Category: Science Fiction


Her1

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.

Continue reading

Advertisements

AIArtificialIntelligence1

(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.

AIArtificialIntelligence2

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.

AIArtificialIntelligence3

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.

AIArtificialIntelligence4

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.

AIArtificialIntelligence5

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

 

Melancholia1

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.

Melancholia2

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.

Melancholia3

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.

Melancholia4

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?

Melancholia5

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.

Melancholia6

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.

Melancholia7

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+

 

TitanAE1

As a child, it’s possible that I was exposed more to Don Bluth films than I was to traditional Disney animation. I know for certain that I enjoyed movies like All Dogs Go to Heaven and An American Tail more than most of the Disney output of the 90s (The Lion King and Aladdin two massive exceptions). Even as a kid, I think I recognized the darker and more subversive undertones in Bluth films (though certainly his powerful storytelling and richly drawn characters had more to do with it then) compared to their Disney counterparts. An American Tail was a heartbreaking and terrifying tale of childhood abandonment mixed in the Russian Jewish immigrant experience in the United States in the 1910s. No company would try that today. 2000’s Titan A.E. was the last Bluth film to make it to theatres. It was a massive flop at the box office, and along with Treasure Planet, it sort of killed traditional hand-drawn Western animation. Thankfully, a cult audience has formed around this film in the last decade.

Although, in many ways, Titan A.E. isn’t as great as Bluth’s output of the late 80s and early 90s. I would go so far as to simply say it isn’t a great film, though it was a very good one. Part of the problem is that this was one of the rare Bluth films where Bluth wasn’t the sole director. It was also directed by Gary Goldman, who (with the exception of All Dogs Go to Heaven) was mostly involved in a lot of the less than stellar Bluth films of the 90s. The movie was in production for a long, long time and many writers were involved with the project, and a lack of a cohesive vision for the film is painfully apparent. The movie does have a lot going for it. The Titan A.E.-universe is very appealing, and thanks to Joss Whedon’s work on the script, the characters are great. It is also arguably one of the darkest and most violent children’s films I’ve ever seen. I just wish the story held together better and that there was a more unified vision for the film.

TitanAE2

Titan A.E. is the definition of a cult children’s film so I won’t be surprised if most of my reader’s haven’t seen it. In the 31st century, Cale (Good Will Hunting‘s Matt Damon) was orphaned as a child when an alien species made of pure energy, the Dredge, destroyed the planet Earth and his father escaped on the ship Titan with an undisclosed mission that could be the hope to save humanity. 15 years later, Cale is a brash young man with no human identity doing repair work on a remote mining station with only his alien mentor for company or friendship. That all changes when Captain Corso (Torchwood: Miracle Day‘s Bill Pullman) arrives informing Cale that he, not his father, is now humanity’s last hope. A ring given to Cale by his father right before the destruction of Earth is a map to the location of the Titan ship, and Cale must answer the call to find his destiny and save the human race.

And, thus, Cale is whisked away (not without a dramatic and violent escape from the mining station) by Corso to his ship where Cale meets Corso’s eccentric and border-line insane crew. The obligatory (and sort of terribly developed in terms of their romance) love interest is the human colonist Akima (Irreconcilable Differences‘ Drew Barrymore). You also have Preed (Nathan Lane), the lascivious dog alien with a less than subtle attraction to Akima (or any female it would appear). Grune (Romeo + Juliet‘s John Leguizamo) is the ship’s turtle/E.T. looking scientist with a strange, almost sexual reaction to the gadgetry and scientific mysteries of the film. And lastly, you have Stith (Reality Bites‘s Janeane Garofalo), the beleaguered ship’s weapon specialist, who mostly likes to complain about the fact that she has too many degrees to be doing the work on the ship she does.

TitanAE3

As you can tell, Titan A.E. has a refreshingly quirky cast that generally doesn’t fit into the “quirky” archetypes of your average kid’s movie. And with the notable exception of Drew Barrymore (because when has she ever given a good performance), the voice-acting is great across the board. Obviously, Matt Damon’s Cale isn’t as demanding a part as Good Will Hunting or The Departed but it’s a kid’s movie for fuck’s sake. The two best voice-over performances are Bill Pullman’s Corso as a wonderful gruff mentor figure who shows some remarkable range in his performance (that I can’t get too far into without spoiling a late game plot twist) and John Leguizamo’s Grune just for the sheer oddity of his takes on an almost literal mad scientist. Most of the laughs from the film (cause it’s mostly dramatic) come from Grune.

And, as I said, the universe of Titan A.E. is consistently welcoming. As I watched the film, I pretty much constantly wanted to know more about the world our heroes were exploring. Part of that can be attributed to the film’s wonderful art-style. There’s a section on a planet of bat-like aliens that is just stunningly gorgeous. But, and this is the film’s biggest problem, the story seems to run purely on getting from one crazy scrape to the next. And, the individual set-pieces are awesome and endlessly inventive, but the plotting of the film borders on patchwork at best and totally illogical at its worst. For example, at one point, the Dredge are holding Cale captive and he breaks out of their prison in the most insultingly simple way imaginable. Also, at one point, Cale and Corso survive being exposed to Outer Space in just their regular clothes by holding their breath. That…. is not how that works. They would have frozen to death. Of course, I know I’m putting too much thought into a sci-fi film where there is an alien species made of pure energy.

TitanAE4

I’m going to draw this review to a close. I wound up sleeping like 15 hours last night which means I probably haven’t eaten in like 19 hours. And I am huuuuungry. I also want to watch Twin Peaks even though this season seems to have more twists per episode than most shows have over the course of an entire season. Season 2 of Twin Peaks is crazy y’all. I may not have fallen in love with Titan A.E. as much as I did The Land Before Time or Bluth’s other best works, but it was an enjoyable ride for the 90 minutes it lasted. The only other substantive complaint one could make about this film is that it is in no way, shape, or form suitable for children. It is violent. And, not in some surface way. It is just super violent. A character gets his neck snapped, one character is shot and explodes into green goo, blood is seemingly omni-present. It’s just violent. But, if you’re older and have fond memories of Bluth, this is a fun way to pass an evening.

Final Score: B+

 

CloudAtlas1

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.

CloudAtlas2

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.

CloudAtlas3

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.

CloudAtlas4

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.

CloudAtlas5

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-

 

TheLastStarfighter1

I am a sucker for imaginative storytelling and engrossing world building. From a classical storytelling perspective, the Russell T. Davies years of Doctor Who or the early seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation aren’t bastions of great characters or “important” insights into the human condition, but as someone who loves fantastical new worlds, they scratch that need. Ever since I was little and I was introduced to The Hobbit, I’ve had a constant desire to see new things and explore worlds I’ve never encountered before. 1984’s The Last Starfighter has a wonderful premise and a compelling mythology, but the film suffers in its execution with a story that ultimately feels woefully deficient and underdeveloped.

Perhaps it’s the screenwriter in me (long time readers should know that I’ve written two unpublished screenplays and I’m hard at work on a third one right now), but I found myself nitpicking every step of the way little areas where I felt The Last Starfighter missed a storytelling opportunity or had major characters seem embarrassingly thinly drawn. In fact, if I had to sum up my reaction to this film in one quick sentence, it’s that The Last Starfighter rests on the laurels of an ahead of it’s time basic plot but then fails to properly capitalize with compelling villains, good acting, or proper pacing. Though these thoughts didn’t keep me from enjoying the film, I kept getting pulled out of the experience after one cheesy interlude after another.

TheLastStarfighter2

Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) is your average teenage boy living his last summer before the beginning of college. Alex lives in a trailer park with his mother and little brother as well as his girlfriend, Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart), and he dreams of nothing more than going to a nice college and getting out of the Starlite Starbrite trailer park once and for all. And the only thing that Alex seems to enjoy in life any more besides the company of his girlfriend is the Starfighter arcade box up at the general store near the trailer park. One night Alex finally beats the Starfighter game and finds his life changed forever.

It turns out that the Starfighter video game was a secret test left on Earth by the alien Centauri (Robert Preston) to find new recruits for the Starfighter defense program defending the galactic frontier. Centauri shows up on Earth and whisks Alex away to an alien-filled space station to convince Alex to help defend the galaxy, but when it becomes clear that Alex’s life is in danger, Alex wants to go home. But, it isn’t long before he’s back on Earth and realizes that everyone he loves and holds dear will be in danger if he doesn’t fight. And Alex is forced to take up the call and become the titular last starfighter.

TheLastStarfighter3

None of the performances in the film are anything to write home about and pretty much all of the aliens are invariably over the top. Lance Guest is appropriately sensitive and lost as the hero and Catherine Mary Stewart also gels as his girlfriend, but it’s also clear that both were cast more for their good looks than for any acting talent. Robert Preston hams it up in every single second he’s on screen as the Merlin-esque Centauri to the point of distraction, and I’m not entirely sure what was up with the weird little laugh Alex’s alien navigator Grig had to do every time he thought something was funny.

Surprisingly, the special effects of the film both look like a product of the mid 1980s, but they also don’t distract from the overall experience of the film by coming off as too cheesy (except for maybe the absurd encephalitis that the primary alien species seems to suffer from). In fact, the 1980s video game look of some of the space ships and the space battles actually adds some perhaps unintentional charm to the film as it captures the arcade aesthetic that propelled Alex into space in the first place.

TheLastStarfighter4

If you are a fan of cheesy science fiction (particularly of the 1980s variety), by all means check The Last Starfighter out if you’ve never gotten around to it. It will be a pleasant diversion, and it will harken back to a day of more innocent film-making. It’s not perfect, and I wish I could have had a crack at writing the script for this film’s story, but it’s fun. If you don’t enjoy this particular brand of science fiction, you likely won’t see the point of this movie and may even think it’s quite stupid. That’s fair, but I enjoyed the hour and forty minutes I spent with this film.

Final Score: B

StarTrek2009-1

Since last Sunday, I have watched 17 episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The impetus for this sudden interest in Star Trek is likely tied to the fact that Star Trek: Into Darkness premiered this week, and I’ve been anticipating this film ever since J.J. Abrams first reboot of the Trek universe premiered in 2009. I had ordered Star Trek 2009 from Netflix to prep for the sequel, but the copy Netflix sent me was broken, and I had to get a new one. So, in the interim, I watched an unholy amount of Next Generation which I’ve enjoyed despite some of the silliness of Season 1. And, having watched so much original Star Trek: TNG lately, it creates an interesting perspective for this viewing of the reboot.

In the Star Trek television series, the emphasis is always on peaceful exploration and the collection of knowledge. The crews of the various versions of the Enterprise (or the USS Voyager or the people on the base in Deep Space Nine) may encounter hostile forces, but at least in season 1 of TNG, problems are solved through diplomacy and a lens of moral idealism. The whole point of Q seems to be a higher race that tests humanity’s willingness to support its own values even when its difficult. The 2009 Star Trek succeeds (highly) on its own merits and artistic vision, but its emphasis on action and combat seems at odds with the more cerebral nature of the TV series that spawned it.

StarTrek2009-2

Serving as a reboot to the continuity of the original series (although with a conceit that I won’t spoil for any who haven’t seen the film), Star Trek becomes an origin story for how Captain James Tiberius Kirk (Smokin’ Aces‘ Chris Pine) captains the Starship Enterprise. After his father (The Avengers‘ Chris Hemsworth) dies saving his people (including Kirk’s pregnant mother) from a Romulan attack, Kirk grows up a troubled kid with no respect for authority until he’s recruited into Starfleet by Captain Pike of the USS Enterprise who knew his father. Determined to prove himself, Kirk joins the Federation not knowing what fate has in store for him.

After cheating on a Starfleet exam programmed by Commander Spock (Heroes‘ Zachary Quinto), Kirk’s punishment is delayed by an attack on the planet Vulcan. After being sneaked aboard the Enterprise by his best friend, Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban), Kirk manages to help save the Enterprise from an attack from the same Romulans who killed his father 25 years earlier. With Vulcan destroyed, Captain Pike captured, and the Romulans’ sights set on Earth, it’s up to the crew of the Enterprise to save the day and for Kirk and Spock to learn to put aside their differences for the greater good.

StarTrek2009-3

I was  skeptical of his casting when the film was first announced, but Chris Pine was a worthy replacement for William Shatner to play Captain Kirk, and by all reasonable metrics, he’s a much better actor than the hammy Shatner. He perfectly captures the cockiness and drive that make Kirk one of science fiction’s most beloved heroes. Zachary Quinto (who bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Leonard Nimoy) was very well cast as Spock, and the film gives Quinto a chance to examine the conflict between Spock’s logical Vulcan side and his emotional human half. The pair craft an appropriately epic sci-fi “bromance.”

J.J. Abram’s direction is appropriately epic. Although Star Trek was overshadowed in 2009 by the even more massively-budgeted Avatar, it’s clear that when given a big budget, J.J. Abrams knows what to do with it. As much as I’ve enjoyed watching TNG this week, the effects are laughable at best and really awful at worst, and it’s cool seeing the Trek universe with modern effects. People mock Abrams’ love of lens flare, but from start to finish, Trek is a well-choreographed action blockbuster from beginning to end that finds a beating heart in between the away missions and explosive space battles.

StarTrek2009-4

Even if you’ve never seen any of the television series or original movies (which I hadn’t before my initial viewing of this film upon its release), Star Trek is a rousing sci-fi adventure in an era where that doesn’t happen often enough on the big screen. Because Abrams takes the time to develop these characters and their backstories and their chemistry as a group, you can care about these heroes even without understanding the character archetypes they’re drawn from. And with a supporting crew including John Cho, Simon Pegg, and Zoe Saldana, you’re given plenty of characters to latch onto (though Cho and Pegg don’t have much screen time).

I’m very excited to watch Star Trek: Into Darkness. My family is probably going to go see it at some point in the next week or so. So, expect a review of it in the coming days. If you’re a fan of science fiction, there is no excuse for not watching J.J. Abrams’ reboot of one of the most beloved sci-fi franchises of all time (and it makes so excited to see where he takes the Star Wars films). And, although the film’s themes seem to diverge wildly from its own source material, if you are able to divest yourself from what you think Star Trek needs to be, it seems impossible to not enjoy this voyage where we go boldly where no man has gone before.

Final Score: A-

 

DonnieDarko1

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.

DonnieDarko2

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.

DonnieDarko3

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.

DonnieDarko4

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-

RiseOfThePlanetOfTheApes1

What does it mean to be more than just another summer blockbuster? How do you separate yourself from the crowded marquee of countless other generic big-budget spectacles that invade our cinemas each year? If you’re Christopher Nolan, you turn The Dark Knight Rises into a political allegory that reshapes the possibility of myth-making in the ultimate American mythos, the superhero. If you’re Joss Whedon, you use The Avengers to set a new bar for witty dialogue and compelling group dynamics as well as incorporating arguably the greatest fight scene in all of superhero-dom. I did not think I would ever place Planet of the Apes reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes in the same league as those two top-tier blockbusters. I was dumb for doubting it because this particular origin story has more heart, brains, and meaning than the rest of the franchise combined, and it holds its own with the very best of the summer blockbusters.

Set in the near future (man is going to Mars so it can’t be the present), Rise of the Planet of the Apes defies franchise expectations by focusing not on men who are tormented by their ape overlords, but on the apes who are punished and tortured until they finally rebel against their human oppressors. Caesar (Andy Serkis) is a very special chimpanzee. When his mother, a test subject for an experimental Alzheimer’s cure, is put down trying to protect her newly born son, geneticist Will Rodman (127 Hours‘ James Franco) takes Caesar home where he quickly learns that Caesar’s intelligence is far superior to that of a normal chimp. I don’t want to ruin the chain of events that lead to ape rebellion, but after raising Caesar as his own family for many years, humanity’s own dark side prods Caesar and the mistreatment of his fellow apes to finally fight back.

RiseOfThePlanetOfTheApes2

Whereas most of the films in the franchise portrayed the apes as evil conquerors, Rise of the Planet Apes paints Caesar as a burgeoning freedom fighter whose constant exposure to injustice leads him down the path to revolution. I have more to say about Andy Serkis in a second, but it is exceptionally impressive that in this film, they were able to make me care more about Caesar and his comrades-in-arms than any of the flesh-and-blood people that populated the screen. Unable to talk for most of the film (don’t worry franchise purists. They’re voice boxes return), Rise of the Planet of the Apes still managed to turn Caesar into a sympathetic figure of the injustice and cruelty man inflicts on animals just through strong writing and superb animation. And also, the motion-capture work that Andy Serkis did, but, yet again, more on that in a second.

Twice now, I have cared more about an Andy Serkis creation in a movie than the actual actors he was playing across from. A lot of that is the writing, but if there wasn’t a talented actor bringing these intricately animated figures to life, they just wouldn’t click with audiences. Gollum isn’t actually one of the two characters I was referring to, but would his arc through the Lord of the Rings franchise had seemed so tragic and sympathetic if Andy Serkis hadn’t been behind his movements? I think not. But between Caesar and the titular ape in Peter Jackson’s King Kong, Andy Serkis managed to elicit such strong emotional reactions from me just by playing apes. In fact, I might go so far as to say that Caesar is the strongest of his performances thus far, and I hope (if the writing is good) that he gets to return to this role at some point in the future.

RiseOfThePlanetOfTheApes3

It wouldn’t be much of a summer blockbuster if it didn’t have the requisite action sequences and in that regard, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is fairly restrained, although part of me wants to say that it does so in a good way. A good three-quarters of the film is nothing but introducing us to the character of Caesar, the world he finds himself in, and then the path of abuse and punishment that leads to him rising up against his oppressors. I applaud the film’s decision to devote so much time to developing not just Caesar (though he gets the brunt of the development) but also Will, and Will’s Alzheimer-suffering father (John Lithgow). However, the film’s final sequence, where the apes finally rise up, seemed rushed, although that complaint is mitigated by the obvious sequel hooks that it’s ending left in place.

I’m going to keep this short because I want to work on my screenplay tonight (I’m 50 pages into my third screenplay since October. I’ve finished two others) although there’s a good chance that I’m just going to end up playing Tropico 4 or watch The Master which I have at home from Netflix. My roommates appear to be having some type of party down stairs so maybe I’ll join in. Although, they’re being a little raucous so it might be too much party for me and I’ll just stay in my attic. If you like smart, well-crafted science fiction and want a compelling lead, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is as good as any American summer blockbuster to come out in years. If you’ve put off watching it because of the travesty of the Tim Burton remake, get over that fear right now, and check this film out.

Final Score: A-

TheFaculty1

I think that every movie lover that grew up in the 90s has a soft spot in their heart for the Scream franchise. None of the sequels were as good as the original (though Scream 4 was a very clever lambasting of modern horror tropes) but even they all had that self-referential, pop-culture obsessed magic that made the first so special. I used to think that part of the reason why they were so good was because of Wes Craven, but as hit or miss as the man has been in his career, I’m actually starting to be willing to give more credit to the franchise’s screenwriter, Kevin Williamson, and 1998’s sci-fi horror gem The Faculty has confirmed that suspicion.

I say this because even before I knew that The Faculty was written by Kevin Williamson (a fact that I didn’t discover until the end credits rolled), the film felt so similar to Scream yet I had trouble putting my fingers on exactly why. The Faculty is a science fiction horror flick in the vein of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, not a teen age slasher flick. It’s protagonists aren’t obsessed with horror movies. But, it’s clever self-aware protagonists felt related to Neve Campbell and her kin, and they had their own pop-culture saturated conversations. A film where the heroes weren’t easily replaceable drones, The Faculty was the hip sci-fi equivalent of Scream elevated even more by the tight direction of popcorn auteur Robert Rodriguez.

TheFaculty2

After discovering that their high school is ground zero for an alien invasion, a ragtag group of high school students including geek Casey (Elijah Wood), goth Stoakely (Clea Duvall), and drug dealer Zeke (Josh Hartnett) decide to take the fight to the faculty of their school, who are quickly being replaced by alien imposters. When they discover that they may be the last pure human beings left in their town, the group has to find the original alien queen and destroy her to save the town but they quickly learn that not everyone in their group is as human as they think.

Much like the first Scream film, what makes The Faculty so immediately enjoyable is the instantly endearing and sympathetic cast. Although it’s quickly apparent that the film’s high school has a lot more problems than just an alien invasion (like almost psychotically violent bullies and cliques), the main characters seem well-rounded and smart. They act the way you’d act if your high school had been invaded by aliens. They aren’t just immediately setting themselves up to die. A key to a good horror film is that you care about the fates of the protagonists, and I found myself invested in seeing if Casey and the rest of the crew would make it to the end of the film.

TheFaculty3

It also doesn’t hurt that the film has an almost ridiculously deep field of supporting players. I could name all of the future big talent in the film and take up several paragraphs in the process. To wit: Robert Patrick (Terminator 2), Laura Harris (Warehouse 13), Famke Jannsen (X-Men), Salma Hayek (Dogma), Piper Laurie (Carrie), Jon Stewart. And those are just the teachers. Well, Laura Harris is one of the kids now that I think about it. Throw in Usher, Jordanna Brewster, Wiley Wiggins, Danny Masterson, and others and this film was veritable who’s who of 90s talent. And they all delivered but special props must be given to Elijah Wood and Laura Harris.

Also, for a film from the late 90s, the special effects in the film aged remarkably well. Although there was occasionally an air of camp in the film, it was always in a fun tongue-in-cheek way and you had to know that certain moments were intentional visual throwbacks to classic sci-fi flicks like The Thing and Species. Very rarely did I find myself pulling out of the film because something was cheesy or particularly fake looking. As a matter of fact, I lost track of the number of times where the film made me say “holy s***” because of one especially gruesome moment or another. The film knew how to use gore to good effect.

TheFaculty4

At the end of the day, The Faculty is pure smart popcorn fun. Much like last year’s criminally under-appreciated Cabin in the Woods, The Faculty proved my suspicion that one of the only ways to successfully do horror these days is to verge on deconstructing the whole genre. The Faculty isn’t exactly scary but it wasn’t meant to be. But it’s smart. Razor smart and while it may not have had the lasting cultural impact that Kevin Williamson’s Scream franchise had, I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that The Faculty is just as good as the first Scream and one of the last great gasps of the 90s horror renaissance.

Final Score: A-