Godzilla -2014-

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Directed by Gareth Edwards. 123 mins.

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

This film is the best totally unnecessary franchise reboot since 2012’s surprisingly good Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Director Gareth Edwards, who made the decent Monsters for next to nothing in 2010, packs Godzilla with a (relatively) old-fashioned sense of blockbuster awe, coming off as a second-generation Abrams (or third-generation Spielberg). While it’s wise to imitate the best if you’re going to imitate at all, Edwards’ stylistic inspiration is a double-edged sword. For every awesome shot, there’s a distractingly derivative shot of a stoic child looking at an approaching threat (á la Close Encounters, ET, Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List, War of the Worlds) or some other tired device.

Edwards’ roots in microbudget filmmaking is a blessing and a curse in the execution of the titular monster. While his decision to focus on human drama rather than dumb Bayish or Emmerichian action works more often than not, I think the film is a little too conservative with its use of Godzilla. Like, I don’t need the dude to be in every frame, but may we please have a little more Godzilla? Godzilla appears in Godzilla about as much as Julius Caesar appears in Julius Caesar. He appears late in the game and sporadically from there on out. At least Peter Jackson made King Kong all about Kong once you waited two hours to see him.

Aside: Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins do a splendid job of looking eternally incredulous.

Aside: Aren’t we kind of over the insectoid kaiju thing? We’ve already seen Cloverfield and Pacific Rim. Think of something new.

Aside: The opening  music (composed by Alexandre Desplat) and credits are fantastic.

(Seen and written on 2014-05-19)

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)

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)

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)

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)

Slaughterhouse Five -1972-

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Directed by George Roy Hill. 104 mins.

 Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on DVD)

 A nutty, nearly-great piece of New Hollywood. I somehow made it through fours years of UC Berkeley without reading Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, so I went in blind.

 SPOILER ALERT: The eponymous slaughterhouse doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time.

 The biggest draw is editor Dede Allen’s seamless transitions between moments in the life of Billy Pilgrim (Michael Sacks), a World War II veteran who spontaneously “time-trips” between his childhood, his death, and into eternity. Sacks’ performance isn’t all that compelling (there’s a reason the dude quit acting and now works on Wall Street), but Pilgrim’s life has lots of great moments – which is pretty much all that makes life worth living. Hill (and Vonnegut, I suppose), beautifully illustrate humanity’s tendency to progressively envelope itself in memories and fantasies as it ages.

 I’d love to watch a Slaughterhouse Five / Johnny Got His Gun double-feature since both of them deal with dissociative veterans. Also, the overlapping timelines and juxtaposition of similar events demonstrate that The Fountain, Cloud Atlas (I wish that film was half as good as its trailer), and a gazillion other movies owe a debt to Slaughterhouse Five.

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-07-09)

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)

After Earth -2013-

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As opposed to what, leaving Earth for no reason whatsoever?

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. 100 mins.

 Worth my time? Aw, hell naw! (Seen with a friend at United Artists Berkeley 7)

 Hey team, sorry I haven’t posted anything in a while. Moreover, I’m sorry that my latest review is for After Earth. I don’t need to tell you not to see it – you’re all big boys and girls with the gift of common sense. However, I must uphold my pledge to write about every movie I see from here to eternity, and I’ma uphold that promise. Even when it stings me to do so.

 Despite being a terrible movie, After Earth is important because it damn near proves that Will Smith has the largest ego in Hollywood. The film is a $130 million bonding and trust-building exercise between him and his son, Jaden. Whatever happened to falling backward into your partner’s arms while your eyes are shut? Orson Welles, Quentin Tarantino, and Lars von Trier look like Jesuit monks relative to this vanity project. This is the most shallow, self-promoting piece of cinematic shit since Demi Moore starred in The Scarlet Letter.

 Shyamalan continues his perfect streak of making each of his films worse than the last. It’s an impressive accomplishment when you remember that his previous movie was The Last Airbender. If you think Shyamalan sucks at directing his own stories, wait until you see him as a mercenary with no interest in the material. Nothing, nothing in After Earth has even a hint of inspiration of excitement. Rarely does one get the chance to see a director give less than a single fuck.

 Will Smith is an undeniably talented actor and can be a powerful screen presence, but he spends the entire movie loafing around and mumbling as if he’s Syd Barrett circa 1983. His son is far worse: Never before have I wanted a character to suffer an agonizing death like I wanted for Jaden’s whiny teenybopper. The kid simply can’t act, and his weird quasi-British accent doesn’t help a bit. I think it was intentional, but my friend thinks it’s due to a speech impediment. If anyone can clear up this disagreement, please leave a comment.

 Aside: Why does this movie take place on Earth? It could take place on any hostile planet. You wouldn’t know it was Earth unless they told you.

 Aside: Where in the world do evergreen forests, tropical rainforests, volcanoes, seashore, baboons, vultures, and antelope coexist within a span of only 100 miles?

 Aside: Why didn’t they just have a second fuckin’ bubble?

 Aside: The Ursa creatures plagiarize the Cloverfield monster pretty shamelessly.

 Aside: How could every creature have evolved to kill humans when there haven’t been humans on Earth for a millennium? I’m pretty sure whales aren’t born people-killers.

Aside: Apparently, there are no guns in the future. Or something.

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-06-07)

Oblivion -2013-

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Directed by Joseph Kosinski. 124 mins.

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

 I’ll concede that Oblivion is a really nice-looking film. The visuals are a big step up from Joseph Kosinski’s Tron: Legacy, a drab, sterile film that wasn’t nearly as cool as it thought itself to be. Kosinski’s sophomore effort still features buckets of CGI, but it’s much brighter and aesthetically pleasing. Sure, the art direction lifts from tons of great sci-fi movies, but if you’re gonna copy a style, you may as well copy the best. I didn’t much mind the visual plagiarism.

 What I did mind is the shameless narrative plagiarism. Stealing the superficial, that I can forgive. Stealing the substantial is an altogether different offense. I spent most of my time in the theater counting the many superior films which Oblivion shamelessly plunders. The film’s premise is a direct knock-off of Duncan Jones’ brilliant and economical Moon (The main character is a maintenance technician who’s the only man on a hostile world, two weeks away from completing a years-long assignment to oversee machines harvesting fuel. But will an unexpected discovery make him question the truth? Yup).

 The list goes on and on. Whether it’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, THX 1138, The Omega Man, Alien, The Terminator, Independence Day, The Matrix Revolutions (yeah, the really terrible one), WALL-E (just swap Melissa Leo for Fred Willard), Never Let Me Go or something else (even video game franchises such as Halo and Gears of War are thrown into the mix), Oblivion never wasted a moment to remind me of films that I’d rather be watching.

 Well, maybe not Independence Day. Parts of it, perhaps. If you could isolate the Bill Pullman and Jeff Goldblum scenes and loop them for 124 minutes, then I’d be in business.

 Once again, Tom Cruise demonstrates how he delivers the best possible performance with every role he takes. He’s the last of a dying breed of larger-than-life actors. I mean it when I say that Cruise’s screen presence will be remembered with the likes of James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, Charlton Heston, and pre-Pink Cadillac Clint Eastwood.

 My father recently said that he thought Cruise had entered his equivalent of Heston’s loud, bland filmography after age 50. If that speculation turns out to be true, I’ll be majorly bummed. I thought that last year’s Jack Reacher, while not a perfect film, was a good step in the right direction for Cruise. It was an action film, yes, but it was lean and gritty, and it wasn’t afraid to let Cruise show off his charm in long dialogue scenes. Hell, it wasn’t even afraid to show that Cruise is really damn short compared to the average full-grown man.

 Sadly, Oblivion is further evidence that my dear pappy is correct.

 – Aside: In all post-apocalyptic or distant-future sci-fi movies, the protagonist always has and cherishes some kitschy knickknack from our time. In the case of Oblivion, it’s an Elvis bobble-head figure that Tom Cruise’s character has named “Bob.”

 – Morgan Freeman is so fucking Morgan Freeman.

 – I still want Kosinski to continue directing films because eventually, he’ll make a movie with an epic-as-Hell score by Fuck Buttons. Tron: Legacy has Daft Punk, and Oblivion has M83, so it’s just a matter of time.

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-04-23)

The Andromeda Strain -1971-

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Directed by Robert Wise. 130 mins.

 Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on DVD)

 Whoa, this was a pretty remarkable piece of science fiction. Robert Wise made a bold move in directing such a close adaptation of Michael Crichton’s detailed, super-talky novel. It’s as if Wise is intentionally flipping the bird to the conventional “show-don’t-tell” rule of cinematic storytelling. Amazingly enough, it pays off in spades.

 Most of the movie is a bunch of egghead scientists squawking back and forth at each other in a sterile lab – and I couldn’t look away. The cast perfectly sells it as detached scientists in isolated environments who begin to crack as they realize that their failure may result in the end of the world (kinda reminds my of The Thing). I also appreciate that the actors are more convincing as scientists since they’re far less attractive than any cast that a modern-day Hollywood studio would allow. Yes, it’s a stereotype. But admit it — when you imagine a generic scientist, Ryan Gosling or Dreama Walker don’t spring to mind.

 Aside from the engaging dialogue (whodathunk that endless exposition could be so fun?) the film has plenty of visual goodies on display. Cinematographer Richard H. Kline focuses on the tiny yet visually arresting details of the subterranean laboratory and its myriad apparatus. A huge shout-out also goes to the legendary VFX wizard Douglas Trumbull for creating simulated computer graphics sequences that still hold up today.

 Minimal setting, cast, and score adding up to maximum sci-fi tension? Damn, they don’t make ‘em like this anymore.

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-03-22)