The Maze Runner (PG-13)

8 Stars

What do The Hunger Games, Ender’s Game, Divergent and The Maze Runner all have in common?

They’re based on dystopian YA novels.

They’re also introductions to a multi-part series.

And I never stop hollering about this, but they’re all rated PG-13.

Which is ultimately The Maze Runner’s least redeeming quality.

After all, it’s my favorite of the four previously mentioned.

The MZ’s mostly a quality flick.

Although the stakes are high, the ratings-board approved shellac is still clearly visible. An educated viewer can’t shake the awareness of censorship.

For example, during the more harried sequences (mostly involving a battle or pursuit via ‘grievers’) the filmmakers use the shadowy quick-edits to obscure the violence.

Luckily the CGI monsters are shown in full.

The ‘grievers’ are buffalo-sized mechanical beetles. As far as creatures go, they’re truly outstanding, original and horrific.

The only problem stems from a false hint at the surreal.

If you pay close attention, The Maze Runner is an astounding allegory for entering adulthood. This is in keeping with the summer trend of allegorical science fiction, with Snowpiercer (which I do recommend) and The Zero Theorem (which I don’t).

The plot develops lightning fast. This in turn can lead to confusion.

Or maybe I’m just too old for this sort of thriller.

So, yes, an elevator shaft is reminiscent of the birth canal.

Yes, a labyrinth is a classic metaphor for life.

Yes, the supporting characters resemble archetypes.

But the mind-bending portion of this thrill ride’s a red herring.

Because, no, the plot doesn’t take place inside the protagonist’s head. The viewer need not be concerned with how individual events fit into the self-contained metaphor.

Consider the sequence of obstacles Thomas (played by Dylan O’Brien) must overcome while fleeing the first griever. Think about the ways he adapts to the physical environment, the increasing risk and differing tasks required to move forward.

A few notes on the acting.

The girl, Kaya Scodelario, turns in a solid performance as Teresa. As does Blake Cooper playing Chuck, the protagonist’s younger buddy.

Thomas Brodie-Sangster (of Game of Thrones fame) plays Newt, punching the thespian clock with efficiency.

Will Poulter from We’re the Millers plays a bit of a one-note character but executes the role proficiently. I like this guy; he’s going places.

Patricia Clarkson plays Ava Paige, a mash-up of Glenn Close’s Nova Prime in Guardians of the Galaxy and Jodie Foster’s Secretary Delacourt in Elysium. Much like Teresa, we learn very little about Ava.

The mix of action, suspense and adequate special effects add up to a compelling thriller and a strong entry into the YA novel-turned-film catalogue.

See it in IMAX – this is one you won’t want to miss.

Things aren’t looking good for the Ender’s Game franchise.

However, according to Wikipedia, “Two weeks prior to [The Maze Runner’s] release 20th Century Fox decided to move ahead with the sequel and pre-production began in early September 2014 in New Mexico.”

Whether or not the box office earnings compensate for the $34 million budget, it seems like we’ll be seeing a follow-up.

If anyone’s looking, I’ll be in my tent, eagerly awaiting The Scorch Trials.

The Zero Theorem (R)

5 Stars

Ever heard of Harry Potter?

This is nothing like that.

David Thewlis, also known as Professor Lupin, is the only similarity between the two narratives.

The Z.T.’s bleak, folks.

It’s dark, foreboding and existential. To follow a recent trend it’s also allegorical. Therefore, things can get confusing.

[Quick sidebar: Counting Snowpiercer this marks Tilda Swinton’s second supporting role in a sci-fi allegory in the past year. What an oddly specific niche.]

Should you see it?

It depends on your viewing habits. If you’re a movie review blogger, you can do a lot worse than The Zero Theorem.

But for the average viewer, I wouldn’t recommend. There are plenty of better options available for rental. Skim some of my earlier blog posts if you need suggestions.

The price bugs me.

If you’re still interested it’s available for HD rental thru Xfinity OnDemand, iTunes and Amazon for $9.99.

Ten bucks feels like too much.

Despite the straight to VOD release, The Z.T. is a lot more ambitious than the trailer lets on. The preview lead me to believe director Terry Gilliam mailed it in.

But alas!

This movie contains a lot of solid material.

Where else are you going to find a pink chaise lounge?

Portions of the environment are sources of great irritation and intrigue. But I suppose that’s the Terry Gilliam thing. Much of the physical setting is reminiscent of 12 Monkeys, another mind-bending dystopian movie involving time travel and paradoxes.

Z.T.‘s futuristic landscape is elaborate and compelling. The streets are covered with graffiti; digital advertisements and adhesive ‘tags’ plastered all over the alleyway.

I’d say The Zero Theorem‘s right on par with A Dozen Bonobos.

Although I haven’t seen Brazil, my favorite Gilliam is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Watch it instead if it’s eluded you thus far.

For those dead-set on catching Z.T. here’s a couple notes on the casting.

Christoph Waltz stars as Qohen, and never ceases to impress.

After major supporting roles in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, he plays a completely different character here.

From the cadence of his voice to the movement of his gaze, it’s obvious he works hard to differentiate himself between roles.

What a dynamite thespian – good on ya, Christoph!

Matt Damon plays a small supporting role as ‘Management,’ and he’s excellent.

So add another bullet to the long list of ‘Good Reasons to Adore Mr. D.’

David Thewlis and Tilda Swinton are great. Lucas Hedges is good.

But far and away my favorite character is Bainsley.

Mélanie Thierry delivers an awesome performance, particularly befitting the Gilliam modus operandi. She’s got that twittery futuristic spunk, the neon haired quirketude. Which sounds grating, but it’s actually quite cute and delightful.

Part of this is thanks to the writing. In order to fill out the futuristic world in a realistic fashion, screenwriters often utilize the cyberpunk diction. It’s an alien form of English, and often seems bizarre at first.

It works well here, particularly because of the acting.

Every once in a while Bainsley will say something like, “You got a mouse in your pocket?” her charisma reminding the viewer to notice the occasional warmth.

Despite the bleak premise.

There is a lot of social commentary buried throughout. Some of it is a bit on-the-nose, like the satirical news station, ‘Dumbc’ or some such silliness.

But the more subtle stuff can really bolster a scene. When Qohen first meets Bainsley, it’s jarring to see the partygoers ‘fake smoking.’ At first it seems like quirk for the sake of quirk.

These moments are a lot more nuanced than they appear, however.

During a later scene, Qohen is sitting on a park bench. The backdrop is a swarm of ‘No [Insert Fun Activity] Allowed’ signs.

The visual flood of placards is both an eyesore and quite a strong metaphor.

Terry seems to envision a future in which we’re plagued by bureaucratic overregulation.

Considering the recent discussion regarding the heroic San Franciscans and their unending skirmish against synthetic shopping totes, I’m inclined to agree with Mr. Gill.i.Am.

Finally, I really enjoyed the artificial reality. The blending of digital pornography and prostitution offers a compelling and original spin on the sci-fi construct.

By the by, it’s ironic considering Qohen’s pursuing an answer to the ultimate question.

But he can’t install a little bit of conduit?

Under the Skin (R)

9 Stars

‘Alien’ is a misnomer.

More accurately Laura, played by Scarlett Johansson, is an ‘extraterrestrial organism.’

A being who exists beyond our frame of reference. Seems puzzling, no?

Well it’s certainly elaborate, but not needlessly confusing.

Under the Skin is smart and mandates a brief personal yarn.

During movie viewings, my buddy and I rarely talk or utilize the pause feature.

We pressed the freeze button thrice while watching Under the Skin in order to clear up confusion.

Our choice to abandon the usual procedure proved beneficial, because UTS is a lot easier to follow when combining noggins.

Rotten Tomatoes’s summarization explains, “Its message may prove elusive for some, but with absorbing imagery and a mesmerizing performance from Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin is a haunting viewing experience.”

That little lady’s on quite a streak. She’s been in six huge movies since The Avengers in 2012. Her last eleven are Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes!

A topless Scarlett may be the sole draw for certain viewers, but I suspect they’re the same folks who’ll find its message elusive.

Under the Skin is a great movie that hasn’t received the credit it deserves. It’s a mixture of sci-fi, fantasy and horror and if you dig this cinematic breed I highly recommend the rental.

It’s currently available for instant streaming via iTunes and Amazon as an HD rental ($4.99) or purchase ($9.99).

According to Box Office Mojo, it cost $13.3M to produce Under the Skin, and so far it’s just shy of a $5.4M gross worldwide. Which is a bummer because passion and effort should be rewarded.

Jonathan Glazer did an excellent job directing this movie. A massive chunk of thought went into each scene. The workload’s palpable.

The audio and visuals are simply stunning. Everything feels ‘intergalactic.’

The plot’s creepy and unnerving. Certain details seem like red herrings, but the film’s so polished their exclusion must be purposeful.

Under the Skin is wildly thought provoking and hits the spot.

If you seek uplifting content, search elsewhere, chum. Several moments are on the warmer side, but the majority’s unsettling and quizzical.

Follow my example and catch this flick with a loved one.

Let’s hope Laura runs across Lucy (from Lucy) and Samantha (from Her) and finds solace in their company somewhere in the metaphysical ether.

Guardians of the Galaxy (PG-13)

10 Stars

Don’t be fooled by my review.

Guardians of the Galaxy won’t help you achieve enlightenment, fall in love or lose weight.

Especially if you’re the chick who sits beside me, crushing a popcorn tub singlehanded.

But if you’re looking for a great movie this weekend, you won’t find anything better on the big screen. Guardians delivers what it promises, and more.

That being said.

As is always the case with Marvel Studios productions, some won’t enjoy it. Guardians isn’t part of the superhero genre, however.

It’s science fiction. None of the characters are ‘superheroes.’

Technically thus comprises the ragtag band: one human, two aliens (one genetically enhanced), one anthropomorphic raccoon and one humanoid plant.

It belongs in the intergalactic genre; the same barrel as Star Wars and Star Trek.

If that sounds displeasing, you may be in the same boat as the douchey dude two seats down from me.

The opening scene’s a tearjerker, and I’m ‘swept up,’ so to speak.

It takes place on Earth and involves nothing extraterrestrial. At the emotional climax he speaks.

“Is this when the raccoon shows up?” Douchey Dude asks the Popcorn Vacuum.

Not only is it unfunny and in bad taste, it’s illustrative of his mindset. He’s completely unwilling to buy in.

His wrap-up comment post-viewing is, “It was all corny.”

If he’s so above it, why go in the first place?

I try to avoid personal yarns but am endlessly astounded by the behavior of other adults. If you can’t let yourself enjoy the movie, then don’t go see it.

James Gunn, the writer/director is just a great guy. He’s been on the Adam Carolla Show twice recently. He’s enthusiastic, intelligent and wants to do the sequel if the first is received with public favor.

In his latest appearance on Carolla’s podcast, Gunn claims they cast Chris Pratt as the lead when the actor was out of shape. But it’s clear Pratt got physically fit by the time shooting rolled around.

Zoe Saldana is the queen of science fiction. She plays a major role in both of the more recent Star Treks and wears similar makeup in Avatar. Saldana’s phenomenal as Gamora, and you can tell she does a lot of her own stunts.

Plus she’s enchanting. It’s odd how lovable she can be with all that makeup on.

Bradley Cooper is almost unrecognizable as the voice of Rocket, the raccoon everybody’s been talking about. As per the usual, Cooper’s great.

This is Vin Diesel’s second voiceover role as a humanoid being. Not only is he the voice of Groot in Guardians, he’s also the robot in The Iron Giant (1999).

Karen Gillan’s performance is particularly noteworthy. She’s a Scottish actress who’s quite prevalent in Doctor Who, and played a role in last year’s Oculus.

Gillan’s terrifically menacing as the bionic woman. She’s creepy and evil and fits the tone of the movie perfectly. Hopefully we see more of her in the future.

It’s overall a balanced, vastly diverse cast of characters. The sum total of which makes for a well-acted movie.

Guardians does a lot of things right. The writing constantly defies convention and satirizes common sci-fi themes.

For example, when the heroic outlaws ask for help from the authorities, it’s a relief to see their call’s considered, rather than immediately dismissed.

Much like the humorous discussions of plan creation, Guardians masterfully navigates clichés.

Location and contextual details are presented in a cool and efficient fashion. Digital readouts accompany interstellar approach shots of planetary environments as the perspective transitions between settings.

The shooting, editing, cinematography, music and score are all impressive. I think it’s time we retire “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” from all future soundtracks, though. That song belongs to Remember the Titans.

Despite some overcompensating laughter in the theater, the humor is strong and consistent.

Although the end credits leave much to be desired, the opening credits are informative and wildly entertaining.

There is a lot of action, both hand-to-hand and aerial combat. It’s well choreographed and thrilling.

I wonder what percentage of the on-screen material is CGI. It must be upwards of fifty, but it all looks realistic.

My only criticism regards the scene after the credits.

It’s a major disappointment if you don’t understand the reference. I’m almost twenty-five and despite my vague familiarity, I’m still outside the joke.

If the reference is slated toward an audience older than me, why can’t this movie be rated R?

I know all the answers to my question; they’re just infinitely dissatisfying.

And I was hoping for something that gets us looking forward to the sequel.

Regardless. It’s a tiny failure in an otherwise remarkable film.

Guardians of the Galaxy is cute, thrilling and fun.

It’s everything we can ask from PG-13.

Lucy (R)

6 Stars

Six stars is rare.

Categorically, it’s ‘just barely worthwhile’; a timid thumbs-up.

Anything less I can’t recommend.

This particular rating syncs up with the Rotten Tomatoes score at 60%. Which is, coincidentally, the lowest possible for the ‘certifiably fresh’ stamp.

So the question becomes: What’s the value of a review teetering on indifference? Let me explain.

The main problem involves the trailer. Almost all of the good moments are spoiled.

It’s been mentioned before, but I’m sick and tired of seeing previews that ruin the movie. This day marks the official beginning to a lifelong campaign against misleading trailers.

If you saw the preview and hopes are high, don’t catch this one in the theater. Give it a few months or a couple years before tackling Lucy. Try to let your memory of the footage fade before renting it.

After all, it’s only ninety minutes. You’re not losing much; even if you hate it.

If you’re planning on a future rental or catching it on the big screen anyway, you may wish to stop reading now. There are potential spoilers below.

The trailer isn’t the only problem.

An expectation is The Bourne Limitless with a female protagonist. The story doesn’t allow Scarlett Johansson to develop a particularly memorable character. Her acting is strong as always, but it doesn’t fit the tone of such weak storytelling.

The premise is similar to the Bourne films in terms of being an international action-thriller. A similar plot device to Lucy’s CP4 is utilized in 2011’s Limitless. The main character, played by Bradley Cooper, takes a drug that allows him to unlock a higher percentage of brain capacity.

But the viewer never feels ‘swept up’ like one associates with watching those comparable works.

Unfortunately, Lucy attempts to accomplish similar goals, but ends up falling short.

For example, all of the combat is spoiled in the trailer. There are no elaborate fight sequences. There’s a solid car chase, in which Lucy drives against traffic. As effectively shot, choreographed and edited as it is, it’s still illogical.

The editing is disjointed and the story is riddled with plot holes. Lucy leans further toward fantasy, rather than science fiction.

Style abounds throughout, but not in a positive way. Much like the ticking digital clock in the TV show 24, title cards with percentages are utilized as dramatic transitions. All in all, they add nothing to the story and serve as only a further distraction.

Quite a bit of wildlife footage is interspersed, presumably to build tension and create a more elaborate experience. But it just comes off as cheesy.

I truly wonder why such a prolific writer/director as Luc Besson would include the cheetah chasing down the gazelle as Lucy’s captured. This is a pinnacle of heavy-handed metaphor. The enormity of the cliché seems almost purposeful.

The montages of various wild animals engaging in intercourse and giving birth are hollow moments devoid of value.

Besson’s use of time lapse and montage is clunky and distracting; not to mention it feels cheap. Montages, time lapses and original animated interstitials are in vogue. Such films as Noah and 22 Jump Street make productive use of them.

Lucy does not.

The animation of the CP4 molecules spreading throughout her nervous system is momentarily interesting, but eventually drags on. The footage is later revisited, much to the viewer’s misfortune.

The narrative voice is unfocused. It opens with Johansson speaking her thoughts through voiceover. They’re not real-time thoughts, more like generalized notions about the beginning of mankind. This transitions sharply into Lucy snapping out of a daydream.

This disparity is heightened by the introduction of Morgan Freeman’s voiceover regarding the evolution of the brain and human potential. Later it transitions back to Lucy’s real-time thoughts, so the nature of the narrative voice remains unclear.

During the film’s introduction, the missing link is featured on-screen. The part’s played by an actor in discomforting make-up and is featured several times throughout the movie.

Its too bad Besson didn’t speak to Andy Serkis, who crafted a simian army using stop motion technology for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Serkis could probably create one missing link without removing his bathrobe.

Besson is hit-or-miss. His early career hits include Leon: The Professional, The Transporter and The Fifth Element, and more recently Taken. These are all great movies, each in their own way.

There’s a through line to his pictures, though. They aggressively toe the boundary between fantasy and reality, asking a lot from the viewer in order to suspend disbelief.

Take Leon: The Professional for example. Gary Oldman plays Stansfield one of the greatest villains in cinematic history. His drug of choice is less potent than CP4, but it’s still a ‘fantasy intoxicant.’

The point being: Lucy would be a lot easier to accept if I was still a teenager.

All things considered, it’s a good movie that isn’t great.

It’s ironic Lucy went out the same way as ‘Samantha’ (from Her).

Hopefully they’ve successfully avoided Skynet (from The Terminator) now governed by Arnim Zola (from Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and joined the torch-bearing digital people (from Tron: Legacy) in the cyberspace community.

Unfortunately I’m one of the few people who haven’t seen Transcendence, so I can’t include Johnny Depp’s character in that reference.

Edge of Tomorrow (PG-13)

9 Stars

If you see one flick all summer then look no further.

It’s not only the best of the season, Edge of Tomorrow is the top release so far this year. It’s still playing in some theaters so catch it before it completely leaves the big screen.

Whether you’re a film buff or just the occasional theatergoer, you’ll love this science fiction thriller. It’s riveting, smart, inventive and fun.

With a massive budget, a strong supporting cast of knowns and unknowns, and top-notch special effects; the cinematic experience doesn’t get any better.

But it’s the story you’ll dig most. EoT is similar to last year’s Ender’s Game by offering an original take on extraterrestrial invasion. The ‘mimics’ are organic, menacing and wildly compelling.

To pile on top, the plot fiddles with time travel in the smartest way.

Let’s discuss discouraging numbers.

Edge of Tomorrow pulled $28 million for third place in the box office opening weekend, behind Maleficent in 2nd place, and The Fault in Our Stars which made $48M.

According to budgetary estimates on IMDB, TFIOS cost $12M to produce, and EoT cost $178M. So far EoT grossed almost $95M, but still tails behind its wretched usurper (TFIOS) at nearly $120M.

EoT is making up for it overseas, but the statistics speak for themselves: American moviegoers reward bad dromantic quirkedies over well-crafted science fiction.

This disappoints me.

Anyway, back to the film.

A common criticism regards the title. I’ve heard four separate voices speak out about it. But there’s a trend: Nobody ever suggests a better one, or explains why it’s poor.

It’s certainly better than the title of the novel the screenplay’s adapted from, “All You Need is Kill” by Hiroshi Sakurazaka.

Perhaps ‘Precipice of Yesterday’ is better? ‘Threshold of Today’ is definitely a downgrade.

Now. If the argument regards the title’s inadequacy in capturing the attention of the American viewing audience, I’m listening. It’s got to be more than just, “Edge of Tomorrow is a bad title.”

Tom Cruise never gets enough credit. He stars (as two different characters named ‘Jack,’ ironically) in two great movies from last year, Oblivion and Jack Reacher. He’s acted in at least fifteen fantastic films (and no, this doesn’t include Jerry Maguire) most of which he’s the leading role.

Quick T.C. top five: Rain Man (1988), Magnolia (1999), Minority Report (2002), Risky Business (1983) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999).

He’s one of our finest, most accomplished actors working today. You can add yet another fantastic film to the list and consider him adequately credited.

Emily Blunt’s acting is perfect, but we don’t get enough combat out of her.

Although she’s often wielding an awesome futuristic sword, she doesn’t dispatch many mimics with it. Probably due to the unfortunate PG-13 rating.

There’s a shot of Blunt as she gets up out of a yoga pose. As enjoyable as it is, it happens three or four times and it’s one too many.

Another undesirable moment occurs when Nance (played by Charlotte Riley) uses the phrase, “Could I trouble you for a glass of shut the hell up?”

It’s a jarring cliché and her phrasing’s not realistic. She’d choose a stronger curse word.

As irksome as it is, one can argue it’s a nod to the Nursing Home Orderly played by Ben Stiller in Happy Gilmore. This interpretation’s a stretch, but it’s preferable.

All in all, these are small scratches on a fresh finish; unworthy of dwelling upon.

What’s worthy of dwell is the ending. (Beware, a spoiler follows.)

Something doesn’t add up. According to screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie the filmmakers only solidified the ending while shooting was underway. Some of the backlash responds to the ‘happiness’ of the movie’s conclusion.

I’m more concerned with the pre-established rules of the fictive universe, and how the time reset could work in such a way on the mimics’ final day. There’s no precedent to suggest the time interval would increase upon the aliens’ destruction.

Again, this is neither here nor there.

Whichever way you slice it, Edge of Tomorrow is terrific.

I can’t wait for Edge of the Day After Tomorrow, where the mimics rise again and develop flight capabilities. Let’s get Blunt in jet-propelled boots, and give her a second sword, just in case.

The Terminator (R)

10 Stars

Raise your hand if you’ve seen The Terminator.

Okay. You can’t tell but everyone on the planet has an arm in the air.

So, people of Earth, how many of you recall the last time you caught Arnold’s breakout performance?

Who were you with? Were you conveyed by carriage or dirigible?

Put your hand down if you can’t remember.

I only ask because revisiting’s worthwhile.

This was my first time watching the movie, so my Dad and I instant-streamed T1 via Netflix. And it’s glorious, lemme tell ya.

Soon as Arnold starts killing innocent people, my Dad says, “I don’t remember him being the bad guy.”

We realize he’s never seen the first installment before. He only thinks he remembers. And I bet that’s the case for many folks not raising their hand.

It’s been thirty years since release, but it holds up like you wouldn’t believe.

Seriously. The Terminator’s a smart movie. I’m glad I waited so long to watch.

Every character is watertight. Prominent or minor the acting’s often what retains the captivation in between gunplay and chase scenes.

The cops are Traxler and Vukovich, played by Paul Winfield and Lance Henriksen (a.k.a. Bishop from Aliens), and have a humorous dynamic. Sarah’s roommate, Bess Motta as Ginger, is the sexy bouncy type, and her boyfriend’s a well-meaning dummy. Kyle Reese (played by Michael Biehn) is withdrawn and serious.

How about Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor? She’s such an ass-kicking delight, her likeness is still utilized twenty-four years later in Fox’s Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. The show ran for two seasons and stars the pinnacle of underrated actresses, Lena Headey.

Talk about a crowning accolade for Hamilton’s performance.

As a standalone, the story is very good and there’s almost no need for a sequel. Although the ending lends itself to continuation, it’s not necessary.

The movie’s greatest weakness is the same mistake made by other science fiction films like Escape from New York and Event Horizon; meaning a drastic underestimation in regards to the timeframe. The scenes that take place in the future are supposed to be set in 2029. There’s a number of technologies I doubt we’ll have within the next fifteen years.

Laser ammunition, synthetic skin cells and advanced artificial intelligence aren’t around the corner.

Oh. And there’s time travel.

But this is a silly topic of discussion, because the plot’s ‘self-contained’; the rules allotted to the story’s universe are adequate enough. An artificial intelligence develops in 1997 that learns at an exponential rate, making allowances for the suspension of disbelief.

The irony is, the film unfolds a lot like a horror movie. I’ll get more into that later on.

For now, all I’ll say is that The Terminator is a classic must-see film in the same manner The Great Gatsby’s a must-read novel.

Those without a hand in the air should stop reading here, because the rest of the review will contain spoiler-heavy analysis.

Nuance abounds in this movie, and it’s illustrative of the intelligence packed into every detail. Much of what occurs resonates thematically with the overall narrative.

For example, the recording on the girls’ answering machine states, “machines need love to,” which obviously foreshadows Sarah’s eventual encounter with the Terminator. It’s also ironically commenting on the relationship between man and machine, and the eventual fate of humanity.

Another detail akin to this is the name of the club where the Terminator finally locates Sarah. The name is Tech-Noir; which is a touch of self-referential humor. The filmmaking resonates with noir themes, and the subject matter’s heavily rooted in science fiction.

It’s self-contained because of the limits established by the timeframe. In 1984, a Terminator would indeed have to look through the phone book for every ‘Sarah Connor’ and kill them off to ensure its mission’s accomplished. It also establishes conceivable distance between the protagonist and the pursuing threat.

The audience can accept humanity’s resistance to obliteration against seemingly insurmountable odds when considering ideas like utilizing dogs to detect terminators.

As for the special effects, most hold up quite nicely. And there shouldn’t be any problem for a sophisticated viewer, given the context in which it’s made. There is obvious use of green screen on set, and some devolved CGI, but for the most part everything’s on the up-and-up.

Okay, let’s dive in.

Timeline A is the history Reese returns from, which includes all events up until 2029. Timeline B is the realm in which the film unfolds, Earth in 1984.

Presumably, the John Connor of Timeline A didn’t descend from Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor, right? A terminator didn’t arrive in Timeframe A’s 1984 to attempt the same assassination?

I’m assuming Timeframe A becomes separate from reality; whatever that means. And Timeframe B will continue to unfold into an altered future.

There appears to be no residual effects from the changing of history yet. No chaos or collapse; which is nice.

I suppose the only real alteration this has on reality is the splitting of John’s lineage. He’ll now be fifty percent A and fifty percent B.

I wonder if the sequel will cover the issue of reconnecting the loop; specifically, when history B reaches 2029, even if there’s no such thing as terminators, will Reese have to travel back in time to impregnate Sarah again?

My brain hurts.

Anyway, the reason I say it unfolds like a horror movie is the impending doom that’s constant throughout. Sarah encounters terrifying scrapes with death around every turn. I don’t want to reiterate the whole plot, but consider the odds constantly stacked against her.

After escaping the police station and literally everyone dies, Reese blasts the membrane off the Terminator’s metal skeleton and dies to blow its legs off.

Yet its torso continues to crawl after Sarah and is only crushed by the pneumatic press as his fingers claw at her face.

The protagonist’s terror is stretched to the utter limit, time and time again.

For those of you still holding an arm in the air, feel free to lower it now.

If nothing else you burnt some calories today, and learned two things about yourself.

  1. You’re easily manipulated. And…
  2. You have exquisite taste in movie reviews.

Elysium (R)

10 Stars

I’ve put this off to avoid overselling it.

But Elysium is the best motion picture released in 2013.

Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp, this is his follow-up to District 9, which was nominated for best picture back in 2009.

I hesitate to use the word “perfect” to describe movies, so I’ll say that Elysium is ‘seamless’ instead.

You can watch films in one of two modes: Regarding it much like a critic, or a willing member of the audience. I always try to consider both sides of the equation, but I lean more towards the audience. I’m slightly more forgiving of stretch marks and minor chinks in the armor.

That being said, I couldn’t find any in Elysium. It’s seamless. You might be able to come up with something, but it’d be a far-reaching criticism.

The narrative unfolds at a swift pace with high stakes and an intelligent undercurrent running beneath. The CGI is excellent and the futuristic technology is realistically depicted.

All of the characters; their motivations, conflicts, societal positioning, relative levels of power, etc. are so well thought out and polished. It’s a vast group of players in this narrative; each with a complex and justifiable problem.

So enough general talk about Elysium – if you haven’t seen it, stop reading. I’m going to spoil some things now.

It’s almost a story where ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ have zero effect on the end result, and yet, goodness triumphs in the most satisfactory way.

If you really think about the tension underlying the different scenes, you’ll notice the conditions are truly horrific.

The interaction between Damon and his robotic parole officer is one of many brilliantly dark moments. The aggravation is palpable when he tries to explain himself, and the robot interrupts with, “Stop talking. Stop talking. Stop talking.”

In a way, it’s a beautiful and chilling scene. The higher class of humanity has become so far removed from the judicial system of the lower classes that all tasks have been delegated to inhuman mechanisms. The parole officer illustrates the inefficacy of robotics streamlining interpersonal relations, especially when moral judgment becomes a factor. A misstep, momentary foolishness or poor decision can’t be allowed in a realm governed by pure efficiency.

This theme of intertwining humanity and robotics is touched on heavily throughout. It’s explored in several intriguing ways, including the mechanical parts Matt Damon integrates into his biological makeup.

The cocky, loose-tongued and rabble-rousing protagonist has been done so many times, yet Damon performs the role excellently. Even while interacting with a gun-toting CGI robot!

That man sure is talented. When he gets mouthy with the guard in queue, it’s the type of exchange that is so easily criticized as a cliché but he makes it work, creating a truly disturbing scene.

I don’t like Jodie Foster as a person, but her character in this movie is spectacular, and she deserves serious praise for her performance. Her role might be the most compelling character in the story. When she dies it feels like the moral synapses in my brain are twisted. I want to keep talking about her character, but I must move on.

If you’ve seen/read enough stories in your life, much like a critic, it’s easy to notice commonly recycled narrative elements. Such as ‘the parable.’ It’s tough to write one into a story without it feeling abrasive to the critical eye.

Blomkamp’s playful use of a parable is, for me, the crowning moment in Elysium.

Three months after seeing the film, I was explaining to my mom why it’s such a great scene where Damon interrupts the girl’s story about the hippopotamus and the meerkat. We were in the kitchen and I think she was chopping onions, because I had to leave the room without finishing my explanation. I got so choked up I couldn’t get the words out.

If you buy in, it’s a profoundly moving moment.

Sure the ending’s been done before. I bet there are critics who’ve compared his work to that of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John’s. But that’s silly, and I truly admire Blomkamp’s decision to write it the way he did.

All in all, Elysium‘s a great film that hasn’t received the credit it deserves.

Despite its lack of praise, I hope it won’t be lost in the buzz of award season, and eagerly await Blomkamp’s next project.

Event Horizon (R)

8 Stars

There are natural forces that govern the universe.

And there are theoretical forces that may govern a fictive universe.

Good science fiction attempts to bridge the gap between the two realms. By taking unanswerable questions of physics and applying theoretical possibilities past our limits of understanding, one may craft a compelling story.

An event horizon, in general relativity, is a boundary in space-time beyond which events cannot affect an outside observer. It is the point of no return, the moment when escape from a gravitational pull becomes impossible. They’re most commonly referenced surrounding a black hole.

(Side Note: In Mr. Peabody & Sherman the protagonists perilously approach such a boundary.)

Event Horizon falls prey to a common error in semi-recent science fiction: A drastic overestimation of our species’ developments in space travel. First of all, apparently we’ll still be recording ship’s logs on compact discs. This film is set in 2040, and it’s doubtful our explorations will spread to Neptune by then.

To hazard a charitable guess, this is an attempt to break convention in common science fiction thrillers. It certainly seems to be the case amongst other aspects of the plot.

Take note of Cooper’s ultimate fate. Richard T. Jones, whose voice I recognize, plays the kooky black guy.

Sam Neill and Larry Fishburne turn in strong performing leads as Dr. Weir and Captain Miller.

I’d place Invent Verizon more in the horror genre than anywhere else. So judging it as a horror movie, I give it eight stars and call it great.

To draw connection to a completely dissimilar film, it’s reminiscent of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. It tells a complex story that, due to production issues, builds on a cracked foundation.

Plot description that explains, “It’s left up to the viewer to interpret,” usually means the narrative’s incomplete.

So there are loose threads in the Extent Orion quilt. But most of the fibers are strongly woven with thought provoking ideas.

Profoundly dark musings, mind you; never forget it’s smart, but still a horror movie.

A vivisection takes place. Vivisecting, no matter how tasteful the visual conveyance, is never fun.

That’s not to say it’s poorly crafted: The CGI’s generally good enough, the special effects are sound, the gore isn’t over the top and the tide of tension undergoes a steady ebb and flow.

If you’ll allow the limitations set by the technology available in 1997 (in terms of CGI and production design) and can stomach a handful of unsettling scenes, then check it out for some thrills and chills. (It’s available to stream instantly through Netflix, and has been since my freshman year of college, six years ago. I doubt it’s going anywhere soon.)

But if you haven’t seen the movie and are sensitive to spoilers, stop reading.

To continue my introductory discussion of science fiction and the application of natural forces, the viewer will buy into a theoretical force if it compels the story forward.

When it comes to Event Horizon, I’m fine with everything up until they board the actual ship. The stuff with the magazine centerfold is intelligent and easily acceptable.

Then, things get a little shaky once you start to consider the implications of the ship’s consciousness.

What’s with the ice crystals? Was there a spill of liquid nitrogen? Did a change in atmospheric pressure trigger the freezing effect on the ship’s interior?

I believe there’s a subzero answer to these questions. Seems like someone fell in love with the idea of using the term ‘corpsicle’ in dialogue.

Okay, first of all, they had two options for explaining the darkness inhabiting (or possessing) the ship. The reappearance of Weir towards the end, when he battles with Miller in the hellish core, is a physical incarnation of the entity.

The nature of that demonic being is what the film’s final cut never nailed down. They could either call it Hell (a concrete location defined by religious beliefs, but at least a colloquial construct of reality), or generate their own mythological realm (the parallel dimension governed by chaos.)

Ultimately they choose not to answer the question, leaving it up to the viewer’s interpretation.

I don’t appreciate incomplete narratives, but I understand production difficulties. I just wish they’d picked a side and stuck with it. The majority of misunderstanding stems from this sole incongruence.

As I mentioned before, certain forces govern our reality. It’s simple enough to believe that the Event Horizon passes through this chaotic dimension (be it Hell or otherwise) but the affect it has on the ship requests a distant reach for our brains to continue the suspension of disbelief.

There’s a bevy of examples, so I’ll list a quick few. One of the main problems is what I call, ‘an incongruence of metaphysical properties,’ or the misalignment of surreal forces.

The quick and easy i.e.? Telepathic abilities don’t include clairvoyance.

Actions are governed by motivations, and for the plot to unfold the way it does, it would be according to the ship’s mandate. We can assume the ship’s all knowing and all-powerful, because it telepathically dissects the crew’s memories and locates their fears. Furthermore, it projects hallucinations onto their consciousness.

Even further, it can cause objects to vanish, like Miller’s gun. Meaning it can literally manipulate the fabric of existence.

If the ship has the ability to alter reality, its initial antagonism seems unmotivated and inexplicable. Why string along the entire crew through this revelatory process? What does the ship (or the evil entity possessing it) hope to gain through tormenting the individuals?

There’s an inconsequential argument to be made here. Perhaps the entity’s wish is to let the three crewmembers escape, thereby spreading…what, exactly? Hell on Earth? Why does Starck seem to be the only one ‘infected’ so to speak? The final scene suggests her mind’s plagued with the same malady inhibiting Weir’s character at the film’s open.

That being the case, what assumption can we draw from this implication? That events will play out in a similar manner for Starck as they did for Weir? That’s impossible; the Event Horizonis half destroyed and returned to Earth. Will she rein terror across the planet? The manifestation of that development seems inconceivable.

To pile on top, soon after the film begins, Weir dreams of the corpse floating on the Event Horizon’s flight deck. Thereby suggesting clairvoyance.

So you can see how the power imbalances, the inconsistencies between frames of reference, and an ending of minimal consequence add up to a deceptively contrived narrative.

A glaring error left un-snipped: What’s life going to be like for smiley Justin, after the macabre experience he’s been through? It’s almost cruel to let him live; disfigured, traumatized, psychotic and likely suicidal.

Then again, I have confidence in the writing’s veiled attempts at defying convention. Take Ripley’s (Sigourney Weaver) execution of Dallas (Tom Skerritt) in Alien for example, or more recently David (Michael Fassbender) in Prometheus. The tortured, tormented crewmember never makes it home.

It’s thoroughly twisted, but it seems the only impetus behind retaining that character’s life. Actually, it’s humorous when you consider his character’s position in the majority of the story. He’s lying comatose on that table (potentially infected with chaos and/or Hell, by the plot’s logic) and he never proves a danger to anyone but himself!

Poor lad. Let’s hope therapy helps.

As a side note, Samuel L. Jackson finds himself under similar circumstances in Sphere, where a group of scientists inhabiting Deepsea Habitats study an extraterrestrial object. The loose threads are more numerous and far less satisfying than Event Horizon, but the crew undergoes a similar fate where an evil consciousness delights in telepathic torment. Sphere’s un-good, even if judged as a horror; don’t waste your time with that submarine wreck.

Further side note, when Event Horizon gained its cult following, the demand for an extended cut became inevitable. Unfortunately, the director, Paul W. S. Anderson (not to be confused with P. T. A., the director of Boogie Nights) couldn’t cobble together much extra footage. According to Anderson, some footage had been stored in an abandoned Transylvanian salt mine.

I’m not sure why. I don’t remember any vampiric salt miners in Event Horizon.

The intercepted audio recording is the perfect microcosm for the whole film.

It’s creepy and ominous, and a believable mistranslation. I’ll even allow the idea that their manner of speech transforms to Latin.

And hey, for fun, let’s forego all discussion of computerized auditory scanners.

Who was the message, “Save yourself from Hell,” intended for?

And who had the wherewithal, after passing through the chaotic dimension, to broadcast the warning signal?

Oh. I get it.

Once infected, the spread of Hellish dementia’s a gradual multi-stepped debilitation.

First comes the transformation of basic speech faculties. After that, the craving for sadomasochistic orgy manifests.

Silly me. It’s all coming together now.

Better start rewriting this review.

Perhaps I’ve passed the event horizon…

(See what I did there?)

Ender’s Game (PG-13)

7 Stars

You know the Johnny-Come-Lately that snorts at cringeworthy moments, or criticizes plot points he deems unsound?

That’s me during the first half of Lender’s Flame; being a total douche, and not resisting the urge to speak. My buddy deserves an apology.

Perhaps it was the lack of coffee lending me susceptible to the hypocritical fit. But to be fair, there are some seriously weak cogs in this mechanism.

It wouldn’t surprise me if they reused the set from Xenon: Girl of the Twenty First Century.

And I feel bad for Harrison Ford.

I don’t like bandwagons. No matter who’s piloting the rig, I try to avoid jumping on. But Harry’s left me no choice.

He doesn’t record the lines for Lego Han Solo, and now this? To call his performance unconvincing would be generous.

My opinion’s never changed so dramatically halfway through a film.

The first portion deserves a little less than three stars, but the second half is almost a fiver. Thereby positing this film just short of greatness.

My main problem with Blender’s Shame is the acting. The performances are almost all underwhelming.

Some are bad. Asa Butterfield as Ender Wiggin doesn’t deliver a poor performance, but it’s nothing to shake a stick at. He’s okay I guess. Perhaps that’s a function of how his character is written. Fun the actor’s name matches the greatness of his character’s, though.

The two best parts of this film (besides a certain reveal) are Nonso Anozie and Ben Kingsley. Both turn in solid performances as inventive compelling characters.

What the film lacks in thespianism it makes up for in smart, original storytelling.

During even the clunkiest of moments, the shining rays of intelligent narrative peek through the cringeworthy canopy.

Finally, the CGI is exceptional. See this film if you’re into this kind of thing, and can swallow some scoffs.

Now onto some spoilers.

At first, I thumbed my nose at the video of Mazer Rackham attacking the alien’s mothership. Thought it was just a jet fighter versus organic extraterrestrial millennium falcons in a storm cloud.

But boy was I wrong. And that’s only one of two fantastic reveals.

One thing I really liked was the humanistic nature of the future. So often in science fiction, the world is dystopian, or at least ‘the man’ is just as brutal as ever. The idea that Ender is able to go back to Earth to visit his sister, Valentine, feels right to me. When Petra asks if she can stay with Ender while he’s unconscious, I appreciate Colonel Graff’s response.

(Perhaps that’s why ol’ Harry Ford doesn’t work; maybe some menace would’ve done the trick.)

There are painful moments in Ender’s Game. Almost every greatness is ruined by the following odd character interaction, an off-putting acting performance or cliché.

The Islamic reference is a complete non-sequitur; painful whether it was shoved into the film’s plot or not.

I find everything inside the zero-gravity playground dull, and never feel like there’s anything at stake. I’m getting furious thinking about how poorly these scenes are executed. You have no concept of who is winning or losing, or the reasons why, at any point during the freeze pistol games.

So nobody’s tried that rope trick in the entire history of the floaty cube olympics? The last five seconds are good, but jarringly odd, and then that plot element is gone.

For most of the movie, Ender actually sits by himself at lunch.

When Ben Kingsley shows up, everything gets way better. And I love the time spent interacting with the ‘mind game.’

I would have loved if it ended, and everyone still shunned him at lunchtime.

But in all seriousness, how about that ending? Duped into genocide? Good stuff!

At that moment, I’m shackled to purchasing a ticket to the sequel.

Pretty soon old men will lament the loss of sound content in narrative.

“That another one of those conflabbed Hunger Endgames?”

You crazy kids and your space gladiators.