Category Archives: Film

Film: Seconds

On first viewing, years ago, John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966) made a powerful impression on me. I’ve been wanting to revisit it, and while it didn’t wow me with the same intensity this time around, it’s still a remarkable film: a creepy, slow-building Twilight Zone SFnal mystery and a full-blown assault on the spiritual emptiness of the American Dream.

Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is a taciturn, married banker, both upper-middle aged and upper-middle class, and he should have everything he wants in life. But he’s a tepid man leading a tepid life, and his lot feels hollow, a condition exacerbated by bizarre phone calls from an old friend named Charlie (Murray Hamilton). The problem? Charlie’s dead. He’s also hellbent on luring Arthur into a shady underworld operation that will give him a second chance at true happiness, quite literally remaking Arthur into a new man: Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson).

Shot in stark, eerie black-and-white, Seconds is a quirky, unsettling vision, and its first half is a strange and gripping what-the-hell-is-going-on puzzle. Randolph delivers a masterfully uncomfortable performance as he steps hopelessly through the creepy rat’s maze, manipulated by a ruthless, morally bankrupt corporation into ceding his very identity. The film’s grip weakens somewhat when the transformation is complete, perhaps because it resolves the propulsive surface mystery. The middle stretches, during which “Tony” takes up with an attractive young woman named Nora (Salome Jens) in Malibu as part of his new life, deliver the film into a less pointed, more psychological zone as Tony finds that the makeover didn’t exactly quell his existential crisis. Perhaps deliberately, the film feels more aimless here, but Hudson’s terrific, raw performance as this erratic “new” person feeds nicely into a chilling finale. Definitely a product of its time, Seconds is also ahead of it with its offbeat, dark humor, haunting visuals, and its fierce, relentless critique of vapid American culture.

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Spy 100, #57: The Fourth Protocol

From the last gasp of the Cold War comes The Fourth Protocol (1987), a polished but unexceptional thriller. In the Soviet Union, a well placed Russian agent named Valeri Petrofsky (Pierce Brosnan) is given an assignment so top secret he has to kill the man who delivers his instructions. His mission: go to England, rent a flat near a U.S. Air Force base, and assemble an atomic bomb.  Fortunately for the British, political in-fighting puts one their shrewdest agents, John Preston (Michael Caine), in position to sniff out what’s happening. He’s too insubordinate to win over his pompous superior, but fortunately his more intelligent colleague Sir Nigel Irvine (Ian Richardson) deploys him off the books to stop the threat. Can he counter Petrofsky’s plan? Well, yes, of course he can.

The Fourth Protocol starts promisingly, with effective visual story-telling, twisty spy world politics, and a generally intriguing slow-build. It’s also got a good soundtrack from Lalo Schifrin, whose noticeably unnoticeable music always works well with this kind of material. Alas, the film wears out its welcome.  Much of the early-going is unrelated character set-up, and once the main plot takes center stage, nothing particularly unexpected happens and the action unfolds rather clinically. Caine is in fine form and Brosnan is okay, but otherwise the actors struggle with the stilted dialogue, especially the miscast Russians; Ray McAnally makes for an unconvincing KGB bigwig, and Ned Beatty isn’t much better. The trappings are well handled, and the final twist is classically cynical spy world stuff, but overall it’s a flat, distancing affair.

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Film: Under the Skin

The degree to which you enjoy Under the Skin (2013) will probably depend largely on how much you enjoy experimental, arthouse “what-the-hell-is-going-on-here” movies. Also, you might want to bring a high threshold for being creeped out. Warning: I love this type of thing, and I found it intense, riveting, and rather unsettling.

This film does have a plot, but it’s rather a submerged and inchoate one…it follows a mysterious woman, played by Scarlett Johansson, across the Scottish countryside as she preys on unsuspecting men. What she does to them is deeply disturbing, and speaks to her peculiar condition. But she’s not fully in control of her fate: what she’s doing is a by-product of her nature, and also, perhaps, influenced by the oversight of an equally mysterious biker (Jeremy McWilliams) to whom she’s connected. She seems compelled, or duty-bound, to play her role, but ultimately she goes off the reservation.

Under the Skin is chilling, moody science fiction horror that relies largely on visual story-telling and masterful sound design to create a stark, unforgiving atmosphere. I found it impossible to look away, and not just because of Johansson’s alluring performance. The cinematography is impressive, from the landscapes to the set designs to the utterly unnerving visual effects, and the film quietly lets the action and imagery unravel the film’s mysteries; the dialogue, much of it improvised and heavily accented, is almost incidental. It makes for something of a visual puzzle, then, but it’s enhanced immeasurably by the audio: even the most static, mundane scenes are given tension by the sound and music, leveraged like weapons against the viewer.

As for the narrative itself, I’m not quite sure what to make of it. Sometimes the film seems fraught with hidden meanings and metaphors, but in the end, it seems a simple SFnal story, its mechanics rendered mostly explicit. I didn’t actually care to fully decipher it, though, too caught up in its fascinating moments and dazzling techniques. Director Jonathan Glazer has created a cult masterpiece, here, in the offbeat vein of David Lynch or Nicolas Roeg. I loved it.

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Film: Snowpiercer

Miraculously, I managed to stumble into Snowpiercer (2013) with no preconceptions whatsoever. Well, beyond a general sense of positive buzz, that is…so imagine my surprise when I spent the first hour rolling my eyes and glancing at my watch. Then something curious happened: a switch flipped, and the film weirdly redeemed itself. In the end, I still think it’s a bloody awkward mess of a movie, half awful and half good. And yet, in a possibly accidental, unexpected way, it’s also kind of brilliant.

In the future, a climate change experiment goes wrong, plunging the world into a new ice age. Humanity goes extinct with the exception of those who were lucky enough to board the Snowpiercer, a train that perpetually circumnavigates the globe, defiantly serving as a last bastion for the survivors. The train is a closed ecosystem, and within it, a caste system emerges, with the privileged elite in the front and the lower-class waste in the back. It’s a brutally unjust set-up, and one that Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) is determined to overthrow. Using intelligence smuggled back from mysterious allies, he and his team – including his sidekick (Jamie Bell), a woman whose son was stolen from her (Octavia Spencer), a security specialist (Song-Kong Ho) and his daughter (Go Ah-sung) – lead a revolution to rush the front of the train, overthrow the dictatorship, and take over.

Taken literally, of course, the SFnal world-building is preposterous, so the script goes to great lengths to make it absolutely explicit that we are squarely in Metaphor Land: the train is the Earth, the passengers are humanity, yeah we get it. The approach is artless and obvious, a pretentious allegory that makes Elysium look masterfully subtle. Its message-y ambition feels like a sham, draped as it is across a plot that is – at first, anyway – blunt, hopelessly linear, and ultraviolent. The pacing is wildly uneven, and the tone is all over the map, from silly to super-serious and back again. Is this a brutal war epic, a dark comedy, a skiffy adventure, or an arthouse experiment? Perhaps it’s all of them at once, but if so, it doesn’t seem strategic or in-control about it; instead, it seems to be trying ideas randomly and keeping everything, whether it meshes, clashes, or both. By the midpoint, I couldn’t wait for it to end.

But as the party makes it way further and further toward the front of the train, Snowpiercer increasingly embraces its gonzo central concept, and somehow that saves it. With each train car they enter, the visionary metaphors get more outlandish. There’s this weird scene with Alison Pill, who is gleefully terrible as a school teacher brainwashing upper-class children with dogmatic Republican values. I hated the scene, but it kind of turned the film on its ass, escalating The Crazy in a way that serves the vision. The character start to matter, the blunt force trauma of the metaphors stops hurting, and a whole begins to take shape from all the unlikely parts. Even the film’s unsuccessful attempts to reverse engineer its implausible world – explaining the machinations of the train with too-late, sort-of cleverness – suit the kludgy nature of it. Then, as the final confrontation nears, Evans delivers this intense, shattering monologue that kind of aligns everything, Ed Harris turns up to drill home the final message, and it ends with a heartbreaking, breathtakingly beautiful final image.

What an absurd, fascinating mess it is – and that plays right into its ultimate, clunky metaphor, doesn’t it? Like the Earth, like its people, like life, Snowpiercer is at once terrible, awesome, disposable, and essential. Could it be its uneven grasp of craft actually works to the theme? After much consideration, I both loved and hated the film, and I’m very, very glad I saw it.

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Film: They Came Together

The formulaic Hollywood rom-com gets a satirical skewering in They Came Together (2014), an uneven but generally funny affair that leverages an impressive cast of Burning Love, Parks and Recreation, and Saturday Night Live vets. Joel (Paul Rudd) is a corporate drone for a candy company. Molly (Amy Poehler) runs a cute, indie candy store. When Joel’s company targets Molly’s labor of love shop for annihilation…well, you get the idea. They hate each other, they like each other, they hate each other again, then they like each other again. It’s destiny! You know the story.

Michael Showalter and David Wain’s script surrounds its comically no-frills star-crossed lovers with the romantic comedy genre’s every clichéd character, from Joel’s morally bankrupt girlfriend (Cobie Smulders), to his posturing asshole work rival (Michael Ian Black), to Molly’s sassy black girlfriend (Teyonah Parris), and on and on. It’s a genre ripe for parody, and They Came Together eviscerates it with gleeful abandon. At its worst, it’s clumsily on the nose; at its best, it’s, uh, subtly on the nose. And to keep things interesting, it throws in an outrageous gag out of left field every now and then. Definitely not high art, but it’s a great deal of fun, with a huge cast of talented comedy veterans.

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Film – Danger: Diabolik

Now here’s an enjoyable slice of stylized, sixties cheese. Based on an Italian comic, Danger: Diabolik (1968) is an amusingly retro crime caper with a dash of period political commentary. Diabolik (John Phillip Law, who looks pretty sharp in his skin-tight spandex costume) is the James Bond of master criminals. His favorite target is the government; his favorite accomplice is his beautiful girlfriend Eva Kant (Marisa Mell, who looks pretty sharp with her clothes constantly almost falling off). Diabolik and Eva have a science fictional secret lair with a fleet of sports cars, his-and-hers showers, and a rotating bed they bury in stolen money. Diabolik has made such a fool of the police that Inspector Ginko (Michel Piccoli) comes up with a new strategy to rein him in: he turns up the heat on an organized crime kingpin named Ralph Valmont (Adolfi Celi). “It takes a thief to catch a thief,” Ginko says, promising to lay off Valmont if Valmont can deliver Diabolik. Let the heists, chases, and double-crosses begin!

Danger: Diabolik is dated, poorly dubbed, awkwardly paced, sexist, and silly. But it’s a great deal of fun, full of sex symbol eye candy, crazy psychedelic visuals, and groovy Ennio Morricone music. Director Mario Bava recaptures the comic book feel nicely, and while the trappings are largely wish-fulfillment fantasy, there’s an intriguing countercultural vibe to them – the greedy, indulgent antiheroes are also gleefully dismantling capitalism, after all. Of course, you could remove the plot entirely and it would still be fun watching Law and Mell slink around their preposterous hideout, making eyes at each other. Hardly a cinema masterpiece, it’s great in an ironically watched, lazy afternoon, one-step-removed kind of way.

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Film: Elysium

The problem with Neil Blomkamp movies, in my little two-film sampling, is that he doesn’t know when to quit. Like his debut District 9, Elysium (2013) is about thirty minutes of a good film surrounded by an hour and half of relentlessly brutal sci-fi action. It’s a visual feast, but I got so bored with its monotonously frantic battle scenes that I started writing this review just to give myself something else to do while the plot played out.

In the future, Earth is a Mad Maxian cyberpunk dystopia, so the rich, mostly white people build the space habitat Elysium, a One Percenter utopia. Downtrodden orphan Max da Costa (Matt Damon) always dreamed of making it to Elysium some day, but with the cards stacked against him, he fell in with a criminal crowd. The film opens as he’s trying to walk the straight and narrow, working the line at a robotics factory. When appalling safety conditions at the plant illustrate the film’s heavy-handed class warfare theme – uh, he gets a lethal dose of radiation – he suddenly finds himself with five days left to live. Only the magical autodocs of Elysium can save him: but how can he get there? Fortunately he’s got a criminal hacker connection named – of course – Spider (Wagner Moura), who might be able to make it happen. Provided, of course, he does One Last Job. But oh what a brutal job it is, and with unexpected complications.

When a film wears its metaphors on its sleeve this baldly, it’s kind of hard to take things seriously. But Elysium, with its tragic injustice and fraught, victimized heroes, takes itself very seriously indeed, bludgeoning its obvious message home with a sledgehammer. Fortunately, it’s fun to look at: from its nightmarish vision of a future Los Angeles that had me scrambling for Craigslist, to its perfected orbital suburbia, to all the little skiffy details in between, it’s got eyeball kicks to burn. And it’s got Matt Damon, who’s pretty good at the whole nonstop, violent action hero business. I wanted to like it.

But, uh, no. Its plot is, alas, a succession of well executed but hollow combat sequences that use plot coupon duct-tape to integrate Max’s fight for survival with the efforts of a nefarious Elysium overlord named Delacourt (Jodie Foster) to initiate a coup and really ramp up the fascist awful. Foster is Razzy-worthy here, trying on a weird British accent to prove her villainy  – and if that doesn’t work, she throws in the odd French phrase. But wait, doesn’t she stand in for the ruling elite of western capitalism? Surely she should have stuck with American – this metaphor is broken! Anyways….also on hand is Blomkamp veteran Sharlto Copley, who plays a villain named Kruger so comically ruthless he might as well be a Borderlands 2 boss. Seriously, he carries a sword and has a forcefield. I can see the cut-scene now:  KRUGER! (Like Freddy Kruger…but worse!) Oh, and by the way, there is one other female character, if you were wondering: Frey (Alice Braga) is Max’s childhood sweetheart who, of course, has a sick kid and gets captured by the bad guys.

It’s pretty much a vacant, bombastic skiffy spectacle, then, with ill-fated symbolic ambition, a contrived, unconvincing plot, and a random grasp of its SFnal mechanics. I would love to have seen its production values applied to a different movie entirely.

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Film: The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec

A promising-looking period fantasy, The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec (2010) ultimately only proved to me that Luc Besson’s sense of humor doesn’t work for me in English or French. With a tone similar to The Fifth Element, it’s an imaginative but messy kitchen sink of unfunny humor and incongruous fantasy tropes.

Adèle Blanc-Sec (Louise Bourgoin) is something of a French, female Indiana Jones: capable and adventurous, she’ll travel to the ends of the Earth to help her sister, who is desperately ill. Her plan – reanimate the mummified remains of a brilliant Egyptian doctor. (Uh, yeah, okay…) Unfortunately, her partner in this endeavor, Dr. Espérandieu (Jacky Nercessian), decided to practice his death-raising talents by mind-controlling a pterodactyl he hatched in a museum exhibit by sheer force of his mental will. For this, he’s been thrown in prison, of course. So Adèle needs to rescue the doctor to save her sister – while repeatedly butting heads with a police inspector and a big-game hunter who’ve been hired to capture the rogue pterodactyl. Got all that?

After a scattered but promising opening, wherein the film looked to be a playful fusion of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Amelie, The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec rather quickly goes south. Its humor misses the mark, and its plot is pretty much a zany kludge designed to set up setpiece eyeball kicks. The production is certainly attractive, and so of course is Bourgoin, who executes Adèle’s energetic hijinks with aplomb. But in the end it’s more diverting than absorbing: silly background viewing with subtitles.

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Film: Thérèse

My silly crush on Audrey Tautou continues to lead me down unlikely filmic paths: Thérèse (2012) is the latest, and it’s an attractive, stately, and depressing tale of a woman trapped by circumstance.  Set in provincial France in the late 1920s, the film stars Tautou as Thérèse, a chain-smoking malcontent who enters into an arranged marriage to unify two wealthy families, hoping it will “cure” her of her different-thinking ways. Unfortunately, her husband Bernard (Gilles Lellouche) is a narrow-minded lout, who – along with everyone else – expects Thérèse to tow the family line and agree with its every status-minded decision. No, the marriage does not “cure” Thérèse: in fact, it sends her slowly, methodically over the edge.

Thérèse is a mostly cheerless but quite effective tale of a woman whose emotions are ahead of their time, even if her intellect is not.  Thérèse doesn’t know what she wants, only what she doesn’t want – which happens to be what everyone expects of her. Her stultifying plight is tragic, and Tautou’s understated performance sells it powerfully. Lellouche does a fine job as the husband, a character who both deserves and doesn’t deserve what happens to him: his character’s transformation is a nuanced and interesting one, making him less cardboard villain than hapless by-product of his era.  This is not a pleasant watch, or a bracing one, but it’s well made for its type.

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Film: Her

There’s a reason I review more spy films than science fiction films; spy films, in my opinion, tend to be better.  But if there were more SF films like Spike Jonze’s Her (2013),  that balance might tip in the other direction. Her is beautiful, thoughtful science fiction – a visual feast with heart , that mingles a classic artificial intelligence plot with incisive commentary about the ironic disconnectedness of our wired, socially networked present.

The great Joaquin Phoenix stars as Theodore Twombley – given the atmosphere of the film, could the Philip K. Dick ring to that name be more appropriate?  Theodore is alone in a crowd, living in a future Southern California megalopolis, and he’s fallen on hard times in the wake of a divorce.  His empty life involves a day job writing copy and nights immersed in video games or having awkward phone sex.  Everything changes when he upgrades his personal operating system, and meets Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson).  Samantha is an artificially intelligent, personal valet in the cloud – but she’s designed to be realistic, and to evolve. Rather than interacting with a servile subroutine, Theodore finds himself increasingly entangled in a complicated, evolving relationship with his OS, which turns out to be more emotionally charged than he ever expected. His feelings are real, but his girlfriend is not – or is she?

The film does have some flaws – a manipulative soundtrack overamps the melancholy at times, for example – and some unrealistic reaches. (Could somebody have a stable job as a dotcom copywriter and afford that apartment? Would powerful AIs of this nature be so casually, commercially available? Will moustaches and high-waisted slacks ever be back in? I’ll chalk those up to creative flourishes in the  world-building.) Her is still a great film, and thought-provoking science fiction – both for its convincing, visually lush future-building, and its broader philosophical questions about identity and the nature of reality. Hollywood isn’t known for its nuanced, intelligent treatment of these types of ideas, but Her is refreshingly smart and clear-eyed with them.  And, of course, the cast is terrific. Phoenix is a remarkably immersive actor, and he’s a wonderfully accessible window onto this future. Johansson is perfect voice casting for his disembodied love, and there’s fantastic support from a talented cast that includes Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, and Chris Pratt, among others.  It all adds up to a quiet, moving, and atmospheric film about real characters with real problems in a real future. Heartfelt, touching, and imaginative stuff, and one of the best science fiction films I’ve seen in years.

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