Midnight Special

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Just as the so-called “movie brat” directors of the 70s often cite John Ford, Hitchcock, and Antonioni as some of their major influences, younger directors often reference the movie brats scene when asked about their own influences.

Even among giants like Scorsese, Malick, and Altman, one director seems to be talked about more than any other: Steven Spielberg. For many of these younger directors, we’re seeing Spielberg’s films not just as inspirations, but as templates from which one creates one’s own work.

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The Martian 

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With The Martian, director Ridley Scott has finally found a story worthy of his filmmaking talent. Matt Damon stars as Mark Watney, Mars’s most optimistic botanist, who is abandoned on the planet by his fellow astronauts, believing him dead. Isolated, wounded, rapidly depleting his supplies, and unable to contact Earth, Watney is faced with an impossible task: he has to MacGyver together a plan for survival on a planet with no food or oxygen–all in a way that doesn’t feel hopelessly contrived. And boy, does he rise to the occasion! Damon’s superb performance and Scott’s expert handling of the subject material make The Martian not just one of the best films of 2015, but the most fun movie-going experience I’ve had all year.

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CHAPPiE

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You know, even after three feature films I still can’t decide if Neill Blomkamp is actually a good director. From a conceptual level, he works wonders; the worlds he creates are rich and vibrant, and his 3D motion capture and visual work are second to none. The problem, however, is that significantly less consideration is afforded to how all those different pieces ought to fit together and, as far as his films are concerned, I’m kind of let down by how much the seams seem to show, as it were, as he tries to fit all the parts together.

I’d like to tell you that Chappie is a hard sci-fi exploration of the concept of artificial intelligence and its implications in a quickly changing and increasingly modernized world—but I can’t, because that would be lying. The actual film is about a robot adopting a thuggish affectation and then shooting up other robots. So forgive me if I sound bitter, but I can’t help but feel like I’ve been sold a lie here. Even the trailer boasted promises of uncommon substance, including a voice-over of the film’s title character proclaiming, “I am consciousness. I am alive. I am Chappie.” Suffice it to say the reality of the situation is that what we ultimately got was a much shallower and garish production, unfortunately devoid of any real substance.

As I mentioned before, the 3D animation in all of Blomkamp’s films, not just Chappie, is unrivaled, owing chiefly to the fact that Blomkamp’s background before he entered the film industry was, in fact, animation. Much like Oblivion and Tron: Legacy director Joseph Kosinski, their backgrounds are in visual design, not writing, meaning that they generally have gorgeous-looking films that are riddled with plot holes and sloppy development. There are a lot of instances when the film just sort of glosses over the details only to move rapidly on to the next major point, hoping that the audience didn’t notice; and although I sometimes don’t mind the “artful dodge” technique (like in Looper, for example), in this instance it really took me out of the experience.

It seems strange, but in each of Blomkamp’s films, I can almost point to the exact moment when the story takes just slightly too large a leap, which ultimately ends up losing me. In District 9 it was the fact that the allegorical drama I’d been watching suddenly turned into an action movie apropos of nothing; In Elysium (probably my favorite of the three) it was the magi-technological wonder-machines that instantly repaired Sharlto Copley’s mangled neck-stump; and in Chappie, it was the inexplicable discovery of human consciousness uploading—mere days after the invention of a primitive AI, mind—that was somehow attained thanks to the computing power of, like, six PlayStation 4s stacked on top of one another.

In all honesty, the film’s ending devolves into narrative gibberish. It’s like listening to a five year-old kid recount his imaginary adventures during playtime. Any pretense of realism is dropped so that everything can be wrapped up in a neat, nice bow, which was a weird shift of tone that really threw me for a loop. Blomkamp is a fan of what you might call ‘soft’ sci-fi, and indeed, the science in Chappie is so soft that you could spread it on your toast and have it for breakfast.

Even without the more substantial plot elements and thematic exploration that I would have like to have seen, the film wasn’t all bad. The always-excellent Sharlto Copley does a lot of the mo-cap and voice action work for the character of Chappie, and to his and Blomkamps’s credit, it’s all pulled off beautifully. Likewise, it’s always a joy when you get to hear some genuine accents in a Hollywood movie, and Blomkamp’s dedication to his South African heritage is genuinely praiseworthy.

After having given it a bit of thought, I think I’d really like to see Blomkamp team up with someone like Dan O’Bannon, or with Ridely Scott to a lesser extent, to function in a sort of “ideas-man” capacity, much like George Lucas was the ideas-man during his collaborations with Stephen Spielberg. Either that, or Blomkamp really needs someone who can fill in the gaps that are missing in his stories, as well as the general world building.

Blomkamp’s movies are generally fun, and Chappie, at the very least, holds interest, but I was really quite disappointed that the film turned out to be just another slick, Hollywood action movie with the central conceit: hey, wouldn’t it be funny if a robot acted like a gangster?

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Jupiter Ascending

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If it wasn’t apparent already, the Wachowskis are nothing if not massive nerds, so it’s easy to see how the prospect of creating their own complex and detailed worlds, as we see in The Matrix franchise and indeed in Jupiter Ascending might appeal to them. There’s a difference, however, between telling a compelling a story and just showing off all the cool stuff they’ve made, and I’m afraid to say that Jupiter falls into the later category.

As we know, film is a visual medium and, given the stylistic flair present in their other work, the fact the Wachowski’s understand that fact is laudable. But like so many other filmmakers operating today, they’re not so much using special effects to tell a story as they are using a story to tell special effects. I’ve said it before and I’ll keep on saying it: visual effects just don’t impress audiences any more and, in truth, haven’t really done so since maybe the late 1970s. As part of the whole original mythology the Wachowskis built for the film, nearly every piece of on-screen tech—from ships to clothing, space stations to aliens—is over-designed clutter. Now, I’m no artist, but I do know that the most vital aspect of visual design is the silhouette; the audience needs to know who or what they’re looking at at a glance.

For good examples of successful visual design, look no further than the original Star Wars movies. For instance: the Death Star? Circle. Star Destroyer? Triangle. Millennium Falcon? Sandwich with a bite taken out of it. What we have in Jupiter Ascending, however, is something akin to visual diarrhea. If a thing can be designed it’s almost always over-designed to the point where any given frame is so jam-packed with meaningless clutter that it’s nearly impossible for the audience to tell what’s going on, particularly during what one might charitably refer to as the action sequences.

Which brings me nicely to my next point. When it comes to the Wachowskis, it’s their original works that you have to watch out for; Don’t get me wrong, I like the Matrix movies, but I wouldn’t exactly call them the benchmark of cinematic storytelling. Whereas V for Vendetta, based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore, as well as Cloud Atlas, based on the David Mitchell book, are not only more adequate from a writing standpoint, but are also just better films in general.

It’s clear that the Wachowskis are fans of the Dune series, given that Jupiter Ascending shamelessly rips it off to a rather frightening degree. Fair enough, though; I mean, Dune is great, but what I could do without is the simultaneously inanely dense and utterly childish mythos that permeates the film.

Now here’s an interesting little point/counterpoint scenario we can work through together. On one hand, the massively complex and intricately crafted world of Game of Thrones and, on the other, the unapologetic shambles of Jupiter Ascending. Apart from the obvious—that is, being actually good—what makes something like Game of Thrones succeed where Jupiter falls short? There are a few reasons: one is that while Game of Thrones has seven books through which to sprinkle exposition, Jupiter Ascending has only a few grim, tortuous hours during which it has to shoehorn in a bunch a totally irrelevant and not particularly well thought-out exposition which functions as little more than filler. The other reason, simply put, is characterization. Game of Thrones has a collection of interesting and diverse characters, most of which change and grow over time in an engaging way. Jupiter Ascending, alternatively, has no characters to speak of.

Let me explain. I was re-watching Mr. Plinkett’s reviews of one of the Star Wars prequels (because I have that kind of time), when he mentioned a sort of test he sometimes used to illustrate characterization, or lack thereof, in a film.

The test is this: Without describing a given character’s appearance or occupation, how might you describe them to someone who has never heard of the film or franchise before?

I was certainly given pause for thought as I considered this question after having seen Jupiter Ascending. Virtually all the characters are interchangeable, uninteresting, and one-dimensional, and I think it might have been a standing order on-set to display as little emotion as possible. If the characters themselves don’t seem interested in what they’re doing, why should I?

To add to the film’s laundry list of problems, the plot as a whole is as monotonously one-note as the characters are—so at the very least, I guess it’s being consistent. There’s a really severe case of “second verse, same as the first” going on, which can be illustrated by four separate instances in which Mila Kunis finds herself in a situation she doesn’t want to be in, whereupon Channing Tatum bursts through a bit of wall or ceiling or floor and rescues her. Is that supposed to be a joke, movie? Because I am absolutely not laughing.

If the film has one saving grace, it must be Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne’s delightfully hammy performance as incorrigible evildoer Balem Abrasax. But again, Balem Abrasax ain’t no Vladimir, Baron Harkonnen, and the little light that Redmayne does bring to the production isn’t nearly enough to compensate for the film’s other massive faults.

Jupiter Ascending is lighthearted and campy, but it’s also interminably boring and a real grind to sit through. Predictable, monotone, and visually off-putting, this is decidedly not the rollicking space adventure that I had hoped it would be.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5

Robocop Review

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I should have learned long ago that no intellectual property is safe from the scourge of unnecessary remakes; not even seemingly safe 1980’s cult sci-fi classics. Alas, the day has arrived for Robocop to be tied down to the sacrificial alter so that another generation of twitchy, attention deficit kids can be exposed to a cherished franchise in precisely the wrong way.

Robocop comes to us from Brazilian director José Padilha, chosen for the commercial success of his previous foreign language films Elite Squad and Elite Squad: The Enemy Within. Apparently, Darren Aronofsky was, at one time, slated to direct, though he ultimately declined so that he could direct his upcoming film, Noah. Now, since Aronofsky opted out of Robocop, The Wolverine, and a plethora of other recent films that otherwise would have doubtless been outstanding under his direction, I fully anticipate that Noah will be the single greatest cinematic endeavor in the history of the medium or I will personally set Darren Aronofsky’s house on fire. It’s difficult to say whether or not Padilha is fully responsible for the mediocrity of the final product, as, according to Wikipedia, he was quoted as sharing with City of God director Fernando Meirelles that the filming of Robocop was “the worst experience of his life” and “for every ten ideas he has, nine are cut” He further expressed that “It is hell here. The film will be good, but I have never suffered so much and I do not want to do it again”.

Joel Kinnaman stars as the titular Robocop, turning, as if by magic, one of the most cherished sci-fi heroes into one of the 21st century’s most generic action protagonists- which is saying quite a lot. In a departure from the 1987 original, Kinnaman’s entire face is actually visible for most of the film, now that he has the ability to retract his iconic visor at will- which, suffice it to say, does nothing to change that fact that he looks remarkably bored throughout the entire film in what is perhaps an impressive attempt to mimic my own expression during the two hour runtime. The thing about Kinnaman is that he’s not an offensively bad though still generic-looking actor like Jai Courtney, nor is he as surprisingly talented though just as generic-looking as Ethan Hawke. No, Kinnaman is a mediocre actor in a generic, white bread male’s body, which might prove to be the perfect visual representation of the film as a whole; a boilerplate, run-of-the-mill little experience that pales in comparison to the original but isn’t even offensive enough to provoke discussion.

Many critics have suggested that José Padilha and writer Joshua Zetumer didn’t have a clear conception of what made the original Robocop so successful in the first place, but I don’t think that’s entirely the case. Director Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 Robocop isn’t, after all, that difficult to deconstruct, but the beauty of it lies in the implementation. Rather, I think that Padilha and Zetemer didn’t trust those ideas enough to allow them to carry the film; a grave mistake, to be sure. In place of the original’s classic wit and charisma, we have a multitude of generic, bloodless gunfights, which seem to be par for the course as we progress further into a century marked by this increasingly vapid and psychopathically commercial film industry. Ironically, that visceral and cathartic gunplay that the 1987 Robocop was universally famous for has been completely removed in favor of a myriad of slick-looking but ultimately meaningless and frenetic shootouts that can be found in *insert one of about a million different tittles here* in an effort to keep the film at a safe (read: despicable) PG-13 rating. “Why would they want to do this terrible thing?” you might ask. I would reply, my voice thick with disdain “It’s so that they can sell a new line of action figures to the hateful, mewling kiddies, you idiot.”

After much deliberation, I think I’ve come up with the perfect analogy to sum up my opinion of the film while still staying within the established context; Robocop’s motorcycle. Let me explain. In this new adaptation, Joel Kinnamann’s Robocop drives around a sleek, high tech, futuristic-looking motorcycle that admittedly looks pretty badass. It’s one of those ultramodern bikes that probably goes about 300 miles per hour and can stop on a dime and Robocop looks really cool while he’s riding it. Now, let’s assume that he takes down a bad guy. It doesn’t really matter who, but the important thing to remember is that he’s programed to follow the letter of the law as part of his directives; a plot point, which, in this instance, would require Robocop to take the suspect back to the police station to be booked and jailed. Do you see the problem here? How is he supposed to take the bad guy to jail if he’s riding a motorcycle? It’s that kind of sloppiness that’s really indicative of the quality of the film as a whole. There are so many ideas added in simply because they look cool and flashy, and it’s clear that no one stopped during production to consider if it was the smart thing to do.

Subsequently, what we’re left with are the bones of a half-baked action flick which deserves nothing more than a noncommittal “meh.” I believe that if both Padilha and Zetumer sat down with Verhoeven’s Robocop and thought- really thought- about what they wanted the film to be and how they wanted to bring the deep and complex world of that film into the 21st century, that they might have come up with something really special. As seems to be so often the case, any heart and sparkle that we might have otherwise enjoyed has been stripped out and replaced with sleek but utterly hollow visuals in a crass, exploitative effort to appeal to the common denominator.

Rating: 2 out of 5

Elysium Review

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In a summer that’s been dominated by sequels and adaptations, it’s always nice to see a new IP like Elysium hit theaters. Disguised as a sci-fi thriller, the film attempts to intertwine sweeping social commentary with colorful, interstellar action amid a rich and visually stunning backdrop. The film’s predecessor, District 9, set the bar high with it’s thematically strong yet engaging story. So much so, in fact, that many now wonder if Elysium will be able to live up to the hype.

Coming to us from South African director Neill Blomkamp, Elysium is the sophomore entry in this skilled director’s resumé. As with District 9, Blomkamp attempts to present a somewhat realistic portrayal of a diseased and war-torn Earth, which contrasts impressively with the sleek futuristic design of the space station. Admittedly, the film incorporates some genuinely impressive visuals, and with Blomkamp’s own extensive experience in 3D animation and design, it’s no surprise that his work reaches the zenith as far as aesthetics and CG are concerned.

Starring Matt Damon and including cameo appearances by Jodie Foster and Sharlto Copley, Elysium follows the story of Max (Damon) who, due to an industrial accident, finds himself with only a few days left to live. Out of desperation, Max teams up with a hacker and attempts con his way into Elysium in order to receive the medical treatment necessary to heal him. Naturally, mayhem ensues and Max is ultimately embroiled in a conspiracy to overthrow the government of Elysium. The acting here is more or less solid all the way around with the standout being Sharlto Copley as the deranged sleeper agent Kruger. Copley, you may remember, was the standout star of District 9 as the goofy yet earnest Wikus Van Der Merwe, and his transformation here is not only jolting but extremely impressive, especially considering his relative newness to the industry. More interesting still is the fact that Eminem was originally offered the role of Max De Costa, though he insisted that the film be shot in Detroit which ended up being disagreeable to some of the studios involved in production.

Despite the many things that the film does well, it still has its share of problems. For instance, I’ve heard it said that some of the scenes intended to be a commentary on societal issues are obnoxiously heavy handed and obvious. While I can say that the masses on Earth are a rather obvious metaphor for immigrants (Spanish being the preferred language, individuals being referred to as ‘undocumented’- that kind of thing) I didn’t think that it detracted from the film to any significant degree. What did detract from the film, however, were the weird, unexplained plot elements. In short, the film suffers from a severe case of Super Blood Syndrome. What I mean to say is that a hugely important, plot critical piece of technology is introduced, but no effort is made to explain how it works or how it can feasibly exist within the confines of the narrative. Like the inexplicable “super blood” found in Star Trek: Into Darkness, Elysium introduces a kind of vita chamber or med bay which can cure any illness or malady instantly. This technology is ostensibly cheap and efficient but is nonetheless kept out of the reach of Earthbound citizens for no other reason than pure, unadulterated greed. Honestly, the simple truth is that it doesn’t make any sense, and unfortunately, my engagement in the story suffered as a result.

It’s abundantly clear that Blomkamp and his creative team put their blood, sweat, and tears into creating the deep and complex world of Elysium. Like District 9, the world in which the story takes place feels alive and actually populated with thinking, feeling beings struggling on their respective paths amid the chaos. It’s for this reason that Joe and I both agreed that we would have like to see the narrative a little more fleshed out and the characters and their motivations explored a little more deeply. I simply think it’s a missed connection to not expand upon the universe that Blomkamp has  worked so hard to create. Personally, I wouldn’t mind turing this concept into a mini-series or a full fledged television show. Not that that would ever happen in a million years, but, to quote Hemingway, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

All in all, Elysium is a beautiful looking, well acted exercise in sci-fi, let down by some unfortunate plot issues and character motivations. Though it doesn’t quite live up to the wold-shattering success of District 9, it remains a pretty enjoyable experience mixed with a poignant message about those who have and those who have not.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Netflix Movie of the Week #1: Primer

While Netflix has a wide variety of fantastic films, sadly many films on the site are often hidden from users who are not actively searching for that film.  The point of this new weekly posting is to suggest interesting and great movies that are available for streaming on Netflix that many readers would not ordinarily be exposed to.  With that in mind, the first Netflix movie of the week is the sci-fi thriller Primer.

Winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize in 2004, Primer is the debut film from writer/actor/director Shane Carruth.  Primer is a mind bending film about two engineers who inadvertently create a machine that allows them to travel back in time. Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) use their new machine in order to make money on stock trades from the previous day. However, as they go deeper into experimenting with the mechanics of time travel, their relationship becomes strained as the two have different ideas on how to use the technology.

There are essentially two aspects of this film that make it so incredible.  First, it succeeds as a solid sci-fi film even though it was made for a virtually non-existent budget. In addition, the level of detail that went into the script and plot of this movie is astounding, as all the time travel makes sense without pandering to the audience in any way. The film is very heady and sometimes a difficult movie to keep up with as it is often hard to keep up with just how smart the film is.  Anyone who says they completely understand Primer after just one viewing is simply lying.

Even though the film can be challenging to keep up with, this should not be a deterrent.  It is a nice change of pace from many films that spoon feed you the plot twists to ensure that no one will ever be confused at the end of the movie. While the film is not incomprehensible, it is something that will take a little googling afterwards if you hope to fully appreciate the intellectual depth of the movie.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5