Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Some Other Movies I Saw in 2014 (It was a Great Year for Science Fiction)

 In an average year of films being released, it's unusual to see more than one or two really good science fiction releases on the big screen. For the most part, the films that make it to multiplexes are either comic book adaptations with elements of sci-fi, or a director with some clout putting out an ambitious, if flawed, release. Let's say, oh, Prometheus. You're lucky to get a Looper or a Moon every now and then, but most of the time it's Transformers: Age of Whatever or something that's like that but just different enough. Has somebody bought up the rights to Go-Bots yet? I mean, there was a Ouija movie this year, and if that's not scraping the barrel of licensed properties, we're in trouble. The point is that, most of the time, you're looking to independent films or video-on-demand for intelligent science fiction.

 Which is what makes 2014 all the more an embarrassment of riches for fans of science fiction in cinema. Not only did we get a sizable chunk of releases, the ones not named Transformers: Pain & Gain Edition Now With Dinobots were all pretty good to really good. In fact, there are at least two that should be in this section, but won't be precisely because they were among my favorite movies of 2014. You'll also notice that there are more existing reviews in this section than in any of the ones that preceded it, because I wanted to get the word out. We've already covered Godzilla, Interstellar, Automata, and Lucy, and while I didn't necessarily love the last two, they're still better than most of what passes for science fiction. However, what follows are much closer to the cream of the crop, including one comic book movie I'm including because it involves time travel.

 There's nowhere to start but strong with this list, so I might as well begin with Edge of Tomorrow, a criminally under seen film from Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity) and starring Tom Cruise (Oblivion) and Emily Blunt (Looper). It didn't do very well at the box office, which I'm just going to go ahead and attribute to "Oblivion fatigue," mostly because I haven't seen Oblivion because it looked like Wall-E meets Moon with Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman. Maybe it's good, maybe it isn't, but I didn't see it and it's from the director of Tron: Legacy. Take that for what you will. Tom Cruise hadn't really been doing anything that the tabloids were leaping over each other to cover, so that's my only explanation for the audience ennui that led Warner Brothers to rebrand the film Live. Die. Repeat. when they released it on Blu-Ray, further confusing people.

 And this is a shame, because Edge of Tomorrow is that rare beast of a science fiction / action hybrid that trusts its audience to keep up, toys with our expectations, isn't chopped into a million pieces in editing the combat scenes, and is a lot of fun to watch. In fact, it's funny. Like, really funny. If your smart-ass buddy leaned over on his couch and said, "heh, check it out - Video Game: The Movie," he'd be half right, but Edge of Tomorrow is really more like Groundhog Day in the middle of an alien invasion. Its exposition is reminiscent of Pacific Rim: quickly dropping you into a world where humans are getting their tails handed to them by an unknown alien force, nicknamed "Mimics". Major William Cage (Cruise) is a propaganda official who we meet during the news pieces that open the film, and shortly thereafter is shirking any responsibility to be involved in a D-Day like offensive being organized by General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson). Cage has never seen combat and is, frankly, a coward.

 His attitude rubs Brigham the wrong way, and when Cage is knocked out trying to leave HQ, he wakes up in the middle of an Army Base, handcuffed and issued a Private's uniform by Master Sergeant Farrell (Bill Paxton), who treats him like a newly enlisted grunt. Cage is taken to the worst unit, J-Squad, and informed he'll be on the front lines of the offensive, whether or not he learns to use his EXO-Suit. For the record, he just barely figures out how to reload before he manages to kill a Mimic, and then is promptly killed himself. Then Cage snaps awake, back on the Army Base, handcuffed and thrown his uniform, with no one having the slightest idea what he's talking about. It's not until the third or fourth time Cage dies horribly that he's noticed by Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Blunt), one of the "faces" of the war, who seems to understand what's happening to him.

 From that point onward, Edge of Tomorrow balances the repetition of action and character moments as Cage and Vrataski work together to use his ability to their advantage, to beat the Mimics at their own game of adapting to human strategy. Liman, screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie, Jez and John-Henry Butterworth - adapting Hiroshi Sakurazaka's novel All You Need is Kill - use our familiarity with Cage's predicament to leap forward in time and let us figure out how many times he's replayed a scenario. As a result, Cruise spends most of the movie working his way towards the "stoic hero" persona you're used to seeing. It's actually fun watching him play a coward, somebody totally overwhelmed by, well, everything, acting as the comic foil for Blunt. Edge of Tomorrow has the good sense not to pander to audiences, up until perhaps the end - which is going to again remind you of Pacific Rim - and barrels ahead. The cast seem to be having a great time here, particularly Paxton as the anti-Hudson from Aliens. For a movie I wasn't expecting to see at all, I must say that Edge of Tomorrow delivers on everything it sets out to do, and does it very well. It's a shame more of you didn't watch it, but that's what home video is for, right?

 One of the nice things about the short window between theatrical and video releases is that it makes it possible to see movies that don't open in a very wide release, but are nevertheless on my radar. Such was the case with Jonathan Glazer (Birth)'s Under the Skin, which is a film I don't feel is inaccurate to describe as "Lynchian". Here's an excerpt from my review earlier this year (light SPOILERS if you don't know anything about the film or book it's based on):

"Under the Skin [...] is filled with visual tics and images that suggest, but often never explain. Glazer seems content to introduce a concept in the film and explore it in its bare minimum, instead leaving much of the heavy lifting to the audience. If you like films that are puzzles, ones that present the pieces but don't tell you how they fit together, Under the Skin excels at that. Perhaps reading the book by Michael Faber would help with interpreting Glazer and Walter Campbell's adaptation. Perhaps not. I haven't read the book, although I'm certainly more interested in doing so now. At the moment, I'm still digesting what I have seen, what tantalizing clues I'm not putting in the right places. [...]Glazer does an interesting about face, particularly considering the amount of nudity from Johansson in the film I wasn't expecting. The"male gaze" is on display near the very beginning - when Johansson either takes over for the last "agent" or simply removes the clothes of a dead woman - slowly gives way to another sort of gaze. I hesitate to call it "feminine" because she's clearly not playing a human, and it implies that the male objectification operates in the exact same way that the "male gaze" does. It's more of an "alien gaze," although her entire purpose is to draw men in using their "male gaze" - critical in drawing them to follow her into the Black Room and by extension, their doom."

 I could have sworn I reviewed The Rover, but I can't seem to find it, so I must not have. It's a continuation of "Australian Post Apocalyptic" cinema that most of you would identify the Mad Max films with. The Rover is more stripped down, almost to the barest of essentials, but it's nevertheless science fiction in that it takes place after the world has collapsed, following people hardened by trying to stay alive. It's not quite the post-apocalypse we're used to: there are attempts to maintain society as it was, to run stores and an emphasis on money still being viable (US dollars, though), but things are going downhill fast, and martial law isn't what it used to be.

 Eric (Guy Pearce) is a man with a car. We meet him stopping at a bar, cleaning up, and having a drink. Meanwhile, three crooks driving away in their SUV come speeding towards town, in the aftermath of what clearly was a robbery gone wrong. Henry (Scoot McNairy) is shot, but seems more concerned that he abandoned his brother, despite the insistence by Caleb (Tawanda Manyimo) and Archie (David Field) that he's probably dead. When they swerve off the road and into some construction, Archie abandons their car and takes the nearest available one - Eric's. This, it turns out, is a mistake, and the rest of The Rover is about Eric's relentless pursuit of his car. We won't know why until the very end, but he wants it back. He needs it back, and no one and no thing in this world is going to stop him.

 Pearce is something to see in The Rover - his grimy, buttoned up shirt, cargo pants, and sneakers imply a man who can be pushed around, who values pragmatism over principle, but take a careful look at his shaggy beard and patchy, home-cut hairdo. This is not a man with whom you should trifle, and he's not the sort afraid to leave a trail of bodies in his wake. The way he gets a gun on the way to finding them, or the casually brutal way he deals with Rey (Robert Pattinson), Henry's brother, who is alive, but barely, are a sign of what's to come. He takes Rey to a doctor (Susan Prior), strictly out of necessity, to keep him alive long enough to get to Henry. Rey seems to be just a simpleton, who doesn't understand the world, but Pattinson plays him in such a way that it's not always clear how much is real and how much of it is an act.

 There are moments when Rey is clearly more attuned to the situation than Eric is, not the least of which when he rescues his captor from the Military. There were only four of them, and to be honest, the world has gone to hell, so they don't even really care about processing Eric. It ends up not mattering - they're all dead in a flash - but moments like these are critical in the world building of The Rover. What we learn comes in fits and spurts - it's never clear what caused society to collapse - but it's enough to make it believable that it isn't just the "strong" that survive. Sometimes the bitterly determined, or the decent, can make it if they're willing or stubborn enough. Eric is most certainly stubborn enough to follow through to the bitter end, and in doing so ends the film on a wicked pun. And that's all I will say about that. If you like low key apocalypse stories, ones without a massive scale or insane chases, The Rover will be right up your alley. Just don't expect Mad Max - we'll get that soon enough...

 Somewhere between the beginning and end of the summer, my "Double Double Feature" turned into a "Triple Double Feature." I had the great fortune of taking a chance on The One I Love, a movie that I'd initially passed on based on my not so great track record with the brothers Duplass (who produced). I'm glad I changed my mind, based mostly on finding out some of the premise, which I guess I kinda SPOILED. Then again, if you already read my review from September of last year, you know the basics of the story, just not where it goes from there. Here's a sampling:

 "There is, it seems, more going on than meets the eye, but it's less important than watching Moss and Duplass interacting with very different versions of their characters (more Duplass than Moss, as the "other" Sophie isn't much of a factor until late in the film) and what it does to their already fractious relationship. Ethan finds himself competing for his wife's affection with, well, himself, only a more appealing version. Out of desperation, he pulls a potentially relationship damaging act of subterfuge, one that comes back to haunt him when they discover that the "other" Ethan and Sophie are able to leave the guest house. Their final night at the house is indeed a tense one, as both Ethans and both Sophies have dinner and attempt to navigate mutual suspicions. And then, near the end, we have some idea why the therapist isn't answering his phone and what purpose these "others" serve. I'll save that for you to find out.

 If this was a largely improvised movie (as per "mumblecore" ethos), it certainly didn't feel like it. Some of the conversations between Moss and Duplass felt a little open ended, but that might have more to do with the ambiguous nature of the situation Ethan and Sophie are in. There's a considerable amount of set-up / payoff in the film, particularly at the end, and while I'd technically classify the film as "science fiction," it's mostly realistic in execution."

  Blogorium regulars will already know that this followed a doubled-up review of Enemy and The Double from the month before, and I'm still on the fence about which one I prefer more. The ambiguity and at times disturbing imagery in Enemy sticks with me, but there is something to be said for the Gilliam-esque universe of The Double, of its tone and refusal to simply head in the direction it seems to be going. The good news is that I don't have to pick one. Here's a taste of Enemy, followed by The Double:

 "The entire film is cast in a sickly, yellow pallor, indicative of the state of mind of at least one (but probably all) of the main characters. Gyllenhaal distinguishes Adam from Anthony so well, both in physical performance and in delivery of dialogue that I never doubted they were two distinct characters, despite knowing it was the same actor. Laurent is in less of the film than Gadon, but makes an impression that's hard to shake. Gadon carries much of the emotional arc of the film - she meets Adam before Anthony does, and her perplexed reaction to him (he doesn't know who she is) is crushing. The impact of his existence hurts her more deeply than it does Adam, a meek and shrunken individual every bit the opposite of the confident, scheming Anthony. That is, if either really exists. Without giving too much away, there are elements of Enemy that reminded me of Mulholland Dr, but in a more abstract sense. The shared dreams and experiences of the doppelgängers don't directly point towards a revelation in the story: Villeneuve and Gullón are content to imply, to suggest, right up until the very end. Or the beginning.

 The Double is a less abstract but in many ways more impressionistic film exploring similar territory, albeit based on an older (and arguably more bizarre) story. A colleague of mine mentioned that he was impressed anyone would even try to adapt Dostoevsky's "weirdest" novel, which he described as "Jung 50 years before Jung." If there was anyone with a sensibility to make it work, The Double landed in the capable hands of Richard Ayoade (Submarine), who crafts it into a film that I can only describe as unique. I feel like doing The Double an injustice by suggesting that it resembles Fight Club by way of Brazil, but there's an element to Ayoade's stylistic approach that is highly reminiscent of the latter, with elements towards the end similar to the former. That said, The Double isn't quite like anything most of the time.

 [...] Ayoade's visual presentation of The Double gives it the feeling of a lucid nightmare, of a dystopian future that's simultaneously retro (while I don't think it's ever stated, The Double seems to take place in an alternate 1980s). It's doesn't draw attention to itself, but the television program Simon is fond of and the computers they use are clearly several generations removed from the 21st Century. His scene transitions are often inspired, capitalizing on isolated faces in darkness that suddenly emerge in new settings. While Enemy sparingly uses split screen or digital technology, Eisenberg is almost constantly interacting with himself, and the seams aren't apparent in the slightest."

 As I find myself on the subjects of doubles or alternate versions of characters, it's as good a time as any to mention the Marvel comic book movie that ended up out in the cold, memory-wise, by year's end. Not to denigrate the other three (four, if you want to count Big Hero 6), as two of them will be popping up later in this recap and the other one was The Amazing Spider-Man 2, but I do feel bad for X-Men: Days of Future Past. It is a really entertaining return for Bryan Singer to the cinematic mutant world he created, and does a few impossible tasks with aplomb. I mean, we are talking about a movie that manages to combine X-Men: First Class with the original Singer films without making us think about how terrible X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine were. It might have even erased one of them entirely*.

 Singer liberally adapts the original Uncanny X-Men story, which will be much to the consternation of Kitty Pryde fans. On a marketing and somewhat logistical level, I understand it: Hugh Jackman's Wolverine has consistently been the face of the franchise (he's been in every movie, including First Class) and while unfair, building the movie around Ellen Page travelling back in time would only serve to remind fans of X-Men: The Last Stand. It's pretty clear from the ending of Days of Future Past (Kelsey Grammer cameo aside) that Singer and company are working hard to undo the Brett Ratner helmed third film, so Logan gets shipped back in time. Singer pulls off an impressive juggling act of keeping things light and, frequently, funny. At least, that is, after a dour, post-apocalyptic prologue action sequence, introducing us to (and then murdering) several familiar faces to fans of the comics.

 Actually, Days of Future Past might be the most violent of the X-films: the prologue essentially sets up the menace of Sentinels, as we watch them brutally murder what's left of the X-Men one by one. I mean, yes, it's bloodless by and large, but seeing Iceman decapitated and then have his frozen skull crushed it pretty rough stuff. I mean, inside of twenty minutes we're hanging out with Logan in bell bottoms.

 It remains to be seen what Joss Whedon is going to do with the character, but Singer gives the character of Quicksilver (Evan Peters) a showcase moment in slo-mo halfway through the film that shouldn't be anywhere as fun as it is. It's a scene among many scenes where characters who went under-used in First Class have the opportunity to really shine, from Beast (Nicholas Hoult) to Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and Professor Xavier (James McAvoy). However, Jennifer Lawrence actually makes an impression this time around as Mystique, which is odd only in that her character was supposedly the focus of First Class. Peter Dinklage has some fine moments as Bolivar Trask, who is perhaps rightfully unnerved by mutant evolution, but whose methods of research are, shall we say, excessive.

 Still, it's not really fair to talk about Days of Future Past without mentioning Hugh Jackman, who at this point IS Wolverine. He's the only character who really has any idea what's supposed to happen, but his discombobulated state and inability to convey what the older Xavier (Patrick Stewart) wants the young Xavier to do is quite funny. It's a fish out of water story despite the fact that Logan is clearly inhabiting his younger body. He just can't remember much of what it was like to be there. Jackman sells the comedy with ease: watch the scene where Logan walks through the metal detector, and the relief on his face when nothing happens. It's balance nicely with the more serious moments, like a brief back and forth between Xaviers, or the impressive - albeit excessive - climax involving the White House and a football stadium. Singer puts everything together so well, handles the mutants so logically, that you're totally willing to forgive him for leaving to make the most boring Superman movie ever. But, even for Marvel 2014, it's not enough for people to remember it in the same breath as, oh, that other space movie or the one with the soldier. Winter something or other...

 I know that this next movie is technically a documentary, but one of the great things about Jodorowsky's Dune is the speculative quality it brings to the true story of the adaptation that never was. For a long time, it was whispered among fans of science fiction, typically as a counterpoint to the "Alan Smithee" extended cut of Dune. I still have friends who prefer that version to the one David Lynch was willing to put his name on, but neither iteration comes close to the "other" Dune, the mythical Dune. And now we can see what it might have looked like, thanks to Jodorowsky's concept art / script. Here's a snipped of the original review from last year:

  "It is still hard to imagine that Alejandro Jodorowsky's mad plan could have translated to film, although I'd love to have seen his try. He only made three films after Dune's collapse - Tusk, Santa Sangre, and The Rainbow Thief (I've only seen Santa Sangre) - but being involved in Pavich's documentary led Jodorowsky and Seydoux to reconnect, and together they made The Dance of Reality last year. I hadn't heard of it until Jodorowsky's Dune, but it's described as a "metaphorical, poetical" autobiography, so I plan to seek it out in the near future. In the meantime, I highly recommend Jodorowsky's Dune, both to people who have been aware of the story and to people wondering what we were all so excited about. This review only really scratches the surface of what's covered in the film - I left out almost all of Jodorowsky's best stories - so don't worry that you'll already know everything going in. Just sit back and enjoy what might have been."

 Appropriately enough, I began this section about a great year for science fiction on a strong note, and will close on an even stronger one. If you've been around the Blogorium a while, or have made use of the "search" function (I have one of those, right?), you might know that my biggest problem with Rise of the Planet of the Apes were its one-dimensional human characters. For a movie that was so much better than anyone thought it could be, all of the focus seemed to be on the apes. Ironically for a movie with digital protagonists, the humans were mostly cartoonish and unbelievable, which dampened the proceedings somewhat. It didn't ruin my ability to invest in Caesar (Andy Serkis)'s arc, but it did keep it from being a fully realized entry into the series. Instead, it was a "better than most of the sequels" re-imagining of part of Escape from the Planet of the Apes.

 Dawn of the Planet of the Apes does not suffer from the same shortcomings, although I'm sure people will point to Kirk Acevedo's character, or Gary Oldman's bullhorn speechifying. And you might have a point, but I'll make my case in a little bit why they're far more dimensional than Tom Felton or David Oyowelo were in Rise. What's interesting about Dawn - which is, at its heart, a retelling of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes - is how even-handed the story is. Rather than trying to paint one side or the other as being in the wrong, much of the film is spent with the mistakes that Caesar makes in negotiating with the humans living in San Francisco. He wants to show strength, to maintain Koba (Toby Kebbell)'s respect, but his affinity for Will (James Franco) from the first film remains, and it causes him to overlook wrongs inflicted, for the most part, accidentally.

 Humans and apes haven't seen each other in nearly a decade, and while the apes have created a society to raise their families and teach each other, humanity has struggled just to stay alive. The virus wiped out most of society, and those who survived don't necessarily have the same information that the audience does. Acevedo's character, Carver, represents this ignorance about what the "monkey virus" really means, and he's accordingly terrified when he encounters them for the first time. It leads to an accidental shooting that nearly derails talks before they can begin. Carver is part of a team working with Malcolm (Jason Clarke) to restore a hydroelectric dam near where the apes live, and territorial issues spring up immediately. Dreyfus (Oldman) is holding together the population of survivors as best he can, but without power they won't survive much longer. Caesar is living in peace with the apes, but the presence of humans brings longstanding grudges, particularly on the part of Koba, who never forgave them for experimenting and the scars that mark his face. Malcolm and Cesar attempt to reach a peaceful settlement, but is it even possible?

 The Planet of the Apes series would never be accused of being, shall we say, subtle, but Rise was interesting in that it took Caesar seriously. The all CGI, all singing, all dancing apes were the reason to see the film. To be fair, yes, it took what sounded like a horrible idea - rebooting the series and jumping back in time to not step on the cold, dead toes of Charlton Heston - but managed to tie itself to the first film in ways that didn't seem dumb. More importantly, it made me want to see more Apes films, which I thought I'd never say following Tim Burton's terrible remake from 2001. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes ups the ante by refusing to make us choose "apes" or "humans": giving us good and bad on both sides, neither of which is totally resolved at the end. If anything, it's a kind of melancholy cliffhanger: Caesar stays, Malcolm goes. War is coming, and the apes have no choice but to fight it. And win. I mean, we know they're going to win. They can ride horses and dual wield machine guns.

 Yes, that happens in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and yes, it's pretty cool. Impractical? Oh yeah, but we're talking about building a world which will eventually get back to mutants who worship an unexploded atom bomb. Also, while it puts asses in seats, most of the film isn't ape-on-human whooping. In fact, the first twenty minutes are just apes, communicating mostly through sign language (don't worry - they can still talk). There's a lot of time spent leading up to the Big Dumb Climax, which is arguably better than the Big Dumb Climax on the Golden Gate Bridge in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) even manages to sneak in some visual cues that echo Rise in Dawn. Even if it was just a fun action movie with talking apes and humans being corny villains, I probably would have enjoyed it. But instead, there are nuances, little moments that go beyond "broadly drawn type." Dreyfus explaining how he came to San Francisco. The first time music plays in the gas station. Maurice (Karin Konoval) trying to calm Caesar about the influence Koba has on the others. Or wondering if any people are still out there. Koba's "shuck and jive" performance for the guards.

 If I was onboard for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes after Rise finished, I'm certainly keen to see the next film. We're headed for all out war, which means that the gap between Conquest and Battle for the Planet of the Apes will happen, on-screen, and maybe it means a less terrible take on Battle to follow. As long as the series builds to, but does not decide to take on, Planet of the Apes, then keep those sequels coming. We can stand to have some well thought out science fiction along side our apes on horseback firing machine guns. I mean, if a talking raccoon can do it...

 Oops, got ahead of myself there. We'll get to those other talking animals (and trees) soon, but first I need to finish with the runners-up. The end is nigh, cats and kittens...

 * Full disclosure: I haven't seen The Wolverine yet, so I don't want to include that.

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