Archive for the Science Fiction Category

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Posted in Action, Drama, Science Fiction, War with tags on July 13, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes photo starrating-4stars.jpgThis sequel to 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes continues after the viral-based pharmaceutical ALZ-112 caused the fall of civilization. Most of the human population has died off due to their own engineered drug. Genetically evolved Caesar leads a society of super-smart apes in Muir Woods. A team of remaining human survivors immune to the virus are living nearby in San Francisco. One day someone inadvertently wanders into ape territory. In a tense standoff, one of the chimpanzees is shot which becomes the seed that leads to a growing battle for supremacy between the ape and human worlds.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is politically audacious. The narrative goes deeper than just people vs. apes. There is division even within the ranks of each species. Caesar the more level headed peace-keeping chimpanzee is pitted directly against his own kind in one bonobo named Koba. He’s an angry militant that wants to attack them first, lest they be attacked. To be fair, the humans did kill off one of their own first or should I say, an individual named Carver (Kirk Acevedo) did. He was acting alone but now his violent act is responsible for starting a brewing war among different primate species. On the human front it’s Malcolm (Jason Clarke) vs. Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). Guns complicate matters considerably. So does the apes’ ability to ride horses, which looks very cool by the way.

Dawn pushes the technology of CGI a giant step forward. The visual realism achieved in the rendering of the apes is so extraordinary, I forgot I was watching computer images on screen. A lot of the advances in this field are due to the simulation and modeling software developed by Weta Digital back in 2005 during Peter Jackson’s King Kong. However this far surpasses anything seen in that film. The believability of the apes is helped immeasurably by the motion capture performances of the actors that bring life to these creatures. I’ll cite not only the pioneer in the field Andy Serkis (Caesar) but also Toby Kebbell (Koba) who deserves a special mention. They have the biggest parts, but there are many artists putting in great work here. Although unseen, their actual expressions are incorporated into the visuals at various points. Caesar’s love for his primate family is fully felt just as one would feel affinity toward any flesh and blood family up on the screen. I dare say the writing of these digitally rendered creations actually exceeds those of the human characters. I was completely immersed in the story.

I certainly didn’t expect to get a cogent commentary on the nature of war when I sat down to watch Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but that’s exactly what I got. The script makes a compelling explanation of how the behavior of a few are sometimes extrapolated to everyone in the group. And how a political body might try to justify going to war against, oh I don’t know, let’s say an entire country because of the isolated actions of some fringe fanatics. It makes a strong case that when boundaries are drawn and resources are needed in outlying areas, war is inevitable. There’s plenty of jump-worthy moments to keep action fans entertained as well. I sat there mouth agape on several occasions because the sequences were that thrilling. The quality of Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a nice surprise in the re-introduction of this series back in 2011. Perhaps this production is an even bigger revelation because it’s better and improves upon something that was already quite good. At this rate, the third film should win Best Picture.

Snowpiercer

Posted in Action, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on June 30, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Snowpiercer photo starrating-5stars.jpgSnowpiercer is a work of art. A genre busting, amalgamation of action, drama and science fiction, that seamlessly weaves the qualities of disparate styles into an epic tale about a speeding train. The only survivor left on earth are the passengers on a massive locomotive that holds the sum total of all humanity in a climate controlled environment. Like a speeding bullet, it stops for nothing, circumnavigating the entire globe at one complete revolution per year. It hurtles down a track at lightning speeds across a world engulfed in an icy tundra. Snowpiercer is the first English language film from Bong Joon-ho. Savvy art house crowds might remember him as the director of The Host, a Korean monster-movie hit that was released in the U.S. back in 2007. That presaged a talent to watch but nothing could have prepared audiences for this masterpiece.

Working from the 1982 French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, Joon-ho Bong co-writes a screenplay with Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead). Together they fashion a post apocalyptic sci-fi dystopian drama. I know what you’re thinking. Those are a dime a dozen these days. But Snowpiercer is different. Powered by a perpetual motion engine, the locomotive holds humanity in its entirety, delineating the world according to class and rank. This caste system on the train is a visually rendered geometric plane of various cars that extends in 2 directions. In the front we get the elite of society living in luxury. In the very back, we have what you’d called steerage if this was the Titanic. Except the existence of passengers aboard the Snowpiercer is much much worse. They are the proletariat subjected to an oppressive rule that recalls the regime of a dictator. Here is where our impoverished team of protagonists reside. It’s the 2030s. They’ve been captive for 15 years and they’ve had it up to here with their lot in life. Let’s just say, they’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore.

Snowpiercer is highlighted by a charismatic aggregation of talented actors. Chief among them is Chris Evans as Curtis Everett, an insurgent who leads the uprising. Edgar (Jamie Bell) is his rebellious friend. The elder statesmen of the group is called Gilliam (John Hurt) as in Terry Gilliam, director of Brazil. It’s risky to namecheck the rarefied air of that dystopian classic but Snowpiercer compares favorably. This indigent group also includes Octavia Spencer, Ewen Bremner, and Luke Pasqualinoin among others, in key roles that highlight some troubling developments. Along the way their insurrection is aided by Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho) a fellow prisoner. He’s the security expert who engineered the doors separating each car. He is joined by his daughter Yona (Go Ah-sung). On the opposite side we have Tilda Swinton, a strict disciplinarian tasked with enforcing the rules. She carries out the orders of Wilford, a higher power at the head of the train. A classroom indoctrinating the children in the virtues of the mighty Wilford is a chilling scene of worship and propaganda. Wilford’s control is reminiscent of the cult of a dictatorship. An all powerful person few have seen but everyone fears and respects.

Snowpiercer is a politically provocative ensemble piece of legendary proportions. A parable that manipulates the medium in impressively dynamic ways which captivate the mind while delighting the eye. It’s a production designer’s dream that makes full use of color, mood and style in representing the various rooms within the train. Amidst the futuristic sci-fi effects is a relentlessly sensational, claustrophobic indie about a revolution. Yes the fight for liberty is not an easy one. There will be blood. But it’s never in a gratuitous sense to appeal to bloodthirsty interests. Rather the struggles are a reminder that freedom is a right that many have died for lest ye ever take those blessings for granted. A nightmarish brawl shot entirely in the dark is uncomfortably scary. Snowpiercer is the greatest kind of picture. An intelligent saga of well crafted action that creatively entertains with a loopy imagination. It’s cinematically dazzling with heart pounding excitement. I’m not sure if this is the best film of 2014 yet, but it’s getting pretty close.

Transformers: Age of Extinction

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction with tags on June 27, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Transformers: Age of Extinction photo starrating-1star.jpgTransformers: Age of Extinction, or Transformers 4 for those keeping track, is almost an unreviewable movie. I don’t even want to tease that I might give this a glowing review. I’ll cut right to the chase and kill that suspense. It’s bad. Oh it’s terrible. But in trying to assess this cacophonous flick I realize it’s like trying to review the sound of a Boeing 747 taking off at 100 feet. If sheer decibels were all that mattered, this film would reign supreme. But this is the world of cinema so there is dialogue involved. If you want to save some money, ($19.50 for IMAX 3D in the SF Bay Area) have a few of your friends scream at each other over the din of the garbage disposal. Now have them do this for the duration of 3 hours and you’ll have the same cinematic experience.

Of course that is to negate the “beauty” of the graphics on screen. I’ll admit that computer generated technology has progressed to a point where these images of machines co-existing with humans is visually interesting at least. I still don’t know how real it looks though. Most of the time scenes of digitally rendered Autobots and Decepticons interacting look like a very impressive animated cartoon. That’s where the sound mixing comes in giving these man-made images a presence that feels somewhat more organic. Every single one of these films has at least gotten an Academy Award nomination in this category. The sound is really impressive and unquestionably the best thing to recommend. It is the only thing.

No attempt is made to confer a unique story. We’re presented virtually the same tale of good vs. evil that we’ve been given in 3 prior installments with minimal adjustments. As a result of the destructive battle of Chicago in Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011), good Autobots and bad Decepticons are now both seen as an enemy of the state. Their persecution is overseen by an evil government agent (is there another kind?) played by Kelsey Grammer. With the human race no longer trusting Transformers, the Autobots have gone into hiding. Cut to regular dude Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) who’s got the mind of an inventor and the build of a weightlifter. One day he purchases an old broken down semi-truck. He intends to sell its parts for money so his daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) can pay for college. She’s supposed to be 17 but walks around in short shorts that seem to shrink in each successive scene. The truck turns out to be the Autobots leader Optimus Prime in disguise. The discovery compels these people to join forces with the remaining Autobots. Together they must defend themselves against a hostile government and the swelling ranks of the human made Deceptions bent on destroying all human life into extinction.

Director Michael Bay has overseen this franchise and built an impressive resume of hits that rake in the big bucks at the box office. Michael Bay has established a pretty recognizable style that has been quite successful. By now you pretty much know what you’re getting with his product. I don’t feel the need to write more about this tired franchise. It’s pretty safe to say that my review or any other critique for that matter, will have little bearing on your decision to see or avoid this. What I can assess is whether a fan would enjoy the picture within the context of the franchise. The previous low point was Revenge of the Fallen, the second entry. I dare say this just might top that entry in awfulness. It’s probably not a deal breaker for a devotee because you’re still going to gets lots of metal crushing metal and explosions that go BOOM. However if we are to judge this as a film based on plot, script, direction, acting and the oppressive length, it’s a heinous decline from Bay’s previous efforts.

The Rover

Posted in Crime, Drama, Science Fiction, Western with tags on June 25, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Rover photo starrating-2stars.jpgIn post-apocalyptic Australia, a drifter (Guy Pearce) hunts down the three 3 thieves that stole his car. That’s it. That’s the whole plot. The Rover is set “ten years after the collapse.”  At least that’s what the title card tells us. It’s all the information we’re given in the sketchy history of an apparent global economic meltdown in the near future. The end credits inform us that our protagonist is Eric, though I don’t recall anyone ever uttering his name. Eric rarely speaks. Instead he effects his way through the story employing pseudo-macho grumbles and growls designed to intimidate all who stand in the way of the aforementioned car. Eric spends most of the 102 minutes tracking this criminal trio, played by Scoot McNairy, David Field and Tawanda Manyimo. We really don’t see much of them except for in the very beginning and at the very end. In time, Eric is joined in his dreary quest by the mentally challenged brother of McNairy’s character. Played by a mumbling Robert Pattinson, the Twilight star becomes sort of a sidekick. Pattinson is good. Sadly the movie is not.

The Rover has a particular disregard for human life. Director David Michôd’s follow up to his brilliant Animal Kingdom is simplistic and dull where that 2010 crime thriller was layered and complex. The Rover is unrelentingly bleak, depressing, savage. I could go on. Any number of various adjectives don’t do justice to this grim tale about life. This post apocalyptic western has been compared to Mad Max. No way. That film was a tightly edited action packed classic compared to this downbeat, depressing, lethargic mood piece. Occasionally the audience is visually assaulted. The lawless world of The Rover is punctuated by some of the most unpredictable bursts of violence I have ever experienced. I’m talking bloody shots of people at point blank range right in the face.

Director David Michôd has a latent contempt for his audience.  There is no story, only the violent pursuit of one man’s bloodthirsty fixation on his stolen car. His search is occasionally disrupted by gunshots that are disproportionately loud to anything else happening on screen. The camera does not turn away from these bursts of noise but rather it lingers on the atrocities with a disgusting gaze. Why this stupid car is so important to Eric is a question that will nag at you for the duration of the entire movie. To be fair, we are finally given an answer for enduring this slog through a nihilistic wasteland. Unfortunately, it simply doesn’t justify everything we had to endure. The show isn’t a complete waste.  At one point, Robert Pattinson’s character finds himself alone in the car singing along to Keri Hilson’s “Pretty Girl Rock.” It’s a bright, shining moment of energy that is completely out of step with the rest of this dull flick. And for that reason it’s the best scene in the entire picture.

Edge of Tomorrow

Posted in Action, Science Fiction with tags on June 6, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Edge of Tomorrow photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgEarth has been invaded by an alien race called The Mimics. They landed in Germany and have so far occupied all of Europe. An allied army of humans from all across the world have suited up in special mechanized armor to fight the enemy. Tom Cruise is Major William Cage of the US Army. He‘s a weak-kneed talking head in public relations that has never seen a day of combat in his life. General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), leader of the United Defense Force, orders Cage to accompany the initial wave of Allied troops in France on the front lines. Cage balks at the order and responds with a veiled threat that only gets him in hot water. General Brigham’s guards taser the major and he wakes up in a military base at Heathrow airport. There he meets Master Sergeant Farell, Bill Paxton in a role he inhabits well. Cage has been demoted from an Officer to Private with a fake history. He’s been labeled a deserter. He is placed with a ragtag squadron of recruits set to invade the French Coast where they will launch a surprise attack on the Mimics.

Here’s where Edge of Tomorrow gets interesting. The battle doesn’t go well and he dies. It’s a moment he will relive again and again every single day as he is caught in a time loop back to the point where he wakes up at Heathrow. For months wags have been calling Tom Cruise’s new sci-fi offering “Groundhog Day-meets-Starship Troopers”. I hesitate to even mention that dismissive summary because it’s so flippant. In truth, the assessment is precisely accurate but it also unintentionally minimizes a very imaginative script. The movie takes the concept and really runs with it.

There is a real excitement watching Tom Cruise. Sweating profusely, he seems genuinely scared, being dangled with the rest of his squadron from a plane than plans to parachute into a combat zone in France. They wear weaponized suits that looks like metal exoskeletons to assist them in the fight. Think Ellen Ripley in Aliens. He’s skillfully supported by Emily Blunt. She plays a Special Forces Soldier he meets in the fray named Sgt. Rita Vrataski. Having been credited with hundreds of Mimic kills, she becomes an aid in helping him harness his special ability for good. Whenever they‘re injured and unable to continue, she has to kill him to start anew. It’s kind of like a real life reset button. There is an excellent balance of intense adventure and lighthearted humor as well. The first half makes extraordinary use of its head trip idea. Despite the fact that he can keep starting over, we are invested in his mission. Unfortunately the climax forgoes the established concept. The speedy sci-fi at the beginning devolves into a generic action film. It’s tolerable. However a fundamental distinction that made the narrative innovative is replaced by developments that are comparatively underwhelming. The standard issue finale just can’t quite live up to the inspiration of the set up.  Yes, I’m being vague.  I don’t ruin movies.

Edge of Tomorrow excels when Officer William Cage manipulates his abilities to serve a laudable purpose. Over time we see the lead learn how to make use of his gift for the greater good. There is a genuine character arc where our protagonist grows from a cowardly sneak to a reluctant hero. There is some extremely brilliant editing in the first half. The sequences repeat continuously so that he can extract the best possible outcome. The results are funny but they’re also validating because they build character. Watching the same vignette play out repeatedly might seem monotonous, but it never feels that way. The execution is surprisingly captivating because it combines thrills with levity. Practice makes perfect. The second part eschews the basic premise. That’s where the dizzying sci-fi succumbs to generic formula.  It’s a regrettable misstep in an otherwise entertaining watch.

06-05-14

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on May 25, 2014 by Mark Hobin

X-Men: Days of Future Past photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgOne wouldn’t think the seventh entry in a series would be cause for excitement, but X-Men: Days of Future Past (DOFP) is a rousing episode in the franchise. For one thing, it is a deft merger of X-Men films. The cast of the original trilogy is united with their younger counterparts of the 2011 prequel X-Men: First Class. It’s a tribute to Simon Kinberg’s script that for all its characters and detailed exposition, DOFP still manages to present an intelligible story. The time-traveling that begins with a dystopian future in the year 2023 then jumps back to 1973 where most of the chronicle takes place. A word of caution: anyone not up on their X-Men history will require a brief primer to bring yourself up to speed with mutant lore. In addition to the ever-shifting allegiances and objectives, there’s a host of new people. The Avengers had a meager 6 superheroes. DOFP has an astounding 20+ mutants. Thankfully most of these (Storm, Iceman, Bishop, Colossus) are merely window dressing in the background. Others get a few lines (Shadowcat, Beast, Quicksilver). Only Wolverine, Mystique (Raven), Professor X and Magneto are truly indispensable mutants. The narrative wisely focuses on them.

The majority of DOFP takes place a decade after the events of First Class in 1973. A smart move, given that it was the previous apex of this anthology. Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) is an important new villain. A dangerous extremist, he advocates robots called Sentinels to protect humans from the mutant threat. We’re presented an alternate storyline of what originally happened. In an effort to put an end to his madness, Mystique assassinated him. Ironically this would ultimately cause more harm than good. As a result, she is captured and her shapeshifting power is harnessed to engineer the unstoppable Sentinel robots. They ultimately lead to the complete annihilation of life as we know it. That’s the grim scene that opens the film. So the mutants decide to send Wolverine back in time to stop Mystique from causing an event that triggers the Sentimental program. Will the mutants be successful? Wolverine will have to enlist the help of their younger mutant selves.

X-Men: Days of Future Past is the very best of a decent franchise. It marks the return of director Bryan Singer who helmed the first two respected entries before the collection took a serious nosedive with X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) and those two Wolverine-centric movies.  He entertainingly combines multiple entries into a coherent tale that conveniently incorporates a lot of fan service. That this doesn’t feel like the climax it should be, but rather another setup to further sequels is a bit regrettable. DOFP doesn’t introduce innovation to the formula. “Humans cannot be trusted” vs. “Can’t we all just get along?” mentalities continue to propel the dramatic discussion with Magneto and Professor X each representing the respective arguments.  But why quibble? There are great moments here that transcend all others in the series. Chief among them is a jailbreak featuring new mutant Quicksilver (Evan Peters) who can move at supersonic speeds. He must free Magneto from a prison cell beneath The Pentagon at one point. How he accomplishes the task is a dazzling sequence in slow motion that displays more inventiveness and wit than anything else in the entire picture. It’s a peak that kind of makes you wish the whole saga had been about him.

05-22-14

Godzilla

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction with tags on May 16, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Godzilla photo starrating-4stars.jpgGodzilla takes its time. It’s a slow burn, deliberate set up to a climax that truly delivers. Let’s face it. In this day and age special effects are the one constant that we can almost always assume will be done correctly. Godzilla most assuredly delivers in this area, but it goes further. The exhibition deeply delights so that we have a reason to care. Its well calculated build is emotionally designed to captivate the senses on a noticeable level. Much in the same way a roller coaster can provide a perceptible high, Godzilla delivers a release not unlike an amusement park ride. It’s a superficial thrill, but still no less substantial.

Director Gareth Edwards understands that sometimes, just the sight of a giant winged beast taking off into the night sky creates a feeling of wonder and awe that is exciting. Indeed it is just as necessary to the foundation as a full on creature assault. If one viewed the overall chronicle as a banquet, these massive unidentified terrestrial organisms (MUTOs) are an appetizer to the main course. While scores of onlookers watch aghast, we the audience share their terror. It is the visual exposition for us to appreciate the climatic battle later. Like a master card player, Edwards bides his time giving us brief glimpses of the lizard. Just the way Godzilla glides through the water as battleships follow tracking his progress. The image is impressive because it has scope. There is a regard in just existing.  Yes he could’ve had Godzilla attack 15 minutes into the film, but then he would’ve played his hand too quickly and diminished the exhilaration of what is to come. He builds to a rousing climax like a conductor manipulating an orchestra as it rises to a crescendo. It must gradually intensify with well placed sonic bursts. A symphony cannot be all highs. If it was, then nothing would be.

I hesitate to even mention the human actors in Godzilla because they really aren’t that important. Gareth Edwards uses well built Aaron Taylor-Johnson and emotionally devoted wife Elizabeth Olsen to put a face on the human devastation. Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche are his nuclear physicist parents. Cranston is that guy, you know the one. The conspiracy theorist that warns about a cover-up when no one will listen. Hmmm wonder if he’ll be proven correct? Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins are scientists who have been studying MUTOs. David Strathairn is a U.S. general in charge of fighting the creature. All of their presence is rather perfunctory yet they are essential constructs through which to push the story forward. We need SOMEONE to follow so we can appreciate what’s happening on a human level, but they are merely a microcosm of a much larger picture. They provide an intimacy to the grand scale.  Like Spielberg did with Jaws, Jurassic Park and War of the Worlds before, Edwards recognizes that we need the drama of human involvement. One could argue these characters could’ve been more engaging and I wouldn’t disagree with that point. The fact that, when studied closely, the humans are rather dull, isn’t actually a problem. The real show aren’t the humans at all, it’s the freakin’ monster we do battle with.

Godzilla originates in Japan, then visits Honolulu, Las Vegas and San Francisco on his itinerary. Godzilla had a definite awareness for time and place. The script is aware of the past. But it’s also cognizant of the current world and our place in it. What happened at Hiroshima for example is mentioned but is treated with a reverence that doesn’t feel glib. There’s a gravitas here that the much more campy Pacific Rim never had. While that film was silly fun, there’s undoubtedly a thrilling excitement to be found in Godzilla’s movie realism. Yet there’s also a refreshing simplicity to the proceedings. There’s a little cautionary tale stuff thrown in, but none of it makes much of an impression to be a buzzkill. Thankfully, the story’s main objective is to entertain not educate.

If nothing else, Godzilla is a spectacle of the highest caliber. There are some stunning set pieces. Watching paratroopers dive from a plane into ground zero has a poetic beauty. The billowing red smoke released as they fall may distract the creature in purpose but it also looks very cool on film. Godzilla’s special effects are extraordinary. Not because we get a non-stop litany of explosions and pyrotechnics but because there’s a physicality to him. Godzilla genuinely seems like an organic living breathing thing because he moves like a giant mutant of that size would if it existed. When Godzilla lets out his first ear splitting, theater shaking roar, I felt the earth move. Sound effects editing takes a giant leap forward. The excitement in that auditorium was palpable as if we were collectively witnessing rebirth of sound in cinema. Gareth Edwards makes us believe that a giant lizard really did destroy San Francisco.

05-15-14

Transcendence

Posted in Drama, Science Fiction with tags on April 23, 2014 by Mark Hobin

  Transcendence photo starrating-2stars.jpgYou really have to believe in the narrative thrust of your story to begin a movie with the conclusion. The ending in Transcendence is spoiled at the start by the screenwriter. Without the necessary suspense, everything leading up to that point had better be exceptional. Simply put, it isn’t. In the opening scene we’re presented with the aftermath of a catastrophe in which virtually all power has been lost throughout the entire world. No cell phones, computers or Internet. We meet a man named Max Waters (Paul Bettany) who remembers his friends Will and Evelyn Caster.

Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall play a brilliant husband and wife team of researchers in the field of artificial intelligence. After Will is shot by a terrorist (Lukas Haas) from an anti-technology group called RIFT. Evelyn suggests they upload Will’s consciousness into the sentient supercomputer in their lab.   Although Will’s body dies in the material sense, his mind is kept alive in the mainframe.  Over time he connects himself to energy sources stretching around the country. He grows more powerful and omnipotent. Part of the problem of Transcendence is the tale is unnecessarily complicated. It’s patently ridiculous. That’s okay, but be cognizant of that absurdity. I mean there’s an inherent irony that RIFT’s attempted murder of Will is the very motivation for him to pursue “transcendence” via the computer. This was the precise activity they were trying to eradicate. The chronicle takes itself way too seriously. I mean they’ve even given the supercomputer a boring name: PINN (Physically Independent Neural Network).  Wouldn’t it have been funnier if they named it GOD (Good Orderly Direction)?  Well that was a wasted opportunity.  <sigh>  The dreary script just sucks the fun out of what should have been a whimsical concept.

Transcendence is a chore to watch. It’s an overly elaborate, unconvincing, joyless bore. A lot of really great actors are wasted by standing around not doing much of anything. Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara, Cole Hauser and Morgan Freeman are particularly useless. Not because they give bad performances but because they are given awful parts. All four could’ve been taken out of the story and it would’ve made matters much simpler and less convoluted. Rebecca Hall and Paul Bettany fare better. You’d think Wally Pfister, Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer (The Dark Knight, Inception), would at least have the presence of mind to create a visually impressive film. Unless you enjoy watching numerous scenes of electronically charged water droplets moving in slow-motion, it’s a downer there as well. At the core, the saga is merely a series of uninteresting standoffs between good vs. evil. Ultimately the drama’s big idea is: Technology Is Bad. At the end of this turgid ordeal, I wasn’t even convinced of that. But this movie sure is.

04-18-14

Under the Skin

Posted in Drama, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on April 13, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Under the Skin photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgA mysterious young woman drives a van along the Scottish Highlands picking up men. She almost preys on these unassuming blokes, ostensibly for sexual encounters. The conversation always begins with a flirtatious air, an exchange whereby the seductress probes into their lives. Where are you going? Do you have a family? Are you single? A hitchhiker, a clubgoer, a surfer, each male selected is unattached and alone, lured into her van by their own choice where she takes them back to her place. What has the beginnings of an erotic thriller, a woman who adopts a passive demeanor for predatory purposes, transforms into something much different – a surprising chronicle that draws on horror, thriller and sci-fi.

This is an atmospheric mood piece. The narrative drifts at a meditative pace. The woman’s behavior is presented as a series of repetitive actions. The script meanders often without words. There is no explanation, no back-story and little dialogue. The woman rarely talks except in her introductions to the men she meets on the streets of Scotland. I’m told these conversations were unscripted with non-professional actors. An early shot shows the woman shopping, picking out clothes to wear in a store. Hidden cameras were used to film with the locals unaware until after the scene was finished. They certainly have a realistic feel. At times, the visuals are so static and the action so trance-inducing, the picture teeters on the brink of monotony. Forgive me for being vague, but the less details you know, the better. I walked into the theater knowing absolutely nothing other than that Scarlet Johansson was the star. My advice, don’t read any reviews (other than this one). Allow the surprising developments to be discovered as you watch with an unspoiled perspective.

The story isn’t challenging to follow but it does challenge the viewer. Director Jonathan Glazer initially made a name for himself in music videos, notably with Jamiroquai‘s “Virtual Insanity” which won the 1996 MTV Video of the Year award. Glazer isn’t a prolific director with only 3 full length features to his credit. These include both the widely praised Sexy Beast (2000) and the widely panned Birth (2004). The latter was disturbing but in an audacious way. I quite enjoyed its creepiness which shares stylistic similarities and themes with Under the Skin. The work of director Nicolas Roeg is an obvious influence. First-time UK composer Mica Levi’s experimental music score brilliantly adds to the growing tension. The whole production defies convention. Jonathan Glazer is a master craftsman when it comes to assembling a work of art.

There is a quiet beauty in telling a languid story that merely relies on the humanity of real life. Scarlett Johansson disguised in a short wig of jet black hair and pale skin sort of physically recalls silent film star Pola Negri but with a blank slate personality that makes her character oddly unsettling. For most of the muted solitude of the tale, we the audience must infer what the woman is thinking. The events are deceptively spare but in reality a lot of themes are addressed. It’s a meditation that comes to a head when our protagonist ultimately suffers an existential crisis of sorts. The drama explores human emotion in the interactions regarding an enigmatic seducer of various men. Her scenes with actor Adam Pearson are particularly memorable. As she interacts with each individual, their personalities expose aspects of the human condition. In doing so, the picture brilliantly demonstrates the qualities that make human beings so wonderful and what also makes them monsters.

Jodorowsky’s Dune

Posted in Documentary, Science Fiction with tags on April 2, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Jodorowsky's Dune photo starrating-4stars.jpgJodorowsky’s Dune is a fascinating documentary because it posits “what could have been?” Chilean born director Alejandro Jodorowsky is known for his avant garde films. El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973) in particular were mainstays of the 1970s midnight movie circuit in the United States. Neither gained widespread distribution, but both became classics of underground cinema. Then in 1975, the cult director optioned the rights to Frank Herbert’s science fiction classic Dune. He then proceeded to amass an impressive assemblage of talent: artists H. R. Giger and Jean Giraud for character and set design, Dan O’Bannon for special effects, Pink Floyd for music, and a cast that would include David Carradine, Mick Jagger, Orson Welles and Salvador Dalí. The group became what he refers to as his “spiritual warriors” – people with whom the director felt a kinship in manifesting what was to be his masterpiece. Douglas Trumbull, in contrast, was considered for special effects first. The director’s personality didn’t gel with the talent behind 2001: A Space Odyssey and he was not hired.

Jodorowsky’s Dune is a engrossing document because it provides the history behind a bizarre movie that never came to fruition. In his fertile and uninhibited imagination, the production becomes sort of a no-holds-barred, anything is possible fantasy with limitless possibilities. Whether an unproven director could have successfully produced an opus of this magnitude is unclear. The undertaking soon ran out of funds. Jodorsoksky burned through more than $2 million of producer Michel Seydoux’s money and hadn’t yet shot a single frame. They appealed for more cash. Apparently the studio was not convinced and shut down the project before it had the opportunity to continue.

Jodorowsky’s Dune makes an entertaining case that this is the greatest sci-fi film never made. The massive Dune storyboard book circulated through various studios in Hollywood as the proposal sought financing partners. The blueprints contain attributes which correlate to visual aspects in Star Wars, Alien, Flash Gordon, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blade Runner, The Terminator, Masters of the Universe, The Matrix and others. Alejandro Jodorowsky is an intriguing personality and it’s fun hearing him reminisce about something in which he is still so passionate. He was able to charm a lot of people into initially believing in him. As charismatic as he is, I am certain the man is also stark raving mad. There’s no way the final product could have possibly lived up to the potential that this feature suggests. However, that doesn’t lessen the impact of this captivating document on filmmaking. Ultimately Dune would reach the screen in David Lynch’s infamous 1984 adaptation. Jodorowsky’s reluctance to see someone else’s vision of a project he was so close to, is understandable. Even his climatic recounting of that story is worth the price of admission.

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