The Lawnmower Man -1992-

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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-

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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)

The Raid 2 -2014-

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Directed by Gareth Evans. 150 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Seen at Pacific’s The Grove Stadium 14)

Geez Louise, Jakarta cop Rama (Iko Uwais) gets assignments that make John McClane’s adventures look like paid vacations. After the events of The Raid: Redemption, it would have been perfectly reasonable for Rama to think, “That was the worst day that could ever happen to anyone, ever. At least nothing worse can ever happen to me.”

Rama gravely misjudges Gareth Evans’ brutal creativity.

I give props to Evans for crafting a much more complex crime saga than the film’s predecessor. The Raid 2’s tale of gang war over the years is a fresh change from Redemption’s paper-thin premise, but it comes with a cost. The film is nearly an hour longer than Redemption, and the pacing (particularly near the beginning) may be too slow for the target demographic of adrenaline junkies.

I thought that the gambles of switching up the formula paid off. While Rama still gets the most screentime, Evans uses the first act to introduce plenty of characters, all of whom get at least one scene in which to show off their signature kill skills. The action is just as jawdropping and full of twisted humor as Redemption. Almost every fight scene brings something new to the table, a pretty amazing feat considering the runtime.

As long as Evans has passion and an unlimited supply of Indonesian stuntmen, keep sending Raid films my way.

Aside: There’s also this whitebread guitarist, not to be confused with the cool Gareth Evans.

(Seen and written on 2014-03-28)

The Grapes of Wrath -1940-

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Directed by John Ford. 129 mins.

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

Grapes was playing at the AMC for no reason in particular, so I took the chance to do some catching up with Mr. Ford’s filmography. This version of Steinbeck’s story of mass migration during the Dust Bowl hasn’t aged perfectly. Some scenes are overly sentimental (at least to my 21st-century sensibilities), and the film makes no mention of how the New Deal paid landowners and companies not to use their farm, resulting in the increase in food prices and countless sharecroppers having no land to work. Political quibbles aside, Grapes remains a powerful film more than 70 years after it premiered. I can only imagine how much of a slug to the gut it to audiences who actually lived through the events it depicted just a few years prior.

Henry Fonda and John Carradine’s performances are the highlights of a great ensemble cast, but, as usual, the star is Ford’s camera work. Motherfucker was using wide-angle shots when nobody was even thinking of doing it. His trick of filling much of the frame with skies full of wispy, backlit clouds gets predictable, but it’s still an effective device.

Aside: The opening and closing music is distractingly cheery for such a grim film. What gives?

(Seen on 2014-03-16, written on 2014-03-21)

Nebraska -2013-

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Directed by Alexander Payne. 115 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on Blu-ray)

Solid road flick and family drama, but it didn’t live up to all the Oscar hype surrounding it. Made for excellent rainy day watching – I loved how my bleak, drenched surroundings contrasted with the dry (yet equally bleak) locales (beautifully shot in black and white by Phedon Papamichael).

That the plot is secondary in Nebraska came as no surprise. This film belongs to its mostly phenomenal cast. Bruce Dern, an actor with whom I mostly familiar by way of loud Walter Hill pictures, deserves his praise. Perhaps playing a crusty old man comes naturally with age (especially for Dern), but he laces it with plenty of nuanced dough under the flaky exterior. Will Forte, having been one of the weakest SNL players of my generation, is surprisingly grounded and provides Dern with an excellent foil.

The rest of the cast shines too. Since his turn on Breaking Bad, it’s no large surprise to see Bob Odenkirk doing good drama, but it’s nice to see that his performance as Saul Goodman wasn’t just a fluke. Stacy Keach and all the other players feel like they were plucked right out of real Midwestern everyday life. My only complaints stem from Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray’s roles as Bart and Cole. They were fun, but they didn’t feel quite right for this film – there was something a little too Coensian about them.

Despite its overly transparent structure (if you’ve seen more than a few movies in your life, you’ll be able to predict exactly when one character throws a punch), Nebraska is exactly the type of film I hoped Alexander Payne would helm after the witty-yet-obnoxiously-post The Descendents. Jeff Nichols’ Mud remains my favorite small-town film of 2013, but Nebraska is an honorable second place.

“Does he have Alzheimer’s?” No, he just believes what people tell him. “That’s too bad.”

(Seen and written on 2014-02-28)

300 -2006-

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Directed by Zack Snyder. 117 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on Blu-ray)

I don’t have high hopes for the upcoming 300: Rise of an Empire, but it reminded me that I hadn’t seen Zack Snyder’s predecessor since the year of its release (hard to believe it was eight years ago). I didn’t much care for 300 when I saw it in theaters, but I enjoyed it much more this time around. Watching it for free and in the comfort of my home worked in its favor, that’s for sure.

The film isn’t very intelligent or subtle, but neither was most pre-Homeric storytelling. For whatever reason, I found myself to be much more forgiving of the thin plot this time around. All that 300 aspires to be is a faithful adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel and an testosterone-saturated depiction of one of history’s most iconic battles, and it succeeds on both counts. The experience is bloody and beautiful, utilizing the green screen-centric Sin City approach before The Spirit butchered it a couple years later.

Of course, the events depicted in 300 probably have only the remotest of connections to the Battle of Thermopylae. Then again, I’d wager that it’s a fairly accurate guess at what came to mind when the average Spartan thought of the battle. Sparta existed in a time when people had an even more sensationalized concept of the world than they do today. Ogre-warriors, nine foot-tall god-kings, and goat-headed courtesans make for good time at the movies, and they’re also the sorts of details that would have been added as the story transformed to myth.

The purpose of myths is to convey a lesson in a story of wonder and spectacle – it is not a medium of nuance. Snyder delivered a story of nationhood and selflessness that would make and Spartan (provided they knew English) yell, “Fuck yeah!”

If you expect anything smarter than that, get back to your Thucydides.

Aside: 300 has one of the best trailers of any English-language film of the last decade.

Aside: The only area in which time has not been kind to the film is that the presence of Michael Fassbender, a virtual unknown in 2006, is now distracting.

(Seen and written on 2014-02-25)

The Counselor -2013-

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Directed by Ridley Scott. 117 mins.

Worth my time? No. (Watched on Blu-ray)

Ridley Scott’s collaboration with Cormac McCarthy (I had thought they were gonna do Blood Meridian, but I guess that dried up) came and went so quickly last year that I had almost forgotten that it existed. Most critics tore the film to shreds, which was partly why I didn’t run to see it in theaters. Still, there’s a small coalition of critics and film geeks who praise The Counselor as Like, The Best Fukkin’ Movie Ever.

So I think to myself, I think, “Hey, I’m a contrarian sort. Perhaps The Counselor will be my cup of tea!”

It’s not, nor will it be yours.

Aside from it’s thin, muddled plot – I don’t need thrillers to lead me by the hand, but come the fuck on – literally every single frame of this movie irritated me. Watch it (don’t watch it) for yourself, and you’ll notice that no character ever has his or her face fully visible. They’re always half-lit, like a student filmmaker forgot to rent an extra Kino and had to improvise. It’s not stylistic. It’s just annoying.

The dialogue is astoundingly bad at times. I don’t need all my films to have Mike Leigh authenticity, but if you’re going to talk solely in riddles, at least make it engaging (Rian Johnson’s Brick is a good recent example). Since McCarthy is primarily a novelist, I wasn’t surprised that the dialogue is presumably more interesting to read than it is to hear. All of the main actors give it their best with the exception of Cameron Diaz, an actor whose appeal completely eludes me.

Brad Pitt is easily the best part of the film, and he’s the only player whose lines sound somewhat convincing. His death scene (you’re not gonna watch it anyway) is pretty damn good.

Aside: Too many leopards.

Aside: Oh hey, Rosie Perez!

(Seen and written on 2014-02-19)

Il Posto -1961-

2014-02-18 Il Posto

Directed by Ermanno Olmi. 93 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on DVD)

I received Il Posto as a gift shortly after I started a new job, but I didn’t get around to watching it until today. As it happens, I quit said job last week. I can’t think of a better movie to have watched immediately after quitting an office gig.

The film has a sense of humor, to be sure, but the whole thing has a cloud of doom hovering over it. I don’t mean doom in the sense that something bad is about to happen (if only Domenico, the young protagonist, got off that easy). Rather, the doom is there because nothing is about to happen to him. Nothing is ever going to happen to him.

Il Posto shrugs off storytelling conventions such as an active protagonist who propels the narrative and a third act following the story’s third act. Domenico never has a chance to affect the outcome of the story; the moment he arrives at the company for his aptitude tests, he’s buried in a system that survives through the smothering of individual volition. As Act II came to an end (or, rather, never came to an end), I jumped in my seat. Domenico deserves better. All of them do.

Aside: Wonderful cinematography by Roberto Barbieri and Lamberto Caimi.

Aside: If you’re writing a novel, please don’t hold a fulltime job. You aren’t Joseph Heller The scene of the employers discovering “Chapter 19” broke my heart.

(Seen and written on 2014-02-18)

The New Star Wars Trilogy That Should Be (But Won’t).

The new trilogy oughta take place 30-35 years after Return of the Jedi, and the situation in the Galaxy is becoming even worse than it was during the rule of the Galactic Empire. The protagonists of the original trilogy are the new villains, having gradually become what they hated in the decades after the post-RotJ power vacuums.

Leia has occupied the office of Supreme Chancellor of the New Republic for decades when Episode VII begins. While the Galactic Senate has been reformed, Leia has almost complete control on matters of military and legal policy.

In the years following the collapse of the Empire, Leia oversaw the capture and trials, and executions of numerous high-ranking Imperial officers. The purging of the Imperial remnants slowly bloated into a witch-hunt spanning the entire Galaxy. Trillions of New Republic citizens are killed, imprisoned, and exiled under the pretense of having Imperial sympathies.  Growing more paranoid with age, Leia turns her sights on targets that may potentially threaten the stability of the New Republic and her power.

Among those targets is her brother, Jedi Master Luke Skywalker. In the years between Episodes VI and VII, Luke reestablishes the Jedi Temple and starts training a group of disciples, the first of many such classes. While he knows that traditionally, only two Sith Lords exist at any given time, Luke is not convinced that the threat was extinguished following the deaths of Darth Vader and Palpatine.

Luke and his battalions of fiercely loyal Jedi eventually begin a violent crusade throughout the Galaxy in the name of defeating the Sith. Paradoxically, the pathological fear of the Dark Side of the Force has made Luke fall into its clutches. The campaign is initially sponsored by the Republic, but shortly before the events of Episode VII, Leia withdraws support and declares Luke a public enemy. The Jedi, answering only to Luke, prepare to battle the Grand Army of the Republic.

After his relationship with Leia crumbles, Han Solo builds a criminal empire upon the ashes of the now-defunct Hutt syndicate, becoming the most powerful gangster. His power is challenged only by Lando Calrissian, a move which leads Han to assassinate him.

Over the course of the trilogy, a new band of Rebels find themselves in the midst of these warring factions:

–Han and Leia’s daughter, who abandons her privileged life to fight the corrupt Republic.
–The grandson of Grand Moff Tarkin, living under a pseudonym. The family Tarkin is now pariah in the Galaxy. While the younger Tarkin hates the New Republic, he is haunted by his family’s genocidal past.
–Chewbacca, who breaks his life-debt to Han rather than facilitate his brutal crimes.
–R2D2, who breaks ties with Leia while C-3PO remains loyal to her.
That’s all I’ve thought up so far. I think it’d be cool.

#recordprofits

Re–Animator -1985-

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Directed by Stuart Gordon. 87 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on Blu-ray)

I finally bought a Blu-ray player, so huzzah for me! I spent yesterday watching two of the best gore-fests of 1985: Re-Animator and Day of the Dead (sadly, I left out The Return of the Living Dead). Nearly 30 years after its release, Stuart Gordon’s batshit-crazy adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s short story is one of the most disgusting-yet-hilarious stews of sex and violence ever to grace the screen.

Jeffrey Combs’ performance as Herbert West is perfect and steals the film (as I’m sure was the intent). Despite being insane, West’s one-track mind and hyper-analytical reactions to even the most bizarre situations makes his strangely lovable. It’s easy to find yourself rooting for West by the film’s end even though he’s responsible for pretty much all the death and mayhem in the movie.

David Gale is menacing yet equally funny as Miskatonic University’s resident headless stalker and star researcher. Everett Burrell’s gore effects (rivaling Bottin’s work in The Thing) and Richard Band’s earworm of a score fit the picture perfectly.

(Seen and written on 2013-11-12)