Now You See Me (2013)
@ the Alameda Theatre and Cineplex.
Four street magicians (Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson, and Dave Franco) receive a secret summons by some unnamed uber-magician, and soon the four are using public performances to pull off heists of distant banks. Mark Ruffalo and Melanie Laurent, working together from two different agencies, try to catch them, with the help of magic-debunker Morgan Freeman, and the cooperation of apparent target Michael Caine.
There is more going on in this film than initially meets the eye, and the real con, as can be expected, is on the viewer. As I replay the movie's revelations in my mind, they don't all withstand scrutiny. But it's a fun ride. And seeing Ruffalo's task force square off against the always-one-step-ahead magicians is a great joy; I was rooting for both sides.
After Earth (2013)
@ the Alameda Theatre and Cineplex.
Like with Gravity, After Earth has a very, very simple plot: boy must survive long enough to get to crashed ship. That's the entire movie. Gravity was engaging while I watched it, and only in retrospect did my impression of it fade and wither. After Earth was boring in real time, so I can't recommend it.
In a science fiction movie, I expect sound science (or at least my lay-person's understanding of it). After Earth wants us to believe Earth's species have evolved to hunt humans, even though humans left long ago. And how is it that the species on Earth have 'evolved' so drastically, whereas the humans who left the planet have, in the same amount of time, remained the same? (Except for a select few, Will Smith, included, who have evolved the superpower of not smelling cool as a cucumber.) It just doesn't make sense. It is cool seeing these mutated versions of Earth's plants, animals, and environments, but the most interesting part of the movie is the spaceship they use to return to Earth, which is a combination of human tech, bio-engineering, and using the carcass of some giant monster from their new world. The spaceship was some of the coolest sci-fi design I've seen. The rest of the movie is forgettable.
Terminator Salvation (2009)
A new age of post-apocalyptic story-telling graces our screens. Not the doomsday warnings from the 1980s, where our heroes trudge through a nuclear wasteland begat by a warring United States and U.S.S.R. Sure, some movies are still preachy, now about global warming (Wall•E, 2008; After Earth) instead of World War III. But others just appreciate the landscape of genre fiction, taking the next curious step: in most genre stories, our heroes win; but what if they didn't? What happens after the machines (The Matrix, 1999) or vampires (Daybreakers, 2010) or zombies (Warm Bodies, 2013) or aliens (The Host, 2013) establish themselves? What if Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum flew all the way up to that alien mothership (Independence Day, 1996), only to realize that the alien mainframe uses FireWire, but they brought their virus on a USB drive?
In The Terminator (1984), we see glimpses of a future in which machines have nearly exterminated humanity. From the onset, it’s too late to prevent that future, but it’s not too late to protect John Connor, a fighter who would bring us back from the brink. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), having survived the fall of Communism, doesn’t want to leave us in so dark a place. The machines are up to their old tricks, trying to kill John Connor, but our victory is absolute: we destroy the advanced circuitry that would lead to the self-aware machines in the first place. Apocalypse averted, and God bless the 90s, where anything is possible.
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003), hot on the heals of 9/11, says “not so fast, cupcake”, revealing that we didn’t avert disaster, we merely delayed it. The movie positions itself to allow Connor to once again thwart the instantiation of the cybernetic rebellion. Connor fails, and in the final scenes, as the world begins to fall, Connor finds himself at the right place to begin broadcasting the human resistance. It's been nineteen years since the first installment in the franchise, and still we’re only securing Connor’s dismal advantage that Kyle Reese promised in 1984. (The Sarah Connor Chronicles, of which I've only seen the first season, transpires roughly between the second and third movie, though with no clear respect for either.)
The latest in the series, Terminator Salvation, throws out the time travel entirely. We’re in the future. The machines have won. Reese (Anton Yelchin) is a radio pirate, living in the ruins of Los Angeles, broadcasting infrequent message of hope to humanity’s few survivors (who happen to live in Southern California). Connor (Christian Bale) is a freedom fighter, waging a land battle against the machines. During a strike against a machine compound, he discovers evidence that the machines have begun manufacturing their cyborg line of human-impersonators that we saw in the first installment. Marcus (Sam Worthington) enters the plot, obviously (to us) one of these cyborgs, but noone suspects him, and he doesn't seem to know it himself. He ingratiates himself to the resistance, especially to Blair (Moon Bloodgood), and soon is helping them to fight the machines, while still trying to discover who he is.
The first movie succeeded as a sci-fi monster movie that was all about tension and pacing. The second movie rested on great action and effects, and the gimmick of having a terminator on our side. The third movie was forgettable, and the fourth is just boring. The franchise has already prove itself too deterministic to allow us to care about the outcome of any one film. Whatever our loss, whatever our victory, both we and the machines will be given another chance. Marcus's character arc, the most interesting part of film, would have done better in another movie that didn't overwhelm our senses with metal-grinding action.
In yet another Soderbergh genre experiment he improves on the disaster formula by asking not how individuals survive a catastrophe, but rather how does society survive. He follows a variety of characters, some more heroic than others. In a typical disaster movie, each character would be an archetype of behavior: the reluctant hero who rediscovers his purpose by saving others; the strong female who supplies a love interest for the hero and tries to prove the movie's producers aren't sexist; the kid; the jerk who we'll be happy to see get killed; etc. In Soderbergh's film, characters stand not for personalities, but rather for agents of society. Scientists, government officials, members of the media, pharmaceutical companies, citizens trapped inside the quarantine, citizens trapped outside the quarantine, etc. The plot has no allegiance to a central hero, no promise to keep our favorite characters safe.
From a 'What If' perspective, the movie is interesting. Contrasted to Outbreak (1995), Contagion does a better job of hiding from us the same things it hides from its characters, so that we can discover the disease's origins as the scientists do, instead of shouting at the screen in frustration, "It's the monkey!" Nonetheless, with its macabre subject matter and competing cast of main characters (and because not all characters were equally threatened), the movie is not as engaging as the simpler but more suspenseful Outbreak. And although I recently named a few disaster movies I enjoyed, there's nothing fun about seeing so many innocent people die.
(I watched this while miserably sick. I thought it would make me empathize more with the characters, but I think it just made me more miserable.)
(Does anyone else think that looks like Mark Wahlberg on the poster, rather than Matt Damon?)
Side Effects (2013)
My fourth Steven Soderbergh film of the year, and one of his best. Rooney Mara, whose husband (Channing Tatum) has just been released from prison, suffers from chronic depression. Her new psychiatrist, Jude Law, medicates her with a just-released anti-depressant, but there are unintended consequences. Soon her life is spiraling out of control, and her doctor is scrambling to figure out what went wrong. Every moment of this movie is filled with dramatic intensity. I couldn't tear my eyes away.
Top Ten Steven Soderbergh Films:
1. Ocean's Eleven (2001)
2. Out of Sight (1998)
3. Solaris (2002)
4. Side Effects (2013)
5. Ocean's Twelve (2004)
6. Haywire (2011)
7. Bubble (2006)
8. Erin Brockovich (2000)
9. Ocean's Thirteen (2007)
10. The Limey (1999)
Never Let Me Go (2010)
Remember The Island (2005), the first proof that Scarlett Johansson could be an action star? Never Let Me Go is born from a similar premise, except minus the chases, explosions, shooting, and the doll-like naivety of the clones. Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan, and Andrew Garfield are best friends as kids, growing up in a sort of orphanage in England. They are cared for and educated. At some point, they are told that they are clones, and that their purpose in life is to someday donate their organs to the needy. They accept that this forced selflessness will consume them in their early youth. This impending doom haunts them, but also makes them cherish their short lives. They love, and they enter occupations of various sorts (Mulligan becomes a caretaker to those who are preparing for their final operation, to help them transition into death).
Dramatically, the film succeeds. I was frustrated by how the clones uniformly accepted their fate. Were they genetically engineered to be subservient? And by how little we see of the what must be a futuristic world. There seems to be some sort of metaphor here (perhaps, like in Ursula Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas", that it is unjust for the many to maintain their happiness via the suffering of the few), but it eludes me.
London Boulevard (2010)
Never Let Me Go was a good project for Knightley, letting her be the bad girl for once to Mulligan's girl-next-door. She does not choose all her projects with such care. In London Boulevard she is a paparazzi-phobic actress, barricading herself in her London house. Her manager and only friend, David Thewlis, hires Colin Farrell to be her bodyguard. He's trying to leave behind a life of crime, but the thugs from his past see his new placement as an opportunity to rob Knightley. What follows is lots of tough guy talk, an odd chemistry between the leads, and bursts of graphic violence to keep us from settling into the romance. See the more recent Dead Man Down (2013) for a Colin Farrell movie with a similar vibe, but much more entertaining.
The I Inside (2004)
I mentioned that Repeaters is part of a small sci-fi sub-genre, in which the protagonist must relive the same day over and over. The I Inside is part of an even smaller sub-genre, in which the protagonist exists in two contradictory worlds, and is not sure which is real. The only other examples that come to mind are Passion of Mind (2000) and the recent series Awake (2012) (co-written by novelist and former-Mills professor Leonard Chang).
Ryan Phillippe wakes up in a hospital, with no memory of how he came to be there. His physician, Stephen Rea, tells him he was in an accident, but doesn't know much beyond that. Phillippe's wife, Piper Perabo, shows up, and demonstrates herself to be a nasty piece of work. When Phillippe goes to sleep, he awakens in the same hospital, but a decade earlier. He's still being treated for having been in an accident, but he has a different doctor, and Perabo is a nurse, rather than his wife. Thus the groundwork is laid for a mystery of realities. The one in the past could be a memory; the one in the future could be a vision; both could be delusions. Phillippe must decode his own life, and regain his memories, all without leaving the hospital and while leapfrogging between two decades.
Biopics are among my least favorite types of film, because, in their wide swath of a person's life, they typically lack a compelling plot. Hitchcock, by focusing only on the famous director as he was filming Psycho, would seem to avoid my dislike, by focusing the plot on a more discrete sequence of events. Hitchcock, it seems, had either been a philanderer up to this point, or at least had a habit of fantasizing about his female leads (in this case Janet Leigh, played by Scarlett Johansson) to a degree that makes his wife Alma Reville (Helen Mirren) uncomfortable. She is his partner in selecting and revising scripts, yet must stand by the sidelines while he hoards the fame and indulges his erotic ego. Alma entertains a light flirtation with old friend and fellow writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), a relationship more engaging than the rest of the film. This is a script that presumes too much inherent viewer fascination with the minutia of Hitchcock's process.
Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a sex-addict of sorts. His office computer is filled with porn. His house is filled with porn. He sees opportunity in every shared glance on the subway. And he has such established patterns with prostitutes that they part ways like lovers. His insatiable appetite for sex is the central and unfortunately unexplained mystery of the film. He's not a pervert, not a voyeur, and he derives no pleasure from any part of the act. He has sex until he is exhausted and raw, and then he continues, past the point of tears.
Brandon's unstable sister (Carey Mulligan) intrudes into his life, loosening his controlled routine, and threatening to expose his problem. Her life isn't roses either, and perhaps they share some abusive past that compels them to mechanically sabotage their own mental health.
While watching The Limits of Control, I found myself wondering if an excellent, captivating movie is undermined by lack of resolution. If I enjoy the ride, does it matter that I'm disappointed with the destination? In the case of Shame, it matters. Tethered to Brandon's dysfunctional perspective for so long, I wanted an explanation, or promise of healing, or something that would allow me to see beyond the claustrophobic boundaries of his mania. Well acted, but what's it all about?
An Education (2009)
My fourth Carey Mulligan movie in a short while. Mulligan is a student who begins an affair with worldly and mature Peter Sarsgaard. There's no wonder that meek and sheltered Mulligan is wooed by Sarsgaard's money, knowledge of art and music, and ability to mingle comfortably with her parents. Sarsgaard for his part has not just a sexual interest in Mulligan, but seems delighted with how he reflects off her. Each thing she loves about him he can believe in and love about himself.
This film is difficult to watch. It promises a train wreck, rather than a romance, and so we must endure Mulligan's naivety and Sarsgaard's callousness without any promise of a happy ending.
Man of Steel (2013)
@ the Alameda Theatre and Cineplex.
Like Superman (1977), Man of Steel opens with Superman's parents attempting to send him safely away from their dying planet, Krypton. In the previous origin movie, Krypton is a world of glowing crystal columns, and everyone wears shiny foil clothing. In this reboot, it's a sci-fi lover's fantasy come true, with awesome space-ships flying above beautiful alien cityscapes.
Much has already been said about this, the best superhero movie of the year, and the best DC Comics live-action movie. I'll content myself with a quick list of likes and dislikes.
- So much destruction! In very few superhero plots does the hero have the foresight to lure the villain into an unpopulated area. Too often they just try to wear down the villain's face with skyscraper after falling skyscraper. As HISHE jokes, heroes should know better. But after this much destruction, Lex Luthor will have a sympathetic audience when he declares Superman an alien menace.
- When a villain is turning his heat vision clockwise toward trapped civilians, the correct course of action is to turn the villain's head counterclockwise. Or upward. Or downward. Or cover his eyes with your invulnerable hands. Or gruesomely gouge out his nearly-invulnerable eyes with your more-so invulnerable fingers. Or fly upward with him to take him away from potential victims. Do not, and this is on page 1 of the superhero manual, do not turn the villain's head clockwise. Toward the trapped civilians.
- Remember in Superman when teenaged Clark gets so mad he kicks a football into orbit, and then runs really fast to confuse his bullies? When Man of Steel's Clark loses his cool, he impales a jerk's truck with logs (violent as a hurricane but quiet as a mouse). Imagine every time a journalist takes a swipe at playboy billionaire Bruce Wayne if later that night Batman retaliated by blowing up their apartment with batarangs? As the Strobe said, "With super powers comes super responsibility, dammit." Part of Superman's lore is that it is his wholesome upbringing that teaches him to restrain himself. Whether or not the penalty for being a sexist jerk should be destruction of one's vehicle and means of livelihood, it's not Clark Kent's style to mete out this form of punishment.
- Henry Cavill does't have Christopher Reeve's wholesome charm, but otherwise he looks every bit the part that Reeve and Routh did. And more than those other two actors, he exudes strength.
- Amy Adams is perfect as Lois Lane. Dana Delany (from the DC Animated Universe) is still my favorite, but Adams does a great job. The movie didn't try hard enough to make her essential to the plot, but it gives her props by making her competent enough to discover Superman's secret identity.
- Jonathan Kent's sacrifice, though it might not make logical sense, was awesome. And does more to form Clark's identity than does Glenn Ford's heart attack in Superman. I don't agree with Pa Kent's valuation of secret identity over saving a life, so maybe that's out of character, but it shows that he's put a lot of thought into what Clark's role in the world might be, and he doesn't want to burden Clark prematurely with all the tough choices he'll have to make.
- Michael Shannon's Zod convinced me of his impetus; he's not just eeeeevil; he's fulfilling his singular purpose.
- In general, the entire supporting cast did a great job.
- Superspeed in battle done right. The fights are awesome.
- Good dialog.
Justice League: Doom (2012)
The best superhero work is being done in animation. DC Comics continues its string of quality direct-to-video superhero movies with a scheme wrought from within the Justice League itself. Batman, paranoid, genius strategist that he is, has a contingency to defeat each other member of the Justice League (Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter, Flash), should they become compromised. (How many plots see a mind-controlled member of the team easily ambushing everyone else on the team? Batman must read comics too.) Unfortunately, a legion of their arch-enemies gains access to Batman's strategies, and, with a few lethal tweaks, launches a surgical strike against the League.
That final line! Batman is the most badass superhero.
The Giant Mechanical Man (2012)
An okay romance? Jenna Fischer and Chris Messina have some chemistry as mutually awkward floaters. By day, they work together at a zoo. By night, he's a performance artist while she's fending off advances by an incredibly obnoxious Topher Grace. Fischer confides in Messina's Mechanical Man alter-ego, and it's a testament to his artistic conviction that he doesn't break character to hit on her. The movie is fun at times, uncomfortable at others. I most enjoyed Fischer's odd relationship with her younger sister, Malin Akerman, who obnoxiously describes Fischer as her little sister; Messina's staunch defense of his craft; and his ex-girlfriend leaving him not because she doesn't believe in his work (she does), but because they're just not a great fit. So nice to see an ex not demonized.
This movie was good as I watched it, but I like it more upon reflection.
Saturday Night Fever (1977)
I'm perhaps the last person on earth to see this classic. Great dancing. Rough, moody, unpredictable characters. Punch in the gut for an ending.
Romeo + Juliet (1996)
Even considering that I generally dislike performances of Shakespeare's works, this movie is obnoxiously bad. Characters scream at each other with breathless speed, squeezing a monologue into the same space that a modern teen would use to say simply, "sod off". Roles are overreacted, as if for some audience in the back row, rather than the camera downstage center. The film isn't as spastic as Luhrmann's Moulin Rogue!, but is nevertheless more cartoonish. Yuck.
Daai mo seut si (The Great Magician, 2011)
I'm having trouble recalling details about this movie. A magician uses his skills to protect the woman he loves, and to thwart a conspiracy.
Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
An ailing attorney, Charles Laughton, is intrigued by a seeming open/shut murder case. Agreeing to help the accused, he tries to uncover the truth before justice can be miscarried. Like Dial M for Murder, this movie's drama unfolds carefully through just a handful of scenes, and each is riveting.
The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Good for some laughs as cad Cary Grant tries to win back Katherine Hepburn from an impending marriage to John Howard. Chivalrous James Stewart offers his affections as well. 2nd viewing, though the first was as a kid.
When a young aristocrat in Victorian America woos then spurns one of his family's housemaids, she commits suicide, and her mother curses the boy's family: the girls in their family will be born with pig noses, onward until the day when they are truly loved. Fast forward to present day. Christina Ricci is the latest offspring in the family line, and her parents, Catherine O'Hara and Richard E. Grant, are trying get a man to love her, to break the spell. Young men are attracted to the promised dowry, but run screaming when they finally see her. Paparazzi Peter Dinklage enlists compulsive gambler James McAvoy to endure the courtship long enough to snap some damning photos of the reclusive heiress. Can McAvoy see past her fortune and her nose to the darling underneath? Can Ricci survive her parents' well meaning but obsessive meddling to find true love?
A fun fable; good romance; good ending. 2nd viewing.