Saturday, February 15, 2014

Cloud Atlas (book, 2004)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, Good Reads (4.03/5), Amazon, Google Play.

I recently watched (and reviewed) the movie, but this is a postmodernist work where the presentation of the story is an important part of the story itself, and I was wondering if the book's presentation (nested tales told 6 deep) or the movie's presentation (6 tales told in a juxtaposed jumble) served that purpose better.  Ultimately... it's a tough call to make, but I say the movie was better overall.  Telling each tale as two 40-page lumps of text lets us immerse ourselves more deeply in each tale, but that's kind of a bad thing?  Let me explain.  One of the conceits of the storytelling is that the individual tales are pastiches bordering on satire when viewed in isolation, but that the story woven together from those tales is trying to make a deeper point.  Giving us 40 pages of "<cliché A>" followed by 40 pages of "<cliché B>" sort of ruins the mood; at a certain point you're checking the table of contents to figure out how much longer you have until the next tale.  Then there's the fact that most of the tales work better in film than in text (winners: 3 film, 1 text, 2 toss-ups).  Overall, I heartily recommend the film but feel like the book is more of a postmodernist curio than a dog-eared must-read.  A noble experiment, though.  Score: 2 stars out of 4.

Monday, January 20, 2014

eXistenZ (1999)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (6.8).

This was yet another entry in the late 90's trend of "reality is a lie" mindscrew movies (cf. 1998's Dark City; 1999's The Thirteenth Floor and of course The Matrix).  If you take it only as that, I suppose it's not the best of its kind; I'd say the director's cut of Dark City makes for a better "reality is a lie" sci-fi mindscrew flick.  But Cronenberg steers his film away from simpleminded gawking at Plato's Cave and instead points it toward uncomfortable questions about our consumption of mediaeXistenZ tempts us to root for creative freedom and side with the VR game designers — abetting mindless escapism that detaches us from our humanity — or else to suppress such undesirable creative expression by issuing a fatwa against it (enforced by means of violence if necessary) and side with the "realist" cause.  Whatever our decision on the matter, the film pressures us to face the true consequences and squirm in discomfort.  In a sense, this film is almost the opposite of The Matrix: the Wachowskis gave us a mindscrew that wasn't really much of a mindscrew, then followed it with 60 minutes of beautiful-but-mindless popcorn action; but Cronenberg gave us an experience that demands thoughtful viewing but then rewards you for thinking about it.  And... well, it's also a pretty enjoyable watch on a literal level as well.  Score: 4 stars out of 4.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Primer (2004)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (7.0).
You can tell this film was written by an engineer.  These aren't characters, they're biological plot point initiation units.
— "Brows Held High: Primer", Kyle "Oancitizen" Kallgren

I wanted to like this film; I really did.  It's generally smart on science and it does a good job with its shoestring-budget cinematography.  Yet it's bad at everything else: the narration is dull, the plot is presented in a deliberately obfuscated manner but isn't rewarding enough to piece together, the actors have no inflection and inaudibly mumble their lines, and we're supposed to accept that the main characters have the emotional maturity of 15-year-olds (despite being 30-ish and living dull-but-successful lives).  In some ways Primer reminds me of Pi (1998), but I felt Pi as a film was noticeably superior.  I can't really bring myself to say that Primer was a waste of time, though.  I chalk it up as a noble but failed experiment that's probably worth seeing once.  Score: 2 stars out of 4.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Cloud Atlas (2012)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (7.6).

It's an historical, star-crossed thrillasatirical cyberpunkalyptic... turducken.
— "Brows Held High: Cloud Atlas", Kyle "Oancitizen" Kallgren

Haskell Moore: There is a natural order to this world, and those who try to upend it do not fare well. […] No matter what you do it will never amount to anything more than a single drop in a limitless ocean.
Adam Ewing: What is an ocean but a multitude of drops?
— "Cloud Atlas" (film)

I'm a sucker for narrative theme: bait your hook with well-defined characters and a strong, internally consistent theme and you'll catch me every time.  It's the reason I count Tykwer's Run Lola Run as one of my favorite movies.  Thus it's not a surprise that I thoroughly enjoyed Cloud Atlas, a film of six stories united by theme.  Don't get me wrong, the film has problems: the multi-role stunt casting is distracting (especially Tom Hanks); the age- and race-changing makeup is nestled snugly in the Uncanny Valley and at times uncomfortably racist; the "bury your gays" and "true artists are bipolar" tropes are invoked with no awareness of the harm they do; the use of supernatural elements (prophecy and hints at reincarnation) are undeveloped and wholly superfluous to the film; and the individual stories are chopped together in a way that makes it hard to see how they relate to each other.  (This last, a change made for the film, is the most damning of all.  I found it immensely helpful to have seen the Brows Held High review beforehand, particularly the bit from 6:55 to 7:40 that explicitly calls out the symmetries between the stories.)  But despite the problems, the straightforward but well-developed theme ties the film's parts together, crescendoing to conclusion in the dialogue quoted above.  Score: 3 stars out of 4.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Con Air (1997)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (6.8).

"Make a move and the bunny gets it."
The film was nominated for Best Original Song (for "How Do I Live") and Best Sound Mixing (Kevin O'Connell, Greg P. Russell and Art Rochester) at the 70th Academy Awards, losing to Titanic in both categories.
Conversely, the film won the Golden Raspberry Award for "Worst Reckless Disregard for Human Life and Public Property" at the 18th Golden Raspberry Awards. "How Do I Live" was nominated for both the Academy Award for Best Original Song and the Razzie Award Worst Original Song, but won neither.
— Wikipedia

So.  It's kind of hard to tell if this film is in the "wow, this is mediocre" bucket or the "holy crap, this is so bad it's great!" pail.  The premise — hardened convicts try to escape by taking over a prisoner transport plane — seems reasonable enough on the surface, but the execution is rather silly, the action is cliché as hell, every comedic beat is totally predictable, and you have bemulleted Nicolas Cage putting on a ridiculously fake Alabama accent and being all Nicolas-Cagey.  It's sort of Snakes on a Plane 9 years early, but a bit less self-aware and a bit more intelligent.  Add in the cheesy as hell "How Do I Live" song, the dumb but quotable bunny memes, and the fact that the action (while cliché) is competently done and works, and... well... yeah, this is worth a watch.  Score: 2 stars out of 4.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Pacific Rim (2013)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (7.7).

This film is a love letter to both the daikaiju film genre (Godzilla 1954 et al.) and the giant mecha manga/anime genre (Gundam, Macross, Robotech, Evangelion, etc.).  The plot is simple (humans build giant robots to fight off giant monsters), the dialogue is sparse, and (expected for the genre) physics does not ensue, but the film is far from the "dumb action movie" that some have dismissed it as.  The meat of the movie is in the visuals, and I don't (just) mean the special effects; character establishment happens in brief glances and body language, and the story moves forward in unexplained jumbled images that put you in the shoes of the confused characters.  Sure, on one level, there's the spectacle of 25-story-tall robots firing arm-mounted plasma cannons at rampaging city-destroying aliens.  But the film is deeply focused on the characters and the ties that bind them, on the things that drive one human to protect another.  A rarity for a Hollywood film: there are no romantic subplots to be found, despite a female protagonist who develops a strong bond with a male protagonist... a male whom she finds attractive, no less.  The movie is perfectly content to leave their bond ambiguously in the realm of close-as-kin friendship.  In short: man, I love this movie.  It's probably not going to be a masterpiece remembered for decades to come (Hunnam is "meh", Day and Gorman are "huh?", the Crimson Typhoon pilots are "who?", Elba is great but gets a dumb Independence Day speech).  But it's solid, and maybe even the best thing coming out this year.  Go see it.  Score: 4 stars out of 4.

P.S.: It's a shame this movie wasn't made 10 years ago.  Against the schlocky backdrop of recent cinema, any film that can be summarized as "giant robots punch things" or "giant monsters destroy things" is going to turn off a lot of people.  And the fact that this movie is boldly hopeful and sincere, in an era when "grimdark" and "bitterly cynical" are considered the hallmarks of maturity, is going to turn people off even more.  Screw that.  As I've mentioned before, I don't generally see movies in theaters unless my friends drag me... but the buzz I'd heard about Pacific Rim got me excited, I went to see it, and (minor miracle here) I walked out of the theater with a big damn smile on my face, totally satisfied with what I saw.  Huzzah.

Refs: The Visual Intelligence of Pacific Rim (Sam Keeper); Simple Does Not Equal Dumb, and Other Assorted Thoughts on Pacific Rim (Karin L. Kross)

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Twister (1996)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (6.1).

You want loud, dumb, skillful, escapist entertainment? Twister works. You want to think? Think twice about seeing it.
— Roger Ebert

While my friends revile this tornado-based disaster film, I enjoy it quite a bit... and yet, I can never quite put my finger on why. On one hand, there's a lot about this movie that irks me; each time I watch it, it's a certainty I'll be calling back at the screen "hey, funnel clouds don't work that way!" and "uh, in reality the 200 mph debris just bludgeoned them to death", as if I were watching some sort of wind-based re-imagining of Dr. Frank-N-Furter and not "Mad About You with tornadoes". But despite its very real flaws, I love this film sincerely and un-ironically. Part of it is the film's snarky-banter sense of humor; Joss Whedon was apparently an uncredited script doctor on this, and while this is no Buffy or Firefly, I think Whedon's influence shows in the dialogue and the rapport the characters have. But I think the main reason I love it comes from my inner 12 year old weather nerd, the one who knows his isobars from his isotachs and his cold fronts from his dry lines... the one who kind of wants to be a tornado chaser when he grows up, yearning both to comprehend and to be awed by the way the world can reorganize its own pieces into something so powerful. The film, for all its faults, manages to convey both yearnings in a way that respects the very real science (VORTEX and TOTO) that this movie is loosely based on. Of all the things written by Michael Crichton, I think this is the one I can respect the most: for once in his career, Crichton was willing to put his "hubris of scientists" theme on the back-burner, and let us celebrate the unadulterated joy of discovery and understanding. And, for that reason if no other, I think this film deserves love... or, at the very least, a look. Score: 3 stars out of 4.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Leonard Part 6 (1987)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (2.2).

It's not the liquid that makes the magic... it's the molybdenum-chromium catalyst.
I could put Yoohoo in this thing and it would work.
— Medusa, Leonard Part 6

Leonard: If I stop Medusa and save the world... will you move back in with me?
Allison: If you stop Medusa and save the world, I'll think about it.
Leonard: All right! Let's go save the world!
— Leonard and Allison, Leonard Part 6

This spy comedy, winner of three Golden Raspberries and starring Bill Cosby as the titular Leonard, is reputed to be so bad that Cosby himself apologized on the talk show circuit and warned audiences not to see the finished film. It tanked HARD. Honestly, though... I liked it as a kid, and while I can see its flaws more clearly now, I still like it to this day. Be warned, however, that my fellow movie night companions were less impressed: only 2 of us in a group of 5 liked it, and I was one of the two. I'll grant that there are some pretty awkward jokes: the "Winston Churchill" and "That is a big door" scenes together add up to... 5 mg of comedy in a 10 lb bag. But Gloria Foster (later to become the Oracle in The Matrix, but here channeling Tina Turner's turn in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) is a hoot as the villain Medusa, and I still have fun watching the love/hate relationship Allison has with her husband Leonard. If you like whiplash-inducing absurd comedy, this may be up your alley. Score: 2 stars out of 4 (minus a penalty star if the comedy style doesn't appeal to you).

P.S.: I should note that this film is not actually a sequel to anything. Apparently this provokes a fair amount of confusion.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (8.0).

I remember seeing the ads for this film and feeling interest when I was a teenager, but I never acted on that interest at the time.  It wasn't until 2005 or thereabouts when I finally saw it... and found out what I'd been missing.  The concept is Tim Burton (Pee-Wee's Big AdventureBeetlejuice, 1989 Batman).  The music is Danny Elfman (Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, 1989 Batman... and, oh yeah, Men In Black, 2002 Spider-Man, and pretty much any film soundtrack since 1990 with an element of fun or whimsy).  The film itself is a stop-motion musical about the citizens of Halloween Town, responsible for the human holiday, who discover Christmas and are so excited that they decide to take it over.  If you haven't seen it, you should check out the opening song, "This Is Halloween"; if you don't like it, you're probably not going to like the rest of the movie.  (I'm also going to question your taste, because... seriously, it's Danny Elfman.)  Score: 4 stars out of 4.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Wiz (1978)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (4.7).

The scenes filmed at the Emerald City were elaborate, utilizing six hundred fifty dancers, three hundred eighty-five crew members and twelve hundred costumes. [...] The Wiz proved to be a commercial flop, as the $24 million production only earned $13.6 million at the box office.
— Wikipedia

This musical re-imagining of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) is today remembered as the flop that killed Motown Records' forays into film (and indeed, blaxploitation as a genre).  Despite that, I have fond childhood memories of this film, and a recent rewatch confirmed my memory: while it has many glaring flaws, it has the whiff of greatness as well.  The worst problem is that it drags: many of the musical numbers are twice as long and half as interesting as they ought to be, especially the ones near the beginning and end.  The second-worst is the casting: Diana Ross got a lot of flak for her Dorthy (now a shy mid-20s schoolteacher), but I thought Dorothy's problem was less Ross and more the director, while Richard Pryor's Wiz was awful and Nipsey Russell's singing voice for Tin Man was wholly inappropriate for everything but "Slide Some Oil To Me".  And the problems don't stop there; there's the occasionally awful cinematography, for example, or the unforgettably goofy subway sequence.  Yet it's never the problems I remember; it's "Ease On Down the Road", the aforementioned "Slide Some Oil To Me", the infamously lavish Emerald City sequence, the 24 glorious minutes from Dorothy leaving the Emerald City to her triumphant return — giving us both Mabel King's fabulous villain song "Don't Nobody Bring Me No Bad News" and the liberated Winkies' "Everybody Rejoice (Brand New Day)" — and finally Ross's sappy but appreciated "Home (Finale)".  Overall, the film's great moments easily outshine the problems.  Score: 3 stars out of 4.