The Lawnmower Man -1992-


Directed by Brett Leonard. 107 mins.

Worth my time? Eh, yeah. (Watched on Blu-ray)

Seeing Transcendence reminded me that I had never watched this sorta Singularity-themed CGI extravaganza from the early 90s. I remember seeing ads for a SNES game based on the movie, and all I could think was, “That weird golden cyber-dude hardly resembles a lawnmower.”

As most CGI-laden films of its time (except maybe The Abyss), Lawnmower looks its age, but the virtual reality sequences are aesthetically engaging in spite of their technical shortcomings. The storyline never makes clear how VR could improve the biochemistry of the human brain, but I’ll give it a pass. After all, no one complains when the sensory-deprivation chamber in Altered States morphs William Hurt into an ape-guy.

Like most high-concept sci-fi, the film doesn’t live up to the fascinating premise. There’s the idealistic, workaholic scientist (Pierce Brosnan) and the obligatory shadow organization (led, surprisingly, by Dean Norris) that wants to militarize his findings. Your eyes will roll when the climactic explosion occurs, and you’ll be able to guess the final scene from a mile away.

Still, I’d see this over Transcendence unconditionally. If you haven’t seen it, and you want a reminder that Jeff Fahey was once relevant in film.

(Seen and written on 2014-04-19)

Transcendence -2014-


Directed by Wally Pfister. 119 mins.

Worth my time? No. (Seen at Arclight Hollywood)

This film pissed me off both because of its poor quality and because its poor box-office performance is gonna scare off filmmakers from exploring the Singularity. That’s a real bummer since the wildly divergent opinions of the Singularity’s likelihood, consequences, and morality would lend themselves to a dozen great films were the right people behind them. I was rooting for Wally Pfister to deliver the first great major motion picture on the subject, but his lack of directorial experience and Jack Paglen’s lazy screenplay keep Transcendence from ever coming close to meeting its potential.

Pfister has done great work as Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer for the last decade and a half, but much like early Coens DP Barry Sonnenfeld, he should probably stick to his day job. Transcendance is shot and directed like a bland summer action movie when the science fiction elements are its most interesting aspects. Duncan Jones, James Cameron, or even the Wachowskis would have spiced up this movie. Somebody has to tell directors that no one thinks that endless white lab corridors are sleek. They just look like offices – you know, the shit we wanna forget when we’re in a movie theater.

The plot holes are intolerable for a film that purportedly has something real and significant to say about societal and technological progression. The United States government, without a moment’s pause, joins forces with the same domestic terrorist group that kicks off the film with a mass-murder. Johnny Depp (who, as a man-turned-AI demigod, plays his most believable character in recent memory), has infinite omnipotent nanomachines at his disposal, but they can’t remotely upload hostile humans into his network.

Or can they? If Depp’s character refrains from assimilating people against their will, what’s the problem? The dude is fucking bringing people back to life for free. He’s healing the rainforests and removing excess greenhouse gases from the atmosphere for free. Must Uncle Sam fuck up every private venture of world-changing proportions?

The morals of this film are abhorrent. I believe in the virtues of personal liberty more than the average person, but come the fuck on. Aside from the invasion of personal privacy (not that much remains in this pre-Singularity world), there are no apparent downsides to Depp’s plot. Even is there are, how can they be worse than the downsides of permanently disabling the planets’ electrical and telecom systems?

The film’s heroes cut off Earth’s nose to spite Depp’s face. It makes no fucking sense. Though Pfister only shows a bit of the Collapse’s aftermath (people in Berkeley are bartering for used goods on the street, so apparently nothing has changed), I thought of these catastrophic effects after fifteen seconds of consideration:

– The instantaneous disappearance of all electronic financial markets would plunge the planet into a depression worse than a thousand Weimars.

– The inability to buy goods and the general lack of communication between agribusiness and vendors would cause a worldwide famine.

– Anyone who requires an electronic device to survive would die real bad-like.

– Modern medicine would be an impossibility.

Fuck you, Rebecca Hall and Paul Bettany.

(Seen and written on 2014-04-18)

M -1951-


Directed by Joseph Losey. 88 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Seen at the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre)


I’ve been trying to see this re-make of Fritz Lang’s 1931 masterpiece ever since I first learned of its existence about seven years ago. Screenings of this version are extremely few and far in between – until last year, the only known remaining print was in possession of the British Film Archives and seldom circulated. The screening that I saw (for the closing night of the Egyptian Theatre’s Noir City Festival) was a new 35mm print, hopefully a sign that the film will become more widely available. Are you listening, Criterion?

Even if the movie sucked (it doesn’t), I would consider it worth my time for its rarity alone, just as it would be worthwhile to talk to a bitterly racist unicorn. The film can’t reach the heights of the original, mainly because of the change of setting. Weimar-era urban Germany is soaked with dread and lends itself to a tale as chilling as M. Conversely, post-WWII Los Angeles is a whole lot brighter and much less scary. Losey fortunately understood that emulating German expressionism would be futile, and so he reimagined the plot to be much closer to a gangster movie than its source material. This shift in tone isn’t a complete loss by any means. For example, a sense of humor is present in the film that would have fallen flat if it were in Lang’s version.

All sorts of great character actors make up the cast (including, but not limited to, a pre-Perry Mason Raymond Burr). David Wayne (not to be confused with the Stella guy) makes a great killer, crafting a mania that stands completely on its own and without imitating Peter Lorre’s performance. The film on the whole stands up though I wouldn’t put it on the list of all-time great noirs.

(Seen and written on 2014-04-06)

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans -2009-


Directed by Werner Herzog. 122 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Seen at the American Cinematheque’s Aero Theatre)

I love Port of Call so much that this will resemble a gush far more than it will a review. Nicolas Cage and Werner Herzog may be the greatest actor/director collaboration since Emily Watson starred in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves. Cage turns in perfectly psychotic performance as Lieutenant Terrance McDonough, placing him right alongside Michael Corleone and Travis Bickle as a great American antihero. In spite of his latter-career focus on documentaries, Herzog hasn’t lost a step when it comes to narrative filmmaking. I’d say that Port of Call is the director’s best dramatic film since Fitzcarraldo.

Herzog wisely skips over the played out Mardi Gras and bayou bullshit that saturates most New Orleans based films, opting instead to show a grittier, post-Katrina side of the city (Andrew Dominik chose a similar approach while making Killing Them Softly). The film is a sincere character study of McDonough as he balances his addiction and corruption with his cases and personal life, but we know better than to think Herzog would make just any old cop-on-the-edge flick. And as always (with the exception of his documentary Wheel of Time), Herr Herzog does not disappoint.

Despite its dark marketing campaign and grim plot, Port of Call is a work of comic genius. McDonough never runs out of hilarious and clever ways to score drugs, make quick cash, and advance his investigation. Nearly every scene is memorable, and the reptile close-ups are Herzog at his head-scratching best. And the ending, with its rapid-fire plot resolutions, is beautifully implausible.

Aside: While the supporting cast is good all-around, a nearly-unrecognizable Jennifer Coolidge is especially impressive.

Aside: The screening preceded a discussion and Q&A with both Cage and Herzog, and it was as beautiful as you can imagine.

(Seen and written on 2014-04-04)

Under the Skin -2014-


Directed by Jonathan Glazer. 108 mins.

Worth my time? No. (Seen at Arclight Hollywood)

Earlier tonight I had to decide whether to see a free screening of Jim Jarmusch’s upcoming Only Lovers Left Alive at UCLA or a sneak preview of Glazer’s Under the Skin (for which I had to pay). Recalling the degree to which I enjoyed Sexy Beast, Glazer’s 2000 feature debut, as well as my reluctance to drive from Hollywood to Westwood at 6:30pm on a Thursday, I opted for the conveniently-located Skin.

One of the trailers that played before the film was for Only Lovers Left Alive. It looked fucking awesome. And as Skin slogged on and on, all I could think about that how I could be watching the new Jarmusch instead, and for free. Damn.

Lots of adjectives come to mind when I think of Sexy Beast, but “boring” doesn’t come close to making the list. Sadly, that word is the third one to pop into my head when thinking of Skin. On the bright side, the first two words that come to mind are “sensory marvel.”

Glazer has lost none of his ability to set one hell of a mood. The film switches between forboding shadow and brilliant color in mesmerizing fashion with the sequences of Scarlett Johansson seducing (consuming) her prey being a highlight. The amazing score by Mica Levi steals the film, and your money is better spent purchasing the soundtrack than actually seeing the movie.

I suppose one could argue that Skin has a message about how men treat women in a superficial and often violent manner, but it doesn’t justify narrative dullness, nor does the eye and ear candy. Glazer makes a living by directing commercials, and it shows – the premise for Skin lends itself to a short film at best.

Lots of folks are praising Johansson’s performance as the best in her career, but that’s like bragging about being the third tallest person in Japan. The bar isn’t all that high. Much like how Paul Thomas Anderson wrote a film around Adam Sandler’s acting limitations with Punch-Drunk Love, Glazer and co-writer Walter Campbell have made a movie that takes advantage of Johansson’s complete inability to act like a real human being. She’s stiff, stone-faced, and janky throughout her filmography, but at least in Skin it’s put to good use.

(Seen and written on 2014-04-04)

Noah -2014-


Directed by Darren Aronofsky. 138 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Seen at AMC Promenade 16, Woodland Hills)

After his relatively small-scale The Wrestler and Black Swan, Aronofsky has returned to the batshit crazy epic storytelling he demonstrated with The Fountain almost a decade a go. Like its spiritual successor, Noah is going to be divisive. This film doesn’t simply go off the rails ­– it was never on the rails in the first place. I loved The Fountain, and while Noah doesn’t ascend to its level, you’ll like it if you’re willing to roll with it.

From what I’ve read online, many viewers, religious and secular alike, take issue with the bizarre creative license that Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel take with the story of the Flood as told in the Book of Genesis. The most infamous deviation from the source material has been the film’s inclusion of the Watchers, more commonly known as “the rock monsters.” I have no idea why folks are dwelling on this one point.

First of all, the Watchers are awesome. I was sympathetic to their plight, an impressive achievement considering that these characters are literally made of stone. The team at Industrial Light and Magic deserves props for successfully bringing these dudes to life so well.

Secondly, this is a fucking adaptation of the fucking story of Noah’s fucking ark. This is one of the weirdest stories ever to come out of the ancient world, and it’s the Watchers that break your suspension of disbelief? Fuck off, you’re just looking for something to whine about.

The film is flawed, to be sure. Noah’s shift to psychological-thriller territory in the third act is an interesting narrative choice, but the film still feels a half-hour too long. Still, there’s a lot to like here. There’s plenty of eye candy ranging from Griffithian wide shots to the Requiem for a Dream-esque rapid-fire montages which cover the stories of Creation and the Fall. And per usual, Clint Mansell’s score is damn good.

(Seen and written on 2014-04-02)