Polter-Cow (spectralbovine) wrote,

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Science Friction and Rantasy

As a special treat for you guys, this time I've got a few movies I really didn't like! I know, I like everything, what is the deal. I don't like everything, it turns out.

Melancholia: The first eight minutes of this movie are a series of gorgeously composed images set to Wagner's prelude to Tristan und Isolde, a beautiful piece of music that is repeated throughout the film. We watch a planet collide into Earth and destroy it. And then we are forced to watch an incredibly fucking awkward wedding reception where everyone is awful to each other and no one mentions anything about a planet colliding with Earth at all. Finally, halfway through the movie, someone brings it up, and it becomes more of a focus. And that focus is that Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is SUPER DEPRESSED. So much so she even brings down her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who is afraid they're all going to die. Lars Von Trier is not interested in actual science fiction (how could a planet be that close without having gravitational effects on things other than women's emotions?), nor is he interested in examining how society might react to impending disaster. It's just sad people being sad, and then the world ends finally. There is nothing to enjoy about this film beyond the music, some visuals, Justine's "Earth is evil" monologue, and the ending. C

Another Earth: Believe it or not, 2011 gave us two indie sci-fi films about young blonde women dealing with the appearance of another planet near Earth. This is by far the better one. So another Earth has appeared in the sky, and the scientists say it's identical to ours in every way...as in, there are mirror versions of us up there. For the most part, this science fiction story is cleverly kept in the background, told almost exclusively through radio and TV broadcasts, but it is also an integral part of the plot. The real story is about Brit Marling, who had a bright future ahead of her until she got into an accident that killed a man's family. So imagine how fucking awkward it is when she goes to see that man (William Mapother) and he doesn't know she's the one who killed his family and they get to know each other. I love how that secret hangs over the movie like a bomb waiting to explode, but I also love how much she is seeking some sort of redemption while wallowing in his grief. Director Mike Cahill's visual style is all over the place but it hits more than it misses; while it has that "indie" feel of using unusual visuals as a goal in and of itself at times, its storytelling is quite accessible. Marling conveys much with few words (she goes long stretches without speaking). It's telling that during Melancholia I wondered why the hell the giant planet near Earth wasn't affecting the tides and I never stopped to think about it in this situation because I was so caught up in the story. It's good science fiction, taking a high concept and focusing on a human element. It's fucked up but sweet. B+/A-

Under the Skin: To complete my indie sci-fi trifecta, I chose...well, poorly, it turns out. In the first five minutes of this movie, Jonathan Glazer attempts to establish that Scarlett Johansson is an alien through atmospheric visuals, but I don't know how effective it actually is without having gone in knowing that was the premise. Because for the next hour or so, Scarlett Johansson drives around picking up hapless Scottish lads and...fucking them? Eating them? Having weird sci-fi pretentious visual and aural imagery with them? Who the fuck knows, it's not like we're given any real reason to care about who she is and why she's doing anything. Halfway through, the movie breaks out of its repetitive cycle, and some other stuff happens, and then at the very end, it remembers it's science fiction and then the ending is terrible and dumb. The Wikipedia summary is just as nonsensical as the rest of the movie, which is clearly some sort of abstract metaphor for isolation or intimacy or female bodies or sex or SOMETHING but it's all so impenetrably boring that I did not give a fuck. In conclusion, the fact that Scarlett Johansson chokes on a chocolate cake is mentioned in the Wikipedia summary because it is one of the few exciting, dynamic things to happen in this goddamn movie. D

Europa Report: To continue the indie sci-fi theme, here is this critically acclaimed found-footage hard sci-fi thriller that chronicles a mission to the Jupiter moon Europa to look for signs of life. It looks amazing and realistic, with cameras inside and outside the shuttle and in the spacesuits. From a technical perspective, it's very well done. I also appreciated that the commander of the mission was a Chinese man and the pilot was a woman. The crew make-up reminded me of The Martian, actually, as did the hard sci-fi thriller aspect. Early on, we find out one of the six-member crew died around the time they lost communication with Earth, so immediately there's a lot of tension around what happened there and also what the status of their mission is/was: did they find life? DID IT EAT THEM? While the movie is well done and quite tense, occasionally affecting, it lacks a strong narrative arc. It has a plot but not a story; it's basically "Here is a space mission where things go wrong." As a result, it fumbles at the very end, and what should be a powerful moment doesn't feel earned. B/B+

The Guest: Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett, the team that brought us You're Next, can't stop telling stories about people invading other people's homes. Here, however, it's more insidious. A man knocks on a family's door and introduces himself as David Collins, who knew their late son in the army. Dan Stevens is a handsome, charming man, so of course they let him into their lives. But there's a reason the title card THE GUEST slammed onscreen with such an ominous music cue. Right? He seems like a pretty good guy, just trying to help out these people. But...all is not what it seems, right? ...Right? Oh, definitely, but I wouldn't spoil it. Wingard and Barrett are making very clever genre-savvy films that play on the audience's expectations in fun ways. In both You're Next and The Guest, there is a turn halfway through where you realize you're not watching the movie you thought you were, but not in a cheap, disappointing "OH IT WAS ALL A DREAM" kind of way. It's a turn that makes the movie more entertaining, more thrilling. They have a very keen sense of what makes a horror film work, and they've set out to mess with those conventions. And like with You're Next, they're able to maintain real tension while making you laugh: the wry humor just enhances the experience rather than undercutting the suspense. Also the movie has a great soundtrack. B+/A-

The Untouchables: I always thought this movie was just another gangster movie, but then I noticed the cast and the writer (David Mamet, what), and also it's a friend's favorite movie, so I gave it a shot. And...it's really good! They blow up a little girl in the first five minutes!! This movie is fucking hardcore. So it turns out the Untouchables are the good guys? This movie is about the good guys? Ooooh. Kevin Costner is Eliot Ness, and he assembles a team to take down Al Capone (Robert De Niro, who is good but doesn't really do much with the role): old-timer beat cop Sean Connery, newcomer sharpshooter Andy Garcia, and dorky accountant Charles Martin Smith, who is super excited about this income tax evasion idea. As Ness and his team go after Capone, Capone retaliates. How long will Ness be able to handle it, especially given that he's commited to working within the law? Brian De Palma crafts multiple tense action sequences, including a hell of a POV tracking shot and the famous Odessa Steps homage. Ennio Morricone's score adds to the tension. Also, for some fucking reason they ride horses in this movie, like it suddenly turns into a Western and it's ridiculous but it's also cool and different. B+/A-

Why Don't You Play in Hell?: Two warring Yakuza clans. One aspiring actress. Three guerrilla filmmakers. One aspiring Bruce Lee. One guy in the wrong place at the wrong time. All of these people's lives are about to collide in Why Don't You Play in Hell?, one of the most ridiculous movies I've seen in a while. It begins with a toothpaste commercial and ends with a bloodbath. The hook of the movie, as advertised in the trailers, is that the Yakuza make a movie. But the film takes a long time to get to that point—over half the movie. It spends that time crafting what feels like a huge, epic, slightly absurd story with real, grounded character motivations—at least when it comes to the Yakuza characters, the Fuck Bombers are super idealistic about their filmmaking dreams—so that it doesn't feel cartoonish. It walks the line, for sure, and there are plenty of moments of hilarity, but I loved that weird balancing of tone. Once it has everything in place, it starts paying off the setups, and I was falling over laughing. You have to accept the ridiculousness of it all, that the Yakuza would allow this filmmaking crew to shoot them as they go at each other with katanas (of course they all know how to fight with katanas), because the movie goes off the fucking rails and there are body parts and bodies and blood everywhere and it's awesome. This is my introduction to veteran filmmaker Sion Sono, and I just loved the confidence of his creative vision. I had mixed emotions during the finale, but I think I ended up in a satisfying place because what the fuck is this movie, really. Fuck Bombers forever! A-

Whiplash: This fucking movie starts out like a horror movie, the sound of drums playing over a black screen, the title small and in the distance. The monster is Fletcher, a terrifying instructor played by J.K. Simmons, who manages to keep him from becoming a caricature. His victim is Andrew, a drummer with aspirations of greatness played by Miles Teller, who made me want to empathy-cry for him. Fletcher is abusive, verbally and emotionally, sometimes physically, because he truly believes that pushing people beyond what they're capable of will inspire them to become a Great Artist. Whiplash is stressful and hard to watch, but the filmmaking is incredible. I don't consider myself a jazz fan, but I liked listening to the two jazz pieces used over and over ("Whiplash" and "Caravan"), and more importantly, I loved watching them be played. Damien Chazelle uses quick cuts and close-ups to turn jazz band into sports; you can see the sweat dripping off the players. Every scene between Fletcher and Andrew is so fraught that I welcomed the relief of anything about Andrew's personal life, as he did. But then his personal life starts to dwindle as he becomes more focused. Whiplash examines the human costs of creating great art, of becoming a great artist. Must it come from pain and suffering? Is it worth it? Is there a balance between pushing someone to succeed and a false "Good job"? The movie doesn't take a definitive stance, but it packages the questions in an exhilarating, compelling experience. A-

Hustle & Flow: A friend recommended this movie as an interesting exploration of creativity, a complement to Whiplash. Terrence Howard says the word "man" in a unique way 221 times over the course of this film, in which DJay, who sells weed and pimps hos, is inspired by the success of hometown-boy-makes-good rapper Skinny Black to follow his own musical aspirations. He assembles a team and they make the magic happen! Watching DJay and Co. create is really fun, as they seek out the perfect beats, the right hook, the path to fame, and a lot of their struggles are applicable to artists of all kinds: the desire to express yourself and your personal experience, the need to create something with enough mainstream appeal to reach a wider audience, the million-in-one chance of getting your work in the hands of the right person. DJay and his, er, employees and his creative partners become a kind of found family, and I rooted for their success wholeheartedly, as they overcame conflict after conflict. To my surprise, DJay's sex workers also got to be characters of their own, especially Nola (Taryn Manning), who has a parallel character arc to DJay's: she, too, wants to be more than what she is. B+/A-

Foxcatcher: Based on a true story that I knew nothing about! Channing Tatum is a gold-medal wrestler, as his brother, Mark Ruffalo. They're approached by prosthetic Steve Carell, who plays eccentric millionaire John du Pont (yes, that du Pont). He wants to give them money and train them to be world champion wrestlers even though as far as I can tell he's not even a very good wrestler. Much as been made of Steve Carell's performance, and it just...did not work for me?? He mostly seems kind of sleepy and confused, definitely not all there. But it starts to become clear that he's not all there, sanity-wise, though it continues to be very low-key. This whole movie is very low-key and by low-key I mean boring because I literally fell asleep. And I did not bother rewinding to catch what I was missing because the first hour failed to make me interested in anything that was happening or going to happen. The direction and score try to make the movie tense and ominous, but I was not invested in anyone or anything. Finally, at the end, there is some kind of payoff, what the movie had been building to, but then the movie just ends. I probably missed the good stuff, so I'm willing to give it the benefit of a little doubt, but I don't see what all the fuss was about. B-/B

Ghost in the Shell: Motoko Kusanagi is a cyborg, but so is basically everyone in the future, all transferring their consciousnesses into cybernetic bodies. She's part of a team looking for a hacker codenamed the Puppet Master, and when they catch him, he's...not what they expected. Ghost in the Shell is one of those movies that's so influential that it's hard to truly appreciate now because I've seen and enjoyed so many things that have been inspired by it (like The Matrix). It's not an action-packed film, though there are some decent action scenes; rather, it's far more interested in contemplating and examining identity as it relates to bodies, and how who you "are" does not depend on a body at all. There's an actual plot about...conspiracies or something, but I couldn't really follow it. I am always here for discussions of identity, though, and I found that aspect of the film fascinating, even though, as I said, they're ideas I've seen in many works that came after this one. B/B+

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence: I dug Batou and Togusa in Ghost in the Shell, and they're the focus of the sequel, investigating a case of malfunctioning gynoids. This movie feels more plot-focused than the original, but my sleepy-ass Saturday morning self sure couldn't follow it. I loved the animation in this one, though, especially the clockwork insides of the gynoids. There's more philosophical talk about humans and machines and the differences or lack thereof, but it's mostly done via random quotes of things about birds and fish or whatever. I did like finding out what Major had been up to since the last movie, but I couldn't really get into this one. B

Mad Max: In preparation for Mad Max: Fury Road, I had to watch visionary director George Miller's original vision! Which, um, is kinda boring. In the near future, Australia is, er, somewhat vaguely post-apocalyptic, and there are biker gangs. Max Rockatansky (ROCKATANSKY) is a cop trying to keep the highways safe, and then in hot pursuit of one biker dude, the biker dies, and so his whole gang comes after him for REVENGE, led by Toecutter, who is definitely one of the best things about the movie even though HE NEVER CUTS OFF ANYONE'S TOES. He has all this gravitas, doing that calm, exalted villain thing, even though he's head of a biker gang. Anyway there are some car chases and explosions but there's no real sense of narrative for most of the movie, even though Max has occasional character moments (monologues about his feelings). Finally, an hour into the movie, it's time for MAX to get MAD and it becomes clear this whole movie was basically an origin story. I know Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome are the more iconic films, but I am bewildered as to why this movie was so popular. B

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior: Now that Mad Max is Mad Max after Mad Max, we can get a real Mad Max movie, and now I see what all the fuss is about. George Miller recaps the first movie with narration in the first four minutes (along with backstory about a fuel shortage that led to this post-apocalyptic world), which both makes viewing the first film redundant and immediately elevates Max to his mythic status as the Road Warrior. Miller uses the "lone gunslinger saves helpless villagers" story from Westerns and plops it down into a world where the Native Americans are instead bondage-wearing freaks on motorcycles, asses plainly exposed and yet no one gets shot in the ass. Max just wants gasoline, and this outpost just wants to escape from Lord Humungus, who is the kind of guy who calls himself Lord Humungus. Max says very, very little, and all of his characterization comes from what he does and what he doesn't do, how he interacts with people and how they interact with him. There's a Feral Kid with a razor-sharp boomerang, there's a Gyro Captain with a gyro copter, there's a Warrior Woman (PLAYED BY VIRGINIA HEY), there's lots and lots of mohawks. The action sequences are great, especially because they're done with practical effects and stunts. Miller creates an aesthetic for this film and totally commits to it, and it works. Never a dull moment, and the closing narration cements the Road Warrior's place in film history. B+/A-

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome: The final Mad Max movie until Fury Road arrived and changed all of our lives. Although it was unclear to me how much time had passed until reading the Wikipedia summary, it's been fifteen years since the last movie (and understanding that would have cleared up some of my questions), and the Outback is a desert wasteland. Max gets his stuff stolen and finds himself in Bartertown, where he meets Aunty Entity (Tina Turner, who chews on all the scenery pretty gloriously; she owns the screen when she's on). Bartertown is a weird nightmare land, and the law of this land is, you remember: TWO MEN ENTER! ONE MAN LEAVES! Thunderdome is pretty cool, and the power struggle between Aunty and Master Blaster has potential, but halfway through the movie takes a sharp left turn and becomes Mad Max in Neverland. There are some interesting ideas in this section about life after the apocalypse and preservation of cultural history but it comes out of fucking nowhere and belongs in a different movie (apparently it was a different movie that could turned into a Mad Max movie). The climactic action sequence, thankfully, has that Miller flair that's carried the series, but hoo boy is the last half of this movie a weird mess. Still, it's not boring like the first one, so I'll give it that. B/B+

The Cell: After Vincent D'Onofrio's brilliant turn as Kingpin in Daredevil, I thought it was high time to check out The Fall director Tarsem Singh's debut, which I'd heard pretty good things about, especially in relation to Hannibal. It takes a fairly standard serial killer plot—get ready for lots of violence toward women!—and overlays a visually sumptuous sci-fi conceit. Jennifer Lopez uses fancy-schmancy tech to go inside the mind of a serial killer ooooohhh. The production design and cinematography are wonderful, and this movie would have been incredible on a big screen, for sure. Lopez has to protect Little Boy Serial Killer from Monster Serial Killer without becoming too drawn into his nightmare world (if you die in the mind YOU DIE IN REAL LIFE maybe). She's trying to get information on his current victim (like I said, fairly standard serial killer plot), which provides a good ticking clock. Mostly, this movie has some good performances and great imagery, but it's not really as deep as it wants to be. B/B+

My Netflix queue has some recent movies I've missed, but I may be dipping into more older stuff too!
Tags: making the grade, movies

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