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My Week(s) in Movies (9/6–10/2)

October 2, 2011

With the Netflix/Qwikster split, it’s become in vogue to criticize the Netflix streaming library for having a sparse selection. Doesn’t seem that way to me — almost every film I’ve managed to watch in the period covered by this post, I did so on Netflix (that’s what the asterisks mean next to titles in these posts, if you didn’t know. I’ve gotten too lazy to do the footnote).

CONTACT* — I came late — 15 years late — to the Carl Sagan party. I didn’t watch Cosmos growing up, and I’ve only been properly engaged and interested in science and skepticism for about 5 years now. I read The Demon-Haunted World for the first time a little less than a year ago (despite the fact that, as I found out, it’s one of my dad’s favorite books). For the longest time, all I really knew of Carl Sagan was that he was the author of the novel Contact.

I’ve had a paperback copy of Contact — purchased at the used bookstore, cover torn off and sent back to the publisher as is apparently the practice with overstock books — on my bookshelf for at least ten years. I would try to read it, but it’s so dense with information early on that I just couldn’t build up a head of steam. I feel like the movie has something of a bad rap, didn’t do well theatrically, but that might be a false memory from I don’t know where. I wasn’t exactly paying attention to the box office back in 1997.

Down in Front did an episode about the film, which I haven’t yet listened to since naturally I wanted to see it first, and when CONTACT was later alluded to in another commentary, there was a bit of the old “you mean you haven’t seen—?” shock, since it’s a movie so heavily about skepticism and science and the collision with religion and religious faith, all subjects that today are very significant to me. So I knew it was time to get this done. I grabbed my old copy off the shelf once again and set at it, determined to power through.

Having immersed myself recently in Sagan’s other works, Contact was much more accessible this time around — he repeats a number of the fascinating topics he covers in Cosmos in the context of Ellie learning about them — and once it got rolling, it was a pretty fascinating read. It’s mostly well-written, although unnecessarily flowery in many places. I think Sagan felt that since he was writing a novel it had to be more novel-y and he overdid it a bit. It’s not like the man couldn’t turn a beautiful, inspiring, poetic phrase, so I can only assume that he just thought, being a novel, it needed a little more flair.

Also amusing is the fact that Ellie is clearly a Mary Sue — brilliant astronomer who receives and decodes a signal from space and eventually gets to go on a trip through the cosmos. I remember hearing that Sagan wrote Contact in part as a kind of exercise of creating science fiction grounded as much as reasonably possible in science fact. But I think it’s clear he also wrote it because the only way he would ever get to take a journey through the cosmos was by imagining and describing another character taking it (he later did it again, as himself, in a literal Ship of the Imagination, in Cosmos). I don’t begrudge him this desire at all, as I’ll come to in a moment.

I got sidetracked on a mini-book review there, but it’s interesting to me the ways in which the film (adapted by Michael Goldenberg, later to adapt ORDER OF THE PHOENIX) juggled the plot of the film without changing the story. Palmer Joss has a much bigger role in the film than in the book, and Ellie took the journey with five companions, not solo. Both changes make perfect sense for a cinematic experience, especially in terms of the story being told.

Regarding the science vs faith theme that’s near the core of the movie, I think it was done pretty well. A lot of what Palmer Joss says in favor of religion is asinine, but I found that fairly realistic. On the other hand,  I found a number of Ellie’s responses to him or other questions of faith rather inadequate, but that too is an unfortunate reality — that many non-believers aren’t prepared to deal with the convoluted rationalizations the more “sophisticated” theists like to present. I do think it’s interesting to consider how Ellie has basically become a visionary “prophet” whose word must be taken on faith, but the movie does point out that she has more evidence on her side than any of them did.

If the film really was a dud when it came out, I think it’s high time it got revisited and had some more attention, because it’s actually a fairly incredible film. Robert Zemeckis could sure direct the fuck out of a movie when he had to make choices on the set — before even getting there — rather than puppeteering dead-eyed CG homunculi around the screen. That crazy pullback shot through the house and out of the mirror? Not impressive at all if the film were CG; fucking crazy impressive in live action, especially from 14 years ago. And Zemeckis does wild things like that throughout the film, so it feels like part of a unified style rather than tech-wankery.

The big deal for me, though, was the journey. I think the effects work was, and is, astonishing and breathtaking. I wish I’d seen this in theatres. I wish I could see it in IMAX 3D. And during the sequence, I have to be honest, I shed a few tears. Both for the awesomeness of the visuals, which captured perfectly the scope and wonder of what Sagan wrote and imagined, but more in the knowledge that Sagan — who died just before the film went into production — never got to see it for himself. That trip was for him, and he never got to go; the rest of us will have to appreciate it a little more on his behalf.

MORTAL KOMBAT* — If I had to give you an example of how not to write a movie — not specifically a video game adaptation, mind you, just a movie — MORTAL KOMBAT is the one that’s going to come readily to mind for a while.

Since I’ve started actually paying attention to the way films are written and structured and how they get information across, the most common form of bad — or perhaps just lazy — writing I’ve found is the As You Know. It’s that moment where two characters discuss something that’s common knowledge to both of them, and needs no actual repeating because they both know it, but they’re saying it out loud so the audience can hear it and get that information. In its most egregious form, a character will actually preface the conversation with “As you know…”

The film is stuffed with these. They never say the “As you know” cue, but they’re still saying things they both already know. Such as this moment between the four-armed Prince Goro and the sorcerer Shang Tsung:

SHANG TSUNG

I am concerned about Princess Katana…

GORO

The Emperor’s adopted daughter?!

“Yeah, Goro,” Shang should say, “her. The only Princess Katana you and I know. And we both know she’s the Emperor’s adopted daughter, so I don’t know why you needed to say it out loud.”

Well, Shang, he had to say it aloud because otherwise the audience wouldn’t know, you see. Not that we needed to know, in the long run — it’s actually not important — but that’s the way it is in the video game and by gum, we’re going to make sure everyone watching knows we read the little instruction manual that comes with the game and has all their backstories cover to cover! We’re taking this seriously.

The film barely has a story, it’s more of a series of references to the video game. First time a character comes onscreen, someone’s gonna say their name, whether it feels natural or not. It’s just there so the opening night audience of MK fans can cheer about it. Character relationships are completely glossed over and unbelievable — Liu Kang, Sonya Blade and Johnny Cage are BFFs about five minutes after they meet, and when Goro kills some random dude Sonya screams out such a “NOOOOOOO” you’d think they’d been friends since kindergarten, despite the fact that they’ve never said so much as two words to each other onscreen. And Christopher Lambert as Lord Raiden…wow. I hope for the reboot they get Tommy Wiseau for the role, to keep the “what the hell is with this guy and his accent?” aspect of the character alive.

There is a potentially interesting story here. The evil emperor Shao Khan (only called “The Emperor” in the film) holds a tournament (the Mortal Kombat) every generation between his fighters and the fighters of some realm he wants to conquer. If the realm loses 10 straight tournaments, a dimensional gateway opens and he takes over. “Earthrealm” has lost 9 tournaments and this is the tenth. Shao Khan’s sorceror and champion, Shang Tsung, is cheating the system so that he can face the weakest Earthrealm fighter — Sonya Blade of course, because girls, amirite fellas — at the end of the tournament, and they can take over.

I’ve just explained that to you way clearer than the movie does, by the way, which is part of the problem. The other is that, again, the film isn’t as interested in telling the story as in just putting as much of the game on the screen as possible. It doesn’t make consistent sense and, most greviously in my view, the fighting in this tournament fighting film is awful.

Apparently they’re looking to reboot this franchise (separate of the Mortal Kombat: Legacy webseries), and I couldn’t be more in favor, because it could be really cool.

The one thing I liked about this film was Goro. He’s an animatronic suit puppet, and he’s a bit herky-jerky but in the way that I find charming. I would be willing to put $20 down that they repurposed one of the Goomba suits from SUPER MARIO BROS — Goro’s facial structure and stature is very reminiscent, which also probably triggers my nostalgia gland. Today he’d be completely CG, but how the hell else were they going to pull off that character in 1995? Certainly not with the FX they were doing then — I’ve seen better lightning by 12 year olds on YouTube than what Raiden’s whipping out here. Not that I could have done any better with the tools they had, mind you. I’m just saying: I’m impressed Goro works as well as he does, and he’s the one aspect of this film that impresses me just because they had the balls to do it.

TIMECOP* — Jean-Claude Van Damme is kind of ridiculous. You know it, I know it, and the brilliant JCVD makes it plenty clear that the man himself also knows it. But the thing is, Jean-Claude Van Damme is also kind of awesome, and I think TIMECOP is a perfect example.

Like CONTACT, for some reason I remember TIMECOP being rather poorly received, but according to Wikipedia it was actually one of the better-received films of JCVD’s career, with many critics expressing their surprise at how much they enjoyed it. Part of the reason for that might be due to the fact that it’s not really a Van Damme film — it’s not a fighting movie, it doesn’t revolve around fighting, it’s an action movie that occasionally uses Van Damme’s skills (primarily the splits) in its action scenes. The fighting, in fact, is probably the lamest aspect of this film.

It’s 90s sci-fi, which is when “futuristic” meant “everything is made of boxes.” Oh, pre-iPod production design. But the story is fun and moves along at a good clip, avoids many of the time travel plot holes and inconsistencies that most time travel movies fall into, and the characters are interesting and witty. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, but also doesn’t fall so far into winking at the audience that it becomes self-parody. Like MORTAL KOMBAT, the word is that they’re planning to remake this one and, in the right hands, I’d be first in line.

NAKED LUNCH* — I never read the William S. Burroughs story (not to be confused with Edgar Rice Burroughs of Tarzan fame), although apparently this adaptation is so loose as to be nearly unrelated. So I can’t speak to Burroughs’ writing style or how well the film captured it. But what I can say is that this film felt like a Philip K. Dick story — the line between reality and hallucination blurred, people having weird, simultaneously high-and-lowbrow conversations, intensely bizarre shit happening for no apparent reason, but told with such confidence and assurance that it feels like somewhere, somehow, there’s a method to the madness. Like I said, I know nothing from Burroughs, but this film captured the feel of PKD better than any Hollywood feature has ever done. They have a strange tendency to get turned into plot-hole-riddled man-on-the-run films.

I don’t think I’m entirely sure what the hell is happening here — I’m honestly not even sure if I like this film — but I love that it exists. Because it’s so rare that someone will make a weird, challenging, disturbing film like this and convince a studio to pay for it. This is a film where a couple in a drugged-out haze writes a story so erotic that the typewriter gets an erection and starts dry-humping them as they make out on the floor. And whatever you’re imagining, it’s not nearly as fucked up as what’s actually in the film. Because you’re sane, and this movie is not.

There’s also an odd meta-textual aspect to the film, where the film is actually about writing itself; it becomes most clear when people talk about Interzone, or just “the Zone” — a place you go to and do writing, cut off from the outside world, but when you finish you hopefully return from the Zone and come back to your normal life. And the idea that inspiration and expression are addictions like any other drug is really fascinating. But this definitely isn’t a movie to be approached lightly, or under the influence of anything stronger than a shot of tequila.

TROLLHUNTER* — A “found footage” movie that splits the difference between the everything-implied style of Blair Witch and the FX extravaganza of Cloverfield, the film is about a group of Norwegian film students who set out to do a THE COVE-style documentary about an infamous bear poacher, but discover that the bear poaching is just a front for his real work: he hunts and destroys renegade trolls for the Norwegian government. Sick of the thankless work and secrecy, he agrees to let them follow him and document everything he does.

The performances range from good to great — especially the troll hunter himself — and the visual effects are so good they caught me off guard a bit. I was prepared to give them more of a handicap than they turned out to require. The design of the trolls straddles the line of realism and being a bit cartoony, but in the kind of way that they’ve been represented in illustrations for centuries, so the cartooniness feels oddly right.

I don’t want to say much more because this is a film worth discovering for yourself. It’s a little over 100 minutes and it could have been shaved a teeny bit — we don’t need, IMO, quite so many shots of the camera pointed out the car window watching the scenery go by — but overall I loved it. It’s a brilliant idea to bring the ancient legends into the modern world, and executed in such a way that I can’t think of any opportunities squandered.

It will be interesting to see how it gets Americanized in the Chris Columbus-produced remake. I’d be concerned except that they’re keeping the same director, so perhaps it will be like THE GRUDGE — pretty much exactly the same movie, shot for shot, just with Americans, in English, with a bigger FX budget. Who knows. Meantime, watch the original and thank me later.

DRIVE — Although it hasn’t made quite the same massive splash, I think DRIVE may be the PULP FICTION of this decade. It’s a breath of fresh air, a film that’s no massive revelation if you’ve seen any of what they’re doing over in Europe (and have been for decades) but nonetheless isn’t what you expect to see when you walk into a multiplex with a ticket for a wide-release American picture and is a little shocking in that context. It’s going to inspire a lot of film school students, opening their minds to a different way to tell a story on film. It’s also going to inspire 5-10 years of cargo cult movies doing superficially what this film did but not understanding the underlying reasons it did things that way, resulting in immature affectation rather than any kind of emotional resonance or power.

Like Tarantino’s work, this film feels like a work of homage updated for the modern age; but where Tarantino’s work lives largely in 70s grindhouse cinema (a term quite a few people, myself included, only know because of Tarantino), director Refn has one foot in the Steve McQueen action films of the 60s, and the other in 1980s crime drama like GODFATHER and SCARFACE, funneled through the lens of the French Nouveau movement.

On paper, it shouldn’t work; it sounds like the recipe for an awful film student piece (or every awful film student piece). But Refn doesn’t seem to be putting on a veneer of styles and concepts he’s studied; he’s delivering a film his way, which simply happens to be the result of internalizing such influences. (He also directed BRONSON, which I reviewed a few posts ago and which has a similar confidence and intensity of style.)

Like TROLLHUNTER, I don’t want to say too much about the film. The less people know about it going in, the better they seem to respond to it. Expectations are the enemy of a picture like this. All I’ll say is that you shouldn’t expect an “action” film, as we understand the term today. Put yourself in the headspace of an “indie thriller” and you’ll be ready to enjoy it. But the high critical marks and word of mouth aren’t just hype.

PRIEST — Viewed for Down in Front, and our commentary was quite good (IMO) so check that out for my and my compatriots’ full thoughts when it’s released, probably in November.

The upshot is that PRIEST is not a terrible movie — certainly an improvement from the director’s debut LEGION — but it’s still a far cry short of its potential. It suffers from a similar “characters say exactly what’s on their minds without subtext or nuance” problem as MORTAL KOMBAT, and could have been vastly improved if just one character had some personality and came at the situation with a little bit of sarcasm or levity. Acted like a person instead of a pawn to the action movie plot.

This one also wears its influences on its sleeve, but unlike DRIVE it does feel like the filmmakers doing a thing and not just making a film the best way they know how. But the influences are imitated competently and there are some solid, if cliched, visuals to be had. I can’t quite find a way to recommend it — there are better ways to spend 90 minutes than watching a pastiche of movies you’ve probably already seen — but I will say I’m hopeful that the third time will be the charm for Scott Stewart.

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