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.