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)

Starship Troopers -1997-

2014-03-27 Starship Troopers

Directed by Paul Verhoeven. 129 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Seen at Arclight Hollywood)

While waiting for the screening to start, some dingus behind me remarked, “Starship Troopers is my favorite so-bad-it’s-good movie.”

No, no, no. Starship Troopers is a great film without qualification, and it’s a bummer to know that the film continues to go right over some folks’ heads.

At the risk of bestowing undeserved praise upon it, Troopers is the closest film to Dr. Strangelove to come out of the 90s. Those who are quick to point out the many over-the-top moments and campy dialogue (which often feels more at home in a teen romantic comedy) completely miss the forest for the trees. While the movie follows the same premise as Robert A. Heinlein’s arguably pro-fascist novel of the same title, Verhoeven screenwriter Edward Neumeier adapted Troopers to be a rebuke of its own source material. Neumeier, who previously wrote Verhoeven’s classic RoboCop, injects nearly the same level of violence, hilarity, and cynicism into this darkly comic space opera / soap opera.

Troopers is one of the only (and certainly one of the most interesting) depictions of a post-racial, post-gendered society and I’ve seen on film. The movie never flat-out says that its world has moved beyond race and sex, but it’s pretty darn clear. Sadly, Neumeier’s future is far from rosy, and the erosion of oppressive constructs is made possible only by the development of even more rigid ideas of “the other.” All of humankind is split between common “civilians” and “citizens,” the ones who wield political power – essentially all power as industry and communication appear state-run. This world remembers democracy and individual rights as failures, and war is the institution on which all else is built.

The caste system divides humanity, but the threat of the Bugs unites it. Despite the jarring physical differences, both Bug-kind and humankind live for collectivism and endless war. Biology professors teach their students that in many respects (such as teir lack of ego or knowledge of death), Bugs are the superior species. Nevertheless, they are the ultimate Other and must be destroyed at all costs.

Troopers’ visuals still hold up 17 years after its release. The film is CGI-heavy but also makes use of plenty cool conventional SFX. The film’s subtext and visuals are the real stars – none of the players are particularly engrossing apart from the always-fun Michael “Richter” Ironside. Then again, the likes of Casper Van Dien and Denise Richards aren’t exactly famous for their acting skills.

Aside: Troopers invented “clickbait” about 15 years before the real thing appears. Would You Like To Know More?

(Seen and written on 2014-03-27)

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)

Pacific Rim -2013-

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Directed by Guillermo del Toro. 131 mins.

 Worth my time? YES. (Seen on IMAX at Edwards Stadium 26, Long Beach)

 Holy smokes, I had a wonderful time watching del Toro’s return to directing after a five-year hiatus. Pacific Rim is the best summer blockbuster I’ve seen since The Dark Knight, and it’s entertainment of the same caliber as Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park. My biggest complaint about the film is that I wasn’t able to see it back when I was ten years old.

 The film’s simple premise – big-ass monsters attack, and big-ass robots fight them – could have easily fallen into Michael Bay territory if not for the sharp direction and wondrous imagination of del Toro. The locales of Pacific Rim are more than stages for battles; they’re all woven into a fleshed out world with a rich, detailed history. Suspension of disbelief is easy: the monstrous kaiju wrecking the Earth seem less like a plot device and more like a grim fact of life.

Del Toro understands that a big movie (and Pacific Rim is fuckin’ epic) still needs smaller-scale elements that collectively reinforce the plot. Luckily, the film is teeming with such moments. In a world where the Jaeger (the big-ass robots) are saviors, their pilots are celebrities who endorse products and make the rounds on late-night talk shows. Demand for dead kaiju bones and organs creates a black market controlled by gangsters like Hannibal Chow (del Toro regular Ron Perlman, perfect as always). And, just like in our world, leaders still exploit defense budgets and strategies as political footballs.

The film has a great cast, all of whom treat their roles with enough gravitas to be taken seriously but with enough levity to suit the awesome, joyful viewing experience.

 Yes, this is the most joyful apocalyptic movie I’ve ever seen. Sorry, KABOOM.

 Charlie Hunnam isn’t the most spectacular leading man, but he’s worth a thousand Armie Hammers. Rinko Kikuchi (the lady from Babel who was nominated for an Oscar and then receded into relative obscurity) is refreshing as a powerful woman protagonist who grabs the viewer’s attention without a hint of sexual objectification. Idris Elba is super-cool as usual – man, do I hope he becomes the next James Bond. Even Charlie Day (who plays, big shocker, a neurotic scientist), is funny, and keeps his voice at a reasonable pitch.

 While Pacific Rim is CGI-intensive, it never gets tiresome. Del Toro and his animators only show the action in grounded ways, as if everything were shot with real camera rigs. No shaky-cam, no ridiculously long tracking shots, no bullshit. Rango is the only recent film I can recall that shared similar success with its animation.

 And the fights, man. The fuckin’ fights. Prepare to squeal with childish delight.

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-07-10)

 

The Heat -2013-

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Directed by Paul Feig. 117 mins.

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

It’s a bad sign when your buddy cop comedy borrows heavily from Another 48 HRS. Not the original, mind you, but rather the abysmal 1990 follow-up. The Heat has some clever quips here and there, but it brings nothing new to its formula. The only reason I can imagine to see it is if you’re desperate for a film that passes the Bechdel Test.

While I enjoyed Bridesmaids (due mostly to great script by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo) I now suspect that Paul Feig is a closet misogynist. Why else would he make such a dull film penned by a woman (Parks and Rec writer Kaite Dippold) and starring women on the A-list (Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy)? It’s clearly to perpetuate the tired Hitchensian stereotype that women aren’t funny.

I understand that Hollywood is still a white old boy’s club, and I suppose it’s admirable to switch it up in major motion pictures. Still, if you want to further the station of women in show business, it would help if the projects weren’t so lame. A movie has to be good on its own merits – you shouldn’t settle for crap based on demography alone.

Don’t see Soul Plane or Madea Goes to Jail – see Do the Right Thing. See Barbershop. See Devil in a Blue Dress. See Pariah (seriously, see Pariah).

Don’t see The Heat. See The Kids are Alright. See I Shot Andy Warhol (or anything by Mary Harron). See Clueless. See pretty much anything by Nicole Holofcener. See Near Dark (not because it’s woman centric, but because it’s fucking amazing).

Never settle, yo.

– Aside: I fear that Melissa McCarthy is the victim of “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Make no mistake; she’s a very talented actor. She’s no game-changer, though. I have a hunch that the media treats her like one for the same reason that they lauded Susan Boyle; many people, sadly, are absolutely shocked when they see an overweight person do something well.

(Seen and originally written on 2013-07-08)

World War Z -2013-

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Directed by Marc Forster. 116 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Seen for free at AMC Promenade 16)

Considering that its production was plagued with more clusterfucks than Heaven’s Gate, I’m struck that World War Z is anywhere near as good as it is. The movie isn’t great, and there’s plenty for zombie nerds to nitpick, but it’s a solid, genuinely creepy afternoon diversion.

Brad Pitt reminds us that he’s the most consistently good American A-list actor of his generation. Nic Cage and Tom Cruise have had higher peaks in their filmography, but at this point, they’re just too goddamn distracting onscreen (especially Cage). Pitt, on the other hand, can still disappear into a believable everyman as he demonstrated in The Tree of Life a couple of years back. Pitt’s protagonist in WWZ isn’t the most interesting character, but he’s sufficient. Plus, his wife (Mireille Enos of Big Love and The Killing) actually looks within his age range.

The main attraction here is the situation, not the character. The first two acts do a great job of showing civilization collapse in a matter of hours. Pitt goes from Philadelphia (why do zombie movies always start in Pennsylvania?) to Newark (which doesn’t look much worse than it does in real life) to the Korean Peninsula (the North Korean solution to the zombie problem is eerily plausible) to Jerusalem (where the Israelis are putting their 65 years of constant vigilance to good use). For a relatively short film, Marc Forster and his army of screenwriters did a bang-up job of showing the global scale of the outbreak.

The third act, unfortunately, reeks of oh-shit-how-do-we-finish-thisness. After having relative success by keeping the chaos in large environments, the film confines itself to the Hive of Resident Evil. It doesn’t ruin the experience, but it’s a big (although not unexpected) bummer.

Some folks might piss and moan over the lack of gore (a PG-13 film about humanity’s violent end does seem a tad odd), but I got used to it. Also, why should gore be the fulcrum on which a zombie flick balances? George A. Romero has made three super-gory films since 2005, and they all suck. I actually found the absence of F-bombs to be the worst consequence of WWZ’s rating. Come on, now – people would be cussing up a fuckin’ storm in this kind of setting.

– Aside: Did anyone notice the implication that Israel’s downfall comes, in part, from being peaceful and diplomatic toward their Palestinian and Arab neighbors?

– Aside: David Morse is onscreen for maybe two minutes, but he absolutely steals this movie. You can also catch Morse and Pitt in 12 Monkeys, another apocalypse thriller.

(Seen and originally written on 2013-06-26)

Man of Steel -2013-

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Directed by Zack Snyder. 143 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Seen with a friend at Arclight Hollywood)

Man of Steel doesn’t have exceptionally lofty aspirations… and I couldn’t be happier.

Keep in mind, the last two times Snyder tried to tell complicated stories, we got the lame Watchmen and the horrible Sucker Punch. The narrative and dialogue are a couple notches below what fans may come to expect from screenwriters Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer, but I applaud them for keeping the director in mind. They’ve fed Snyder exactly as much as he could chew.

Henry Cavill is the best screen Superman yet. I thought Christopher Reeve was charming back in the day (and Donner’s original Superman remains my franchise favorite), but I’m glad his cheesy quips have been left in the past. For the first time, a movie had me not only wondering, “Is Superman going to save the day (of course he is)?” but more importantly, “Is Superman going to be okay?” This task is easier said than done since Kal-El is pretty much indestructible. However, Goyer and Nolan have fleshed him out as somewhat of a neurotic, extraterrestrial Bruce Wayne, complete with lotsa mommy and daddy issues. It’s as deep a character study as we could ever reasonably expect from Snyder.

Aside from an inconsistent performance by Amy Adams (who’s still a step up from Kate Bosworth), the rest of the cast does a great job. It’s always nice to see Kevin Costner remind us that he’s a solid actor, particularly in a post-Waterworld-Postman world (eew, too many posts and worlds). Michael Shannon occasionally hams it up as Zod, but he’s a good choice for the villain overall, and more believable than either his characters in Revolutionary Road or Boardwalk Empire. Plus, Russell Crowe turns in a much more involved Jor-El performance than Marlon Brando – probably at a fraction of his fee, too.

It bears repeating that Man of Steel is no game-changer, and my enjoyment of the film was most likely amplified by the soft bigotry of low expectations. Haters will find plenty of blatant product-placement and Christ allegories to nitpick. Still, it beats the pants off of summer fare like Furious 6, Iron Man 3, and even Star Trek Into Darkness.

(Seen and originally written on 2013-06-14)

Undisputed -2002-

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Directed by Walter Hill. 90 mins.

 Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on DVD)

 Well, I’ve finally made my way through the Hillmography (no, I don’t plan on watching the episodes he directed for Tales from the Crypt). The whole experience has been quite the roller coaster ride with plenty of peaks (The Warriors, 48 Hrs, Streets of Fire, Trespass) and plunges (Southern Comfort, Brewster’s Millions, Red Heat, Supernova).

Since I saw Bullet to the Head out of Hillmographical order, the last of his films to land at my feet is Undisputed. The gritty slugfest took me back to a simpler time when Ving Rhames wasn’t fat and Wesley Snipes only acted like he was in prison. Most importantly, it is a fun if imperfect B-movie that is old-school Hill through and through.

The simple satisfaction that comes with watching tough dudes beat the stuffing out of each other is just as pure as when Hill first sat in the director’s chair for Hard Times. The film takes place almost entirely in a prison run by various gangs and at times feels like the type of self-contained dystopian universe that was New York City in The Warriors. Just as the Warriors’ odyssey to Coney was traced on crossfaded maps of the subway system, Undisputed sets up location changes tracing along images of the prison’s schematics.

As with many other Hillms, the cast is one of its highlights. Rhames’ bravado as the world heavyweight boxing champ is great, and Wes Studi is hilariously clichéd as the wise Native American convict who shows him the ropes once he’s on the inside. Snipes is the less angry of the two boxers, and the Badlands-esque tropical music that plays in his presence suggests that his mind is off in some other, more peaceful place. Add to that line-up a grungy Peter Falk as a Jewish mobster / boxing historian and Michael fuckin’ Rooker as the prison’s head guard, and I was ear-to-ear smiles.

The movie is not without its shortcomings. The order of scenes (especially the ones dealing with subplots) seem arbitrary at times, and the “flash of white” wipes between scenes was a little too iMovie for my taste. Still, a Hill fan will be pleased as punch with “Undisputed.” And yes, I deserve to go to Hell for my pun in the previous sentence.

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-02-20)

Last Man Standing -1996-

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Directed by Walter Hill. 101 mins.

 Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on DVD)

 Aside from committing the sin of literally spoiling the ending in the title, Last Man Standing was pretty damn fun. While I have yet to see Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (the film of which LMS is credited as a remake), this stands as a solid portion of the Hillmography.

 Many critics panned Last Man Standing at the time of its release, dismissing it as depressing and joyless. Granted, it ain’t exactly Miracle in Milan, but I’m not sure what the critics are whining about. The humor is black, but it’s certainly there. Think Miller’s Crossing if it were directed by Robert Rodriguez, and you’ll have a general idea of the film’s tone. The action is Peckinpah-level brutal, and the locales are bone dry, just the way I like ‘em.

 Willis is passable as the film’s mysterious antihero, but the main attraction are the supporting players. Bruce Dern is haggard per usual as the town sheriff, and David Patrick Kelly is great as the short-fused Irish kingpin with a temper right up there with Philip Seymour Hoffman in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. As another surprising bonus, a super-young Leslie Mann appears as a “woman of ill repute.” And just like in her Apatow films, she never shuts up!

 The star of the show may very well be Christopher Walken as Hickey, the borderline-psychotic mob enforcer. Hill is smart and treats Walken like thespian wasabi, making sure not to overuse him. His character doesn’t even show up until the film’s second half, and he’s a man of few words whenever he’s onscreen. I love it when reeling in screen-hogging actors pays off (kinda like De Niro in Jackie Brown).

 – More Ry Cooder, yay!

Next up in the Hillmography: Supernova.

(Seen and originally written on 2013-02-18)