Movie Reviews: Predestination

How did this astonishing little miracle of a movie -- easily the best adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein's work to film yet -- pass without leaving so much as a ripple?



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Stop reading this. Go to Netflix, your local video kiosk, wherever you can get your hands on a copy of Predestination. Watch it first, because I can guarantee it will be one of the best things you've seen all year, and odds are you might never have run into it if someone else hadn't told you about it. I want to put all this up front, because this movie deserves discussion and thought, and yet it is absolutely impossible to talk about this film without treading into complete spoiler territory. Those are just the facts. Go no further unless you are prepared.

Predestination is nominally science fiction, adapted from the Robert A. Heinlein short story "'All You Zombies — '", but like all the best SF, it doesn't stay stuck inside that container; it batters its way out and leaps towards bigger things. It deals with a man (Ethan Hawke) who appears to be some kind of spy in the employ of a nebulous organization, working behind the scenes to stop a terrorist named "The Fizzle Bomber" from destroying several square blocks of New York City. There's only one curious little detail, one that scoots by quickly enough that you might not catch it: the bombing hasn't happened yet. It's to happen at some point in the future. The spies are time travelers, fixing history when it breaks.

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Tags: Ethan Hawke movies review Robert A. Heinlein science fiction Science Fiction Repair Shop Spierig Brothers


Movie Reviews: R100

Hitoshi Matsumoto's latest cinematic shaggy-dog story willfully goes up blind alleys, but that's no reason to follow along.



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Hitoshi Matsumoto* is fast becoming the master of something I guess we could call the cinematic shaggy-dog story. His movies never go where they're supposed to, are never about what they claim to be, and are always this way defiantly so. By the time I got to the homestretch of Matsumoto's Big Man Japan, I'd given up on even trying to figure out where the movie was going, but I also didn't feel like I was being punished for sticking it out. Its weirdness was rewarding.

Now comes R100, a movie about defeated expectations, both for the audience and the characters. That is both the best and worst thing about it. Best in that Matsumoto hasn't started playing it safe or cloning someone else's eccentricities (little is more depressing than watching a true original do that); worst in that the payoff we do get is so strange, so many levels removed from what even an existing Matsumoto fan could gear up for, that I wouldn't be surprised if even his longtime stalwarts write him off. I haven't, but I suspect I have an unfair advantage.

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Tags: Hitoshi Matsumoto Japan movies Nao Omori review


Movie Reviews: Under The Skin

Scarlett Johannson does so much with so little, in this minimalist story of questioned self-identity.



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The easy, and wrong, way to talk about Under the Skin is through analogy and metaphor: it’s The (Wo)Man Who Fell To Earth by way of David Lynch, or something like that. I resist this approach, because it reduces any discussion of the movie to outside references, and threatens to do a disservice to what the experience of watching the film is actually like. Talk about something only through the lens of something else and you end up not talking about the thing itself at all. The thing itself works very hard to not be pigeonholed, not merely in the sense of “is it SF or not?” but “what is it, really?”

Even a simple description of what happens in Under the Skin is likely to disappoint. After a sound-and-light show that implies birth or creation or both, we meet two people, sort of. One is a man who rides a motorcycle and rescues what appears to be the dead body of a prostitute from the bank of a river. The other is a woman (Scarlett Johannson), who strips off the dead woman’s clothes and dons them herself. This, the movie implies, is not the only disguise she wears.

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Tags: movies review Scarlett Johannson


Movie Reviews: Lucy

Forget about the ridiculous premise, if you can; Luc Besson's latest gets major props for sheer audacity.



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Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way: Lucy isn’t science fiction. It’s science foolishness. It relies on one of the most egregious misstatements of scientific fact — that human beings only use ten percent of their brainpower — as the linchpin for a movie so enjoyably bonkers that in the end it doesn’t really matter how dumb its core premise is. This movie is the cinematic incarnation of the old cliché, “Dance like nobody’s watching.” This one breakdances.

The premise is simple; what becomes derived from that premise, not so simple. Lucy (Scarlett Johannson), a woman living and studying in Taiwan, gets tricked by her sleazy boyfriend into delivering a case to some Korean mobster types led by the sinister Mr. Jang (an underused Choi Min-sik, the original Oldboy). The case contains some new, experimental drug soon to be flooding the streets. She's just won the drug-mule lottery, and so a terrified Lucy gets to have a packet of the stuff sewn into her guts. At one point she’s manhandled by one of her minders, and the packet bursts over and begins leaking. The drug turns Lucy into, well, super-Lucy.

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Tags: Luc Besson movies review Scarlett Johannson


Movie Reviews: My Dinner With André

Out of two men talking, nothing more, came one of the best films of its decade.



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The concept could not be simpler, or at the same time more audacious: Two friends, out of touch for years on end, reunite in a tony New York City restaurant and get caught up with each other. No gimmicks; no distractions; no injections of comic relief on the part of the wait staff or the chef; just two men of wit, intelligence, and sharply divergent worldviews sharing the lives they've been living. Most people, when confronted with the film's concept, say: That's it? To which I'd reply: That's all you need.

The André of the title is André Gregory, a longtime veteran of the theater, tall and greyhoundishly handsome in the manner of Roy Scheider. His friend is Wallace Shawn, a balding, rotund, squeaky-voiced fireplug of a man; Princess Bride fans will remember him immediately from that film as the cackling, villainous Vizzini. André and Wally are essentially playing versions of themselves, not improvising in real time (as many people mistakenly believed) but instead acting from a screenplay distilled down from dozens of hours of conversation between them.

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Tags: Andre Gregory movies review Wallace Shawn


Movie Reviews: Elysium

An attempt at politically tinged SF, but only an attempt: such are the risks of not thinking through fully the implications of your premise.



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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 9one 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.

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Tags: Jodie Foster Matt Damon movies review science fiction Science Fiction Repair Shop


Movie Reviews: Oldboy (2013)

The worst thing about Spike Lee's 'Oldboy' is that it could well have been made by most anyone.



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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. 

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Tags: Chan-Wook Park Josh Brolin movies remakes review Spike Lee


Movie Reviews: Man of Steel

Man of Steel understands Superman well enough to know he should be taken seriously, even if it doesn't always quite know how to make that understanding real.



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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.

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Tags: comics review Science Fiction Repair Shop superheroes Superman Zack Snyder


Movie Reviews: Bushido (Bushido: The Cruel Code of the Samurai) (Bushidō zankoku monogatari)

The cruel cost of the samurai code, across the generations.



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"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-kirimost 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.

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Tags: bushido Japan Kinnosuke Nakamura movies Norio Nanjo review samurai Tadashi Imai Toshiro Mayuzumi


Movie Reviews: The Great Gatsby (2013)

A punch bowl full of glitter and treacle.



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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.

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Tags: adaptation Baz Luhrmann books Carey Mulligan F. Scott Fitzgerald Leonardo DiCaprio movies review Tobey Maguire


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