A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 481 – Terminator Salvation

Terminator Salvation – June 24th, 2011

There is something to be said for going into movies with low expectations. I mean, I didn’t really think this movie would be worth my time. When we put it in we found that it had something hideous: Unskippable previews. But then it turned out the previews were for awesome things, like Sherlock Holmes and the videogame Batman: Arkham Asylum. And I mentioned to some friends that it was as if the DVD was trying to tell us to go do something better with our time than watch the movie on it. Put in a different movie or play a game. Anything but this. Turns out? I was wrong.

I’d heard bad things about this movie. The only thing I was looking forward to was seeing Christian Bale be a badass. But I was also curious about the cast, because there were names I recognized and liked, so that seemed a tiny bit promising. And this was going to be the first Terminator movie that didn’t involve someone or something coming back from the future to the “present day” of the time the movie was released. But since the last movie ended with the war, well, that wasn’t going to happen. The timeline of the movie has passed us by. So, set entirely in the future, without the time travel gimmick that made the franchise. And no Arnold (though his digital likeness does make an appearance), so this is definitely a departure. I was led to believe this would be a failed departure, but I was wrong.

Now, I won’t say that I think anyone who disliked this movie was wrong. I’m sure people have their reasons and said reasons are good ones. But for me personally, it holds up. Better than it has any right to, given the number of people involved in writing the damn thing. This is a movie not written by committee, but apparently passed around like a basketball. There is simply no way it should be as coherent and cohesive as it is, and yet. The story splits between two groups, then comes together and that can be a risky thing. I’ve criticized it in other movies before because when it fails it fails spectacularly and makes a movie painful to watch. But for one, this movie actually links the two leads from the outset and for two, it keeps them in contact for a good chunk of time.

It’s half past the future and John Connor is an adult. He’s one of the Human Resistance’s military commanders, leading a group of men and women in strikes against Skynet’s forces. But he’s not up in the top ranks. The actual Command staff are all professional military, or seem that way, and send their orders remotely. When a strike on an underground facility leaves Connor’s team dead he demands to know what’s so important and it turns out to be this magic radio signal that can disrupt the machines and whatever, that’s not the important bit. The important bit is that down in that facility there was a cybernetic organism and John knows it but can’t go find it. And that organism is actually a man named Marcus, sentenced to death before the war and then resurrected by Cyberdyne’s genetics lab after donating his body to science. He has no idea what’s going on or when or where he is. Or what he is, which it turns out is half machine.

So now we’ve got two people to follow: John and Marcus. John is waging a battle with Command after finding out that Skynet has human prisoners – lots of them – in the facility they’re aiming to attack. He’s also sending out periodic broadcasts to the pockets of militia-level resistance fighters and they hang on his every word. The movie makes a good case for him being a great potential leader who hasn’t come fully into his own yet and still has a lot to learn. Which I like a hell of a lot better than last night’s whiny twerp. On the other hand we’ve got Marcus, who I hadn’t expected to care much about but who actually carries a lot of the movie. What he knows of himself isn’t great. He was a murderer and he’s very aware of his crimes. He wasn’t looking for redemption when Cyberdyne asked for his body. So waking up in a post-apocalyptic world was a little startling to him, to say the least. And his path through the movie is to find out not just what he is but why he is. And along the way he meets a young Kyle Reece, hiding out in what’s left of Los Angeles and taking down T-600s with traps.

It’s a nice little bit of storytelling there. Because Marcus isn’t a character we know and he’s not a Terminator as we recognize them. He’s not all machine. He’s not a shape-shifter. He’s not an unstoppable villain. He’s an enigma, and having the father of the hero of this world’s story under the protection of an enigma is very interesting indeed. So once Kyle is in peril – of course – and Marcus and Connor come together there’s going to be conflict. Connor doesn’t trust machines and he has good reason not to. I was nervous about the whole prophet angle going on with John Connor, but it wasn’t nearly as heavy-handed as I’d feared. Instead it’s not universal. People aren’t sure what to believe from him. And I like that. I like that he’s still dealing with the effects of his whole life being determined by time travel. I like that whenever he faces off with Skynet tech he knows that they’re developing the T-800 and the T-1000 and the T-X. Every model he fights is already obsolete in his experience. And I think this movie works that in, which is very cool.

Truth be told, I expected to watch this movie for Christian Bale and I ended up watching it more for everyone else. Oh, he’s fine in his role and there were certainly some moments when he was kicking ass and being every bit the paranoid leader I expected him to be. But Sam Worthington as Marcus, Anton Yelchin as Kyle and oh my fucking god, Moon Bloodgood as the kickass pilot, Blair? They were all fantastic. I would have liked more Blair, but hey, every second she got was fantastic, so I’ll take it. I liked that they all got moments. Kyle gets to both learn new tricks we’ve seen his adult self use in the first movie and know enough old tricks to have kept himself and another survivor alive for a while now on their own. Blair is certainly the most kickass female character the franchise has had since Sarah Connor herself. And Marcus has a character arc I hadn’t expected but ended up fully believing. Which, along with the fact that the split plots come together over and over, makes the movie.

I’m laughing at myself while writing this review. Here I am praising this movie and giving it the most loving of tongue baths. And it’s been panned by more than a few. But I’m honestly just so shocked that I enjoyed it as much as I did. It doesn’t spend too much time talking at us. It’s got strong lead characters and a good sense of its own history and mythology. It’s got a good cast who give good performances. And I felt like the action scenes were well done and purposeful instead of just in there for visual kicks. It’s got an aim – to bring Kyle Reece to John Connor, get Connor into a high level of the Resistance leadership and deal with a new threat from Skynet. It’s not the same sort of chase movie the first one was, and it doesn’t have the amazing Sarah Connor to drive it like the second one. But it’s definitely not the aimless mess that the third one was. It manages to both introduce a new threat that’s believable and different, and explain why it wasn’t a threat in the earlier movies. For that alone I’d applaud it. But it’s also fun. I can’t believe I’m saying this after last night – when I thought the franchise was dead – but now I’m looking forward to seeing what the next movie has in store.

June 24, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Terminator Salvation

June 24, 2011

Terminator Salvation

Well this is an appropriately titled movie. After yesterday’s disappointing mess I was ready to give up on Terminator movies for good. The second movie was fun but didn’t hold to the spirit of the first as much as I would have liked. The third was a re-hash that desperately wanted to revive the franchise but instead completely destroyed it in my mind. This movie is the salvation of the series, no doubt about that.

This is one of those movies, from a pre-production and writing standpoint, that should not have worked. Anything with this many people brought in to polish and adapt the script before it starts filming is almost guaranteed to be awful. Neither was I much excited by the “from the director of Charlie’s Angels” pedigree. Add to that the negative press from Christian Bale’s infamous on-set tirade and you have all the ingredients of a film that is doomed before it’s even in the can. So how on Earth does it work so well?

I think this movie succeeds on two essential and contradictory levels. It manages to take the series in a new direction while still paying homage to its roots. The new direction is into the post apocalyptic future. This movie follows the adventures of John Connor after the bombs have already fallen. Judgement Day is now the past and the war between the machines and man is well under way. This movie takes place ten years before the first time travel that sends a terminator and a human back in time to attempt to kill John’s mother before he is conceived. Connor is not leader of the resistance, he’s just a lieutenant, but he is a strong voice and respected throughout the organization. During a raid on a Skynet facility the resistance comes across a potential tool that may help them gain an edge on the machines – they have discovered what they believe is a signal that can disrupt Skynet’s controlling signals so effectively that they may be able to actually remotely shut down the H.K.s and other threats that endanger human kind. Naturally John wants to be a part of testing this new weapon.

At the same time John is concerned because he has not yet met the young man who he knows he will one day send back in time to defend his mother. Kyle Reese – when he grows up – will be John Connor’s father in the past. Somehow Skynet knows this (the movie never makes it clear how) and the machines are bent upon finding both John and Kyle because they fear that if they don’t stop John soon he will turn the tide in the war. The machines know that if they can find and kill Kyle while he is young and inexperienced and before he goes back in time that will eliminate John Connor as well – thus altering the course of the entire war. It’s a twisted kind of logic but I suppose it works.

Then there’s the third player in this film. There’s a convicted criminal who was put to death by lethal injection back before the war. A murderer named Marcus Wright who had donated his body for medical research to Cyberdyne. At the start of this movie he inexplicably wakes up in the wasteland. Clearly he is a terminator, but he’s a strange new kind. One with human organs who actually believes that he’s not a machine. The mystery, and what really sets this movie apart from its predecessors, is just what purpose he serves. Why did Skynet build a terminator that thinks it is a man?

I enjoy all the little nods to the earlier films. Even the third movie, awful pile of stupidity that it was, becomes more bearable in hindsight when Connor’s wife Kate appears, linking this movie to that one. The movie manages to acknowledge the earlier films with little in-jokes like the repeated lines “I’ll be back” and “come with me if you want to live” without descending to the level of camp that Rise of the Machines sank to. It even has a young Schwarzenegger doppelganger for Connor to do battle with – which is pretty awesome.

What a great cast too. I’m still not convinced that Christian Bale was the perfect casting for John Connor as he rises to meet his destiny, but he surely is fun to watch in the part. He’s able to wonderfully portray the angst and uneasiness that comes of knowing his entire life that he will somehow lead humankind to victory in this war but not knowing how. At the same time he’s a capable action star, taking the fight to the machines and proving that his lifetime of training was effective. Sam Worthington is the actual heart of the film as Marcus Wright, the tortured man who discovers that he is a machine. In supporting roles there’s Anton Yelchin as young Kyle, Bryce Dallas Howard as Kate and the awesomely named Moon Bloodgood as Blaire Williams, a resistance fighter who befriends Marcus. I even got Tim Burton flashbacks with Helena Bonham Carter’s cameo role and Danny Elfman’s score.

This movie works surprisingly well on so many levels. It’s got some fairly heavy-handed stuff about what makes us human (which feels layered on a little thick but works with the tone of the movie.) It’s got plenty of action and car chases and shoot-outs and explosions. It actually shows a part of the story of John Connor’s life that hasn’t been done to death completely already. I’d say that in just about every respect it is my favorite terminator movie since the first one, and now I’m actually looking forwarded with guarded optimism to the next movie in 2014.

McG – I apologize most of all to you for underestimating your action film-making talent.

June 24, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 447 – The Book of Eli

The Book of Eli – May 21st, 2011

Today we decided that in light of the utter lack of apocalyptic events, we should watch a post-apocalyptic movie. What? It made sense to us. And this was a post-apocalyptic movie we’ve been curious about since it came out. It was one of those movies we saw advertised and talked about going to see and then heard sort of mixed reviews on and we never got the time to go see it and then it was gone. So Andy bought it and I certainly didn’t mind but while I do love a post-apocalyptic wasteland (I might have mentioned that) I’ve got to be in the right mood to watch a movie set in one. But we planned on this and I was in the mood and really? I’m so glad. I’ve got some issues, but overall they aren’t enough to ruin this movie for me. There’s far more positive than negative.

If I recall, this was billed as an action movie, and make no mistake, there is action. There are shoot-outs and explosions and a guy gets shot in the crotch with an arrow. Sure, there’s plenty of action. But it’s got a lot that isn’t action and really, the action is all a means to an end, not the thrust of the movie. The point of it all is Eli’s journey and the power of words and belief and faith in a world that’s lost so much. It’s the society that’s been left after disaster and how they’re struggling. So of course there’s action. The society that’s left is a brutal one. But there’s also a lot of discussion and a lot of scenes of people, Eli in particular, going about their new routines.

Now, this is going to be a difficult movie to review without spoiling it. The ending alone is one of the major reasons I love it and it’s not necessarily what one might expect. But it’s perfect and it speaks to me very nicely. Unfortunately if I explain why it steals a lot of the impact. So I’m going to try but it’s going to be difficult and if you’re planning on ever watching this movie – and I do recommend it – you might want to be aware of that. On the surface this movie might sound relatively simple: A man is traveling through the wasteland that used to be the United States. There’s been some sort of war with disastrous consequences, leaving the atmosphere thinned and the sun seemingly brighter. It’s a harsh world with water a precious commodity and survivors fighting over what little is left. And the man has something. Something important. And when he shows up in a small settlement in the middle of nowhere he finds that the mayor of the settlement wants it. And he doesn’t want to give it up. Not a complicated concept there.

What I love about it is the world building. It’s so simple and so spare. We aren’t told any extraneous details. We don’t need to know everything that led up to the way things are now. We just need to now that the world used to be different and now it is like it is. Through Eli’s attempt to find water and his scavenging of wet-naps and clean boots we learn more about the state of the world than we would if he soliloquised about it. When he gets into town and barters with a local repairman, the Engineer, we learn even more. We get everything in bits and pieces and it works. Along with the washed out and dusty dry landscape and visuals, the bits of background and history really create an absorbing world.

We really learn the point of the movie once Eli reaches town. Before that it’s mostly us and Eli, working to survive in the wasteland. He gets a great introduction, hunting and scavenging and besting a whole crew of hijackers who want to steal his water. It’s very nicely done and Denzel Washington gets some good time to establish Eli as independent and resourceful and dangerous and very isolated. Once in the town we learn more about the other people. We meet the villainous Carnegie, who’s been searching for a particular book that he believes will help him control people. We meet his gang of thugs and we meet the women he has claimed: Claudia and her daughter Solara. And then the movie carries us out of town. There’s some character development here and the potential for action, but the real action happens when Eli won’t do as Carnegie asks and leaves the way he always intended to.

There are some showdowns later on and we meet some cannibals and Solara tries to get Eli to let her go with him and he refuses. It’s all really to show us just how important Eli takes his mission to get his cargo to the right place. And what is the right place? Even he doesn’t know. He’ll find out when he gets there. I don’t think I’m selling this very well but it’s difficult to describe what makes this movie so engaging without giving away important details. He’s a man with a purpose and that purpose is to carry his cargo west. Regardless of obstacles. Regardless of delays. He goes west with his cargo safe in his pack. He claims a voice told him to do this. And there’s a very religious aspect to all of that. But it’s built into the movie from the start and the movie is so otherworldly that it’s not unbelievable. Unfortunately, while the world is built well and Eli’s faith is built well, I felt that the movie fell down a few times when it came to actual character development.

There’s a point where Solara helps Eli and wants to join him and go with him. He leaves her behind after she helps him, saying that the road is too dangerous for her. And I’ve got to wonder, what the hell does he think will happen to her if she’s left there? It’s obvious that she’s helped him out and Carnegie is clearly one nasty piece of work. Eli knows what things happen to women in the world as it is now. He’s witnessed it and Carnegie even tried to use Solara as bait for him. Does he truly think she’s safer there? After betraying Carnegie? Or did he just not want to be inconvenienced? Because leaving her there is a brutal death sentence for her, likely after a number of horrible things that don’t bear listing. He’s ignored horrible things before, walking past and not getting involved so as to be able to keep going. But this is active participation. And I get that part of Eli’s character arc is that he goes from doing nothing but protecting the book to actually heeding its words, but turning a blind eye is one thing where actively staking someone out is another and it frustrated me that it was given less time and thought than when Eli witnesses a couple of strangers being attacked and has to force himself to stay out of it. Solara turns out to be fairly important. So why doesn’t she merit as much care?

And then there’s Solara herself. Whom I liked. Mila Kunis does well with what she’s given for the character but sadly I don’t think it’s quite enough. It’s clear that her life in town with Carnegie is just a prolonged lead up to one or more of his men claiming her. Of course she wants out and of course she wants out with a man who’s shown no interest in her and who can take care of himself in a fight. But she’s given more than that. Not much, but little hints that she has interests outside of protection and safety. Perhaps she even has dreams. But she doesn’t get nearly enough time to show them. So when she turns out to have a fairly large role later on it’s really frustrating. I sympathize with her and want her to make it, but her character arc is a short one.

I think the issue is that the movie invested so much in building the world and the concept and the conceit leading up to the reveal at the end that the characters almost took a back seat. Eli’s mission overshadows almost everything else about him. Same for Carnegie, same for Solara. And that might well be a conscious choice on the part of the writer and/or director, showing us how single-minded these people have had to become to survive in this world. But ultimately I don’t think it quite works, because we’re still expected to like (or hate) these people. Fortunately, the world is rich enough and the details interesting enough and the reveal good enough that I can excuse all that and simply enjoy it.

May 21, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

The Book of Eli

May 21, 2011

The Book of Eli

Happy Rapture day everyone! Since the world is going to end today we figured we should watch our movie early (and we’re going to see family.) It’s also only natural that we watch a movie about the apocalypse. A movie about faith and conflict.

I like a movie that doesn’t concern itself too much with answers. Or rather a movie that lets you figure out what’s going on for yourself without explaining it all up front. I remember reading a few luke-warm reviews of this film when it first came out. I’m pretty sure that’s because it was poorly marketed. It was advertised as a sort of post-apocalyptic action movie, and while it does have some very cool action in it that is not what the movie is about, and anybody looking for an adrenaline filled thrill ride is bound to be disappointed. This movie is a deep, soulful and compelling story with a very cool twist to it that just happens to be set in a post apocalyptic world.

I’d say that the world itself is as much a character in the film as Eli or any of the other characters he comes across. That’s established through the lengthy opening as we see Eli wandering the wasteland. He’s a lone walker, traveling the desolate roads after an apocalypse that is never really explained. The pacing is beautiful and deliberate. We see the arid wastes with no water. We see the harsh glare of the sun which necessitates that everybody wear sunglasses when outside during the day. We see the lawless and dangerous bands that prey upon any innocent travellers they come upon. This is a movie that excels at showing instead of telling, which I very much appreciate.

Eli is a consummate survivor, as anybody wandering the Earth in these harsh times would need to be. It’s established early on that he’s more than capable of taking care of himself. He can navigate the empty roads and makes mincemeat of smaller bands of roving hijackers who would kill him for his water (or just to eat him.) It is when he comes across a small town of people who have come together under a single charismatic leader that things start to go wrong for him.

The leader of this town is Carnegie. He is a learned man, obsessed with finding a book. A particular book that he has sent vicious groups of murderers out into the world to find and bring back to him. A book which, it would appear, Eli has in his possession: the last remaining Bible. In this world, you see, every Bible has been destroyed because it has been blamed by some of the survivors of the great war for the conflict that burnt a hole in the sky. Eli is a man of faith who wants to find the right place to bring his precious book to, but Carnegie is an ambitious man who believes that inside the Bible are the words he can use to bend people to his will. To Carnegie the Bible is a weapon of unimaginable power.

It’s an interesting premise for a post-apocalyptic movie. I enjoy the fact that this movie has the courage to ask a lot of uncomfortable questions and doesn’t necessarily try to answer them for us. I am not a religious person, but I can understand the power of words, and that’s part of what this movie is about. It doesn’t try to say that the word of God will save anybody. It doesn’t even say that there is one true faith that people have to live by (which is something that definitely runs counter to my beliefs.) Instead it makes a strong case that religious fervor can be as strong a power for evil as for good. Is there something supernatural going on in the movie? It pretty much leaves that up to the viewer to decide, which again is something I loved.

Earlier this week we watched I Am Legend with a powerful performance by Will Smith as the last man in New York City. Denzel Washington’s performance here as Eli has much in common with that. He has a lot of screen time by his lonesome, which is a huge responsibility for an actor, but he never once loses his intensity. There are moments in this film that are painful in their harsh depiction of this devastating future. Watching Eli as he struggles with his own faith is impressive indeed. Denzel gives him a strong sense of justice, of indomitable spirit, of inner peace. Then he has him confront evils that nobody could expect to overcome. It’s a powerful and touching performance.

Opposite him we have Gary Oldman as Carnegie. As always Oldman completely inhabits his role, and there is probably nobody better suited to portray a man obsessed with an idea. Gary Oldman does obsession so very well. He is intimidating and unstoppable and ruthless in all the right ways to counterbalance the quiet, honest and forthright Eli. It ads just the perfect sense of menace and desperation to the film.

And of course there’s the twist I mentioned. I really wouldn’t want to spoil this movie for anybody, but it is wonderfully crafted, and when you reach the end you want to go back and see it again from the beginning to make sense of it. I hadn’t been expecting that, and it was a rare treat to discover that aspect of the movie.

Tonight was the first time I had seen this movie. I was so very impressed, and I hope that has come across in my review. It is gorgeously filmed, filled with interesting characters and some good tension. I loved the twist and the resolution at the end. It may not be perfect (I know for example that Amanda had a lot of trouble swallowing the premise that there were no intact Bibles remaining in the wastelands, given how many people alive today would rather kill than burn their holy books) but it is a movie that encourages you to think and doesn’t rely on presenting simple answers. It’s right up there amongst my favorite post-apocalyptic movies of all time now.

May 21, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 444 – I Am Legend

I Am Legend – May 18th, 2011

I have not read the book this movie is ostensibly based on. I keep meaning to because the premise seems decent and all and I do like having read the books movies are based on so I know what’s been changed. I’ve talked a lot about my thoughts on the transition between types of media and how it’s usually inevitable that changes will be necessary to make a text story work on screen. But I like to know where those changes are. And I don’t here, with the exception of the ending. And I’ll get to the ending. I have what might be an unpopular opinion, but we’ll deal with that later. What I’m really saying here is that I’m looking at this movie not as an adaptation but as a thing on its own. And I wish I wasn’t. Because I have some issues.

Before I get into my issues let’s make it clear that I think this movie had some really cool potential and I flat out loved Will Smith in it. And since he’s the heart of the movie for the vast majority of it, that’s a good thing. He plays Robert Neville, the only survivor in New York City after a mutated virus swept through the population. The virus was meant to cure cancer, but something went wrong and it went airborne and we find out later it has a 90% mortality rate. Of the remaining 10% of the population a tiny number are immune. The rest turn feral. They become incredibly photosensitive, avoiding UV light when at all possible. They seem to hunger for blood and attack any other living thing they see. They lose their hair, their jaws elongate, their heartrates speed up and their core temperatures rise. They sleep in the day and come out at night. They’re very much akin to the traditional vampire but without the romance. And not a sparkle in sight.

So Neville lives in a fortified townhouse in New York. His wife and daughter died during evacuation attempts, which we learn through a series of dreams Neville has about his life leading up to the situation he’s in now. Over 1000 days after the outbreak and it’s just him and his dog, Sam. She follows him around the city during the day while he goes about his routine. He breaks into abandoned homes looking for supplies like canned goods. He tries to hunt. He spends an hour or two at the pier after broadcasting a message to any other survivors. He goes to the video store and gets a new movie. He spends some leisure time hitting golf balls through the abandoned city. He avoids dark spaces and in his basement he’s got a bunch of infected rats and is testing possible cures made from his own immune blood.

The first two thirds of this movie are basically about this one man and his fairly solitary life and the ways he’s devised to cope and survive. He’s got his routine. He’s got his dog. He’s got his fortress and his lab. He has a large goal and a number of small goals. He has a few leisure activities. He has tapes of news broadcasts playing when he’s at home, seemingly more to have regular voices talking about real life than for any information they might deliver since he’s probably heard them all many times over. And you can see that he’s starting to lose his grip on things and you can see that he knows he’s losing his grip on things. When a promising potential cure doesn’t work out he bangs things around and gets not just angry but frustrated and scared too. He’s set up department store mannequins in some of the places he frequents, like the video store. He’s named them and he talks to them as if they’re real, though you’re sure at the start that he knows it’s all just a coping mechanism. Later on, however, he starts to panic. One of the mannequins has been moved and he yells at it to say something if it’s real. He says hello to one and begs it to say hello back. It’s heartbreaking to watch and Smith handles the part incredibly well.

The vast majority of the movie is just Smith and the dog. His few encounters with the infected humans in the city are panicked episodes, with lots of yelling and fighting as they attack him and he defends himself. They’re not really characters to be interacted with. Not the way they’re portrayed in the scenes they get, anyhow. So it’s Smith and his dog and the empty city and his dreams about his wife and daughter. That’s it. And I really felt for him. The dreams are well defined and they fill the time when Neville is locked up tight in his fortress, reminding him of what he’s lost and what led up to it all. It’s heavily implied that he was involved in the original outbreak somehow, or in trying to contain it. He was military, but also a scientist. So he’s got a mission here. And I honestly think it’s really well put together for about two thirds of the film.

When another survivor shows up, however, the movie loses me. It lost me and went wandering off towards The Stand without me. Now, I liked The Stand just fine. The book was great fun and epic and all and the miniseries didn’t suck. But it handed the religious aspects fairly well, setting them in place early on and running them through the whole story as an essential aspect of the plot. This movie? Is purely science fiction right up until Neville asks the newly arrived Anna what made her show up when she did and she says God told her to. And I don’t want to be one of those atheists who can’t stand to have religion added to the mix. I generally don’t mind it, so long as it’s well incorporated. Like in The Stand. But here? It’s out of nowhere. It’s not like there’s been any hint of divine intervention or even divine signposts up until Anna’s all “God sent me to you.” It’s not that it’s religion. It’s that it feels like lazy storytelling. Like they needed to have her there in the right place at the right time and couldn’t figure out a way to work it into the existing storyline. So, God! Of course. It’s a cheap plot patch and I’m curious about whether it’s in the original story and if so if it’s handled any better.

Unfortunately, the ending of the movie is somewhat dependant on Anna and her son. I know the ending in the book is far different, and I have what is likely an unpopular opinion in that I don’t hate the hopeful ending the movie gets. But I wish it hadn’t depended on a new character showing up out of the blue and then saving the day, so to speak. It makes the ending feel just as cheap and weak as the plot patch that got Anna there did, because it’s dependant on that plot patch. It feels like so much more could have been done with the infected humans in the city and Neville’s mission to ‘cure’ them. There are some hints that there’s more going on than he realizes, with the moved mannequin and a trap laid using his techniques. There’s an infected man who exhibits some atypical behavior that Neville notes later on and it’s so obviously a pointer to there being more than meets the eye with the infected folks. But since the ending was changed and Anna has to get some screen time, well, we never explore that.

Honestly, while I get that the original ending (which I take it was actually filmed but replaced at the studio’s insistence) is more artistic and fits the world and has heavy meaning and all, I don’t mind the semi-happy ending. Some days I need a bit of brightness at the end of a bleak movie, not just more bleakness and a moral about human nature because let’s face it, by the time you get to the scene with Neville and Sam on the floor of the lab you’re about as bleak as you can get and yes, I did cry. But at the same time, I wish the ending had been better incorporated. I wish all the things the movie promised and hinted at were followed up on. At least enough to join the fascinating and heartbreaking first two thirds with the ending instead of just plunking it down. As it is, I didn’t dislike it, but I was left feeling incredibly frustrated.

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

I Am Legend

May 18, 2011

I Am Legend

I’ll admit that Amanda and I had been putting off watching this movie. I love a good post apocalyptic tale, and I enjoy a Will Smith movie, but I could never bring myself to watch this. Ever since I heard that the dog prominently featured in the movie as his only living companion in the abandoned streets of New York died during the movie. Yeah, I know, spoilers, but it was that one event which prevented us from seeing this in the theaters and kept us from watching it ever since. I had heard what a powerful acting accomplishment this movie was – with Will Smith alone on screen for the vast majority of the film. I longed to watch it and see what the praise was all about, but I just couldn’t bear to watch it.

I bought it though. I had it sitting on a shelf against that day, sometime in the unknowable future, when I’d finally get around to it. Today we have my father visiting and we allowed him free reign of our collection to pick a movie to watch with us, and he chose this because none of us had seen it yet. So finally I’m getting a chance to watch it, and it’s every bit as intense as I thought it was going to be.

Will Smith is Robert Neville, the last survivor of an apocalyptic virus that has turned every other resident of New York City into an enraged zombie. They have pale skin and no hair. They have no apparent language or thought. They mostly come out at night (mostly) because they cannot stand the UV light.

I really like the way the storytelling is done in this movie. We’re introduced to Neville and his loyal dog Sam at the start of this film as they forage in the ruins of New York. The apocalypse is years in the past – the streets are overgrown and filled with wild animals. The events of the past that led to this situation are revealed slowly over the course of the film through Neville’s nightmares. I also appreciate that the movie doesn’t answer all the questions it raises. We discover over time that Robert Neville was somehow involved in the search for a cure to the super-bug back in the day, but it’s never established what exactly he had to do with things. He was in the military. He had a police escort. He has enough notoriety that other people know his name. That’s about all we get, though, which is okay because this movie is about the person he has become and not the person he was in the old world.

Not many actors could pull off this role. This is Will Smith’s movie and at least seventy-five percent of the time he’s the only human on screen. As we watch Neville’s daily routine we see his isolation, his desperation, and the way he is slowly losing his mind. By far it is this courageous and touching portrayal that makes this movie worth watching. It’s the kind of role that actors dream of. A solitary man slowly being driven insane by his own obsessive behavior and his loneliness. When he does eventually find himself in the company of humans again it is clear just how far gone he is. It’s a bold concept for a movie and it’s fascinating to watch.

I’m not a fan of the “everything’s gonna be alright” ending to the film, though. It doesn’t feel like a part of the movie (because it isn’t.) The original end of the film ties together clues from throughout that show that the zombies have some remnant of their human intelligence. We know they have because the alpha male appears to do planning. The zombies set a trap for Neville. They coordinate attacks on him. There’s also the recurring butterfly motif throughout the movie which makes no real sense with the current ending. Instead of resolution of some of these clues we have a Hollywood ending involving a grenade and a voice over explaining that the world has been saved. It’s an ending that doesn’t want you to think – which is disappointing after such an intense and cerebral movie.

The special edition we own has the original ending where the alpha male zombie is able to communicate to Neville that he only wants the woman Neville has been experimenting on back. They achieve an uneasy truce and Neville leaves New York in the hands of its new population. I really like the concept of this ending – the twist that it is Neville that is the monster, and not the zombies. It feels more in keeping with the rest of the movie, and I wish that there were a director’s cut so I could see the scene as part of the movie rather than as a bonus feature.

I’m glad that I didn’t hate this movie though. Even with its grafted on happy ending the movie is still cool, compelling and well worth watching. I enjoy it as a character study and as a thought experiment. What would it really be like to be the last man alive? This movie says in no uncertain terms that it would be hard. Perhaps cripplingly so.

May 18, 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

Appleseed (2004)

April 8, 2011

Appleseed (2004)

Here we go again. Another attempt to distill the rambling and convoluted worlds of Masamune Shirow to film. This time it’s his epic work Appleseed, which is more a nebulous achievement in world building than a single coherent work. As near as I can tell Shirow has been writing Appleseed pretty much continuously since the early eighties. You can’t expect something created on that scale and over that amount of time to provide a simple enough plot line for a single movie to work as an adaptation, so there are a few obstacles to overcome in this movie.

It starts off well. There’s a good solid ten minutes or so at the start of this movie that’s just solid action. We get introduced to our heroine Deunan as she is hunted through the decimated streets of a post apocalyptic city by creepy cyborgs. It shows off both her abilities as a super warrior and this movie’s cool all-CGI aesthetic. We were kind of shocked when, after about ten minutes, the first dialog in the movie starts. (This is when we realized that we had unintentionally left the English dub on, so I had to quickly pop into the DVD menu to turn on subtitling and the Japanese soundtrack.)

Once the characters start talking, though, they don’t stop. I understand why – it’s because volumes upon volumes of material have to be communicated to the viewer in a relatively short time – but it certainly does bog the movie down an awful lot. First Deunan has to be introduced to Olympus, the futuristic utopian island of peace in the vast desolate war-torn expanse that is the world of the future. Here she catches up with her old friend and companion Briareos, who is now a buff rabbit-faced cyborg. She also befriends the frighteningly perky Hitomi, who explains to her all about Olympus and the delicate balance of power there.

Half of the population of Olympus is not actually human. They’re manufactured clones made from artificial genetic stock called Bioroids. They’re kind of like all the best aspects of humans, without all the baggage of emotions and such to drive them to passionate acts of violence. They help to keep the city running and safe for all to live in. Many humans fear that the Bioroids will ultimately replace them as the dominant species on the planet – which is why the Bioroids have been engineered with no reproductive drive. There are a number of factions involved in running the city. There are the army, who are of necessity mostly human since fighting is not inherint to Bioroid nature. There is a human splinter group of terrorists bent on destroying the Bioroids. There’s a bunch of elderly humans on floating orbs who act as a wise council and help govern the city. There’s a nebulous A.I. that inhabits the ‘net in the city called Gaia who represents the Bioroid viewpoint in the council. There’s Athena, one of the first Bioroids, who acts as a kind of senior administrator, keeping the city running. And there’s the local police force, eSWAT, who seem to be mostly pro-Bioroid, are commanded by Athena (I think,) and maintain law and order.

All of that is explained in a single lengthy speech by Hitomi. And I’ve given you the condensed version. If it seems a bit ponderous than you might be getting some notion of just how dense this movie really is. I was not in the mood for dense tonight. I was in the mood for pretty action. I remembered there being some really great action scenes in this movie, and there are, but somehow I had glossed over the interminable plot exposition that makes up the vast majority of the movie.

Here’s how it goes: There’s the opening action scene. Then there’s the orientation course from Hitomi. Then there are some cool whip-wielding cyborgs who try to kill Deunan. Then there’s some exposition about what the various rival groups in Olympia want and what the Bioroids are. Then there’s an attack on the Bioroid breeding facility by the terrorist splinter group. Then there’s more plot exposition. Then the movie fakes you out by having Deunan sent on a mission to retrieve some essential data needed to save Hitomi and the other Bioroids. You might expect some action here, but you’d be wrong. There’s a flash back, a bunch of people pull out guns, and then they talk at each other for about ten or fifteen minutes. Exposition, exposition, exposition. A couple people get shot. Then before we can finally get to the (admittedly very cool but somewhat contrived) final action scene there’s… yes… more exposition as the masterminds behind the whole plot of the movie and their nefarious plan are revealed.

I was somewhat tired before this movie started. I am utterly exhausted now, and I have to admit that at times my mind wandered as I was watching. It’s a pitty too, because I really like the two main characters of the Appleseed universe. Deunan is a kickass female warrior and Briareos is an affable and indomitable lug. The two of them in the manga are a fantastic couple always flirting with each other and saving each other’s hides in the constant battles they find themselves thrust into. I don’t particularly like where this movie takes Briareos as a character, and I miss some of their closeness which is hinted at in the movie but not really shown. (In the manga they have a much more domestic feel to them. Perhaps because we first meet them as they gather food together in the wasteland, living alone with only themselves for company.)

I also really like the aesthetic of this movie. It is entirely computer animated but it uses a cell-shaded approach for the characters which makes them look somewhat hand-drawn. It’s a striking look and very cool. It manages to look more anime than the average CGI animated film, while at the same time having a distinctly 3-D look to it. (Come to think of it, I wonder if anybody has floated the idea of re-rendering it into stereoscopic 3-D. I wonder how many of the original data files it was rendered from are still available.) Anyhow, it is a very pretty movie with some slick action scenes and the cool tech that Shirow is known for, but it drives me to distraction with all the scenes of characters explaining at length to each other what is going on.

With apologies to Yahtzee I’d like to quote Elvis: “A little less conversation – a little more action!”

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

Resident Evil: Extinction

March 13, 2011

Resident Evil: Extinction

As we watched tonight Amanda and I traded jokes about the pop culture influences that this movie seems to heavily rely on. I’m not sure that it was deliberately modeled on any of them (except for some references to Alice down the rabbit hole) but just about everything in this film felt comfortably familiar. “It’s The Hills Have Eyes. Oh, it’s Mad Max. No, wait, now it’s Fallout: New Vegas. Or Dune. Aha! It’s The Birds. No, no, now it’s Battlestar Galactica.” It has hints of The Prestige. It’s even got the climactic psychic battle from Dark City (in an abbreviated form.) It’s all of these things and more. What it isn’t, really, is a Resident Evil movie. Strange, that.

This movie does follow on the continuity introduced in the first two films. It clearly takes place in the same world and has some of the same characters. It does not, however, have much to do anymore with the Resident Evil games. (Although it does introduce a couple character names that will be familiar to those who have played the games.)

The action picks up five years after Resident Evil: Apocalypse. Umbrella Corp has failed to contain the outbreak of the T-Virus by nuking Raccoon City and in the years following that disaster practically the entire human race has been wiped out. Not just the humans, either. The virus has killed off all kinds of plant and animal life, leaving the planet a dusty and dying husk. What living humans remain survive by staying constantly on the move so the billions of roving zombies cannot find them. Alice is travelling on her own through the wasteland. A couple of her companions from the last movie, L.J. and Carlos, have joined a convoy of souped up vehicles that are wandering the Nevada desert in search of other survivors. This convoy is run by Claire Redfield (a name from the games, although her character has nothing whatsoever to do with Claire in the games.) Meanwhile yet another crazy scientist at Umbrella is obsessed with using Alice’s blood to create a more easily controlled race of super zombies. (He’s been using all the resources Albert Wesker (another familiar name from the games) can provide him with to clone her in search of whatever magic her mutated blood is capable of.

Eventually Alice ends up travelling with the convoy, which endangers everybody when Dr. Isaacs unleashes what appears to be a never-ending horde of super zombies on them in an attempt to capture her. This is where the movie begins to break down for me. I can accept the whole post-apocalyptic thing. It’s kind of cool to see the world after every attempt to hold back the zombie tide has failed. But there are a couple threads of the plot here that are not very well explained and feel only half thought out.

There’s an entire plot about some random scribblings that Alice came upon when searching a gas station that indicate there may be survivors in some isolated part of Alaska that no zombies have reached. The survivors in Claire’s convoy decide to go there (mostly because it’s just nice to have something to hope for) and eventually leave Alice behind to pursue this dream. This plot thread is just left dangling. Perhaps it’s resolved in the sequel (which we don’t own yet) but as it currently lies they just sort of disappear from the movie right before the climax. Which leaves the movie robbed of most of its motivation since it had been about Alice helping these people survive right up until then. Once they leave Alice has no clear motivation and the movie lacks a lot of tension. (I was hoping eagerly for a stinger after the closing credits that showed them arriving at a zombie-infested town in Alaska or something, but there’s nothing there but a quote from Alice’s climactic fight scene.

Then there’s the issue of Alice’s psychic powers. I complained yesterday that I thought Alice was becoming too powerful a badass and that it hurt the feel of the movies. She’s become super-human, which robs the movies of much of their suspense. In this movie things go even farther. She’s now a Jedi warrior capable of destroying flocks of evil crows with her mind, levitating stuff in her camp site, and shorting out a satellite overhead from the surface of the Earth. I’m just not sure where the film makers are intending to take things here. By the end of this movie she is, essentially, a more unstoppable force than the billions-strong zombie horde that has populated the entire Earth. I halfway expect the fourth movie to end with her ascending to godhood and leaving to create worlds of her own Jon Osterman style.

I’m not sure about this entire movie. It’s entertaining enough, even if I felt it was pretty derivative of other works. It has a lot of incomprehensible weirdness though. (Like, why is Dr. Isaacs “testing” his Alice clones by sending them through highlights of the previous two movies?) It’s clearly morphed from survival/horror to some kind of weird post apocalyptic sci-fi. I think I like the concept more than the execution though. It’s all getting too out there for me. I miss the straight forward zombie escape tale of the first movie. I miss Alice being an essentially human character. I’ll probably watch the fourth movie some day because I still like to watch Milla Jovovich doing what she does, but I’ve kind of stopped caring about the franchise. I feel burned out.

March 13, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 265 – Battlefield Earth

Battlefield Earth – November 20th, 2010

Why yes, we do own this movie. We own a lot of crappy movies. It’s sort of a thing for us and I will point back to The Worst Witch and Sharks in Venice and remind anyone reading that yes, we bought those intentionally. We specifically went looking for the former and when we saw the title of the latter we snapped it up in a hurry. We watched the latter for our anniversary this year. We do have a thing for bad movies. And so, for our halfway through movie (yes! tonight represents our halfway mark for our collection as it currently stands!) we are watching a really bad movie. It’s commonly accepted that it’s a horrible movie. And I think that’s fitting. But we have another reason too.

Two years ago my brother-in-law mentioned this very cool thing going on around the time of US Thanksgiving. A group of sketch comedians in Canada had gotten together to play a supremely boring video game in a 24 hours a day marathon for donations to Child’s Play for as long as people would donate money. And my computer could not handle things like streaming video and so I didn’t look. Then last year, I was reminded of it just in time for the first morning and tuned in and ended up watching for days. Desert Bus for Hope is truly one of the most awesome things I have ever seen. The LoadingReadyRun crew are fantastically funny all the time (and super cool in person), but they are even more funny when they’re doing things like singing songs they don’t know, eating blended Big Slam Breakfasts and reading out fanfic like this. And they do it all for the children. So while we’re not really doing this for the children, we thought we’d join them in spirit and endure a little pain ourselves. And if you’re curious, go check out the live feed from their marathon and if you donated some money for the children I’m sure they’d appreciate it.

So, on to the actual review. Apparently we got this for just under two dollars and it came with a coupon for a two dollar rebate (with book purchase). That would be a good deal right there if not for the book purchase bit. I’m not buying the book, so I’ll just have to deal with having spent two bucks on this. I certainly never would have spent more on it. I mean, I’ve seen worse movies. I’ve seen some really bad stuff. Being an MST3K fan exposes one to some truly hideous movies. Things with no production values to speak of and I’m not even talking about Manos: The Hands of Fate. There are worse movies out there. This isn’t one of them. But it’s bad. No doubt about that. It’s just that it’s a bad movie with high production values and a blockbustery sort of promotional effort when it was released.

There’s a whole plot where the aliens try to gain leverage over the main characters by determining their favorite food. And how do they do that? They let them loose in a barren wasteland and watch them to see what they pick to eat. Out of what? Nothing! This is a superior race of aliens. Yup. They finally settle on Humans wanting nothing more than a good raw rat. Yum! I cannot believe this was made seriously. I cannot believe the cast wasn’t laughing their asses off when the cameras stopped rolling. The sad part is that the bits with the humans are passable post-apocalyptic pulp. I can buy the human stuff – even the silly learning curve they manage. The aliens, on the other hand, are thoroughly laughable. They’re ridiculous and foolish and the only thing that makes them a threat is superior firepower/technology. The aliens themselves are big and strong, yes, but mostly they just have extra stuff. Including giant clunky boots that make it hard for them to walk. I cannot for a moment take them seriously.

I do have to wonder if I’m intended to take them seriously, really. I’d be more divided on this if the movie was more obviously mocking of itself, but the big battle scenes are pretty seriously done and so is the soundtrack. This is no Starship Troopers, and if the trivia on IMDB is to be believed, the original screenplay was less serious and the producers and Travolta brought in another screenwriter to “fix” it. So I have to conclude that this movie was supposed to be taken seriously as a post-apocalyptic alien-invasion epic. And as a serious epic it fails. It fails so hard. And it’s hard to narrow it down to any one reason. It’s a whole collection of reasons. But I’d have to put a lot of the blame on the aliens themselves. I simply can’t get over how unimpressive they are. High foreheads, lots of hair, big boots and yellow contacts just aren’t enough for a kickass alien. You need some good character design and writing and whatnot. And no. There is none of that here. I blame the source material.

The story itself isn’t unique. Evil aliens who’ve overmined their own planet travel around strip-mining other planets and destroying the life on them. They invade Earth, destroy human civilization, mine the hell out of the place and are then taken down by a plucky group of rebellious humans who’ve managed to somehow learn how to work ancient human technology and bizarre alien technology. That’s not unique. That’s not revolutionary. It’s not even a new twist on the plot. It is utterly typical and unremarkable in any positive way. I’ve seen a lot of post-apocalyptic stuff and this did not wow me at all. And on top of the plot being so un-imaginative in terms of other alien stuff, it’s just not done well. Yes, it has a big budget. The special effects are fine and the sets are fine and the makeup is fine. The costumes are meh, but whatever. It’s just all so uninspired overall, and then the ridiculousness of the aliens just makes it all so silly.

I hadn’t seen this prior to tonight. I don’t think I’m ever going to watch it again, though it does definitely fall under the “laughably bad” heading and I’ve been known to enjoy some of those. But ultimately? It’s boring. It’s silly, but not silly enough to reach unintentional satire. It’s bad, but not bad enough to make me laugh my ass off. It’s just. Not engaging. It’s foolish and uninteresting and boring. And I think that’s all I really have to say about it. Now I’m going back to something entertaining and opening up Desert Bus again.

November 20, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment