Archive for the ‘Sci-Fi’ Category

The Host (Joon-ho Bong, 2006)

When you put aside “The Host”‘s not-so-subtle…okay, insultingly blatant…pro-environment, anti-American, anti-Formaldehyde message and the overall campiness and exploitativeness, you’ve got a surprisingly deep and fun and interestingly-constructed little monster movie in this, Korea’s all-time highest grossing movie.  So all the Americans are either evil, cross-eyed, or both, the monster looks about as convincing as the Rancor in “Return of the Jedi” from 27 years ago, and just about everyone outside of the family of protagonists are little more than Victims #’s 1-8000, but it’s a gross monster movie trying and failing to make a grand political message (it’s kinda cute how hard it tries to be something special…), so shut up and watch and have fun.  But, there is something interesting afoot when you get past the schlockiness, because call me crazy, but the family dynamic was done very, very well.  Naturally just about every monster movie deals with the whole dysfunctional family being forced to come together in the face of adversity, but in terms of dysfunctional-family-being-forced-to-come-together-in-the-face-of-adversity movies, even ones where that adversity isn’t in the form of an amphibious man-eating squid, this one pretty much nailed it.  The acting and the characters themselves are silly, no doubt, but it’s an interesting family dynamic regardless, with the shopkeeper father and his three grown-up, dysfunctional, completely different children coming together to save the ne’er-do-well son’s precocious young daughter from the vile clutches of the beast.  Together, they’re the consummate fuck-ups, and they outwardly can’t stand each other as the college graduate son and bronze medal-winning archer daughter look down on their brother and ol’ dad has to come to his boy’s defense, but to see them not just have to, but want to put aside their differences to save that little girl is pretty damn endearing, and a surprisingly deep and unique family structure for what’s otherwise a man-eating monster movie.  The parallel story structure is a major factor in keeping your attention, as the story shifts between the family’s inept but sincere attempt to rescue Gang-Du’s daughter while evading both the authorities and the title character, and the little girl surviving Bear Grylls-style in the monster’s lair.  “The Host” isn’t exactly the pinnacle of great storytelling (after a rather thrilling climax, the very end is, well, 😕 .  Also, I wasn’t aware that that was a typical result of a frontal lobotomy…), especially when those filthy, heartless Americans rear their ugly heads, but it still has that nice story of a family coming to terms with each other and their flaws, to go along with all the cool and gross death scenes.  Also helps that the tone of the story is literally all over the place.  One minute it’s a straight-up monster-jumps-out-of-the-corner horror movie (one of the stalest of all genres, but a few of the scares here were impressive), the next a family drama, the next a slapstick comedy.  It’s a mess, sometimes to its detriment but more often just making the proceedings more interesting – one minute this movie would take itself way too seriously with the drama and the messages and what-not, and the next it’d just take the plunge into good, chintzy fun.  Sometimes the humor works, and sometimes it’s really awkward (case and point the weird-ass…what do I call it…brawl? amongst the family members at a public memorial for the monster’s victims that was like a poor man’s Three Stooges).  So often “The Host” is right on track as a surprisingly human drama amidst the backdrop of a monster haunting the Han River, other times it doesn’t know which way is left.  What does that get you?  Damn good television (because I watched it on a television…).

8/10

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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (John S. Robertson, 1920)

THIS


is scary as hell

The rest is not

Maybe it’s unfair of me to compare this very early, very silent version of Robert Louis Steven’s story to Rouben Mamoulian’s rather brilliant version made eleven years later, that version having the advantage of sound, bitterly realistic performances (I maintain that that film’s one of the all-time great horror films not because you’re afraid of what you see, but because you’re afraid for Miriam Hopkins), and Fredric March’s dual performance – brilliantly understated and suave one moment, brilliantly maniacal and imp-like the next.  Robertson’s version is obviously much different, relying on expressionism, faces, and image alone, and for me it just didn’t really work, no matter which direction it tried to go in.  When it tries to be lofty and philosophy/story/dialogue-driven, it spirals into a mindnumbing series of title cards in which Jekyll explains his views on man’s inherent good and evil and the secrets of the cosmos – I was quite shocked at how reliant this film was on title cards and the written word (and extremely long-winded and overly-heady word, I might add) when you’d think that silent films should be reliant on faces and images.

And on the flipside, when this film abandons that over-reliance on words and goes for images, it’s little more than those characters that Jekyll’s spurned – his woman, his colleagues – looking at the floor all forlorned that their friend is either missing or acting strangely, and this gets old really quickly (although the innovation of changing the camera’s filter color to simulate light vs. darkness was rather nifty and cool in this film).  When it isn’t that, you’ve got John Barrymore – at least give the man an A for effort in playing the duel role as separately and distinctly as the silent medium would allow him to, but while Fredric March’s transformation into Mr. Hyde 11 years later would be as smooth as silk, Barrymore just drinks his Jesus Juice, clutches his throat and starts twitching and careening around his laboratory like he’s Joe Cocker – every single time he transforms.  And then whenever he’s Hyde, he pretty much just puts his hands up, fingers bent quasi-Judo quasi-Nosferatu style, and looks into the camera with this expression…

I suppose I was severely spoiled having seen the far-superior Mamoulian version first, but even if I hadn’t, I still probably would’ve been bored by the sheer repetition of Robertson’s version.  Despite an ending involving a certain ring that’s actually quite poignant, this never-shifting pattern of first a textbook’s worth of title cards explaining every nook and cranny of the complexities of the duality of man, and then the supporting cast looking sad while John Barrymore mugs for the camera like he’s at the Greenwich Village Halloween parade makes a mere 75 minute film feel like an eternity.  I suppose Barrymore’s makeup is actually quite good and certainly would’ve given 1920 audiences a good fright, and his mannerisms are what you’d expect from silent-era horror, but as Rouben Mamoulian and the impossibly suave, funny, and terrifying performance of Fredric March would prove 11 years later, the best of Dr. Henry Jekyll and Mr. Edward Hyde was yet to come.

6/10

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Rouben Mamoulian, 1931)

…or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: The Ride.  Because for the first 5 or so minutes of this film, and then in spurts and starts throughout the duration afterward, we’re ‘treated’ to these inexplicable first-person shots from Henry Jekyll’s point of view, going so far as a long tracking shot so that we walk where he walks, look at who he’s talking to right in the eye, and look at him as he looks at himself in a mirror.  This was 1931, when a moving camera was still a pretty new and shockingly impressive innovation, so it seems like Mamoulian’s trying to milk it for all it’s worth in this long, superfluous tracking shot to start the film.  Maybe I’m being unfair looking at this type of over-reliance on flashy camerawork with 2009 eyes, and I suppose he’s trying to put us in Jekyll’s mindset, but that’s bogus, it’s just silly, and like I said, like a ride at Universal Studios.  I only wish that this adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s horror classic would’ve been more actor and character-driven than style-driven with those nonsensical point of view shots, because as it turns out, Fredric March is really, really good from the outset as Dr. Jekyll.  He’s enthusiastic about his work and his harebrained theories concerning the duality of man (that turn out to be not so harebrained after all), perhaps to a fault but still in an endearing kind of way, and even more enthusiastic about his love for and desire to marry his Muriel.  He’s just an affable, likable guy, made even more likable by his charming zeal for science – a zeal that quickly turns from charming to disturbing when he turns his experiment on himself in the name of science, allowing Mr. Hyde to emerge.

March had an impressive screen presence as the enthusiastic yet dignified Jekyll to begin with, but once he transforms into the crude and monstrous Hyde, whoa, what a performance!  This might’ve been the most knee-slappingly entertaining performance I’ve seen since I saw Nicolas Cage ham it up in “Vampire’s Kiss.”  March’s Mr. Hyde looks like a neanderthal, has the subtle mannerisms of both an ape and a man in the way he walks around normal-like and then jumps up and down, climbs bookshelves, laughs almost with a monkey-like “ooh-ooh”, and maniacally slaps people over the head at the drop of a hat, has these weird facial ticks featuring a deranged smile with those disgusting teeth, and just the way he acts and speaks is as vulgar and raucous as Jekyll is regal and professional.  You wouldn’t believe for a second that the same actor is playing both these parts, but Fredric March is convincing and compelling both as intelligent man of science and as malicious animal.  Also helps that the facial transformation from Jekyll to Hyde, shown in its entirety using different types of makeup that responded to separate camera filters, is absolutely remarkable, and more convincing than any present-day CGI that I’ve ever seen – no trying to conceal quick-cuts to get to the next phase of his transformation or cutting to another person’s reaction shot to get away with a lack of special effects, no, the entire transformation from handsome Jekyll to ape-like Hyde is depicted completely uncut in a single take, and you’ll completely buy into it.  Amazing.  If those first-person tracking shots were superfluous, here’s an instance of surface style and special effects that’s anything but.

If the character of Jekyll becomes repetitive and one-note after a while, especially during the increasingly hammy dialogues between he and his potential bride-to-be (although their final meeting, when he’s at the point of barely being able to keep Mr. Hyde at bay, is damn near heartbreaking to see this broken shell of a man long-removed from his prime), then the real selling-point of this film is the dark side of man, personified by Mr. Hyde and the dark underbelly of the world that he calls home.  Early on, Dr. Jekyll finds himself in the ramshackle home of common woman Ivy Pearson, and we’re treated to some very revealing, very sexy leg shots and near-nude shots of the absolutely beautiful yet shrill Miriam Hopkins as she slowly removes her pantyhose and tries to seduce the higher-class Jekyll and he rebuffs her, but these shots that would be unheard of just a few years after this when the Hayes Code would be put into effect foreshadow the coming emphasis on the nature of Hyde, of his cruel, sex-driven, animal-like instincts – the id personified that Jekyll, as the logic-driven ego, is initially able to suppress.  But later, Hyde emerges as the ultimate terror – a hateful, cackling monster with the memories of another man at his disposal, able to use those memories to torture and confuse Ivy, who has no idea who Mr. Hyde really is, and indeed, the scenes of Hyde insinuating himself in Ivy’s life are absolutely terrifying, the way he forces himself on her and she can only cry and scream in terror, even as he commands her to sing for him or brag about himself as a wannabe-Lothario.  Miriam Hopkins’ performance, although overdoing it with the whole cockney thing at first, quickly becomes great and heartbreaking – her fear of Hyde, as seen through sheer despair and hopeless tears, is totally palpable, so that even a performance as silly as March’s does become frightening in a way when we see it through the eyes of someone who’s basically being emotionally raped by him time and time again (without the use of first-person shots, no less! 🙂 ).  And this isn’t nearly as much a cookie-cutter depiction of Jekyll = good, Hyde = evil as I make it out to be, especially once Jekyll rather shamelessly tries to acquit himself of any responsibility for the terrible things that Hyde has done.  Jekyll may have no control over when Hyde emerges, but it was Jekyll who drank the potion.  He ain’t exactly an innocent party in all this, despite futilely trying to convince himself otherwise.

If more of the movie were like this, instead of Mamoulian trying to wow us with long tracking shots or trying to put us in Jekyll’s mindset via ridiculous point of view shots when March’s performance alone would’ve done that just as well, this could’ve been one of the all-time great horror films.  But what am I saying, even though Hyde’s mannerisms and the makeup applied to Fredric March are more silly than scary (but damned entertaining), watching a film this frank about its depiction of the female body – images that would drive the Hyde in all of us wild and scared the censors to death not long after this, and watching Miriam Hopkins’  look of shocked terror when Hyde reemerges in her life and cruelly summarizes to the letter her desperate meeting with Jekyll, a meeting she was so sure was in complete privacy and confidence, and then cower, scream, and cry in complete fear of this man-beast the way a battered woman lives in fear of an abusive spouse, pretty much makes this one of the all-time great psychological horror films anyway, and a great testament to the terrible instincts inherent in all of us –  a film years ahead of its time.

9/10

RoboCop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987)

 

On this, the 71st birthday of Paul Verhoeven, I shall review RoboCop the same spoilerific, single-word way I reviewed my last Verhoeven film, Starship Troopers, using the exact same single word I used for Starship Troopers:

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A W E S O M E


8.5/10

The X-Files: I Want to Believe (Chris Carter, 2008)

Lame. But ehhhhh, nice atmosphere, I guess, with the snow and the dank makeshift laboratory and such? Actually, the lighting in this movie, especially at night in the snow, is really, really good, so props for that.

But the jab at George W. Bush did make me LOL in its sheer audacity (combining the portrait with the strain of the X-Files theme as if the 2004 election was the biggest unexplained phenomena of all = 😆 ) And I liked how Chris Carter basically threw Mitch Pileggi a bone by letting him play action hero in the last 10 minutes of the movie, and introducing him all dramatic-like by the back of his bald head as if the messiah’s returned

And is there any woman in this world more intimidating and emasculating than Amanda Peet?

Otherwise, this was just any other OK standalone episode – random person in peril, uncooperative allies, Mulder and Scully argue over the validity of the unexplained and wanting to believe, Mulder remembers his sister, Scully yells at Mulder for remembering his sister, miraculously (impossibly) convenient finding of clues and resolving of everything at the 11th hour, Mulder saying “see, you should believe!” and Scully saying “but I’m afraid to believe!” and awkward sexual tension, same shit different day – but twice as long and with a bigger budget.

6.5/10

Star Trek (J.J. Abrams, 2009)

My budding film snobbery and disdain for action movie clichés be damned: “Star Trek” was awesome.  Do you need to have at least some knowledge of the show to ‘get’ it?  Probably…otherwise the subtle references to the show’s campier elements, from Scotty’s “I’m giving her all she’s got, Cap’n!” to Bones’s “I’m a doctor, not a physicist”, to Chekhov’s accent, to Spock’s “fascinating” (at a most inopportune moment, I might add), to Kirk’s tryst with Ms. Green skin, to Leonard Nimoy, would go right over the newbie’s head.  Even so, this is a damned exciting and fun and wacky spectacle.  The opening battle, where a captain makes a sacrifice to save his crew, sets the tone for what’s to follow by being a special effects orgy, but is surprisingly moving and dignified as well.  I really, really liked this movie because it has everything you could want out of a fun blockbuster where you can leave your brain and critical eye at the door: slapstick humor (that should be infuriating, but works because of some great chemistry between Kirk and Bones), the big showdown where the hero faces off against the villain as the other good guys do what they need to do via parallel editing, a scenario where things work out perfectly even though everyone has to be here, here, and here now, now, and now, a nefarious uber-villain bent on black hole-related Armageddon, and a completely unnecessary chase between Kirk and some huge beast that’s the telltale sign of an event film that knows it’s being silly, and doesn’t give a shit.  As a matter of fact, that’s why “Star Trek” works so well – it is silly as hell and makes no sense whatsoever (Red Matter, black holes, time travel, transporting onto a ship moving faster than light, skydiving onto a giant drill and fighting off Romulans with kung fu and samurai swords, and on and on…), and knows it and doesn’t care.  And other than Karl Urban as Bones, the cast really wasn’t really trying to impersonate their 60s counterparts, instead making Kirk and Spock and Scotty and Uhura and Sulu and Chekhov new identities for the obviously youthful, post-2000 target audience. 

I was never really a fan of any of the shows, only watching them occasionally, so I don’t think I’m too biased here or was too blinded by nods to the original show that started a cultural phenomenon, but somehow this movie managed not to defy convention or cliché, but actually embrace them, all while just assuming you’ll accept warp drive and planetary drills and black hole devices and Romulans and Vulcans and huge starships as things that’re just plain commonplace in this world (the fact that the asinine technology and the function of Starfleet and the Federation is just there and never commented on or explained to us for the sake of the Star Trek virgin is probably thanks to Abrams and his screenwriters assuming that most of their viewers will be fans of the show, but still, I liked how they didn’t feel the need to justify this stuff to you, which made this world seem more legitimate and fully-realized, and helps you feel more at home in it).  But who cares about that, ‘cuz in the end, alotta shit gets blowed up outer space, and monsters eat other monsters, and the acting captain and medical officer and chief engineer of the finest sharship in Starfleet doing their Moe, Larry and Curly routine, and you’ve got fistfights and hot chicks in their underwear and bad guys with facial tatoos and ray guns ‘n shit…isn’t that all that matters?  In this age of sequels and exorbitantly-profitable blockbusters, at least one sequel, if not more, is inevitable, and I just gotta say kudos to J.J. Abrams for adding another chapter to a long-running franchise, all while setting the stage for a new one as well.

8/10

Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965)

A futuristic dystopia called Alphaville that looks an awful lot like 1965 Paris, a secret agent in full-on fedora and trench coat uber-noir garb, assassins hiding in the bathroom that’re dispatched of without a second thought, seductresses Third Class, a supercomputer who espouses logic-based dogmas with a voice sounding like a belching frog, executions for acting illogically, shady scientists, and Anna Karina appearing out of nowhere and staring at the camera if for no other reason than to look innocent and radiate her famed beauty.  If all that is your cup of tea, god bless ya.  Me, I’m still not sure what to make of Jean-Luc Godard’s mish-mash of sci-fi, noir, humor, and heady philosophy.  If it’s supposed to be a send-up or a semi-parody of film noir, then I’ve never seen another parody take itself this seriously.  If it’s supposed to be an off-kilter yet serious 1984-esque commentary on society and totalitarianism and an over-abundance of logic, then I’ve never seen another heartfelt parable that feels so silly.  That’s Godard for ya – can never tell whether he’s being dead-serious with 20-minute poetic treatises that mean nothing and weird actor staging and jump cuts and overall abundance of style, or if he’s being ironic, basically making fun of himself.  I was able to enjoy “Alphaville” mainly by looking it with a cynical eye, by assuming that Godard was being ironic.  Although, Eddie Constantine as his long time alter ego, secret agent Lemmy Caution, is really, really cool, rarely if ever taking off that trench coat and fedora and acting gruff and rough as all hell, even when he’s smooth-talking.  He’s the prototypical noir anti-hero taken to the ultimate excess, and putting him in a so-called sci-fi setting probably does mean that persona’s supposed to be more ironic than anything.  Anna Karina’s far too innocent, both in looks and behavior, to be taken seriously as a femme fatale type, though that’s probably the point if “Alphaville”’s to be looked at as a semi-parody.  The idea of a totalitarian city run by a supercomputer run amok, where executions and synchronized swimming go hand-in-hand, and where words like ‘love’ and ‘conscience’ are outlawed and downright stupefy people like Karina’s Natacha von Braun, is a compelling one, and some elements of “Alphaville” work that theme well, and others don’t.  The computer, Alpha 60’s, doctrines on the merits of logic are obviously absurd and pretentious, and we’re supposed to regard it with disdain – but to force us to listen to that painful (though effectively creepy) voice for about five minutes, intercut with some drawings, until I’m absolutely dying for the story to just move along?  Overkill.  And to see people like Natacha become so lifeless and confused when words like ‘love’, and the gruff but human Lemmy Caution, are introduced into their dystopia is great, but then to just stop everything so that Anna Karina can recite a poem while she and Eddie Constantine stare into the camera making chic Calvin Klein poses like in the picture above?  Ridiculous.  It’s funny, though – the Alpha 60’s cold sense of logic and Lemmy Caution’s gruff noir stereotype get tiresome and at times feel as fake as those vintage Godard scenes of visual and verbal excess, yet the scenes where secret agent and computer interact, via interrogation, are the very best in the entire film, where an emotionless computer who sounds like a smoker’s electronic voice box, and a secret agent who has that understanding of love and compassion, but doesn’t show it outwardly, clash.  All of a sudden, that stylish parody of the noir detective of old becomes dynamic, and human, and it just took a supercomputer to do it.  So I don’t know what to make of “Alphaville” – I liked Constantine’s Lemmy Caution, both as a send-up of noir anti-heroes and as the unexpected herald of love and conscience to the dystopic Alphavile, I liked the wonderful Mr. Akim Tamaroff as the missing agent whom Lemmy is dispatched to search for, and I liked the understated moments of cinematography, like Godard was just going around Paris with a cheap camera – that made it feel real, made me not even care anymore that Godard makes no attempt to make present-day Paris look like a futuristic dystopia.  I liked the overall feel of parody, with the ‘dun-dun-DUN’ music cues and Lemmy Caution and Anna Karina’s anti-femme fatale and bizarre moments like with the professional seductresses and unexpected assassins that, intentionally or not, play for laughs.  But then you get the feeling that this isn’t supposed to be parody at all, that Godard’s taking all this completely seriously with the pretentious speeches and poetry recitations and nearly-subliminal images of E=mc2, and I have no idea whether to like this fun little jab at film noir and society, or whether to hate another instance of Godard reaching for style and some kind of grand statement that just ends up getting overblown…so I’ll go halfway between the mediocre 5 and the perfect 10 😛 .

7.5/10

Solaris (Steven Soderbergh, 2002)

It’s a problem when a remake that’s pretty much half as long as the original feels as long as the original, but thus is all in all the case with Steven Soderbergh’s take on “Solaris.”  Alright, so maybe it’s more accurate to say that this update on the story of the mind-reading, person-creating planet is not so much a remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film, but rather just a different take on Stanislaw Lem’s novel, just as Tarkovsky’s film was.  Still, though, my inexperienced ass has never gone anywhere near the novel, so I only have Tarkovsky’s masterpiece to go on, so it’s inevitable that almost any judgment I make on poor Steven Soderbergh’s little opus will revolve around the ol’ original-remake comparison.  Thus is life…oh well.  But as I said, this latest “Solaris” update just felt long, like it dragged, even when Tarkovsky’s version was twice as long and went at just as slow a pace, but barely dragged for a second.  That’s not to say that Soderbergh’s version isn’t competent or worthwhile to watch, because it certainly is.  The set design – both on Solaris station and on a not-too-distant future Earth – is cold and soulless, but beautiful, George Clooney does an admirable job as the jaded, widowed psychologist Chris Kelvin investigating the strange goings-on in the station above the seemingly living planet Solaris, and the staging and lighting and cinematography, with the oft-stationary camera and long takes, are all remarkable and arguably surpass even Tarkovsky’s film in terms of technical qualities.  The feeling of emotional isolation, from the dark and rain-drenched city to Kelvin’s apartment with the muted colors and the jarring sound of knife cutting vegetables on the cutting board to the cold metallic setting of Solaris station, is stifling, and damn near stunning.  Soderbergh really is a master of atmosphere through lighting and staging when he tries to be, and he certainly tried here.  The only problem is that Mr. Soderbergh, at least when adapting Polish science fiction novels, doesn’t transfer his gift for creating images to screenwriting.

Granted, both films deal with the central issue of what, if any, kind of identity Solaris’ created people have – after all, the sudden materialization of Kelvin’s wife Rheya, who committed suicide years before, is no more than another man’s feelings about her.  She’s not Rheya, she’s merely the summation of how Chris perceived Rheya – the summation of his memories and emotions concerning the real Rheya – and Solaris’ imitation of Rheya knows this.  It’s a fascinating prospect, wondering whether Rheya can be called a person – she seems to have genuine emotion, after all – or whether she’s nothing more than the unhinged, needy, suicidal woman that Chris saw her as, and that expands to the tough concept of whether any human is truly unique, or merely the summation of what others think of him or her.  Tarkovsky handled that conundrum magnificently, fully fleshing out Kelvin’s wife (named Hari in that film) as a sympathetic character, despite everyone, including her, knowing that she’s merely the artificial creation of a likely-sentient planet.  Ridley Scott would visit that idea again in “Blade Runner” with Rachel, the replicant who jarringly learns of her artificial existence.  Just imagine how it must feel to know you’re not even human, and yet you think and feel and love and hate like any other human would.  What that must be like, how emotionally terrifying and agonizing that must be!  “Blade Runner’s” replicants, and before that “Solaris”’s Hari, personified just how disturbing and painful that would be, and in turn how painful it must be for any person to be unable to grasp who they really are, and as a result I sympathized with Hari more than I did with Kelvin or any of the unhinged scientists who somehow seemed less human than the memory being created out of thin air by a magic planet.  Imagine that.

What we witnessed in Tarkovsky’s film was sci-fi infused with realism, emphasizing the human element so that those philosophical questions were merely in the back of your mind, never force-fed to the audience. What I basically saw Soderbergh’s version of “Solaris” as was a Sparknotes version of Tarkovsky’s version.  All those questions about Rheya and what it means to be a fully emotional human, both to oneself and through the gaze of another, are still there, and indeed this film provides plenty of questions that are fascinating to consider, but it was just much more dialogue-driven than Tarkovsky’s version, which is probably the main reason why it just felt too long, despite a more than manageable hour and a half run-time.  Where in Tarkovsky’s film those questions were inherent to the material, infused in the unbearably stifling atmosphere and the realistic interactions between man and artificial woman, Soderbergh lays those issues out through words, in heady conversations and somewhat overwrought dialogue.  “I’m suicidal because that’s how you remember me,” Solaris’ Rheya tells Chris, and that’s just the beginning.  Tarkovsky assumed that his audience was intelligent enough to consider “Solaris”’s weighty concepts on its own, while Soderbergh’s screenplay tries to spell out for you – kind of like a cheat sheet, having Chris and Rheya and Drs. Gordon and Snow tell you what you should be thinking (“What about your visitor, the one you’re so ready to destroy without hesitation? Who is it? What is it? Does it feel? Can it touch? Does it speak?”) instead of letting you figure it out on your own, while all those pretty interiors are just there for show.  Where’s the fun in that?

Soderbergh’s film might out-do Tarkovsky’s in terms of effects or technical qualities (even if this update’s docking sequence is practically a shot-for-shot ripoff – or homage, if you want to call it that – of “2001: A Space Odyssey’s” famous docking sequence), but what this latest version lacks is room to let the atmosphere and the concepts behind the plot breathe.  I never felt that ever-present sense that something was just plain off-kilter that made Tarkovsky’s film such a fascinating watch.  In that film, there’s little moments like Kelvin’s arrival at the station, when we’re just as clueless as he is as to what catastrophe met its crew, and he has an inexplicable run-in with a midget that one of the surviving doctors nonchalantly shoos back into his quarters.  Little moments like that really made me go ‘what the fuck’, and couple that with the bland, metallic interiors and just how odd it is that an artificially-created version of Kelvin’s long-dead wife practically makes herself at home, and how that seems more and more normal as time goes on, and eventually the sense of oddness just increases, and Kelvin’s slow descent into madness and his attachment to a physical manifestation of his imagination is subtle, and palpable, and real.  I felt like I was there, slowly growing comfortable with the bland interior of the station and life with both mentally unbalanced scientists and artificially-created memory people – a true sign of subtle madness.  I rarely got that sense of true off-kilter, the subtle paranoia and isolation, both physical and emotional, in Soderbergh’s film.  Sure, Viola Davis and Jeremy Davies as the surviving doctors are appropriately on edge (Davies really overplays his hand in the long-isolated insane explorer/scientist role, though), and Clooney’s barely-changing understated demeanor and his resistance to going over-the-top with paranoid madness on that lonely station (just as was the case with Donatas Banionis’ understated but excellent performance as Kelvin in the original) is admirable and makes the effects of isolation with an artificially-created once-dead wife that much more understated and unsettling.  But, what I got out of this film were great environments and great little moments of emotional isolation, followed by heady conversations where our characters try to make philosophical sense of what it means to be human.  But that stifling atmosphere and those inherent philosophical concepts never came together – like Chris and Rheya, they want to join together as a whole, but remain innately separate.  It’s little more than Philosophy 101, with nice cinematography instead of a blackboard and the easy-on-the-eyes George Clooney and Natascha McElhone instead of an old professor.  Soderbergh’s film is a just about a visual masterpiece, a fascinating concept with tremendous potential and a film with a genuine ability to make you think long after it’s over, but Tarkovsky’s film that came before did all those things too, but wasn’t just a think-piece – it was a full-on subjective experience.

7.5/10

Watchmen (Zack Snyder, 2009)

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So it seems that Zack Snyder has found the precise formula for creating the perfect, seamless blend of cliché AND pretentiousness: a sex scene aboard a giant mechanical owl set to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”  When the most faux-serious (in other word, most overused) song you can think of is combined with two lousy actors playing two exceedingly good-looking superheroes making the goofiest and least convincing O-faces imaginable, and the whole thing just leads to an entire theater full of people cracking up, that’s a pretty good indicator that that scene was just plain ill-conceived.

But otherwise, fuck me sideways, “Watchmen” was alright.  I came in expecting to hate this adaptation of the supposedly unadaptable graphic novel about an alternate 1985, where costumed heroes were once plentiful but now outlawed, a blue, god-like superman led the U.S. to victory in Vietnam, Tricky Dick Nixon is serving his 5th term, and the Russkies have their nukes readied and aimed (though The McLaughlin Group is as much a mainstay in this alternate reality as it is in our own 😛 ), expecting to see every reason why Alan Moore would disown it, but 2 and 3/4 hours later (a 2 and 3/4 hours that isn’t nearly enough to cover the epic scope of the comic), I came out satisfied.  Not floored or anything, but satisfied.  Obviously I could’ve done without Zack Snyder’s typical slow-mo ‘look at me, I’m a Gen-X Sam Peckinpah!’ bullshit and other hyperstylized “300” leftovers (Silk Spectre and Nite Owl have been out of the superhero game for a long time now, but all of a sudden they can take on a group of hardened criminals during a prison riot and dispatch of them all flashy and special effectsy-like like they’re Leonidas and his 300 Spartans at the flip of a switch?  Really? c’mon…), and the soundtrack, a collection of GREAT songs, nevertheless felt more superfluous than anything – just throwing in easily-recognizable songs for the sake of throwing in easily-recognizable songs a la “Forrest Gump” (Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” is one of my all-time favorite songs and one I could listen to over and over again, but to use it out of the blue for of all things The Comedian’s funeral?  Just feels weird.  And I’ve already covered Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” 😛 ).  As for the performances, Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl and the lovely (to say the least) Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre have no charisma and even less chemistry, are just there for show, as is Matthew Goode as Ozymandias (smartest man in the world?  I sure hope not…).  But Jeffrey Dean Morgan is cool in flashback as the doomed Comedian – a man who we see do some terrible, terrible things, but we still have a small kind of understanding of because he knows how shitty and hypocritical the world really is and acts accordingly.  Billy Crudup (or at least Billy Crudup’s voice, straight out of the Mastercard commercials, and CGI-ified body…and package 😕 ) brings just the right mix of total detachment and ever-so-slight child-like innocence to the metaphysical, deity-like Dr. Manhattan (though I didn’t exactly wanna have his babies or anything, like Roger Ebert did…), so that you sympathize with his plight of growing more and more emotionally detached from the human race that he once inhabited, but no more (a human race that now uses he and his awesome abilities as a potential weapon against the Soviets, like any other nuke – a far-cry from the mild-mannered physicist he once was before the ‘accident’), embodying one of the comic’s key conundrums on what it means to be human during his self-imposed exile on Mars (one of the best parts of the graphic novel, and done nearly as beautifully in the film).  But the real star, the showstopper, is Jackie Earle Haley as the paranoid, unhinged Rorshach.  Complete with ever-shifting inkblot mask, trenchcoat and hat, and the same voice that Christian Bale used for his Batman in “The Dark Knight” with near-disastrous results, Haley as Rorshach is a monotone, emotionless near-psychopath with only the slightest hint of an understanding of the difference between right and wrong – brutally efficient in acts of violence and brutally cynical in his Travis Bickle-like observations of the world around him, he’s both our frighteningly subjective eyes and ears and narrator to the story, and, oddly enough, its comic relief.  With a movie and story as bizarre, nearly nonsensical, and over-the-top as “Watchmen”, a performance as over-the-top as Jackie Earle Haley’s fits right in.

So, does “Watchmen” the movie live up to the holiest of holies for comic book geeks, “Watchmen” the graphic novel?  Hell no.  The comic is hailed as a landmark for a reason – a sprawling soap opera of so-called superheroes who (other than Dr. Manhattan) are really just neurotic schlubs in goofy costumes trying to hide their insecurities about themselves and the hopelessly shitty world around them.  It had that semi-realism slant to it, but also some fascinating philosophical issues involving what gives one’s life meaning, what role, if any, love and compassion have in defining one’s purpose, the importance of the individual versus the importance of the masses, and just how far you can ethically go in securing peace and harmony – all lofty, headache-inducing stuff that belongs in a long and protracted medium that you can take as much time as you need to digest and consider – hey, whaddya know, a serialized graphic novel.  With a boatload of special effects, some cool and some arbitrary, and just 2 3/4 hours, the makers of “Watchmen” the film can only hope to scratch the surface of the graphic novel’s depth.  It’s as if Snyder felt obligated to copy panel after panel from the graphic novel perfectly to be as accurate an adaptation as possible (although, a key change is made in the film concerning the graphic novel’s big climax – a change which I’m sure will be controversial but I personally welcomed with open arms), but in copying images, the spirit behind those images gets a little lost in translation.  Who knows, maybe this would’ve worked better as a 5-part miniseries or something, just to let such an abundance of characters and material breathe a little, in terms of both the overarching themes as well as the plot structure that goes back-and-forth through time, from the 1940s to 1985 – handled perfectly in the graphic novel, but a little confusing, though still fascinating, in the film.  Still though, this is a great-looking movie with plenty a thrilling moment, and enough hints of depth and philosophical/psychological quandaries (chiefly involving Dr. Manhattan, Rorshach, and the real reason behind the nefarious plot to pick off ‘masks’ and endanger the world) to at least spur the uninitiated to seek out the graphic novel.  “Watchmen” the movie is some action-packed, slightly thought-provoking, good old-fashioned fun – a far-cry from its deeply provocative source material, and a bit of a mess, but an awfully pretty and rockin’ mess.

7/10

Battlefield Earth (Roger Christian, 2000)

“‘Battlefield Earth’ is like taking a bus trip with someone who has needed a bath for a long time. It’s not merely bad; it’s unpleasant in a hostile way.”
– Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (5/12/2000)

“Sitting through it is like watching the most expensively mounted high school play of all time. The film is stocked with evil aliens who, in their padded body stockings, plastic armorlike fittings and matted hair extensions, resemble nothing so much as members of GWAR, the metal-rock parodists that Beavis and Butt-head loved. It may be a bit early to make such judgments, but ”Battlefield Earth” may well turn out to be the worst movie of this century.”
– Elvis Mitchell, the New York Times (5/12/2000)

“Sure, science fiction gets some leeway in the reality department, but “Battlefield Earth” doesn’t even make sense on its own terms. Compounded by a dated visual style, patched-together special effects and ludicrous dialogue, “Battlefield Earth” is a wholly miserable experience.”
– Robin Rauzi, Los Angeles Times (5/12/2000)

“Each scene has been shot from a canted angle, forcing more literal-minded viewers to tilt their heads in order to follow the story and determine which of the alien baddies is roughing up what human…Please, no more John Travolta sci-fi action fantasies based on L. Ron Hubbard pocket books directed by the man who did the second-unit directing for “The Phantom Menace.”
– Wesley Morris, San Francisco Examiner (5/12/2000)

“His (Travolta’s) dialogue throughout is punctuated with a wicked laugh that recalls Vincent Price–but again, more campy than eerie.

“It’s an embarrassing performance that begs the question, “What was he thinking?” But that at least gives the audience something to ponder while this scenario–it can hardly be called a plot–rumbles on.”
– Rauzi

“…awful in so many different ways.”
– Ebert

“‘Plan Nine from Outer Space’ for a new generation…beyond conventional criticism”
– Mitchell

“Some of the computer-generated imagery looks fine, but others–the Psychlos’ home planet, for one–would be comical on “Star Trek: Voyager.” The ruins of American cities have a distinct “Logan’s Run” quality to them. But it’s the non-computer stuff that’s really bad. Shots don’t match. The climactic battle of “Battlefield Earth” is nothing but a loud chaotic assault on the audience.”
– Rauzi

Battlefield Earth was a major commercial failure and critical flop and has been widely dismissed as one of the worst films ever made.”
– Wikipedia

“Some movies run off the rails. This one is like the train crash in “The Fugitive.” I watched it in mounting gloom, realizing I was witnessing something historic, a film that for decades to come will be the punch line of jokes about bad movies.”
– Ebert

“BATTLEFIELD EARTH is that amazing turd in your toilet bowl. That log of shit that has colors that you can’t understand the reason for being there. It also has a weird shape… it somehow resembles something familiar. You almost want to take a picture of it to show friends late at night, when the blinds are drawn and have a dirty filthy thing you want to disgust someone with, but… you have this inate curiousity… “Have you ever seen anything quite like this?”

“Your friend will inevitably take a look and say, “Whoa, what a piece of shit!”

“And you will respond with, “Yeah, but don’t you think it’s fascinating how..”

“Your friend will interupt with, “Dude, why did you take a picture of this log of shit? Why did you waste the film?”

“Because I thought it would be interestin..”

“Dear God, It’s just a log of shit!”
– Harry Knowles, Ain’t It Cool News

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What they said.

1.5/10