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The few shots that actually take place in space are nice.

I follow a few rules when I set out to review a movie. One of them is that I try to review the movie I’ve seen and not the movie I wish I’d seen. The big difference is that, when you go into something with expectations (sometimes very clear ones), you wind up missing the forest for the trees. On this hook can be hung a lot of unfair reactions and reviews for movies, either positive or negative. It’s a kind of easily avoidable bias and avoiding it raises the caliber of a review. Or at least that’s what I think. Feel free to disagree.

Anyway, that notion is why I’m going to get something out of the way before I dive into this review. I was hoping for a Star Trek movie that finally did something different than the plethora of action-adventure movies we already have, especially in the scifi genre. Star Wars is back, so why does Star Trek need to be so similar to it? Maybe because studios like to make money. I didn’t like this movie very much, and at least a little of that is because it consistently felt like wasted potential. But if you take away my expectation for a more wonder-driven, thoughtful third entry to this reboot franchise, what is left? Hopefully something more fair to the movie. You’ll have to let me know.

My argument is that the movie I saw (as opposed to the one I wished I’d seen) is as fundamentally flawed, shallow, and messy as the previous two. My disinterest in Wrath of Khan helped me appreciate Into Darkness more than the majority of the audience, but this time around I feel like if I were a fan of the Original Series, I’d have appreciated this movie more. It certainly panders to Original Series fans yet again, but asks way less of them (unlike Into Darkness and the ’09 movie). Because I don’t have much feel for what is meant by “it was like a movie length version of an OS episode”, I don’t have to consciously avoid the nostalgia-based bias that comes with that. For what it’s worth, I do think I’ll like this movie more as time goes on (much like ’09) where I like Into Darkness much less.  Read the rest of this entry »

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Tomorrowland

There are moments of wonder betrayed by a lack of substance.

It’s funny. I’ve really slowed down with reviews. This blog has been quiet, except for the obligatory reviews of huge movies that I love or hate (mostly love so far this year). Right now I’m endeavouring to write, in very short order, four reviews starting with this one. Of all the films to begin with, Tomorrowland is the least worth it. Because it’s been out for a while already, I’m sure most people know it came and went with nary a peep, let alone a bang or a whimper. And that’s because it’s as shallow and thin a movie to come out of the mess that is big budget filmmaking.

Tomorrowland‘s main problem is a core philosophical smarm that plays completely to the cheap seats while also betraying a certain ugliness in the world view of its creative heads, Damon Lindelof (writing) and Brad Bird (directing). Usually I wouldn’t go so far as to question the underpinning philosophy or psychology of filmmakers, but it’s tough when they make movies which wear those things on the sleeve, and seem to exist only to be mouthpieces for whatever talking points those creatives want we, the audience, to hear. In that sense, Tomorrowland is kind of preachy but it’s so muddled and half-assed about it that you may not even notice. It’s like r/showerthoughts: the movie.

Beyond that, there’s a failure to provide basic set ups and pay offs… which is a problem that plagues many “big” movies these days. In Tomorrowland‘s case, what we get is either shallow or very fucking weird.  Read the rest of this entry »

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The cosmic imagery in this movie is as good and as grounded as any yet done.

Interstellar is a film I probably shouldn’t be reviewing yet. Being three hours long and a Nolan film, there’s a lot to unpack here. Maybe not as much as some had hoped, and certainly it doesn’t feel insurmountable now that I think on it, but definitely a lot all the same. People are already talking about how divisive and love-hate this movie is. I kind of get that. At the same time, I think it’s being overstated and collapsed into how much interest and baggage there is around Christopher Nolan himself. Interstellar is a very highly anticipated film and it’s difficult to imagine how it could have lived up to the general ephemera of expectation, let alone the more wary and critical attention of a person who goes into it with thoroughly managed expectations. In case it’s unclear, that’s me.

As mixed a bag (of mixed messages, haha!) as Interstellar is, it still deserves the utmost discussion and consideration. It’s the themes and execution of which that deserve all the attention and that, admirably, are causing most of the hullabaloo. Though Interstellar features more pure cinematic joy than most movies stacked on top of each other, meaning Nolan is really competing with himself and the ghost of Kubrick as always, it is also his least accomplished “original” (as in, not tied to Batman) film on various levels. There is a strange (narrative and technical) bumpiness to this movie that made me feel many times that I was watching something unpolished, something not fully bathed in the precise and cautious attention that made Inception Nolan’s singular masterpiece. Interstellar cannot hope to unseat Inception but when it’s on, it’s so fucking on that it’s uncomfortable to focus on the flaws and mixed messages that sort of undermine the full effect of the movie. But that’s how she goes, and a film that has interesting flaws is often just as interesting, if not more so, to review than one that goes off without a hitch or just falls flat on its face. However, it’s hard to stop thinking about how frustrating this movie’s mixed messages are once you’ve started down that path.

I will also say, before I really get into this, that my specific problems with Interstellar don’t really fall into the same overall lanes as most of the criticism I’ve been reading. If I had to sum it up I’d say this is a movie that falls short of the potential heights it frequently reaches. It’s a film where many sequences and moments transcend some of the nagging consistency issues that plague too much of it. It’s a film that ends somewhat disappointingly not because the message or manner are spoiled, but because the ending feels like it shies away from itself, afraid of being one of those misunderstood movies with an ending that overstays its welcome. And that really defines this movie. Interstellar is at odds with itself, frequently showing us something and then saying something else, bringing up ideas and themes and then abandoning them into a kind of half-explored stew.

But it’s still better than Prometheus. They should put that on the back of the bluray.

Spoilers aren’t impossible, they’re necessary.

Read the rest of this entry »

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What a bunch of a-holes.

This is the best Marvel movie. It’s funny how each has been better than the last. It’s amazing that you can actually subcategorize each one to say what they’re best at, because it isn’t simply a matter of hierarchy. Each of these movies is after something else. This is why The Avengers can be the best out and out superhero movie and The Winter Soldier can be the best proof of concept that Marvel movies can and should be genre movies alongside being superhero movies. But as a complete, self-contained whole, Guardians of the Galaxy is by far the best. It’s no contest.

But why is Guardians the best? Because it’s got it all. It’s fun, exciting, action-packed, heartfelt, and so well executed that you get that awkward feeling about other big budget movies where you sort of want to pat them on the head for trying. Guardians makes being a blockbuster look easy. Maybe it’s the love affair with the 80’s that James Gunn (writer and director) infuses in the movie. The 80’s was the time of the fun, high concept blockbuster with heart. The 80’s was the time of Star Wars and of Steven Spielberg, really.

And, well, Guardians has Spielberg and Star Wars beat too. Hyperbole? Maybe. But if you’ve seen this movie, you’re probably thinking hard about whether that claim has some merit. Especially these days. If you haven’t, you’re probably shaking your head. Go see Guardians. Don’t read this review until you have, because I’ve got to gush. I mean it when I say this is a definitive blockbuster movie. Every now and then, a movie comes along that makes you believe in the awe and spectacle possible if more filmmakers and studios put real love into their creations.  This kind of shit is the reason blockbusters exist at all. How wonderful, then, that it pays the debt it owes to Star Wars and Indiana Jones by surpassing them? It is the bastard child, the space-faring orphan, of the precious movies that influenced its creators and us. All parents exist for their children to surpass them and that’s why it’s beautiful when they do.

THINGS ABOUT TO GET SPOILERY IN HERE.

Read the rest of this entry »

frequenciesfeat

This movie does a lot with a little in terms of production.

A no-budget British science fiction film, Frequencies (also called OXV: The Manual) is a surprisingly ambitious and self-assured piece of filmmaking and storytelling. Starting with a quantum mechanics infused story of unlikely love and eventually treading ground much deeper and more interesting, Frequencies is steeped in fundamental philosophical and social inquiry and thought. Most fundamental of all is perhaps the question of causality versus free will, a deeply affecting question that the majority of people are very uncomfortable facing. Are we free agents able to actually make decisions and affect outcomes thereby? Or are we automatons living out the product(s) of infinitely complex causal equations that render everything determined.

On the face of it, Frequencies operates with a narrow, potentially hokey concept that quickly builds on itself to encapsulate a movie-as-thought experiment. It’s the way that it commits to the concept and carries it off into surprising and yet logical places that makes this movie special. This movie feels made for me, in some ways, but I’m willing to bet I can make a case for why others should give it a look.

It’s quite a dense bit of work from writer-director Darren Paul Fisher. I feel like he might be the UK’s answer to Shane Carruth and I hope he doesn’t wait as long to make another film!

Read the rest of this entry »

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The opening sequence is excellent, weird, and sets the mood for the rest of the film.

Under the Skin is a peculiar movie. Many will seek it out for its promise of surrealism, science fiction, and ScarJo nudity. All will get what they’re looking for and then some.

Because it’s an evocative rather than narrative film, Under the Skin delivers story in only the most minimal of terms. Sparse on dialogue, visible conflict, and recognizable tropes, it may test the patience of those used to more conventional narrative techniques. There’s also that it’s what people generally call “slow”, though I usually reserve that for movies that ineffectively use tangents. As long as slower paced movie uses its pace effectively rather than thoughtlessly, I hesitate to use “slow” as a criticism. But in case a slow movie turns you off, there you go.

Under the Skin‘s merits are in its simplicity and commitment. The story is minimalistic and intensely focused, which is part of why the film can get away with being implicit almost all of the time. The commitment is really to concept, to its own weirdness and lack of exposition, and to its lead actress who has to carry the whole thing on her shoulders and tell us everything we need to know with body language, inflection in her sparse dialogue, and small facial tics we barely know we’ve seen. Because she’s up to this and because Under the Skin‘s simple story is actually very sad and beautiful, with interesting and occasionally spectacular visuals, the film as a whole is stirring and singular. One of those movies that people will love for the right reasons. Read the rest of this entry »

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There are few scenes where these two are separate.

I’m not sure anyone really expected this movie to be good. Doug Liman, who directed, is kind of a middle-of-the-road guy and the movie had more than two writers, which is usually a bad sign (outside of comedies… sometimes). Bucking expectations, perhaps, Edge of Tomorrow is one of the best “original” (it’s adapted from a Japanese novel, which makes a lot of sense really) scifi action films in recent memory. If there’s any fairness, it’ll be an instant classic but it looks like it is destined to be discovered somewhere down the line, ignored in its time. This is strangely fitting, I think, since movie buffs celebrate the movies of the 80’s that it most resembles.

Rather than focusing on complex metaphysical questions posed by its central conceit, a sort of Groundhog’s Day scenario, the film focuses on fun. This works way better than it would have had Edge of Tomorrow been set up as just another action epic. With a huge dose of charm and comedy in the mix, everything else that works about the movie is underlined. The performances, special effects, and creature design are all top notch. The design of the Mimics, especially, is surprisingly good.

All that said, I think Edge of Tomorrow sets itself up for a lot of bitching about its ending. This is perhaps fair enough as the ending feels like a cookie-cutter “Hollywood” ending to be sure. That is, until you think about why it could possibly work. Then you wind up surprised and impressed at how tightly it conforms to the internal logic of the movie, an element that it seems to flout in favor of being a roaring good time. It’s nice that, when you stop to think about it for any length of time, a movie like this holds up. Most of the time, you’re in a situation like with X-Men: Days of Future Past or Godzilla where, the more you think about the internal logic, the dumber the movie feels.

SPOILERS TO FOLLOW AGAIN AND AGAIN Read the rest of this entry »

gravity-2013-floating-in-space

Still images will not do this film justice.

Gravity is thus far this year’s purest answer to the question “what do movies have left up their sleeves?”. Not only is Alfonso Cuaron’s (Children of Men, Y Tu Mama Tambien) film the closest thing movies get to simulating the actual experience of a roller coaster ride, for all that hack reviewers like to use that image to describe them, it is also a sophisticated and satisfying emotional journey. It is very rare in the current climate to see the resources and technical artistry manifest in Gravity used for something other than a superhero movie or something with franchise potential behind it. Something that appeals to the nerdy types Hollywood is so constantly chasing after nowadays.

Gravity is something else. It does appeal to the nerds with its authentic (not realistic) portrayal of humans in space and the precariousness of even minor space missions. It uses a few science fiction doodads, a prototype jet thruster and helmet-based augmented reality, and one big hard science fiction scenario: the Kessler Syndrome. Which is to say, a storm of human-made space debris cascading around our orbit and destroying everything in its path as it the domino effect grows and grows. This is the name for a scenario described by Donald J. Kessler, a NASA scientist, in 1978. It never happened, but it still could happen. This is science fiction not because it requires some futuristic or otherworldly event, but because the scenario’s predictive power is based completely on science but it still hasn’t happened which puts Gravity in the realm of speculation. Exactly where science and fiction, when used together, lives.

Though it’s apparent in trailers and marketing that Gravity is a thriller or a sort of intimate disaster film, it’s got major horror chops. Like many great horror or stressful films, it also pulls itself up by the spaceboots to become triumphant and life-affirming in a way many movies try, but few movies ever earn. Gravity is a film whose first apparent quality will be in the realm of technical proficiency. Everyone will be able to appreciate how beautiful, believable, and unique the film is on that level. What surprised me was that the cathartic emotional story as well as the narrative and structural tightness of the film were equal to the technical stuff so the message I want to send about this movie is not to overlook those elements while marveling at shots of the Earth or at Cuaron’s ridiculously masterful opening shot, an extended sequence with no cuts that totally brings you into the environment and mood of the film. Read the rest of this entry »

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Carruth has crafted one of the weirdest love stories ever told.

Some of you may remember seeing, or hearing about, a small science fiction film called Primer. It is generally regarded as the most authentic time travel movie ever made as well as one of those mind-bender audiovisual puzzles you have to see a couple of times to solve. Upstream Color is only Shane Carruth’s (writer, director, producer, actor, composer, wunderkind) second film, but he’s by now established a style of tight control, impressionism, and disregard for accessible, traditional plot development. His narratives are loose, ambiguous, and preoccupied by small disparate moments that are evocative over informative but nonetheless work together to form a clear, cohesive narrative should one be paying the requisite amount of attention.

Carruth’s work is utterly worth paying attention to. The guy is a genius, nothing short of it, and this second film has twice (or beyond) the stature, confidence, and profundity of his first offering. Unlike the more clinical, subdued Primer, Carruth’s second film focuses less on the science of science fiction and more on the intimate effects of a bizarre speculative scenario. Rather than the colder, more mechanical sciences of engineering, physics, or computers, the science of Upstream Color’s fiction is earthy and biological.

Upstream Color shows a range that is way beyond “weird, small science fiction”. It’s an elegant, beautiful film with an uplifting, moving conclusion that is constructed carefully, slowly, and precisely by its textured, impressionist narrative progression. Its poignancy doesn’t come from the sudden realization and appreciation for its structural genius (though it has this quality), but from the way it generates clear emotional theme from seemingly ambiguous events. By the time the film ends, you may not be sure about the chain of events that lead from x to y, but you’ll be sure about the weight of what happens to its characters and moved by their resolve to liberate themselves from a fate that was inflicted upon them by exploitative forces beyond their own understanding.

I had to see this movie twice before I felt like I could review it and I’m glad I did. Like Primer, it’s one of those films that’s rewarding the more you pay attention and the more times you watch it. So far this year, it’s the frontrunner #1 candidate for my eventual Top 15 list. One thing I should note, though, is that the Blu Ray disc has audio sync issues with certain player/TV settings. I managed to figure out how to fix the issue, but people should know about it before they go buying the disc.

WARNING: DO NOT READ THIS REVIEW IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE MOVIE. IT’S ON NETFLIX, SO NO EXCUSES. Read the rest of this entry »

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An appropriate image for taking things a bit darker.

It won’t win me any favors to say so, but The Wrath of Khan is an outrageously overrated movie. To dig the hole further, I put it in the same category of adorable geek over-praise as the animated Transformers movie and the Indiana Jones trilogy. I say all this not to provoke nerdrage (inevitable anyway) but to set up a point.

Star Trek Into Darkness is a ballsy half-remake of Khan and it works for me precisely because I don’t give a shit about Star Trek in any special sense. Being that I think Khan can only be considered a good movie if you only compare it to other Star Trek movies. Star Trek Into Darkness is a legitimately good movie. But you wouldn’t know it from the majority of nerdy critics. To them, Darkness commits two major sins: 1) it dares to play with the sacred Khan and 2) it is occasionally pretty stupid.

I really didn’t expect to like Into Darkness as much as I did. It’s got its problems, mostly the same writing problems as usual with this team of creatives, but it overcomes them without asking the audience for a bail-out. The only reason to get worked up over this movie is because you are the butthurt Trekkie that Abrams is baiting. I applaud the gumption it took to do what they did here, even if they do try to pad out the impact with fan-service references and acknowledgment of nostalgia. More than that, I applaud a fun, visually stunning science fiction movie that just happens to be Star Trek.

Probably needless to say but SPOILERS, guys. Though… the review title is itself a spoiler? Whatever. Read the rest of this entry »

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