Dredd

TL;DR Summary: One of the best science fiction movies in recent memory.  Up there with Fury Road and Interstellar.

I was not a fan of the comic book, in the sense that I didn’t even know it existed until the 1995 Sylvester Stallone movie, a film so awkward and embarrassing for everyone involved (including the audience) that it left a sour association with the whole franchise in my mind. So I was confused when I heard they were remaking it with Karl Urban and Lena Headey back in 2012.

Why am I talking about this in 2015, three years after it was released to a disappointing $13M domestic gross?  Because it’s one of those movies that was punished for being a great remake of a terrible film.  It’s also one of those movies, like Scott Pilgrim and Big Trouble In Little China, that people either get 100 percent or don’t get at all.  And since I am in the former group, I have a tendency to break this one out every now and then watch it again.

Why is it so much better than the original? Choices.

Where Stallone chose to go over the top (funny, I just remembered he starred in a movie that was actually called “Over The Top”) with his portrayal of Judge Dredd, Urban wisely understands that even though he is the driver of all the action in the film, he’s not the protagonist.  He’s a force of nature.  So his choice to play Dredd as a less mechanized version of RoboCop is right on the money.

He also never takes off the helmet which is important because Dredd NEVER removes the helmet.  Nerd rage over.

Likewise, Lena Headey realizes that even though she is the immovable object to Dredd’s irresistible force, she’s not the bad guy.  Peach Trees is. Poverty is. The megablocks are.  She and Dredd are just a pair of protons being forced together in the super furnace of a very bad situation.  There’s no chance of victory for anybody.  The only question is whether anyone will escape with their dignity in tact.

That’s where the indispensable and nearly unpronounceable Olivia Thirlby (seriously, try saying that name three times fast) comes into play.  She’s the hopeful penitent who is on the journey at the heart of this picaresque.

And this is another decision (probably made by director Pete Travis) that helps the movie: being a mutant with psychic powers, Thirlby’s Judge Anderson cannot wear a helmet.  This makes her the face of the protagonist forces just as Headey’s horribly scarred countenance is the face of the antagonist forces.  These two women, going against one another as opposing forces orbiting in Dredd’s orbit are what drive the story to viewers’ hearts.

One final thing: the movie is shot with an over saturated color palette that implies an almost constant heat haze and the scenes depicting what it’s like to take the Slo-Mo drug are beyond beautiful and certainly more beautiful than you expect in an action movie.

Highly recommended.

Jupiter Ascending

In theory, I love the Wachowski brand of film making.  When I’m watching their movies, I can actually visualize the two of them in a room together, hands framing imaginary shots, amping each other up over this or that set piece.  Their style is so visual that you almost want to watch their movies with the sound turned off.

But that’s also true of Michael Bay movies.  They’re essentially a series of loud, brash set pieces strung together by laughable exposition and truly clumsy dialogue housed in a plot so full of holes it almost ceases to exist.

Just being able to put together a truly amazing visual experience doesn’t make you a filmmaker.  It makes you a cinematographer.  A filmmaker is a storyteller who uses film as their medium.

Bound and The Matrix are two of the best stories ever told on film.  So how did the siblings who wrote those scripts get to the Matrix sequels, Speed Racer and, now, Jupiter Ascending?

The beauty of this movie is undeniable.  The colors, the design, the special effects, the over the top action sequences are all superior to almost any other science fiction film in recent history.  Mila Kunis, it goes without saying, is a treasure.  Channing Tatum is… muscular.

The problem is that it’s all in service of a story we’ve heard told a thousand times in exactly these words.  And when the story is not equal to its window dressing , it starts to look a little bit like putting on a full blown Italian opera just so your ten-year-old niece can sing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star at center stage.

It would be interesting to see what they could do if they let someone else write the story.  It would have to be better than this noisy, chaotic retread however beautiful the eye candy.

 

Inherent Vice

I didn’t understand the book and I don’t get Pynchon (The Crying of Lot 49 was like one long drag of fingernails across a blackboard for me in college) and I’m not particularly fond of director Paul Thomas Anderson (I haven’t found a single other one of his overlong, overwrought movies to be a valuable use of my time) so my love for this movie can only be described as completely inexplicable.

I do think Joaquin Phoenix is a great actor and he’s great in this film.  Everyone, even the usually irritating Martin Short, is great in this film.  Don’t get me wrong, the story doesn’t make a whole lot of sense but I don’t think it makes less sense than the source material.  It just packages that same incoherence in a mixture of humor and nostalgia that allows someone who is exactly my age and has exactly my background to truly enjoy the time they spend with it.

And I can’t even argue with any passion that what I just said is actually true.  The person with whom I first watched the movie is my age and has a similar background and his one word review was, “Hogwash.”

I’ve watched it several times since that first viewing, both sober and otherwise, and I still get a kick out of it.  I think of it like a classic detective novel was looking the other way and someone dropped a hit of yellow sunshine into its bourbon.

Terminator Genisys Reviewed

For a fan of the franchise, especially one who saw the originals in the theater, the first half hour of this movie is worth the price of admission.  Seeing shot for shot remakes of some of the opening scenes, being able to mouth the dialog along with the incidental characters, watching it all done in top-of-the-line, cutting edge tech actually brought a lump to my throat and made me, however temporarily, remember the magical feeling of going to the movie theater.

The trailers have spoiled most of the big reveals that would have made this a real blast so I don’t have to warn you about spoilers in this review because there was nothing left to spoil.

It’s a good conceit for a reboot.  Much in the same way JJ Abrams threw away the old rule book with his Star Trek reboot by altering time, we very quickly discover that the past has been changed and Kyle Reese will not be saving a reluctant hero/mother-figure of the future.  She even gets to say the famous line, “Come with me if you want to live.”

Question: Seeing as how they were able to create an Uncanny Valley version of a young Arnold for the opening fight scene, could they not have done the same with Bill Paxton’s ersatz punk?

After the fun, creative and thoroughly enjoyable opening half hour, the movie settles into the usual for Terminator movies. It runs and, half out of breath, drops exposition bombs all over the place as our heroes try to evade the cyborg-du-jour.

That’s a lot of fun, too, but mostly because of Arnold’s older, wiser performance as Pops.  I don’t watch Game of Thrones (or at least I don’t yet) so I’m not familiar with Emilia Clarke’s work in that series, but I found her portrayal of Sarah Connor to be humorless and noninflected. That may just be me cementing myself nostalgically to Linda Hamilton’s performance but I was unable to make an emotional connection with her over the course of two hours.

Question: Why is Matt Smith in this movie?  Was there a Dr. Who crossover I wasn’t informed about?  That was the first thing that popped into my mind when I saw him standing in the background with a bunch of nameless Resistance characters.  Even once his role in the movie was fully revealed I continued to wonder why they had chosen him.  Had his character been cut mostly out of the movie?

More Questions: Who sent Pops back? Who targeted Sarah at age 9? Why can Reese see two timelines?

If you ask the producers, they will answer the same for every question: We’re setting up stuff for the sequel.

Pointedly leaving out information critical to understand the plot does not make for a fully realized story telling experience. Though it does explain the profoundly stupid happy ending they grafted onto it.

The way it’s supposed to work is like this: Wow, that was a really good movie and the story was complete and I feel like the team that produced it folded it up nicely like a great, big origami swan and handed it to me.  Then, when the sequel comes out, you go, “Oh!  Of course! That’s how they tie together!”

The original Terminator ends ominously with Linda Hamilton telling us that a storm is coming just as she heads out into the desert to prepare her son for Judgement Day.  That ending closes that chapter of the story and we felt satisfied with it right up until we saw the trailers for Terminator 2.  And that one ended with headlights traversing an unmarked road and a voice-over telling us that the future was unknown.  Again, chapter closed, that part of the story complete.

With this film, you leave the theater with your head filled with questions.  It’s like when a musician stops in the middle of a chord progression or someone knocks “Shave and a haircut…” on the door and then just leaves without completing it with “…two bits.”

That’s not a feeling of wanting more.  That’s a feeling of frustration.

Meeting New People

I’ve been watching the PBS series First Peoples lately.  What I find most interesting about it is that studies of our DNA shows that modern humans interbred with the Denisovan and Neanderthal branches of the family tree.

The old story was that modern humans wiped out all our competitors through warfare but what science actually tells us is that we absorbed them, becoming better through the process of hybridization.

I like that.  I like thinking that our capacity for warfare isn’t the only thing that has propelled us into the future, that our capability for welcoming and incorporating the stranger into our midst is just as important as our ability to defend ourselves.

People who have dropped their phone into the toilet before have a very specific way of picking it up.

Humans

Just watching the first episode of AMC’s excellent and disturbing series Humans and my first thought is that it would be stupid to make robots look like humans. One excellent reason for this is embodied in the scene where the family’s new robot is serving breakfast and the mother keeps telling it to sit down and join them.

People who aren’t rich aren’t comfortable with being served. It’s the reason Americans are overly familiar with waitpersons in restaurants. We want to feel like this nice young person just popped over to fill our tea glass out of the goodness of her heart.

There’s another really good reason not imbue machines with human faces, even ones that aren’t particularly expressive. We have a tendency to anthropomorphize our pets. We project human emotions and feelings onto them as a way of including them in our families (and probably to banish some sense of loneliness). How much emotion would we project onto something that actually had a human face?

The show calls out this problem quite explicitly in a scene where a husband comes home to find his wife being exercised by a hot young man. It’s obvious the “young man” is a robot but it’s equally obvious from the husband’s expression that he’s feeling jealousy.

This would not be a problem if the robots looked like this:

samsung-roboray-humanoid-robot-4

And less like supermodels.

Modern Times

I accidentally watched an episode of Undercover Boss last year.  This was one of those drive-by viewings where you turn on the TV, the show is on and your Id can’t look away no matter how much your Ego and Super Ego try to reason with it.

In this episode, a guy who owned a novelty toy company went down to work in one of his own warehouses as a picker.

I worked in a warehouse for a while during high school and it was one of the better jobs I had during that time (the worst being all fast food and retail jobs.  I truly hate working with the public) as it mostly consisted of driving a forklift, taping boxes, checking pallets, the kind of stuff I could do without engaging my brain which left more gray matter for writing stories at night.

What I saw on this episode of Undercover Boss horrified me.  The pickers in this warehouse were fitted out with a literal robotic overlord that yelled at them all day, “Pick A1B22! Pick A2B33!” And, of course, the robots were programmed to drive the workers at particular pace which was just a little bit shy of so frantic that every shift would end with a workplace murder-suicide.

Forget creepy looking robots, this is the true Uncanny Valley, the time between now and the moment when the machines just flat out take our jobs.  The time during which we work for them.

And what was truly creepy about this particular Voice Directed Warehouse (VDW) system was that it had a name. Jennifer.  When the pickers get behind, they call out, “Slower, Jennifer!”  Seeing this filled me with an overwhelming sadness.  I was watching a human beg a machine to give him a fucking break.

But the truly sad thing is that in ten or fifteen years, even that job won’t be available for humans.

The Original Avengers

When I used to watch The Avengers reruns on TV as a child, I would get the feeling that I was witnessing a joke whose punchline I didn’t quite get.  As a show, it was quirky and weird and felt like a story being told by someone who wasn’t entirely stable, while the other spy shows in terminal reruns in those days had a uniform sense of lock-jawed seriousness they borrowed, I think mistakenly, from Bond.

Except for two: The Prisoner, which made no fucking sense at all but which I love to this day, and The Avengers which I could never quite figure out.  Was it a comedy?  Was it a parody?  Was it a straight up spy story?  Or was it just stupid?

Like I say, I never felt fully in on the joke but I suspect it was a combination of the first three things above.  It definitely wasn’t stupid.  It may have come off as strange and offbeat but I think that was the point.

And it was never dull.

Diana Rigg (along with Yvonne Craig) became one of my first television heart throbs and Patrick Macnee’s John Steed would form the basis for my idea of a man who was cultured and self-contained.  An image that many actors would attempt to reproduce over the years though few would have Macnee’s success.

Most of the papers say he died yesterday at the unfathomable age of 93, but I prefer to think he quit the field like a gentleman.

That Sound

I just turned on my TV and heard “that” sound. A sound hauntingly familiar to anyone who saw Alien or Aliens in the theater. That particular beeping of the locator device they use to track the monster(s) that are about to kill them. It’s a sound spiked with desperation and panic and defeat.

My first thought on hearing it was to wonder which scene I was about to be subjected to, the one in the ventilator shafts on the ship or the one when they come through the ceiling in the station.

Turns out it was the opening scene of Alien vs. Predator: Requiem.  I’ve never seen this movie and, with a Rotten Tomatoes freshness rating of 12 percent, I’m not ever likely to, but it was a good instinct on the director’s part to open with that sound.  It certainly had me hooked for a minute.

It made me wonder what other sounds have bled over from popular culture to haunt our waking hours. The “Deet! Deet! Deet!” from Psycho.  The Halloween theme song.  The whispered voices from Friday the 13th.

I would add the gothic chorus from The Omen but that bit has been so overused by other movies that the teeth have been removed from its bite.