A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 419 – Babylon A.D.

Babylon A.D. – April 23rd, 2011

I am not happy with this choice of movie tonight. I left it up to Andy after we agreed that after my reaction to last night’s movie (tears and severe depression that will likely linger for weeks and I am not exaggerating or misrepresenting) we needed something light and escapist. And he picked this. Dystopic action. I admit, I am more than a little upset about that. I remember almost nothing of the marketing for this and I had very little in the way of context for it. So I trusted it to be a cheesy action flick I could just not think during. Unfortunately it’s precisely the sort of dystopia I was talking about last night. The type I like, but prefer Star Trek to. In other words, it’s so very much the wrong movie for me to be watching tonight.

Really, I think I would have quite enjoyed this on another night. A night when I could handle a dystopic view of the future of our world and not immediately feel depressed. Because the first two thirds or so of the movie are a decently built sci-fi action flick. It’s got a hero I like and some nicely competent women as the focal point of the plot and while I wasn’t pleased to be watching such an unpleasant view of the future I have to admit it was well drawn. Which is part of the problem for me tonight. The unpleasantness is all too easy for me to buy into right now and there’s a point where that stops being fun. If, perhaps, there’d been more of a lead-in for the more mysterious stuff going on, I’d have been better able to detach from it. And it might have helped the ending feel like more of a part of the whole.

The movie is set in a pretty nasty future where large parts of Asia and Russia are a mess of bombed out buildings and refugees living in slums. It’s all desolate formerly urban landscapes and people shooting each other over food. People seem to take it as not so out of the ordinary when a group of armed mercenaries show up and toss a grenade into one of their neighbors’ apartments and escort him out at gunpoint. That is the reality of this world. Toorop, our hero, is led to a waiting car where he meets Gorsky, a mobster who has a job for him: Escort a young woman from a hidden convent in the country to New York. It’ll be dangerous. Getting into the US is virtually impossible and as it turns out, the young woman is a very risky person to have around. Of course. Accompanying her is a woman from the convent. And so the three of them set off through the dangers and chaos of Russia to find someone with the right connections to get them to North America.

Along the way we find out that the young woman, Aurora, has something very strange going on. She reacts to danger before it happens, speaks languages she shouldn’t know, figures out how to operate a submarine and goes uncontrollably wild when she claims she can feel people dying when they don’t make it onto the sub to escape from Russia. She’s sort of a more lucid River Tam. Why is she the way she is? Who wants her in New York? We don’t know. It takes most of the movie for anything much about her to be revealed. Sister Rebeka, who’s taken care of her for her whole life, remains tight-lipped with Toorop even when it’s clear that whatever’s up with Aurora is putting them all in considerably more danger than anticipated. There’s a lot of suspense here. A lot of unknowns.

Unfortunately, those unknowns only get addressed once the movie goes a little off the rails. Once they get to New York we start meeting factions we knew relatively nothing about for the rest of the movie. One scene with the high priestess of a tech church/corporation called Neolite and one encounter with a gang of men claiming to be from Aurora’s father simply don’t do enough to introduce the rivalry going on and the movie suffers for it. Because it turns out that the two sides are really really fundamental to understanding who and what Aurora is and why she’s been brought to New York at all. And you get so little time with them even after they’re revealed that they might as well be anyone. I got the impression that there could have been a lot said about the world through these two groups and how they’re hoping to shape the future but the movie simply never gets the time to do that.

And then there’s the post-ending ending. But while it’s tacked-on at best and leaves one feeling like there’s something missing, that is perhaps because of issues during production and perhaps because it is an adaptation of a book that follows other books. I’m not sure. Regardless of the reason it clearly got the short straw when it came to timing and plot points. And I really think that spending less time on the struggle to leave Russia and incorporating more about the two factions in New York, slowly revealing their plans and backgrounds bit by bit, would have worked out better.

Fortunately, while the plot suffers more than a little, there are some fun performances to watch. Vin Diesel is always great to see in his typical role. And I love that Michelle Yeoh as Sister Rebeka never really lets him boss her around. Mark Strong is always fun to see and given that the other Charlotte Rampling movie we have is Zardoz, I was amused to see her here. So as I said at the beginning, I think I could have rather liked this movie if I’d seen it on another night. But I didn’t and a lot of the things that were good about it – the world building and the setting – were things I really wasn’t in the mood for. Still, it wasn’t a complete loss and maybe some day I’ll put it in again and enjoy it more.

April 23, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Babylon A.D.

April 23, 2011

Babylon A.D.

There has to be a story behind the making of this movie. It’s a cool sci-fi action movie about a badass unstoppable mercenary escorting a sheltered psychic to America in a dystopic future. I get that. It’s well made and has some well known stars. For eighty percent of the movie it pretty much fulfills my expectations for this kind of futuristic sci-fi. But then it reaches the end and… I still don’t know what exactly happens. The impression I got was that the movie abruptly lost funding while they were filming the end of the movie and it was rapidly finished from a different script just to have something to release in theaters. That’s probably not what actually happened – movies aren’t usually filmed in sequence so even if they did suddenly run out of funds they probably would have had at least some of the ending filmed. I can’t imagine that the end as it appears on this DVD was scripted to be that way – it feels so odd and out of place.

Up until it reaches that ending though It’s a pretty good sci fi adventure film. It starts out in Russia, where a retired mercenary is living on the fringes of a burned out and war torn society. You know that Toorop is an unstoppable killing machine with a heart of gold because he is played by Vin Deisel, and that’s the kind of character he plays. He is press-ganged into taking on an impossible mission by a local crime boss. If he will agree to escort a girl across the borders to America he will get a new passport – a chance to go home.

The girl, Aurora, is of course and enigma. She has been raised in isolation in a cliff side monestray bu her guardian Rebeka. She speaks multiple languages and has oddly encyclopedic knowledge of all manner of things. She has empathic psychic powers. The question is why. Where does she come from and why is Toorop being made to bring her to New York?

I like the world building here. I like the visuals. Particularly when they reach New York and it has a very shiny Blade Runner feel to it. (This is one of the few times that over-the-top product placement feels like an organic part of the movie and is appropriate.) The war-torn anarchy of Russia where the movie starts, with a paunchy and heavily accented Gerard Depardieu, slumming it up as mob boss Gorsky in his high tech armoured personell carrier, is fascinating. This movie depicts a world gone mad, but one not too difficult to imagine when you look at the world of today.

I also spent the entire movie waiting for Michelle Yeoh to start kicking ass, because of course a guardian monk character like Rebeka is a ticking time bomb. She’s a promise waiting to be kept. And for the most part this movie lives up to its promise – right up until the final action scene where Rebeka and Toorop try to save Aurora from two well funded rival bands of thugs who want to deliver her to some kind of insane church of technology.

Then the movie goes on for another fifteen or twenty minutes after that final action scene. First it takes a pretty sharp metaphysical turn into left field as some of the questions about Aurora are answered, then it arrives at another point that could have been a kind of an ending. Then it has a sort of tacked on ending after that grafted onto the movie by means of some expository narration.

The result of the sort of awkward and incongruous endings to the movie is that it feels abrupt, incomplete and unsatisfying. It has all the symptoms of a struggle between the creative intent of the director and the bumbling interference of the movie studio. Which, apparently, is exactly what happened here. It reminds me somewhat of the end of Brazil, but less mental. In the end this seems to me like a movie with a lot of great potential that doesn’t seem to know how to deliver on it when it comes time to resolve things in the end. I don’t know. Maybe it needed another action scene. Maybe it needed to tie off some loose ends. (What happens to the cultists following Aurora and Toorop at the end for example? The movie sets them up to be the nemesis to be overcome and then they abruptly give up and vanish? Very odd.) Maybe the executives at Fox should have eased up and just let Mathieu Kassovitz just make the movie he wanted to make. Who knows what that movie could have been.

April 23, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 404 – Appleseed (2004)

Appleseed (2004) – April 8th, 2011

For some reason or another, while I’ve read Ghost in the Shell and seen the movies and certainly the show, I’d never really gotten into Appleseed. I’m not sure why, since it’s got a bunch of tropes I enjoy, but I never did. So tonight was my introduction to it and I’ve got to say, it’s not the best introduction one could hope for. It’s an uneven movie with a lot of potential, so I’m not writing it off. But it also won’t be high on my repeat viewing list.

The first seven minutes of this movie are action. Not a complaint from me, I assure you. Just stating it. Not a single word is spoken for over seven minutes and I looked at Andy and said “This does have lines, right?” and then someone spoke and we realized we hadn’t turned the subtitles on. It was a little strange, but at the time I thought hey, cool, this is mostly going to be mindless and pretty action scenes. Oh, was I wrong. I should have kept my mouth shut. Because there is far more talking in this movie than action. It is a movie that will talk your ear off. Both ears, in fact. It is the talkiest action movie I have ever encountered.

Of course, some of the reason for all that talking is that the world it’s set in is fairly vast and there’s a lot of background to cover. Enter the car trip of exposition. Two of our main characters, Hitomi and Deunan, get in a spiffy hover car and drive through the utopian city of Olympus. Deunan’s new to the city, having been brought in from the ruins of the world outside the city (where a huge war has been waged for years) because of her fighting skills. Hitomi is one of an engineered race called Bioroids. And while Hitmoi’s got Deunan as a trapped audience, she tells her (and us) all about everything. It goes on and on and on and on and on and on. The thing is, while I’m sure it was all vital background information about the world and the conflicts at hand and so on and so forth, it’s so very static that I sort of zoned out during it. Shot of Deunan, shot of Hitomi, shot of the car, shot of the city, lather, rinse, repeat. For about ten minutes. And this sort of thing happens throughout the movie. There’ll be a tiny bit of action, then more talking. Then the characters will go somewhere else, engage in a little action, then more talking. Or maybe the talking will happen first and then a little action. You know, to keep things interesting.

What’s frustrating is that I can see the potential in all of it. There’s a whole plot going on with the Bioroids being unable to reproduce on their own and they’ve got muted emotions and were designed to protect humankind. And lots of humans don’t like them for one reason or another and want to overthrow them. Olympus is supposed to be a utopia but there are hints that some people don’t find it so perfect. There’s a coup staged by the human army, and a terrorist plot to destroy the Bioroids, and there are betrayals and double agents. Characters have names like Athena and Hades and General Uranus and the main computer is Gaia and you know, I am certain there’s symbolism in there. Then too, there’s background for Deunan and her old boyfriend, Briareos, who’s a cyborg now. And Deunan’s parents were heavily involved in the development of the Bioroids in the first place. So it all figures in. Oh, and Deunan gets a mech suit that can fly. But it’s all tossed in there with long stretches of very unengaging speech-making. Makes it tough to actually care about any of the emotional developments in the movie.

Again, it’s frustrating. I want to like Deunan. She’s super kick-ass and when there is action she gets to do some pretty awesome stuff. And that’s cool. But as a fleshed out character? By halfway through the movie there’s a big revelation about her mother and, well, I found it hard to care to the extent I think I was supposed to. Same for her relationship with Briareos, who is also pretty damn cool but we get so little for him to work with and so little for them as a couple, so their struggle to reconnect now that he’s been given the Robocop treatment doesn’t really have much impact.

I’ll give the movie this much: It’s pretty. It’s a bizarre combination of animation effects, with some of what looks like traditional 2D stuff and some slightly plastic-looking 3D stuff for the people and then some very detailed 3D backgrounds and textures. But I ended up liking it overall. And I like its concept and I like what I saw of the characters. All in all, though, I think it bit off way more than it could chew and ended up spending so much time on the history that the actual movie didn’t happen as it should have. I wanted to care when the giant mobile fortresses started moving, but I couldn’t. All I could do was think of how much better Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex did similar scenes. Maybe that’s why I got into that and not this. Or maybe it was just luck. I don’t know. I’ll have to check out the books and see if they’re as painfully wordy as this was. I sure hope not.

April 8, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 388 – Robocop

Robocop – March 23rd, 2011

Over the course of this project so far I’ve had a chance to really think about the movies I’ve seen and how I think about them and remember them. Some of our movies are old favorites I know I’ll always love. Some are things I’ve only seen once or twice. Some are things I’ve actively avoided for one reason or another. And some are things that have simply slipped past me. This is one of the latter. I know. I am ashamed. But the thing is, up until we make our list and I went through it and noted what I’d seen and what I hadn’t, I sort of assumed I had seen this movie. I’ve seen so many movies, after all. And it’s Robocop! It’s iconic! How could I not have seen it?

And yet. When I considered it, I realized that I had never sat down and watched this movie all the way through from start to finish. Oh, I’d seen clips. I’d seen bits and pieces from various points. I knew the major players and the plot and a bunch of lines. But it was all from flipping channels or it being on in the background while I was doing something else. Someone was watching it when I was in the room and I absorbed some of it by osmosis without actually paying attention to it, I suppose. I feel like having missed actually watching this earlier takes away from my geek cred a bit. But then, on the other hand, I’m doing this whole movie watching thing. That should redeem quite a bit, I think.

It should also redeem me a bit to have now seen it all the way through. And yes, there was a fair bit that I already knew and had seen. But there was also quite a lot that I hadn’t. For instance, while the plot with Murphy being shot up in the line of duty and then rebuilt into Robocop was one I knew, I’d managed to entirely miss the satiric quality to much of the movie. The plot as it stands isn’t so much satirical as flat out action, but there are some clever nods in the details. Every time the news broadcast was shown, along with commercials for things like a board game called Nukem? I felt like I was watching Kentucky Fried Movie. And then it would go back to the plot with the cybernetic cop and the corrupt weapons tech corporation and the only way those two can merge together well is if they’re both poking at things a bit.

I really like the quietly satirical action sci-fi thing this movie has going on. I knew I liked the concept of a bad-ass cybernetic cop taking on the scum of Detroit, but the little touches of humor just make it better. And even better still, it doesn’t mishandle the more serious aspects. I mean, it doesn’t look like it’s going to have anything serious about it. It looks like it’s going to be action and explosions and a robotic cop. But there’s some stuff going on in the script with Murphy realizing he’s lost the memories of his life before he became Robocop and I credit Peter Weller for a good performance there. It’s not inconsistent with the character he’s played thus far and it doesn’t bog the movie down. It just gives it a little more emotional heft.

But really, strip away the satire and the emotion and you’ve got a revenge movie. After all, the movie focuses on Murphy/Robocop taking out the gang who originally killed him. And he starts out by just doing the job he was programmed to do: Stopping crimes. The revenge bit builds up nicely, with Robocop becoming less the machine he’s been made into and more a melding of the machine and what he’s retained from Murphy. And as he changes his need to get the guys who killed him grows. And still, while there is a theme of revenge, it’s also clearly an imperative for him to get these guys because they’re criminals and because he’s a cop and that’s what he does. It’s all just so nicely balanced.

This movie surprised me in a couple of places. I expected things like ED 209 and the staircase, and I knew I’d like Murphy’s partner, Lewis, but be left wanting to see more of her. Things like the satire and Robocop calling a rape crisis center for an assault victim? Not so much. And all in one movie. It’s a little bare in the area of character development for everyone but Murphy himself, but it’s about Murphy’s journey from cop to Robocop, so that’s not a problem for me. It does manage to set the tone, explain the setting and give a well written plot in and amongst the action scenes, and that on its own is impressive. I’m certainly glad for the excuse to actually sit down and watch it instead of just hearing it behind me. It’s worth paying attention to for the details as well as for Robocop himself.

March 23, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Shrek Forever After

March 18, 2011

Sherek Forever After

Well. We just got done watching this movie for the first time (it arrived in the mail just this afternoon, so just in time to be part of our Shrek viewing block) and I have to say that it was a lot better than I had been dreading. In part, no doubt, this is due to the low bar set by the third movie in the franchise, but even so I believe this movie could stand on its own as a fun and thrilling Shrek experience. I somewhat regret now that I never saw this in the theater.

Of course this does feel like the third time we’ve reviewed It’s a Wonderful Life since we already reviewed that movie and the Very Merry Muppet Christmas, but this movie does some fun things with the somewhat over used “I wish I had never been born” premise. For one thing it has considerably more action and adventure to it. For another, although the core premise remains the same, it is mostly played for laughs. Which is the right choice.

Shrek is, at the start of this film, upset with his harried life as a father to a trio of ogre babies. We get a quick montage that shows how the routine of his domestic life revolves around feeding and cleaning the babies, dealing with play-dates with Donkey’s mutant babies and unplugging the outhouse. He’s a father and a husband and a local celebrity and misses just being an ogre. Eventually, of course, he snaps and makes an ill advised deal with that slimy and untrustworthy deal maker Rumpelstiltskin. Anybody who has ever seen It’s a Wonderful Life knows just where this is going because naturally he soon discovers that the lives of everybody he knows are radically altered if he was never around. Like Jimmy Stewart in Pottersville he finds himself in a nightmare dystopia that results primarily from his not being around to rescue Fiona from the tower.

The twist here, and what makes this movie work as more than just a remake using Shrek characters, is that Shrek can’t just realize the error of his ways and ask Clarance to undo things. Rumpelstiltskin has worded Shrek’s contract in such a way that the only way he can get his life back is through true love’s kiss – which means he needs to find Fiona in this alternate reality and convince her not just to kiss him but to love him. Oh, and there’s a time limit because Shrek will cease to exist at dawn.

It’s a lot of fun to see what has become of all Shrek’s friends in this alternate reality. Gingy is fighting animal crackers in a sort of cookie arena. Donkey is a beast of burden working for the witches in Rumpelstiltskin’s employ. Puss in Boots is hilarious as a pampered and overweight domestic cat. (Made that much funnier by the fact that my own rotund lump of a cat was lying like a big lump of fur right in front of our TV.) Most interesting of all though is Fiona. When nobody came to rescue her from the tower she rescued herself and now she’s the badass leader of an ogre rebel underground. I cannot possibly express just how awesome barbarian badass Fiona is. She’s worth the price of admission right there.

Of course as a tough rebel leader Fiona has hardened her heart. She doesn’t believe in true love or fairy tales any more. Which makes Shrek’s situation somewhat desperate.

A quick word about the visuals in the movie: it is full of big, sweeping, thrilling action set-pieces. Even during the montage of domestic horrors there’s a cool looking dragon ride. At first I was somewhat befuddled by this, but then it dawned on me. This is meant to be seen in 3-D. I should have picked it up right from the opening logo where the Dreamworks boy sweeps away the clouds with a dramatic flick of his fishing rod. Oh, it’s not as bad as the characters in Beowulf pointing their spears at the camera in a “look how 3-D we are” way, but it’s pretty obvious that the swooping, soaring action is meant to pop right out of the screen at you. It’s fantastically animated (as all three films are) and grand to view even on our old television, but I frequently felt like I was only seeing half the movie.

What I enjoyed about this movie is that it didn’t simply try to re-hash the first couple films. It doesn’t rely so much on the pop culture humor of them (there are no modern day references or attempts at parody. Unless you count the witch infested rave at the heart of Rumpelstiltskin’s kingdom.) It relies on good storytelling, humor derived from the actual characters we know from the previous films, and a lot of swashbuckling adventure. It has the heart of a Shrek movie, that tender and somewhat trite message that it drives home, but it does something new and cool with the world. It made me believe in the franchise again, which was a relief.

March 18, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 360 – The Island

The Island – February 23rd, 2011

Back when this movie was coming out in theaters I remember seeing ads for it. And at first I wasn’t sure, but the more and more I saw, the more and more convinced I was that this was a remake of a movie I am ridiculously familiar with. We make no attempt to hide our MST3K fan status (I know my info club member number by heart and my card is signed by Joel), so I feel no shame in admitting that we’ve seen the episode Parts: The Clonus Horror many many many times. And this looked bizarrely similar. So we looked it up and no, it didn’t seem to have any connection. Eventually we heard there’d been a suit filed and settled out of court for a sum of money. And I’ve got to say, I’m not surprised they settled. Cause this? This is so very similar to Clonus.

I wouldn’t say it’s exactly the same movie, but it does have the same premise and the same basic plot arc. We’re shown a vast and idyllic facility where a large number of people are living what seem like fairly boring but not unpleasant lives. They have menial but not taxing jobs. They eat bland but not bad food. They all wear white workout gear and keep fit. And they all participate in the Lottery. No, not the Shirley Jackson sort, but close. The folks in the facility all think that winning the Lottery means they get to go to the Island. They believe they’re the only survivors of a horrible contagion that’s wiped out most of humanity and the Island is the only uncontaminated place left. Winners are sent there to start rebuilding the world’s population. But of course it’s all a lie and the winners are actually killed (see, Shirley Jackson, but without the motivation in the story) because they’re clones of people outside in the real world and have been created to allow their “sponsors” to live for as long as possible. Creepy, huh?

Clonus, by the way? Same premise. Exactly. Replace “The Island” with “America” and the vast underground bunker with a college-type campus in the middle of the desert and add in a lot more product placement and you’ve got it. Identical workout gear, unaware of the outside world, chosen to “leave” when their real world counterpart needs a new whatever? Yup, pretty much. And eventually two of the clones, a man and a woman, find out what’s going on and escape into the world to try and track down the people they were made from. The big differences are in the level of creepy (which I will get into), the explosions (since this is directed by Michael Bay) and the ending, which is brutal in an entirely different way from Clonus. And you know what? I cannot find it in myself to be upset over this. It’s a good little “tampered in god’s domain” sort of plot and let’s face it, Clonus got picked for MST3K. We’re not talking Academy Award stuff here. It’s fun and all, but I don’t mind in the least that an updated version was made, with better acting and effects and sets.

Of course, this movie has plenty of flaws itself. A lot of the dialogue is ridiculous (especially the whole “I can tell you’re lying by your eyes” bit that Scarlett Johansson’s character, Jordan Two Delta, says to Ewan MacGregor’s, Lincoln Six Echo) and some of the plot points are vague and unnecessary. It’s a whole lot of big deal made and then the actual creepiness that’s alluded to and flat out shown gets tossed aside in favor of fast car chases on hover-motorcycles and impossible falls off buildings in giant signage (I can’t explain it better, I’m sorry). Every time I thought there’d be more interesting stuff with Lincoln’s “sponsor” and his skeeviness or Jordan’s “sponsor” and her on-the-brink-of-deathness, no. More explosions and shootouts and chases. And that makes me sad.

There’s a lot of potential in the world that this movie is based in. It could have gone so much deeper into the creepy dystopia aspects and instead it goes with the action. We see a young woman give birth only to be killed and her baby given to her “sponsor” couple. We see a man wake up mid-operation and claw at the floor. The ending for Lincoln and his source is predictable, but interesting and has some potentially nasty implications. It’s very clear that this is a nasty place full of unkind people. People who don’t see the clones as human. And then there’s a whole subplot with four of the newest generations of clones starting to develop curiosity about their world and somehow regain the memories of their sources without ever having met them and it’s all just a tool. It’s not delved into. It’s not explored. Because the movie already clocks in at a good bit over two hours and if we explored that we’d have to cut a few seconds of car chase or something. It’s an action movie that could have been so much more.

February 23, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

The Island

February 23, 2011

The Island

I bought this movie because it was based on a movie featured in a Mystery Science Theater episode. Or at least it is based on the same story as Parts: The Clonus Horror. Only it has a much bigger budget, a different ending, and explosions care of Michael Bay. I also felt as I watched tonight that this movie was missing the same element that the Mission Impossible movies lacked: Peter Graves.

The core plot of this film is exactly the same as Parts. Our hero Lincoln Six Echo is living in an idyllic Utopian society with uniforms provided by a shoe company (Puma this time and not Adidas.) All the track-suited residents of this society believe that they are the last survivors of an apocalyptic disaster that rendered the surface of the planit inhospitable to life. They all long to win a lottery which will allow them to go to “The Island,” which is the last uncontaminated place on Earth. They live in a extremely controlled environment under constant surveillance and surrounded by handlers and security. (I got strong THX-1138 vibes for a lot of the film – so I suppose Michael Bay was “influenced” by more than one movie in making this.)

Of course Lincoln soon discovers that his entire world is a lie. He, and all his friends are actually vat grown clones raised as spare parts for people living out in the real world. Except that the people of the outside world, even the millionaire clients who have commissioned clones, don’t know that the clones are awake and aware. They’ve been told that the clones are dormant, vegetative, unaware meat to be harvested. So when Lincoln and his best friend Jordan Two Delta escape from the facility the director hires a squad of deadly mercenaries to hunt the two of them down before his secret can get out.

I can’t help comparing this movie to Parts and finding The Island wanting. Parts has a grittier, more realistic feel to it. The clones in Parts are mostly lobotomised to keep them placid, which is far more creepy than the just inexperienced clones in this movie. Also, Parts takes place in the current day (well the seventies because that is when it was made, but it was contemporary at the time) and it feels like something that could actually be going on. This movie is far more fantastical, with hover bikes and floating trains and all kinds of futuristic technology. It’s very much a brainless action film – being as it is directed by Michael Bay – and doesn’t have the edge of Parts.

It doesn’t help that there is a lot of sloppy and not very realistic writing here. There were at least two major “I call no way” moments in the film, neither of which are necessary to the overall plot. First was when Dr. Merrick stated that the clones were raised to be the same age as their prospective recipients. If you have the ability to create your clones at any age you’d think that it would be optimal to make them all in their twenties so they’re in perfect health. I know that if I was an eighty year old billionaire who needed a new heart I’d be pretty pissed off if it was eighty years old too. (In Parts it’s clear that the clones are raised until they reach a state of peak physical shape before being chosen to go to “America” when they are frozen to be harvested when the need arises.) Then there’s a whole bit where the clones have started getting memories from their sponsors somehow. It’s never explained by the movie and doesn’t make any sense to me.

I suppose it’s silly of me to expect sense from a Michael Bay movie. It’s got some fun chase scenes, some cool bits where Ewan McGregor plays both Lincoln Six Echo and his sponsor Thomas Lincoln. (The special effects of this kind have sure come a long way since Doc Brown talked to himself in Back to the Future II.) And of course there are plenty of explosions.

Another advantage to having the bottomless pockets and Hollywood cred of Michael Bay involved in the movie is that just about every role in the movie is filled by an accomplished and respected big name actor. Just look at this cast! Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansson, Sean Bean, Djimon Hounsou, Steve Buscemi, Michael Clarke Duncan, Ethan Phillips… all in the same movie. I had not realized all these familiar faces were going to be in this movie and as the opening credits rolled I found myself getting excited to see what they were all going to be doing.

I don’t want to give the impression that this is a bad movie. It has some good action, some cool sci-fi tech, and if I were not familiar with the movie it was based on I might have even said that it has a creepy and cool premise. It just doesn’t live up to the potential shown by its forbearer. Where Parts is thought provoking and unsettling this movie is just a fun adventure flick that borrows its central plot from Bob Sullivan’s story, Ron Smith’s screenplay, and Myrl Schreibman and Robert Fiveson’s adaptation twenty six years before this movie came out. (Credit where credit is due.)

February 23, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 353 – V for Vendetta

V For Vendetta – February 16th, 2011

Looking back, there is an excellent reason we did not watch this on Guy Fawkes’ Day, though I am now rather disappointed that we didn’t find a way to manage it. At the time, I was heading out of the state to visit a friend and so we watched something incredibly easy on our brains because we were watching it just after midnight on the previous night. We did some Monty Python. Not really the same sort of thing at all, even if both works are British in origin. Still, as I said, it’s too bad we didn’t manage it. I honestly don’t remember if we even floated the idea or just skipped to the familiar out of necessity. Ah well.

I am a bad comic book/graphic novel reader and have never read the work this movie is based on. Oh, it’s crossed my desk at work several times. I’ve had the opportunity, but, you see, I knew the basics about it, and it is the sort of thing I have to be in the right mindset and mood for. And to be honest, I don’t know if I was tonight. I get the point of it and I can see all the possible parallels and given the current political climate in certain geographical areas, well, I’m sure there are film students and political science students and pop culture students writing theses on it all as I type. Cheers to them all. I’m sure they’ll say very interesting things about England and the US and Egypt and Tunisia and Iran and protests and fascism and totalitarianism and fear and torture. Were I in college I believe I would try to do something with this movie, The Stand and Wag the Dog and I could likely have made a good go of writing something coherent, if I could bring myself to really prod at the political history necessary to anything halfway decent.

And therein lies my problem with a movie like this. Any movie that’s making an overt statement about current politics, really. And while this movie can be said to be pointing backwards at regimes like Hitler’s in Germany, it is set in the future in the UK, with references to civil war in the US. And while allegory as an artistic form is often used to comment on political or social issues of the day without actually flat out stating them, I don’t believe this to be allegory. It is straight up cautionary dystopia. And while I can appreciate it for its brazenness it pings a little hard on my anti-propaganda meter. It swings so hard and so fast away from what it rails against that it makes me give it the side-eye. Which I find immensely frustrating

All that being said, I did enjoy it, and I credit that enjoyment to the performances, which totally sold me on every moment of the movie. Natalie Portman as Evey, a young woman whose whole family seems to have fallen victim to the chaos and destruction that have brought England to the state it is in as of the time of the movie. There was a viral outbreak at a primary school that claimed her brother. Her parents became activists and were arrested, never to be seen again. There were riots and chaos and now the country is under a strict rule of fear and hate. And against it all is a masked vigilante named V, who, we learn, was a victim of the government’s secret experiments on its own people. V and Evey become connected through a couple of minor events that end up leading to far more than either one expected. I don’t really feel the need to go into much more detail really. If you don’t know the movie, then I think it’s better to see it play out. If you do, you know how it goes. It is brutal in places and oddly sweet in others. It has moments of sadness and melancholy and moments of exultation. And really, it is Portman as Evey who carries it all. Hugo Weaving, as V, is fantastic as well, but you never see his face. It’s all in his voice. Evey gets to show us expressions, and often that’s all she needs. The rest of the cast stands up to it too, whether they’re on the side of the government or V or somewhere in between (most people seem to be in between, really). So it’s the performances. They made this movie for me.

It’s incredibly heavy-handed in many places. It presses its agenda to a fault. I really disliked the end scene with people taking the masks off because it felt so very forced and unnecessary to have some particular people there. I would have liked there to be a little more depth to the atrocities committed by the people in power (they’re mentioned and stories are told, but it all feels glossed over every time). But for all of that, I enjoyed it. I cannot say whether it touches the right notes as an adaptation of the graphic novel, but as a movie on its own I would say it is at least a partial success, and I say partial because I know some people will see the message of the movie from the very first scenes and be turned off right then and there by its obviousness. But personally speaking, I wasn’t. I acknowledge its flaws and enjoy it all the same for being a movie that deals with issues of fear and suspicion and freedom not just on a national level, but a personal level as well.

February 16, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

V for Vendetta

February 16, 2011

V for Vendetta

As adaptations of the “unfilmable” works of Alan Moore go this is one of the better ones. Oh, it’s far from perfect – it panders a bit much and it substitutes action and adventure for suspense and tension. At its core though it has something, some seed of an idea, which feels… right. This movie is not the book, but it says some of the same things about a desire for a hero to deliver us from fear – and the kind of monster that hero must necessarily be.

Before V Moore had worked mostly with already established characters and continuing stories. His re-invention of Swamp Thing and Marvel Man for example. V was his first attempt at a self contained world and a finite story arc. Call it a dry run for The Watchmen. Indeed I seem to remember reading an interview with Moore where he said that he had learned a lot from writing V about planning ahead and carefully plotting the story because as he wrote V the story kept evolving between issues.

The titular “V” is a vigilante. He is a mysterious and suave swashbuckler in a Guy Fawkes mask with a brace of knives and a literary bent. In a not too far fetched fascist England of the future everything is in control of a right-wing religious party which utilizes a fearsome secret police, constant surveillance and an iron grip on the media to maintain order. V shows up and proceeds to slowly kill his way through many members of the ruling party. It starts out being about his vengeance for the heinous crimes that created him in the first place (and there’s a whole lengthy reveal about where he comes from although it is never really resolved just who he actually is.) Eventually, however it turns out that his vendetta goes deeper than just eliminating those directly responsible for his origin. He wants to topple the entire repressive regime that holds England in its grip.

For me, though, all that is window dressing. V himself says that he is more an idea than a man. The human center of both the book and the movie is Evie – a young woman that V saves early on and ultimately takes in as a reluctant protege. Her evolution as a character is really what the movie is about for me, and it is Natalie Portman’s fantastic powerhouse performance that brings this movie up from just another comic book adaptation to something more soulful and powerful. She has great material to work with of course. Evie’s story has a lot of power to it, from the loss of her revolutionary parents in her youth to the transformation she undergoes throughout the film. Portman proves herself a masterful actor and in many ways is the best thing in the entire movie. Not to downplay how very difficult it must have been for Hugo Weaving to emote as V when you never get to see his face and all of his dialog is dubbed in during post-production. I love his perfect diction, even if once in a while I expected him to end a sentence with “Mr. Anderson” or “Mr. Baggins.”

I remember when this movie came out that it was criticized for being such an obvious allegory for the use of fear of terrorism by the Bush administration (and to a lesser extent the Blair and Brown administrations) to cling to power. Yes, the parallels are clearly there, and perhaps the adaptation that the Wachowskis created highlights them somewhat, but much of the core story of a single indomitable man standing up to a totalitarian regime comes directly from the book – which was written during the era of Regan and Thatcher. I’ll admit that my memories of the book are vague (it having been one of the many books lost to me during a move from LA to Boston back in ‘92) but even so I think I can say that the themes of the movie are, mostly, faithful to the book. You might as well say that the peaceful revolution in the movie is a clear analogue for events taking place in Egypt and throughout the Middle East right now. Certainly whenever the anger of the internet is roused you can expect to see at least one or two Guy Fawkes masks in amongst the flash crowds of Anonymous.

I so very much wish I had the book now. Maybe I can find it for cheap at one of the many Borders stores going out of business in the coming days.

February 16, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 312 – Johnny Mnemonic

Johnny Mnemonic – January 6th, 2011

When we finished watching this Andy and I had a little discussion about the timeline of the internet and modems and methods for getting online. I vividly remember my first email account, which was a bare bones account I used pine with. My second email account was on AOL, which is also where my internet addiction formed. I had a hard time making friends in school who shared my interests, but AOL had a great group of MST3K fans and they met in a chat room every night and I usually joined them for at least an hour. Oh, the money I must have cost my parents with that habit. But my point is that by my early high school years getting online wasn’t super difficult. By my sophomore year I know I was browsing the web. Which is what makes movies like this and Hackers so amusing to compare.

Both this and Hackers came out in 1995. By the time Hackers was out in theaters the characters’ amazement at 28.8 baud modems seemed quaint, and they were only supposed to be present-day. This movie is set in 2021, about 25 years after it was made (allowing for production time and whatnot). The story it’s based on was first published in 1981, expanding that to a 40 year gap. So I’m not going to snark too much about the dated technology. Sure, it’s amusing to hear someone reference people using VCRs, and the televisions are all CRTs and yes, the VR gloves and mask are highly amusing. But well, Nintendo’s Virtual Boy came out in 1995 too. So really, the reason the tech seems so very silly in here is that I think it’s a slightly updated view of what might be possible in the future, but not straying terribly far from what was possible at the time. Hackers stuck to what was possible at the time, but they were set present day. I want more from the future than some VR gloves and bundles of coax.

Unavoidable issues of dated science fiction aside, there’s a lot more wrong here. I am not unfamiliar with the cyberpunk genre, I promise, but while I’ve read other works by William Gibson as well as a number of other authors, this particular story slipped right by me. So I can’t say for certain just how it was shifted for the screen but I can say this: William Gibson wrote the screenplay. And I hate to say this, but he should have stuck to prose. Ye gods, what a clunky movie. Now, I’ve read a quote from Gibson where he states that the movie was heavily recut before release and that it ruined a lot of what they’d made, but I’m sorry. Recutting does not explain Johnny’s ridiculous speech about wanting his shirts pressed. Recutting does not excuse the exposition spouted by a bit character at the beginning so we in the audience can learn how a courier like Johnny works and the risks inherent in the job. I mean, does a courier who carries data in an implant in his brain really need to be told “If you carry too much there’ll be seepage and it could kill you.” because I’m pretty sure he’d know that.

Then again, while I do think that a lot of the dialogue is awkward at best, the plot issues I’m willing to blame on the editing. Johnny gets a huge download of very sensitive data and suddenly finds himself on the run from the Yakuza. But then there’s actually two factions from the company that hired the Yakuza? I think? It’s possible the Japanese version explains the antagonists better but the US version, which is ten minutes shorter, doesn’t. And then there’s the mysterious ghost in the machine, and a street preacher who’s got tons of cybernetic implants and also acts as a hit man? Cause the Yakuza, working for an evil pharmaceutical corporation, wasn’t enough. But like I said, who knows if the preacher (played by Dolph Lundgren to make him even more bizarre) was better explained and incorporated prior to editing. Who knows if the evil corporation and the people involved got more background. I would hope so. I would hope that the plot with the plague that’s sweeping through the population would be given more time since it’s a crucial part of the movie. But in the movie we get, none of that happens. So it’s just a muddled mess.

Now, all that being said, I did have some things I liked about the movie. Sadly, this is not a high point for Keanu Reeves, who I think tried to emote too much here. It comes off so very artificial and forced and it’s painful to watch. But balancing him out are Ice-T and Henry Rollins, playing secondary characters who help Johnny out when he ends up running, forced into the slums and underground world of people fighting against the all powerful corporations that run everything higher up. Ice-T is the leader of the LoTeks, a band of rebels who strip information out from the big guns and fire it back out to the public. Rollins plays Spider, a doctor who helps care for people struck by the plague and who also does cybernetic implants as a side gig. They are the best things about this movie. Spider has some of the best lines in the movie and Rollins plays him well. Ice-T as J-Bone gets to be a bad ass, which he is quite excellent at. Sadly, J-Bone doesn’t get to do as much as I’d like, but he gets a couple of moments. I was disappointed in the character of Jane, a stand-in for the original Molly from the story thanks to some rights issues. I don’t blame Dina Meyer. It’s just that the character only gets a couple of very short bursts of awesome and then she’s sick and desperate and they even shoehorned in a romantic moment between her and Johnny. But I was talking about what I liked. Sorry.

The problem is that while this movie has a crapload of potential and what should have been a fun cast, it ended up being a morass of dystopian cliches and junkyards and dated tech and GUIs. And that I could have handled, had the plot been tighter. Had the writing been sharper. Had everything come together gracefully. But it didn’t. None of that happened. And that’s sad to me. It’s disappointing, and so I’m glad I didn’t go see this when it came out. I liked Gibson and I liked the possibilities the internet had at the time and if I’d seen this then I would have been crushed. Now I knew better before we put the disc in. And so I could content myself with Rollins and Ice-T and that will have to be enough.

January 6, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment