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)

Under the Skin -2014-

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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)

The Straight Story -1999-

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Directed by David Lynch. 112 mins.

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

Wow, what a difference 15 years and a big screen can make.

I was ten years old when I first watched a VHS of Richard Farnsworth’s swan song in my parents’ living room. At the time, I thought that it was run-of-the-mill “based on a true story” Disney fare. This evaluation ranks among one of young Patrick’s many dumb opinions because upon seeing a 35mm screening, The Straight Story is a bizarre, beautiful tale that’s near the top of Lynch’s filmography (Lost Highway is still my personal favorite) and one of the best American films of the 90s.

Alvin Straight is the most interesting, fleshed-out character that Lynch ever tackled – as much as I love Frank Booth, Bobby Peru, Dick Laurent, and company, none of them were engaging on a sentimental level. While the film only shows Alvin’s famous lawn tractor ride across the Midwest to see his estranged brother, it tells far more of his story. Learning about both the joy and pain that Straight harbors is every bit as gripping as Lynch’s noirish, fractured realities in his other films. I can’t imagine anyone but Farnsworth in the role – he’s damn close to perfect.

While the substance of The Straight Story isn’t obvious Lynch territory, it’s very much a tale of the darkness that lives beneath the surface of its “All American” locales (very much like Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks). The style, however, is clearly Lynchian. All of the wide-angle shots, unsettling ambient noise, superfluous fire, awkward conversations, quirky characters, and original music by Angelo Badalamenti are all here. Sissy Spacek is particularly wonderful as Rose, Alvin’s mildly autistic daughter.

If you’re a Lynch fan and haven’t yet seen The Straight Story, I haven’t the faintest idea why you’re stalling. Now that you’ve read this piece, ignorance is no excuse. Lawn tractor, don’t walk, to your nearest video store (or Web site, let’s be honest) and check it out!

(Seen on 2014-03-09, written on 2014-03-13)

Non-Stop -2014-

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Directed by Jaume Collet-Sera. 106 mins.

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

The hero of this film is a hard-drinking disgraced former police officer who redeems himself when disaster strikes. If you okay with seeing that Hollywood trope once more, then Non-Stop is worth checking out. It’s one of the better PG-13 action films I’ve seen in awhile and is a huge step up from Collet-Sera and Neeson’s previous collab, Unknown.

The combination of a high-concept murder mystery and a terror plot in an isolated setting makes Non-Stop feel like a lovechild of Clue and Die Hard (it’s a far better Die Hard than last year’s A Good Day to Die Hard). The film does a decent job of fleshing out the potential friends and foes on the plane as well as finding novel ways of killing them off). Julianne Moore is horribly underutilized. However, the film is a lot more fun if you pretend it’s a spin-off of Magnolia’s Linda Partridge character.

What else is there to say? It’s a decent late-period Liam Neeson vehicle. If you don’t think it’s worth the price of admission, you should still RedBox it at least.

Aside: Scoot McNairy is sneaking into every movie lately. Has anyone else noticed this?

(Seen on 2014-03-01, written on 2014-03-03)

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

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Photo taken moments after Martin Freeman is told Peter Jackson’s net worth.

Directed by Peter Jackson. 161 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Seen in 3D [24fps] at Arclight Hollywood)

Apart from my sore bladder near the end, Desolation is a good adventure movie and the first of Jackson’s Middle-earth adaptations in which I thought the good outweighed the bad. Some of the transitions between plots and subplots are janky (though I don’t know how Jackson and editor Jabez Olssen could have taken on so many stories and made it smoother), but unlike previous installments, fun shit happens at an acceptably steady rate.

Also, I opted for the 24fps experience this time around, definitely a good call. An Unexpected Journey looked like a nauseating (literally – 48fps makes me physically queasy) television program.

Martin Freeman is an infinitely better lead actor than LotR’s Elijah Wood. Freeman was the best part of Unexpected, and his character is even more interesting in Desolation. Kudos to the One Ring for slowly turning Bilbo into a sadistic junkie. Thorin (Richard Armitage) develops some layers, but I still wouldn’t care if any of the other dwarves die. I couldn’t name any of them. One of them is Cory, maybe?

Oh, and Ian McKellan is reliably awesome. That dude is able to carry even the most outlandish scenes. If you don’t believe me, watch X-Men: The Last Stand. McKellan’s the only actor who does any acting in that piece of Ratner shit.

Some critics and nearly every fan of the original novel are up in arms about Desolation’s inclusion of Legolas (who wasn’t in The Hobbit) and Tauriel (who has no basis whatsoever in Tolkien’s bibliography). Their inclusion isn’t crucial to the story, but I wasn’t offended. I understand that Jackson wants his Hobbit trilogy to tie into The Lord of the Rings more closely than the novels, and that’s okay by me. If you want The Hobbit to be 100% faithful to Tolkien’s vision, read the goddamn book. You could probably complete it cover-to-cover in the same time it takes to watch two of these movies.

Cliffhanger endings are tricky, but I thought Desolation pulled one off very well. The revelation and confrontation with Smaug was well done – he’s a pretty suave dragon – and the final battle scene kept me on my toes. I almost jumped when the screen went black. That’s a pretty good reaction to have after such a long movie.

Aside: Why do dragons like gold so much? They aren’t spending it, and sleeping in it appears rather uncomfortable. So what’s going on?

(Seen and written on 2013-12-13)

Oldboy -2013-

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Directed Spike Lee. 104 mins.

Worth my time? Yes, but my expectations were modest. (Seen for free at Arclight Hollywood)

Spike Lee’s remake of Park Chan-wook’s 2003 K-vengeance classic isn’t a must-see by any stretch, nor is it the wet noodle (or raw octopus) that many critics have alleged. As I expected, this new version lacks the can’t-look-awayness of the original. Park, is a master of the sensuous and visceral (as his Stoker demonstrated so well earlier this year). Lee is more accustomed to illustrating his points with musical numbers and angry white dudes. To paraphrase a Mr. Thomas Hardy, Lee merely adopted the revenge thriller; Park was born in it.

The film would have been a disaster if Lee had tried to imitate Park’s sensibilities. Luckily, he makes no such attempt. Even though Lee doesn’t have a style that meshes well with the Oldboy story, there was some fun to be had in seeing his interpretation of the material. I’ve glanced through a lot of critics who have panned the film for being stylistically flat and lacking Lee’s interest, but they’re wrong. Sure, Lee isn’t going to be as enthusiastic about this film as he was about Do the Right Thing, but what the fuck were these folks expecting?

Even a mercenary director can leave an unmistakable mark on a film adaptation (see Lynch’s Dune). Here, Lee sniffs out plenty of opportunities of to ruminate on themes such as:

  1. Absent fathers
  2. White exploitation of successful black men
  3. White men hypersexualizing black women
  4. Frustration at New York’s Asian population
  5. Street-level charity and activism for the underprivileged
  6. The arrogance and decadence of old money and society’s elites
  7. Grotesque imagery of Americana
  8. Hurricane fuckin’ Katrina
  9. More New York than you can shake a stick at
  10. George Zimmerman’s home address is constantly displayed in the bottom-right corner of the frame.

Some of Lee’s flourishes feel silly, but I got a kick outta them. The core cast is solid, and Sharlto Copley is as believable as his cartoonish role will allow. Sam Jackson, of course, is so goddamn Sam Jackson that he instantly grows tiresome, but I suppose I’m resigned to that.

Aside: The two frame stories are gone, but it also eliminates the lazy narration of the original. Call it a lateral move.

(Seen and written on 2013-11-27)

The Thing -1982-

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Directed by John Carpenter. 109 mins.

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

John Carpenter’s The Thing is probably my all-time favorite movie. In a career chock-full of amazing movies (Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, Big Trouble in Little China, They Live, In the Mouth of Madness, and more), The Thing is both his crowning achievement and a classic of American horror and science fiction.

There are so many reasons why I love The Thing and why you should, too. The film is a perfect example of how Carpenter was a disciple of Old Hollywood in a time when New Hollywood (Coppola, Friedkin, Lucas, Scorsese, the Scott brothers, and especially Spielberg) was metastasizing. The Thing courageously (and, from a business perspective, quite stupidly) landed in a time when sci-fi epics were playing one-upmanship. Close Encounters of the Third Kind had come out a few years prior. Both Blade Runner and E.T. were in theaters, and Return of the Jedi was less than a year away. Instead of following the trend, JC kept The Thing old school. He crafted a (far superior) remake of the 1951 B-movie classic with claustrophobic sets, minimal effects added in post, and an all-male cast (a feat that no studio film would dare attempt today).

The Thing was out of step with its contemporaries, but it never feels out of date. The film is closer to its source material (John W. Campbell’s novella, Who Goes There?) than the 1951 adaptation and does an outstanding job of conjuring the story’s themes. Every part of this movie is saturated with fear of the most timeless varieties: fear of the elements, fear of that which defies description, fear of betrayal, and most terrifying, fear that everything you know about your world will become irrelevant in an instant.

The film has a core of fear as old as humankind, but on its surface are special effects that, even today, remain close to the cutting edge. Effects master Rob Bottin (he also engineered the crazy-ass gore in RoboCop) brought the Thing to life with some of the most elaborate animatronics and puppetry in the cinematic history. The ways in which the creatures move and attack are creepier than any CGI: when the Thing is chomping on a character, it’s really chomping on the goddamn dude. Even more impressive is the multi-layered, constantly evolving monster design. Bottin pulls off the nearly impossible task of making the creatures impossible to describe even when they’re fully visible.

Kurt “Love-Of-My-Life” Russell is reliably fantastic in the lead role, but the rest of the doomed scientists are also perfectly cast (Wilford Brimley and Keith David for life, yo). All of the characters are crucial to how the events unfold, and each one has at least a couple fantastic moments. Even when eight or ten of them are onscreen simultaneously, Carpenter’s direction never allows the scenes to become clunky or confusing.

God, how I love this movie.

Aside: The Thing was nominated for “Worst Musical Score” at the 1983 Razzies. The fuck were they huffing? Ennio Morricone’s score is menacing and fantastic.

(Seen on 2013-11-04, written on 2013-11-05)

12 Years a Slave -2013-

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Directed by Steve McQueen. 134 mins.

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

I first encountered the story of Solomon Northup in the eighth grade when my history class watched Half Slave, Half Free, a film made for PBS in 1984. While the film had a strong crew (featuring the likes of Avery Brooks and Joe Seneca) and was directed by the usually hard-hitting Gordon Parks (of Shaft fame), I could tell even then that I was watching a highly sanitized account of the events.

Luckily, Steve McQueen doesn’t know the meaning of the word “sanitized.” Just has he did so wonderfully in Hunger (and in Shame, albeit with underwhelming results), McQueen presents a story of a man’s struggle to endure his own personal Hell and never once spares the audience the grim details of the ordeal. With its visual style of finding beauty in the grotesque and its excellent ensemble cast, 12 Years a Slave is among the best Oscar bait-type films I’ve seen since Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives.

McQueen was a perfect match for John Ridley’s adaptation of Northup’s memoirs. As a black man (who isn’t a total creep like Lee Daniels), McQueen has an window into the black experience that the Spielbergs, Demmes, and Zwicks of the world – through no fault of their own – can simply never possess. Secondly, as a London native, McQueen has the benefit of having a relative outsider’s point-of-view on America’s peculiar institution.

McQueen has no intention of turning Northup’s story into any sort of epic. Even when his stories take place within a larger historical event (such as Hunger and the Troubles of 1980s Ireland), McQueen never lets the protagonist out of his sights. No less important to the film’s intimate atmosphere is the photography which lingers on gorgeous slices of the machinery and landscape of the antebellum South, showing off McQueen’s talent as a visual artist (for which he received a formal education). The wheel of a steamboat, the algae atop a river, and even the patterns of dangling flesh on the back of a whipped slave are framed as if they were art installations.

Chiwetel Ejiofor has been a supporting actor for nearly 20 years (his performances span the likes of Love Actually, Kinky Boots, Children of Men, and, sadly, 2012), but his ascent to leading man was worth the wait. Ejiofor holds his own against the likes of current Hollywood obsession Benedict Cumberbatch, frequent McQueen collaborator Michael Fassbender (who is excellent as a Legree-ish slave driver) Paul Dano (a sadistic but cowardly carpenter), Sarah Paulson (she’s prolific, look her up).

Even in the scenes where he talks to Brad Pitt (who plays a conveniently virtuous gentleman, but his production company provided the film’s finishing funds, so I guess we can’t complain), Ejiofor never loses command of the screen. Relative newcomer Lupita Nyong’o (who plays the object / victim of Fassbender’s desire) turns in a particularly fine role.

I can easily see 12 Years a Slave winning lotsa gold at the 86th Academy Awards (including Best Picture) provided that the AMPAAS voters interpret the film as a white-man-saves the-black-man story that they hold so dear. Since there is little evidence that the majority white, old, male voters are sensitive to even the most obvious subtext, I suspect they’ll bite.

12 Years a Slave is definitely not a white saviour film. If that’s what you want, Amistad and Avatar are always a mouseclick away. The assistance that Northup receives from white folks in reclaiming his freedom (this isn’t a spoiler, the dude wrote a goddamn memoir) is not exceptional charity but rather a long-overdue correction of an atrocious act at the hands of whites. The strength that Northup displays to get to that point was entirely his own doing.

Moreover, Northup’s reunion with his family is not a joyous occasion – for him, it is a painful reminder of the precious time of which he was robbed and will never regain. His attempts to sue the conmen who sold him into slavery fail (blacks at the time could not testify against whites in a court of law). The reality is that Northup was a second class citizen even up North, and that was the best life he could have hoped for.

(Seen and written on 2013-10-18)