait six hours, and then, you must wait six hours in the box to go backwards in time. They use this extra six hours of causal influence on the universe to try and influence minor events like the stock market and sports betting, but when their careful attempts to cause as little change as possible proves more than they can handle, the plot of Primer spirals outward to near insanity as multiple iterations of the same timeline show the continued change Abe and Aaron’s interference is wrecking on the time stream.

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If that sounds complex, that’s the dumbed down version of the plot. If you’ve seen the film, you’re probably familiar with graphs like this which attempt to explain the looping/spiraling plot of the film. Based on what I’ve read of these charts, Shane Carruth’s plotting is masterful to an insane, Chinatown-esque degree. In fact, I imagine Robert Towne would have to bow down to the attention to continuity and detail that Shane Carruth displayed in literally every second of Primer. And, if Primer is meant as a commentary on what would have to be the inherently insane details of time travel and messing with causality, then the film is an unqualified success. The viewer is as lost in the woods as the heroes of the piece. But I still fret that the puzzle is all Primer has to offer.

Once you’ve conquered the puzzle of Primer (and if you’ve done that without the help of graphs and charts and internet forums, congratulations; you’re a genius), is there anything left to comeback to? Great storytelling rewards repeat viewings even after you’ve “mastered” the film. There is nothing left in Annie Hall for me to notice, but the emotional power of the film grows with each viewing as I mature and come to appreciate the adult romance of it or Manhattan. Clearly, getting in lost in the seemingly countless little details that Carruth has hidden throughout the film is a pleasure in its own right. But that’s pure plotting. Great storytelling is a combination of great characters and great plotting. I feel fairly safe in saying that Primer leans entirely to the latter side of that equation. For when you find all the details, I worry the film leaves you with no new resonances.

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I’m going to cut this review short because I watched two films with my best friend last night. We watched this and (500) Days of Summer, and I need to review both. Though I am coming off as especially critical of the lack of an actual substantive core of the film, I hope that isn’t read as a critique of the value of Primer. Shane Carruth accomplished exactly what he wanted to. He made a mad, brain-stretching puzzle that will be confounding new and old audiences for decades to come. My desire for more character and for more emotional context to the actions of the heroes is a comment on what I want in a film, not necessarily what makes a film good. As long as you have an IQ of around 120 or so, you owe it to yourself to watch Primer. If you’re anything like me, you’ll lose sleep trying to unravel its secrets.

Final Score: B+

 

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Without wanting to be “that” guy, it’s easy to tell the real Stephen King fans from the casual readers. Though the man has nearly turned horror into his raison d’etre, his most loyal readers know that many of his most accomplished works fall outside of the typical purview of supernatural horror fiction, and some even abandon horror entirely to be modern fantasy epics (The Dark Tower novels) or simple tales of hope and redemption (Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption). Long-time readers of this blog know that I consider his political allegory Under the Dome to be one of the best modern novels I’ve read in recent years. And while The Dead Zone may not rest at the top of my list of King’s works, it was one of the first novels to really explore the man’s range as an author.

As much as I love the 1979 novel, Mr. King’s sprawling and occasionally unfocused tale doesn’t seem like the ideal candidate for a faithful film adaptation. The main villain isn’t really introduced until towards the end of the book, and much of the film’s conflict is internal and psychological. But, to David Cronenberg’s credit, he made one of the most faithful King adaptations I can think of (most Stephen King movies have sadly little to do with their source book). 1983’s The Dead Zone has its share of problems in coming to the big screen, but it helped introduce a whole generation to the possibilities of Mr. King outside of typical horror fare.

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When affable high middle school English teacher Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) drops off his girlfriend after at a night at the fair, his life as he knows is it is destroyed when his car is totaled by an 18-wheeler on a rainy night. Johnny wakes up fives years later from a deep coma, and his whole world has moved on without him. His girlfriend has gotten married and even has children, and his mother dies of a heart attack not long after he wakes up. However, Johnny has bigger problems than just acclimating to being out of the world for five years. When he wakes up, he now has the power to see into a person’s future and past simply by touching them.

Johnny’s powers awaken when he brushes arms with a nurse in the long-term care facility where he’s staying after he wakes up. He sees the nurse’s daughter burning in a fire-consumed house, and it is only by the stroke of Johnny’s premonition that he is able to save the girl. It isn’t long before word of Johnny’s powers reach the public, and he’s brought in to help solve a serial murder case in the classic King town of Castle Rock. After Johnny’s powers expose him directly to the horrors of man during that investigation, he wants to retire until a chance meeting with rising politician Greg Stillson (The Departed‘s Martin Sheen) brings him visions of the apocalypse.

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While The Dead Zone isn’t really a horror book/film, David Cronenberg expertly taps into the dread and horrific violence at the center of the tale. And his direction fuels the unsettling, psychologically unstable world that Johnny must now navigate. In the scene where Johnny and Sheriff Walt Bannerman (Alien‘s Tom Skeritt) finally confront the Castle Rock Killer, Cronenberg (whose background was in sci-fi/horror squickfests) employs every tool at his disposal to heighten the tension and disgust for a man who’s murdered so many girls. And during the premonition sequences, Cronenberg lends the proceedings just the right amount of surrealism to sell the supernatural aspect of what Johnny is experiencing.

A quick search of Christopher Walken in my blog’s search bar shows that if this isn’t straight out the first Christopher Walken movie I’ve reviewed, it’s at least the first one where he’s had a substantive role. And that’s crazy to me since I’ve reviewed over 360 films. Walken gives one of my favorite film performances of all time in The Deer Hunter and while Johnny isn’t as demanding as the shell-shocked Vietnam veteran, it’s still a psychologically complex role and Walken has to show so much of the internal conflict present in King’s novel that had to be left unsaid in the film (for time’s sake). Walken’s Johnny is a frazzled and weary man, but he’s also one that is kind and tough and fiercely protective of the things he cares about. Martin Sheen also bursts off the screen as the sociopathic Greg Stillson.

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Clearly, in a film that’s just over an hour and a half long, much of the characterization of King’s novel is lost, and the scenes involving the Castle Rock killer (as excellent as the denouement may be) seems rushed and almost distracting from the movie’s main themes, but more than most King films, Cronenberg manages to keep enough in to make the film function both as a movie in its own right but also a faithful King adaptation. Even as a novel, The Dead Zone lacks the epic ambition of The Stand or It, but for fans of supernatural thrillers and a movie with a genuinely shocking final act, The Dead Zone is an artifact of 1980s filmmaking that has aged well to this day.

Final Score: B+

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I’m going to posit a fairly unpopular opinion right now, but it’s one that I’ve held for a long time now (and my most current viewing of the film didn’t dispossess me of this belief), the original 1979 Alien is one of the more over-rated science fiction films of all time. It is generally held up as one of the greatest sci-fi horror movies ever made, and if that’s true, sci-fi horror must be a sadly dull genre of cinema. Even now, 34 years later, it’s clear that Alien was a crowning technical achievement. And much like Black Rain and Black Hawk Down, it should be obvious to everyone that Ridley Scott is a masterful director with a keen visual eye. Sadly, the pacing in Alien is downright tedious at times and the film never frightened me once. Through in the fact that, outside of Ripley and the character played by Yaphet Kotto, I didn’t care about any of the characters in the film, Alien is a sadly stale if exceptionally technically well made sci-fi horror.

Alien is considered to be one of the premier films of the “less is more” philosophy of horror film-making. And I am a huge supporter of that genre. The original Paranormal Activity crafted a genuine modern horror classic on that principle, and Roman Polanski’s psychological horror masterpiece Repulsion is also from the same vein. But those films succeed where Alien often fails with an understanding of how to fill the scenes in between the horror. Paranormal Activity had the great banter between Micah and Katie and Repulsion had its omnipresent social commentary on the dangers of sexual repression. Alien has its plot and practically nothing else besides its admittedly suffocating atmosphere. If Alien had found a way to breathe life to the characters portrayed by its star-studded cast, it might have been a great film. As it is, Alien simply is not.

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In the future, the commercial towing ship Nostromo holds 7 passengers (plus a cat) as it returns to Earth after a successful mining operation. However, before the ship can reach Earth, the crew is prematurely awakened from its cryogenic stasis when they intercept an emergency distress beacon on a remote planet. An away team consisting of the ship’s two commanding officers, Dallas (Tom Skerritt) and Kane (John Hurt), as well as the navigator, Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), heads down to the planet’s surface to investigate the distress beacon where they find a crashed, derelict space craft with nothing left alive on board. Or so they think. Kane finds an egg in one of the ship’s chambers and a mysterious alien life form attaches itself to his face, even breaking through his helmet, creating a parasitic attachment to Kane’s head. When the chief science officer, Ash (Ian Holm), breaks quarantine rules and let’s the away team back on the ship, the whole crew’s lives is put in danger.

It is quickly apparent once the away team returns that the alien attached to Kane’s face is very dangerous. Warrant officer Ripley (The Village‘s Sigourney Weaver) is angry enough that they let the alien on the ship in the first place, and the engineers Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) aren’t too pleased about it either. No one knows what the alien is or why it’s attached itself to Kane’s face, but there’s a ray of hope when the alien seemingly disappears. Kane seems to be alright until an infamous dinner sequence where an evolved version of the alien bursts forth from his chest. And from that point forward, it’s a race against time to either kill the alien or be killed as it evolves and starts to take more and more of the ship’s crew down with it.

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I’ll give Alien credit for the things it does astoundingly well. As I’ve said, this movie is 34 years old now. Other than a hilariously 1970s/1980s idea of what computers will look like in the future (apparently they all still run on DOS), the special effects and general feel of Alien has aged remarkably well. There were only a couple occasions where I thought the effects looked laughably aged (an explosion at the very end of the film being the most prominent one), and like the original Star Wars films, Alien is a film you could show to today’s kids and they wouldn’t laugh at its look. And, beyond the effects, Ridley Scott makes the atmosphere and look of the ship absolutely suffocating and dripping with dread (even if nothing especially scary ever happens). The lighting and camerawork of the movie are superb, and I just wish it’d had a better script supporting it.

The film is also chock full of some of the best character actors of the 1970s and is the film that shot Sigourney Weaver to stardom. And the performances are great. While the characterizations of the people aboard the ship are paper-thin, the actors have a strong chemistry, and the animosity between Ash and Ripley is so strong that one almost wonders if they disliked each other in real life. They legitimately gave the impression that they simply couldn’t stand to be around one another. Sigourney Weaver helped to encapsulate one of the ultimate female bad-asses in movie history, and her turn as Ripley is one of the great parts of the film, although I loved the consistently scheming and disapponted Parker played by Yaphet Kotto. Parker and Ripley were the only two characters in the film that seemed to have any bite to them.

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I’ll draw this review to a close. I hope you can tell that I don’t dislike Alien. It is an inarguably well-crafted film, and it helped bring Ridley Scott’s talents to mainstream prominence. Unfortunately, it’s script is simply alright, and it doesn’t do justice to Scott’s artistic vision and talent. Black Rain is one of the least remembered/discussed of Ridley Scott’s films, but I honestly think it’s better than Alien. It is smart and stylish from beginning to end, and though it’s not some shining example of cinematic art, it always remains fun. Alien wants to be cinematic art, but it isn’t good enough to pull it off. I think everyone should watch Alien. Like John Carpenter’s The Thing, it’s required sci-fi horror viewing 101; I just don’t think it’s the timeless classic that everyone else does.

Final Score: B

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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.

Emily Blunt;Joseph Gordon Levitt

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-

A couple weeks ago, I was in one of this blog’s “lovely” periods where it seemed like nearly every other movie I watched was unbearably dull or simply awful. Those are not fun times for me because as I’ve discussed in the past, the quality of films I view on here can be “streaky”. Most of the time, it’s a healthy mix of films I enjoy and I films I abhor or simply don’t enjoy. The blog tends to skew towards good because I intentionally choose culturally relevant and award-nominated films for my big list, but there will be moments where it seems like the random number gods who created the order of my list were taking special pleasure in torturing me with subpar films. We are currently in the promised land of this blog where it seem like everything I watch is delightful and I know I’m cursing myself by bringing it up (since the next movie in my instant queue is a nearly 3 hour biopic about Hitler and the other movie I have at home is a documentary about some family with like 16 children, I know this streak is ending soon). I just finished the 2009 low-budget sci-fi film Moon which has slowly been developing a cult following over the last few years, and while I’m not sure if I thought it was as brilliant as everyone else, it’s still a great reminder of intellectually demanding science fiction.

On the moon station Sarang, astronaut/engineer Sam Bell (Choke‘s Sam Rockwell) is two weeks away from finally getting to return home after a three year contract running energy conglomerate LUNAR’s mining operation all by himself on the far side of the moon. Since the live satellite feed is down, Sam’s only contact with other people has been his robot assistant Gerty (Kevin Spacey) and video messages that are weeks old (without any ability to contact them back himself). One day, Sam starts to experience strange visions and after a wreck in his lunar rover, things quickly spiral out of control. Waking up in the infirmary of his lunar station, Sam grows suspicious when he hears Gerty speaking on the “broken” satellite feed with his superiors and with the fact that he isn’t allowed outside of the station. Tricking Gerty into letting him out, Sam stumbles upon the same rover he crashed before but with a major, shocking twist. His  still alivebody is still inside it. One of these Sam’s has to be a clone, and as they work together to figure out just what exactly LUNAR has been up to, the clock is running out as a clean-up squad is heading to the base to take care of things once and for all.

Perhaps one of the reasons that I wasn’t as bowled over with this film as everyone else (although I still really enjoyed it) was that I’ve probably had more exposure to “cloning blues” plots than your average non-science fiction fan. The new Battlestar Galactica treaded similar thematic territory to far stronger results (as well as the criminally under-appreciated A.I. from Steven Spielberg which I still think is one of his three best films). The only really new element that this film added to the whole “what does it really mean to be human” debate was adding a level of isolation to the proceedings and turning fairly well-tread science fiction fodder into a slow-boiling psychological thriller. Still, for a film that was made with absolutely no budget ($5 million), it was impressive just what the movie was able to accomplish in the effects department as well as plot by utilizing essentially one actor on screen for the entire film (there were others but we only ever saw them on video screens and Kevin Spacey just did voice-over).

Sam Rockwell was carrying basically the entire film on his shoulders since he was playing not one but two characters. And to be honest, I felt like he stumbled a little bit. It’s not that he did a bad job, and he’s really come a long way over the years (even if this performance wasn’t as good as Choke‘s), but the film would have been better off hiring a more experienced actor. Sam Rockwell never seemed capable of tapping into the same kind of anger and frustration that his character was obviously written as feeling. Instead, he simply seemed to be operating in an eternal state of confusion and bland misery. Kevin Spacey did a great job though of capturing the monotone voice of famous sci-fi A.I. like HAL or GlaDos, but he also played around with it a little bit by seeming to poke at hidden layers of emotion that Gerty was desperately wanting to let through but couldn’t seem to because of his programming.

If you’re a fan of “hard” science fiction (i.e. fairly realistic and possible rather than aliens and lightsabers and such), Moon will make you wonder why so much sci-fi feels the need to push things to the borders of fantasy and beyond. Generally, for all fans of science fiction, it is a refreshingly smart and understated film even if its not quite as boundary-pushing as its fans believe. The plot moves along at its own, deliberate pace, but since the movie’s running time is only an hour and a half, it’s slowness works because it always the tension to slowly bubble and fizzle til the movies final climactic moments. It was a promising debut film from David Bowie’s son, Zowie Bowie (credited as Dunacn Jones for the film), and I’m excited to see what else this talented director has up his sleeves.

Final Score: B+

Is there anything more frustrating than a film with honest moments of pure brilliance and a gorgeous aesthetic that is dragged down by the complete lack of a keen editorial eye? It’s become almost a recurring theme on this blog that there are movies I want to love but can’t because they are either A) excessively long (Das Boot,Inland Empire although I still love those films. Their interminable length simply kept them from receiving perfect scores) or B) prone to absurdist and pretentious flights of fancy that seem to have no place in the film (The Shop on Main Street, Stroszek man I keep talking about movies I really do love regardless of their flaws. I’m sure their are films that frustrate me like this. This review will be one of these films!). Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the most beloved films in all of science fiction and considered a masterpiece by many. While it assuredly has a unique and distinct visual style with special effects that have stood the test of time and a brilliant sound track, the moments of the film that truly work are more often than not offset by the moments that make you wonder if Stanley Kubrick had ingested large amounts of acid (and not in that good Hunter S. Thompson kind of way) or had any idea what kind of story he wanted to tell while dragging the film on a good 30-40 minutes than it should have lasted.

Describing the plot of 2001: A Space Odyssey is a little bit tricky as it is a mostly episodic affair with recurring themes and symbols tying the episodes together. Beginning with the “dawn of man,” the film chronicles early human-like ancestors exposure to a black monolith that bestows intelligence upon them. This of course leads to the discover of weapons as a tool for violence and the film suddenly fast-forwards to 2001 where man is in space. The moon (which is now some sort of colony) has been quarantined from the rest of humanity for initially unknown reasons. It turns out that another of these black monoliths has been discovered and its effects are so powerful and potentially dangerous that its existence is kept a secret from the public. The meatiest plot of the film occurs next when 18 months later, two astronauts (and three scientists in hibernation) are on a spaceship to Jupiter alongside the artificial intelligence, H.A.L. 9000, when HAL suddenly decides to kill everyone on the ship. The last segment of the film goes “beyond the infinite” and to be completely honest, I still have no clue what that section of the film was about.

The film remains an almost unparalleled visual delight. Were it not for Kubrick’s attempts to shoehorn a Arthur C. Clarke story into things, I would almost be willing to simply look at the still gorgeous effects of the film and be okay. Whether it’s the film’s soundtrack which makes expert use of many classical music tracks (“Also Sprach Zarathustra” is the most obvious example) or the stellar sound design which really draws you into the film’s world, the movie combines technical wizardry with aesthetic pleasure. Anyone who has ever seen a Stanley Kubrick film knows that he is one of the undisputed masters of style, and 2001: A Space Odyssey could very well be exhibit A for these claims. The color palette is rich and evocative, and when the vast majority of pre-Star Wars science fiction has aged so bad to the point of being absurd, Kubrick’s vision of a near future doesn’t seem that unrealistic and the effects that brought it to life will likely age far better than any of the computer graphics of today’s so called cutting edge films. To boot, the film’s transfer to Blu-Ray was simply stunning.

The film’s problems are legion however. It’s only 2 and a half hours long (which while lengthy is nowhere near the marathons that are Das Boot or Lawrence of Arabia) but it seems like it lasts an eternity. The only section of the film which can be said to contain an actual plot that progresses somewhere is the section with HAL (which is by far the most interesting section of the film and the scene where Dave [one of the astronauts on the ship] essentially murders HAL as HAL begs for his life is the best scene of the film). Too much time is spent on mind-numbingly slow sequences of little to no import of the actual story of the film. For the most part, they help to create the setting of the film and establish Kubrick’s theory that humanity has changed very little over its existence, but there have to be ways to do that and keep the film entertaining. The film’s biggest sin though is its final section, “Beyond the Infinite,” whose meaning is completely beyond me. I enjoy David Lynch mind screws but I can always theorize as to what his films are about. I have no clue what was happening there and that to me seems to be a problem. I can’t even begin to guess as to what Kubrick was trying to achieve.

Only devoted cinephiles should sit through this. The average movie-goer will be even more bored than I was because they won’t be interested in devouring the technical and aesthetic aspects of the film. However, if you are a cinephile, the odds are that you’ve already seen this film. It remains one of the most polarizing films of an already polarizing director. I’ve gotten to the point with Stanley Kubrick where I’m convinced that his only two masterpieces are A Clockwork Orange and Dr. Strangelove. With every other film, he is simply a master of style over substance, and 2001: A Space Odyssey is perhaps his most pretentious undertaking because he wants you to believe so completely that there are higher meanings to this film when it seems apparent to this viewer that those higher meanings simply aren’t there or aren’t as profound as many of this film’s fans seem to believe.

Final Score: B

From its beginnings, the best science fiction was written with the intent of creating fantastical allegories for the fears and anxieties of modern life. While it can still simply tell a classical adventure yarn and nothing more, the high-water marks of science fiction always strive for something a bit more. H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine was an anti-industrialist tract supporting socialism. The original film version of The Day the Earth Stood Still was a warning about the unchecked violence and hostilities of the Cold War era. The newly revamped Battlestar Galactica series tackled a seemingly endless range of modern political concerns, though most specifically the War on Terror, and you don’t want me to engage in one of my famously long discourses on the bottomless philosophical concerns of Lost. Entrenched deeply in a modern lesson on existentialism and the existence of free-will, 2011’s The Adjustment Bureau is an entertaining and thought-provoking film that perhaps can’t quite live up to the heady nature of its intellectual pretensions, but it still delivers a rollicking good time.

Based off of Philip K. Dick’s short story “The Adjustment Team,” The Adjustment Bureau stars Matt Damon as David Norris, a New York Congressman who is on the political fast track. The film begins with him losing a run for the U.S. Senate, although his concession speech turned him into the early front-runner for the next election. After losing, he meets a beautiful young ballerina named Elise (Emily Blunt, The Young Victoria). The two share an instant and all-consuming attraction. They meet again the next day on the bus and Elise gives David her phone number so they can see each other officially. This is when things begin to fall apart in David’s world. A conspiratorial group of nearly all powerful beings known as the Adjustment Bureau are tasked to keep David and Elise apart because their relationship violates “The Plan” which it is their job to enforce. David accidentally learns of their existence, and he is told to keep them a secret or his brain will be erased and they steal Elise’s number from him so the plan will continue. Three years later David runs into Elise by chance again and thus a thrilling science fiction adventure forms around David’s attempts to thwart fate and, in essence, God, and be with the woman he loves.

Existentialism isn’t the first theme I would expect from a mainstream American sci-fi film mostly marketed as another starring vehicle for Matt Damon (here contributing with the screenwriter of The Bourne Ultimatum, George Nolfi, in Nolfi’s directorial debut), and while this could certainly be called Sartre-lite, it’s still an achievement to see something so philosophical form the core of a Hollywood blockbuster. The film attempts (and mostly succeeds) in analyzing the ways in which all of our choices have consequences. It revels in the notion that everything we do ripples out and affects everything else, ala the butterfly effect (the real term, not the terrible movies). It’s over-riding theme is that we are in affect erasing entire possible universes every time we make a decision and we then create new ones. It then counters this modern notion of existentialism against the paradox of free will in a world where God exists. Before it cheaply cops out on answering this question in the film’s end, the film paints  a particularly dark and nearly misotheistic in that it portrays omnipotent beings arbitrarily interfering in the affairs of mere mortals. Sadly, the film isn’t quite smart enough to handle this sort of weighty material the way it deserves, but it gets an “A” in effort.

Outside of his marvelous comic turn in The Informant!, where he simply transformed himself, I’ve never really considered Matt Damon a top-shelf actor, and this film isn’t exactly an opinion-changer. He’s competent in the role, and I could easily see Matt Damon in politics with his natural charisma, but this wasn’t exactly a challenging performance, and he didn’t do anything to wow me. Emily Blunt is absolutely gorgeous with a British elegance that reminded me vaguely of Eva Green, but once again, the material wasn’t very complex and she didn’t do much to elevate except for her beautiful dancing (although that was most likely a stunt double). Terrence Stamp was appropriately creepy and cold as one of the higher-ranked members of the adjustment bureau, but he was also given little to work with as an actor. Story was the driving force of this film, and not even Mad Men‘s John Slattery was saved from weak character development.

All fans of intelligent science fiction should check this one out, even if it isn’t as smart as it wants to be. The film shows a remarkable maturity and philosophical bent in an age where the most popular science fiction films are brain-dead action flicks like Transformers or over-wrought storytelling recycle bins like Avatar. While the film loses confidence in itself by the end and I found certain aspects of the star-crossed lovers story here too contrived (although that all makes sense in context of the film), I still certainly enjoyed it, and it was one of the more provocative science fiction films since District 9 (though not nearly as good). It may be far from being one of the great films of 2011, but for everyone looking for style and substance, you could do a lot worse.

Final Score: B

Well, I had taken a short break from my reviewing of films that were nominated for Best Picture for the 2010 Academy Awards when I remembered the fact that True Grit still doesn’t come out on DVD until June, and I realized that little marathon had practically been for nothing. So, I was going back to the stuff that I was regularly renting from Netflix as well as the films that were in my Instant Queue to continue with my blog. That was working fine til I came back home for the summer and I can no longer watch movies instantly on Netflix cause my internet is too slow. So, I’m back to the stuff that I actually own for now. And in that vein, I bring my review for Inception, a film with a highly original plot and eye-popping visuals, but that falls short from being a truly great picture.

Inception is a science fiction crime/psychological thriller that tells the story of Dom Cobb (Leonardo Dicaprio). Cobb’s profession is corporate espionage, but not in the manner that exists in our current world. Cobb is what is known as an “Extractor” which is someone who enters another person’s dreams in order to extract valuable and hidden information from that person’s subconscious. Cobb is offered a job by a man he had formerly tried to steal from, a business man named Saito (Ken Watanabe). Saito wants Cobb not to steal information from someone’s mind but to implant an idea in someone’s mind, the titular concept of inception. So, Cobb organizes the best team he can find, including his trused assistant Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an architect named Ariadne (Ellen Page), and a forger named Eames (Tom Hardy). What follows is a tightly plotted crime caper that throws in just enough head-trip smoke and mirrors to fool you into thinking this could be a great film.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy this film a lot. I think the concept and story are incredibly original and it takes a keen mind to come up with the ideas of this film. I think the movie itself looks absolutely out-standing, and it has a much fresher since of art direction than any film I’ve seen in years. The scene when Ariadne is building her first dream city and the city folds in on top of itself is a visual wonder. And every layer of the different dreams involved in the film’s big heist are all entertaining and well-constructed. Yet, when the film came to a close, it left me with a rather empty sense of attachment to any of its characters and a sense of confusion as to why every one else who watched it thought it was so non-linear or confusing, when it was, to me and two other of my friends, an incredibly linear (if layered) film that was perfectly easy to follow.

One of the reasons that I love movies as much as I do is that I like to see well-written and fully formed characters. Plot can be entirely secondary to me as long as I am able to emotionally invest myself in the characters that I see on screen. If I can revel in their victories and feel legitimately affected by their failures, then the film has done its job. Sometimes great acting can save a film in this area when writing wouldn’t normally accomplish it. However, at the end of the day, I didn’t care about any of the characters in the whole film, except for maybe Cillian Murphy’s Fisher who was the man they were trying to impregnate with an idea. Normally, Leo DiCaprio is one of the best male actors on the planet, but I really felt like this was one of his weakest performances in years. He should stick to making films with his mutual muse, Martin Scorscese. The same can be said for Ellen Page, who I consider to be one of the freshest female talents in ages, but her character was bogged down with so much technobabble and expospeak that she never had time to really develop herself as a character.

Had this been a film made by say, David Lynch or Charlie Kaufman, this could have probably been one of the greatest films of the last ten years. They know how to do non-linear. They know how to do head-trips and psychological craziness. Mulholland Drive, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Being John Malkovich are some of the greatest films of the last 15 years. What ultimately held this film back is that Christopher Nolan is a cerebral pop artist; he is not a true auteur, but he tries so desperately in this film to be one that his pretensions hold him back from making what could have been a great sci-fi action piece. Instead he pushes his talents too far and ended up coming way too short. Memento was a classic, but he hasn’t been able to come up with that kind of magic since then.

Should you see this movie? Yeah, you really should. It’s entertaining. Despite the fact that I don’t think this is The Matrix‘s second coming like so many others doesn’t mean I don’t think this is a fun ride of a movie. I just watched it for my second time, and I still enjoyed it quite a bit. I know this review goes against mass opinion. I remember when I posted practically the same exact thoughts on Facebook when I saw the film for the first time, the movies rather rabid fan base ripped me to shreds, but alas, these are my thoughts and I hope people can at least respect that I obviously put some thought into them.

 Final Score: B+