Elysium is one of those movies that feels like it ends just when it's really getting interesting. That's not something I wanted to say about a film from the man who gave us District 9, one of the few recent SF movies that despite its action-ride ingredients actually felt like a science fiction movie and not just a tarted-up shoot/beat-'em-up. Neil Blomkamp's successor to District 9 has a larger budget (although, paradoxically, it doesn't feel like a much larger movie) and more explicitly political ambitions, but in ways that work against it. The earlier film was allegory; this one is just a tract, and a not especially insightful one at that.
Matt Damon plays Max, an ex-con factory grunt in a horribly overcrowded future Earth, where robot policemen administer impersonal beatings and Max's parole officer is a dingy computer. The rich and powerful have retreated to Elysium, a massive and idyllic orbital colony that looks like one giant Syd Mead painting. There, they enjoy near-immortality thanks to medical technology they refuse to share with the rest of the world. One day Max suffers an industrial accident that gives him a lethal dose of radiation poisoning, and so he takes a suicide mission from an old war buddy of his in the underground. If he helps them take Elysium, they'll let him heal himself in one of Elysium's doc-bots — a favor he'd also like to grant his girlfriend's little girl, if possible.Read more
The original 2003 Oldboy ranks as one of the greatest films I have ever seen. The 2013 remake is to that movie like an Elvis impersonator is to Elvis. Not just in the sense that the impersonator can only ape the moves of the original, but in that he arrives years too late to the scene. He can only remind people of some glory that it was once possible to experience for the first time.
What’s most disappointing is how Oldboy ended up being this thin despite some fairly heavyweight talent on board. The director was Spike Lee, who even when I have found his films not to my taste has never taken the easy road with his material. Mark Protosevich adapted the script from the Korean original, and Josh Brolin has consistently had my attention as a good actor (W., True Grit). But somehow, it all adds up to little more than a dutiful going through the motions. And yes, the original story — with all of its appalling plot twists — has been preserved, but given how strangely uncompelling the finished product is, maybe pickled would be a better word.Read more
The problem with comic book movies is that it's too easy to give people what they think they want, instead of what they need. Man of Steel is a case study in such a contradiction. For the great majority of its running time, it's a dazzling and thought-provoking exploration of the Superman mythos, where tough questions are raised about what it would mean to be Clark Kent in a world that would almost certainly mistrust and fear him. Then it turns into a PlayStation game, mostly as a way to shut up all the fans who wanted to see Superman punch things, and while the fun didn't end there for me, it did get dialed down a whole lot.
Maybe it's just the Superman fan in me talking when I say the movie still works despite all that. But if there's one thing I've learned in my time as both a fan and a critic, it's that some of my favorite films are not the perfect ones, but the ones that struggle against their own very evident flaws and still somehow deliver. Man of Steel is flawed in ways that draw me back to it, because when seen in the right light those flaws are also revelatory. They say at least as much about our attitudes towards this sort of material as they speak of any shortcomings in the film itself.Read more
"The problem with Japanese movies today," I said to someone else not long ago, "is that all their teeth have been pulled." The samurai movies of the 1960s and 1970s — Goyokin, Shura, Samurai Rebellion, Hara-kiri, most any of Kurosawa's films — were bold and nondoctrinaire, daring Japan to challenge its own image of itself, and with an unsparing view of how the samurai code of old was not only inhumane but counterproductive. Today, the mood is far more sentimental (When the Last Sword is Drawn) than it is confrontatory. Only rarely do maverick productions like Gojoe, or Battle Royale for that matter, come along.
Tadashi Imai's Bushido, from 1963, belongs alongside all the rest of those cage-rattling samurai productions, but for multiple reasons. It's a creative look at how the samurai code destroyed and stunted the lives of those who practiced it, by following several generations of men from the same family down from samurai days of yore to the present day, where such a code incarnates itself as deference to authority that takes away with both hands what it bestowes with one. The film also works as a vehicle for one of Japan's most flamboyant and commanding actors from that period, Kinnosuke Nakamura, and one of the natural end results of watching this film ought to be to seek out most everything else he's been in.Read more
The biggest problem with Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby is not that it's a bad film; it's the wrong film. F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel is so simple on the face of it that at least four different film versions, this one included, have come and gone, and they have all made the same mistake: they assume all that you need to do is film what's on the page.
But the book doesn't take place entirely on the page, and that's the problem. It exists in a privileged space somewhere between the page and the reader, and the minute you point a camera there it all turns silly and literal. So much of what happens in the story isn't in the bustle of Jay Gatsby's parties or even in the words spoken by one character to another (much of which can be found here), which is why the more of that you put on the screen in an attempt to "bring the novel to life", the less you end up with.Read more
The Avengers is a triumph not of filmmaking or even entertainment, but logistics. Before the movie was even out, the single most widely bruited thing about it was the mere fact that it was being made — that someone had managed to corral several disparate comic-movie franchises under one roof and give them a single film to play together in. When people refer to a given movie as an “entertainment machine”, The Avengers might well serve as the textbook reference example. It entertains, but only in the sense that they got the bear to dance.
Perhaps they couldn’t risk doing anything more than that, given how much money was at stake. That and the fact that the film is a sequel of sorts to not just one movie but several at once: Iron Mans I and II (of which only the first one was worth any salt); the Incredible Hulk, which didn’t even retain its star; the half-a-great-movie of Thor; and the remarkably inspired Captain America: The First Avenger. There are good movies in that mix, and at least two great ones, but what made any one of them great had little to do with its presence in the continuity of a franchise. Iron Man was a lightning-in-a-bottle experience, where most of the free-floating alchemy of the film was transmuted through Robert Downey, Jr.’s performance. And Captain America, again, made good more on the strength of its central performance than because of the exact story it was telling, a story which was essentially a lead-in to this one.Read more
The rabbi’s cat is a scrawny, grey creature who spends his time slinking around the docks of pre-WWII Algieria, fighting the other toms for fish heads, and dozing off in the lap of his master’s daughter. He’s as insular and selfish as you would expect a cat to be. One day in a fit of pique, when the rabbi’s back is turned, he devours the rabbi’s mouthy pet parakeet. This does more than satiate his hunger: it gives the cat the power of speech, and the very first thing he does is flat-out deny he ate a parakeet. After all, wouldn’t one of the hallmarks of sentience be the ability to lie?
This is a grandly funny scene, and it sets the tone for how The Rabbi’s Cat is not some dumb film where a talking cat is milked for jokes about how idiotic everyone else is. It’s a mix of smart, adult animated productions like Persepolis or The Triplets of Belleville, with the fantasy-mythology undertones of one of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s stories. Then again, those were the same aromas also exuded by Joann Sfar’s graphic novels that were the source of this film — doubly so since Sfar himself storyboarded and oversaw the production. Animation for thinking adults seems to come from two places, Japan and France, but France gets even less attention for such work than Japan does, and given how fresh and original this film is, that’s a shame.Read more
Few things in the movies excite and enthrall me more than a lost masterpiece, found once again. Last year a nearly-complete version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, believed lost to history forever, was located (it was hidden inside the wall of a movie theater, no less!) and restored. For film buffs, it was akin to unearthing the Ark of the Covenant. Gate of Hell might not come trailing the same level of name recognition or film-history pedigree, but having it restored to its original beauty and then some is no less exciting to me. This was not the first Japanese movie I saw, but it lodged so profoundly in my memory — not just for its blazing visuals, but its emotionally turbulent story — that it might as well have been.
As with Ugetsu, another film I saw early on in my self-education in Japanese cinema, I watched Gate of Hell courtesy of a VHS copy rented from the mom-‘n’-pop video store around the corner from my apartment. And as with Ugetsu, both the telecine and the print were in such lamentable shape that I wondered if that was because nothing better existed. I wasn’t far from wrong: Gate of Hell had been photographed via a single-strip Kodak process, Eastmancolor, that faded badly over time. Fortunately the studio, Daiei, had prepared a three-strip separation master — separate black-and-white negatives for each color channel — that preserved well. This process was later used by many others, e.g., MGM for their Metrocolor system (2001: a space odyssey), and when combined with digital technology, one could easily produce a remaster that outstripped the original. It also helped when the film being restored was something that had more than imagery in its favor.Read more
Source Code begins with a great hook for a story, and wisely remembers that a hook is only that: a way in, not the story itself. It opens with a man (Jake Gyllenhaal) on a train headed into Chicago, with no idea how he arrived there. A woman (Michelle Monaghan) he does not know is talking to him in a familiar way, and calling him by a name he’s never heard before. He knows his name is Colter Stevens, U.S. Army — so why is the face in the mirror and the name on his driver’s license all wrong? And then the train explodes from a bomb hidden in it somewhere, and Colter is thrown back into his “real” body, strapped into a seat in a kind of armored pod.
It’s a military project, we learn. The eight minutes Colter spent on the train in the body of another man is a sort of a simulation — a kind of peek into an alternate dimension, one constructed from the remnants of the mind of the man Colter is being projected into. The woman, Christina, is the would-be girlfriend of the dead man. The “source code”, as they call this pocket universe, has been created so that Colter might go into it — as many times as required — and find out who set the bomb. There’s only one problem: Colter has no idea how he got into this situation in the first place, and doesn’t believe for a second that the people giving him orders through the little TV screen over his chair have any legitimacy.Read more
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a guy discovers, or has someone hand to him, a bag full of money. Bad guys come after him. The cops come after him. A pretty girl gets mixed up with him. Chaos ensues. It’s easily the most hoary of noir clichés, and every generation of filmmakers tries to come back to it with new graphics and hardware.
In Time takes the bag-o-bucks and swaps it for a science-fiction concept that, I admit, I adored for its audacity and potential for social commentary. At some unspecified point in our future, money no longer changes hands. Instead, time really has become money. The world is populated with folks who are the product of careful genetic engineering. At the age of twenty-five, they stop aging — and a fluorescent clock on their arm begins counting down from one year. They can work to accumulate time — or gamble, or steal — but as soon as that clock hits zero, they’re dead. It’s Logan’s Run by way of D.O.A., if you want to get your science-fiction chocolate in my noir peanut butter some more.Read more