Friday, March 14, 2014

Movies of 2013, Science Fiction, pt3, Europa Report

Logically I should have paired this movie with "Gravity" but I only just watched it and decided to add it to the now nearly complete list of movies I have gone over.  So I am going back to Science Fiction with a very small movie that made very little money.

Europa Report, or "The space movie from 2013 that really does not measure up to Gravity"
Overall: 6/10 (kind of ruined by its fake-documentary style)

Surprisingly hard science.
            "Compared to the breadth of knowledge yet to be known... what does your life actually matter?"  Which is kind of bleak when you think about it.
            I don't really like the framing device of the movie.  It is a documentary made from the footage of a lost mission to Europa, a moon of Jupiter (one of the four important ones, there are dozens of moons around Jupiter the short bus cousin to Sol).  It justifies the found footage nature of the story by having cameras everywhere on the space vessel.  Inside the ship, outside the ship, and the totally unnecessary inside the helmet (I guess they wanted to show the actors acting at the things they are seeing, but they can do that with their voices just fine without the excessive close up).  It is the quick breakdown of literally months (22 and some change) of this voyage which captures all the classic problems of the found footage style and the science fiction genre.
            You start with the initial 20 minutes with the characters, though I will freely admit they are better characters than most of these types of movies give you, "Sunshine" for instance focused on mental nut-bars and assholes for the most part, and "Gravity" only had smarmy George and whimpering Sandra as the key characters, with Ed Harris' voice giving us authoritarian if you are generous.  Europa One's crew members have roles on the mission, but nobody is transparently the daredevil or the coward (even though that is suggested with interviews at the start of the movie), they act like actual people.
            The middle section is the mini-boss, the issue that shows the dangers of the environment cropping up before you even get to the actual mission.  In this case a routine maintenance procedure that goes bad.  You can see prior examples of this with "Mission to Mars" (which this movie with very few tweaks might as well be a sequel to), in which micro meteors result in their ship getting banged up and nearly rendering the ship destroyed.  The mini-boss in "2001: A Space Odyssey" was HAL or the concept of the audience being really bored.  The mini-boss underlines a major problem with the movie though: things told and shown out of order.

I consider this to be a rather underrated movie, and while similar in plot to Europa, this one has a much lighter tone.
            The crew land the ship on Europa, then they cut back to before they landed.  This cut is to show what happened to one of the crew members, the mini-boss incident that upped the stakes for the crew.  Why did they cut backwards in time?  That is just confusing.  I thought that I had accidently clicked on the player's progress bar.  If this was a real documentary that wouldn't happen, so why is it in a fictitious documentary?  That sort of thing doesn't happen in most movies unless strange editing in the gimmick ("Pulp Fiction" or "Memento").
            The third part of the story is the mystery of Europa.  Exploring the surface, feeling the immensity of what happened (landing on a moon of Jupiter, biggest event in history up till then), and the tension and creepy nature of an alien world.  It is pretty cool, and I would have liked it a lot if not for the documentary style breaking in to ruin the flow and practically telling the audience outright how to feel.
            Ultimately there is a disaster, that is pretty clear from the nature of the movie, and the final part of the tale is the cool and scary discovery.  Then the documentary keeps talking.  Once you have the money shot of the crew's suicidal last grasp at knowledge, talking doesn't help the audience.

Said every viewer of this movie walking into the theater.  HA!  Walking into the theater!
Nobody saw this in the theater.  They watched it on Netflix months later.
            You want to know what would have fixed this movie?  Issues 1 to 100, the found footage is not necessary, and stupid documentary style takes out all of the mystery.  You know that nobody makes it out.  How about instead you just make the same story with the same cliché beats and just make it play out like a real movie?  And have some ambiguity as to whether the discovery makes it back to Earth.  Thru most of the movie the communications are not working, but we are watching a documentary, so we know that the chronicling of their mission makes it back, but if you had the last act of the crew be the daring attempt to send the message back to Earth (which is part of the climax) but leave it open ended as to whether the message made it off Europa, so that the characters and the audience don't know if the world will ever learn of what happened, that type of ending forces people to think a little.  Maybe even worry.  Really, this is the same flaw as "Gravity" which has no ambiguity to its final scene, it is excessively tied up in a neat little package.
            Problem 101, the editing of this movie is awful.  As previously mentioned cutting back and forth between months of time (even with the hard to read time codes) does nothing to help the story.
            But, whatever, instead we can just tell the audience what happened and explicitly end the movie with the words, "We now know that our universe is stranger, far more alive, than we had ever imagined. The crew of Europa One changed the fundamental context in which all of humanity understands itself. I don't know what greater measure of success they could have achieved."  As if you the watcher could not have put that together by yourself.  It is like a really good movie spliced together with a current generation History channel "documentary" (those quotes are to indicate sarcastic condescension).  It is worth watching.

I actually dislike the idea of aliens having come to Earth in ancient times to teach humans things.  It is a very colonial mindset in the realm of science fiction, the idea of the civilized people teaching the primitives the glory of technology.  Also the idea robs humans of a lot of their agency.  Humans are intelligent and should be accomplishing things rather than being spoon fed.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Movies 2013, Survival

Survival Films
            Yes apparently I have decided to do an incredibly niche setting as an entry in this series of blogs.  Before I saw "Gravity" this was actually going to be Nautical Films.  Why are there so many movies about being alone and adrift?  Is it the economy?

Captain Phillips, or "Huh, there is some pretty good tension in there."
Overall: 7/10
Apparently the real Captain Phillips has been trying to ply this incident for personal gain which has resulted in him being somewhat demonized.... If I ever got kidnapped by pirates I would milk that incident for glory the rest of my life, so I do not understand the supposed hostility.
            There are parts of this movie that I was just fine with, and other parts that I was less enamored with.  Certainly the best thing is showing a lot of it from the perspective of the pirates.  Much like the Sports movie "Rush" there are two protagonists and their bouncing off one another is what the movie is about.  Character interaction is core to any movie which involves people being held in a tiny shelter against the world.  You have to know why people are doing certain things, and have an expectation of how others will react.  This movie nails that.
            I guess there are just long stretches in which I got rather bored.  I just didn't care about what was happening on the boat beyond a certain point, and seeing as I was alive at the time the actual instance was on the news I knew the ending.  Tom Hanks has some really strong acting at the end as he goes through shock while being treated, having just been held hostage and then covered in his kidnapper's gore.  There are other scenes that are tense, but it just didn't stay with me very much.  Overall I think it is a well made movie that other people might like more than I do, but it won't stick with me the way other movies have this year.
            Some people were saying that Barkhad Abdi is a breakout performer in this.  I do not really agree.  He is barely acting.  The nervousness he portrays is being interpreted as a trait of his character, someone who is using violence to try and make money but surrounded by hostile forces... people chose to see as acting.  Really it just seems like someone who doesn't act being in a movie.  He is nervous because millions of people are going to watch this movie for Tom Hanks but there are numerous scenes in which Barkhad is the focus of the scene, and he is probably worried he won't measure up.  And he doesn't for the most part.  He was cast because he looks like a Somali Pirate, not because he is a skilled actor.

All is Lost, or "I would be cursing a hell of a lot more than Robert is."
Overall: 7/10
Seriously, the main Character has no name, he is listed in the credits as "Our Man".
I should note the only reason I watched this is because it was the #1 of a film reviewer I like named Cecil.
            Ever wanted to watch a movie about an old man on a boat that is slowly sinking and the various processes taken to keep the boat afloat as long as possible before finally, ALL IS LOST?
            If you like survival movies with minimal dialogue, and a protagonist that has (Literally) no name and (effectively) no personality beyond an ability to learn to use a sextant use over the course of his ordeal... Well, you'll definitely like this one.  I could talk about it more, but there is not a lot of themes or story, I would just be describing what was happening, "he then patches the boat hull", "drains the cabin", "there is a storm coming", etc.
            It is worth a watch, I liked it more than "Gravity," because it cut out all the stupid dialogue and made things really relatable (MAYBE that is why.  My mood is fickle.  I imagine I will continue to cool on "Gravity" but this will remain at the medium-to-good level).

Gravity, or "All is Lost, but in Space"
Overall: 6/10
If this image were to talk without point then it would perfectly sum up the film.
            Much like "You're Next" I imagine this movie has much broader appeal than I am giving it credit for, but it is first and foremost a spectacle movie and it is in many ways too dumb for me.  I imagine this has a lot in common spiritually with "Life of Pi" which I did not see but was sold on its special effects. to a degree that dismissed the actor's contributions altogether.
            This movie foreshadows things well, you see something and it foreshadows something else happening later, I give it credit for that.  There are effects in this that blew my mind with how cool they looked and how exciting they were, watching in dead silence the complete destruction of the International Space Station (what could be considered the greatest monument to what multinational scientific efforts can achieve) I will give tons of credit there.  This movie is worth seeing, but I am just less impressed by special effects as a technical achievement unless they are used to complement a strong story.
            But there are some aspects I just found stupid, like Sandra Bullock constantly talking to herself.  Here is some SPOILER territory.  In the movie George Clooney sacrifices himself so that Sandra can continue working to get home, but at one point she runs out of ideas and decides to lower the oxygen and let herself go to sleep, she is then woken up by Clooney knocking on the spacecraft window and then opening the pod.  They then have a short conversation on how she can use the ship in a clever way to get to the next station which has a landing module... It is a hallucination, the oxygen deprivation gave her a Eureka moment in the form of George Clooney.  So here is my question: why not just do that all the time?  Have her talk to Clooney through a radio, under the assumption that he is still drifting in his space suit, giving her instructions, but it turns out the radio hadn't been working, that Clooney's voice was just her making sense of the situation and remembering her training, that way you would not have to watch her talking to herself the whole movie.  Actor's talking to themselves is not always an acceptable way to do things.  In Hamlet, the titular character talks to himself to reflect his internal discussion, there was no other way to get that information across in a play, this is a movie in which you could easily get around such things.
            More SPOILER, the movie could have ended with her just getting into the Chinese station at the end.  Showing her falling to Earth, swimming in water, and then walking on a beach was just unnecessary for the story.  Her arc was over with.  Some ambiguity as to whether she made it home would have worked in the movie's favor, but I guess they wanted people to have airtight closure... Though once you introduce the idea of hallucination, as you did with the Clooney ghost, you can no longer trust what is being shown on screen.  For all the audience knows she died in space and dreamed her trip back to Earth.  And really, by the time we are to that point you are almost bored by the idea of being in space.  No kidding the idea of jumping to another satellite is almost played out by the end of the movie.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Movies of 2013, Horror, pt3

            This is the most awful part of the horror genre this year.

You're Next, or "Is this supposed to be Funny?  I am not sure I am getting this."
Overall: 4/10
Did the villains draw straws for who got which mask?  Cause one of them is a lamb.  That is not very bad ass.
            This movie has a slightly misleading trailer that if I had been in a better mood I would have been pleased with how it subverted my expectations.
            I can actually see this movie being regarded positively by people.  It has a good pace that establishes its characters well enough, but I just couldn't get into it.
            Since the appeal of this is the subversion of expectations I don't want to spoil anything, if you like slasher movies then you will like this.  I am kind of softening to it a bit as it rolls around in my head.  I doubt I will ever watch it again, but I can imagine myself looking back on this having judged it too harshly, if for no other reason than the hero character is a woman, and she takes actions to further her position in the situation.  The hero actually has agency.  Maybe I will have to take another crack at it.

The Purge, or "That's it?  What was the point of the premise?  This plot has been done a hundred times before."
Overall: 4/10
Also, there is no distinct iconic bad guy in this movie, so emphasizing the masks is a little dishonest.
This isn't "Friday the 13th", which has sort of a recognizable mask centered character.
            This is a basic home invasion movie.  A group of creepy assholes are trying to get in and the residents have to take steps to protect themselves.  This is the same movie as "You're Next" but with the pretense of having social commentary.
            It's social commentary is never explored, nobody talks about how the titular Purge affects the poor and homeless disproportionately, or how the social good of the annual violence mostly has to do with those who can afford to participate killing those who don't have the financial means to defend themselves.  The areas in which that issue is addressed are handled with the subtlety of "Elysium", paper thin and blaringly obvious to the point of being insulting.  But it is not explored or debated.  I can imagine this idea in that hands of a madman like James Gunn, Peter Jackson, or good old Paul Verhoeven, if Paul had done it he would have had live coverage of the murder and chaos coming from street correspondents who are in indestructible witness booths constructed to give on the scene reports, with color commentary for those watching at home and advertising weapons to be used next year, "ooh, look how well the long range rifle works here, but a molotov delivered from an artillery shot of a pitching arm is far more colorful and fun!"  It writes itself and would serve as a final cherry on the sundae of anti-rich science fiction action movies ("RoboCop" "Total Recall" and "Starship Troopers" being logical spiritual predecessors).  What I am saying here is, "Weak execution, needs more dark humor."
            There is also a lag in logic, once the intruders realize that the people in the house have the means to defend themselves with guns and security systems they logically should just fuck off to find easier prey, why risk getting gunned down for the pleasure of killing a stranger?  Also, how did they locate this guy to hunt?  Was he kidnapped?  Well, if that happened before the start of the Purge then that means these guys broke the rules of the Purge and that would give them reason to go after him and the family because they would all go to jail once the events ends... But that side of things is never explained, I just made all that explanation up.  I tied up a plot hole in their movie that required maybe two lines of dialogue to explain.
            This is an interesting premise, but it is not used to any effect, and judging by the sequel trailer they have decided not to bother trying to comment and instead just trying to make the standard lost-in-the-wilderness horror chase movie, except the wilderness is the deserted city... Which makes it look like "Night of the Comet"... a more fun and interesting movie.

MaMa (walked out), or "Startling: The Movie."
Overall: 1/10
And the ghost in it looks really silly.
            Shitty.  This thing could have been good but the laziness of how it executes its scares kill it dead.  Piercing music stings coupled with a scary face on screen shock but they do not scare in an interesting way.  you are not filled with dread, you are filled with tense anticipation for when you will be startled.  It is a shame because the characters in the movie could have been good, the actors are strong and the premise of children trying to acclimate from being in the wilderness is an interesting concept.  From what I hear the ending is bad.  Bad to the point of being insulting.  Fuck this movie.

            If I were to offer some constructive suggestions, I would say use James Watkins who made the very okay "The Woman in Black" which captured its tone easier, and had a better mystery element (even though it ended up not making a lick of sense.  Which would mean taking the writer off the director's seat and that would be complicated.  Andres Muschietti is the prime creator of this thing, and the idea that he would not have the clout to make the final big movie out of it... would be a bad shot against him, and I wonder if the problems I have (since they appear in tons of movies) are not just shoved in by a studio who wants to shock the audience, making it more like the found footage garbage that is still getting churned out.  At least when the tension is broken in "Woman in Black" by a screaming ghost face it had a lot of build up and serves as a starting gun rather than stop sign to action, things heat up when that happens rather than it cutting to something else and leaving that screaming tension hanging.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Movies of 2013, Horror, pt2

            The medium-good horror stuff this year.

John Dies at the End, or "I feel I should take it easy on the shit effects because it is so charming and weird."
Overall: 6/10
This movie was based on a book by a contributor to the online magazine, Cracked.
Supposedly inspired by a night taking drugs.  That last part I believe.
            "Let's get high off the blood of an Old One."  Fantastic.  That is a thing we should do.
            "Dies" is so weird, that I love it a lot more than I really should.
            This is probably one of the only movies in which I will say without question: it needed more money.  The dialogue is funny, the acting is solid, tons of cool props, intriguing premise, such odd little episodes, and characters that you actually like and give a shit about.
            This thing is so in sync with how my sense of humor and action that I kind of love it, but the absolute climax of the movie looks and feels so cheap that it poisons the rest of the film a great deal.  It is so obviously green screen, so poorly cut trying to hide the issues... It looks just terrible.  If this movie had only a little more money... There are numerous episodes of "Doctor Who" that look better than this.
            If you like horror comedy ("Army of Darkness", "Todd and the Book of Pure Evil", "Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters") then this is a must see.  But if you dislike cheap and hokey stuff give it a pass, because it really requires you to buy into the idea of parallel worlds, topless cults, and Jamaican fortune tellers.

V/H/S/2, or "Certainly better than the first one.  Still a lot of room for improvement."
Overall: 6/10
Not quite as visually offensive as its predecessor.
            When I watched the first "V/H/S" I frequently found myself having to look away from the screen because the constant camera movement made me ill.  Not all of the short films grabbed me, and the framing device of assholes stealing videos and then inexplicably sitting down to watch some was so stupid and over stylized that I actually hated it.  This movie fixes most of that.
            While the short films featured vary in quality.  The first story has the biggest issue in my opinion, a guy gets an optical implant that allows him to see ghosts, and acts as a recorder, then meets a woman with an ocular implant that allows her to hear them, and then ghosts attack... That is cool, but I kept asking myself, "So, is his fake eye recording sound too?  If so, why?  And if not, then why does this video have real time high quality sound?"  Other issues crop up, one of the stories is just non-stop horror visual bombardment and in spite of some stuff being gratuitous and distracting it stands head and shoulders above the others.  There is also the first zombie story I have seen in a while that was good (I enjoyed the zombie short in this more than I liked, "Warm Bodies" in its entirety).

            It will still cause you motion sickness from the constant camera movement.  But I never had to look away from the screen.  Big improvement, definitely worth having another sequel to further refine the franchise.  The framing story was also better, though the idea of staying in a hazardous place to watch movies is just stupid.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Movies of 2013, Horror, pt1

            These were the good horror movies.

The Conjuring, or "Based on actual events my ass."
Overall: 7/10
I look forward to the inevitable franchise this spawns.
            James Wan is a skilled director who can frame a shot, pace a scene, and evoke performances from actors.  Patrick Wilson is an underappreciated actor who has been in a lot of really good stuff, he yells with real conviction, and actually looks concerned when a situation calls for concern... You would think that such a skill would common with actors, but for some reason the horror genre is mostly the dredges of movie production (perhaps romantic comedies are worse off, but not by much).
            "The Conjuring" is an elaborate story by a married couple of charlatans, the Warrens, who worked as ghost hunters and paranormal investigators for several decades.  They are notorious for making up "The Amityville Horror".
            Thankfully this film takes "realism" or any hope of committing to the "real" story and locks those uninteresting things in its creepy basement and commences to beat your sense of, "I could see that happening" with a truncheon.  Instead they opt to just tell an engaging story plotted out really well.
            Exposition is woven into the narrative with clues at the start whose intrigue is satisfied as the story progresses... You know, like a mystery story should.  Shocking, someone managed to write something that doesn't just tell you what is happening, nor do they fail to find out or fail to act on what they already know.
            I should also point out the good acting from Vera Farmiga and Lili Taylor (who convincingly looks terrified).
            There are scenes in this that are absolutely bone chilling especially with the quasi hide and seek game featured prominently in the trailers.  Simple things, that makes my skin goosepimply as I write this in the quiet of late hours.  One of the better films I saw this year.

Insidious: Chapter 2, or "There are like 3 or 4 movies that the writer and director must have been watching to assemble this thing."
Overall: 8/10
And I look forward to the continuing adventures of the heroes in this movie.
            See the opening paragraph under "The Conjuring"?  Repeat that for the opening here and add in how this is the best sequel to a horror film I have ever seen.
            The first "Insidious" was a fantastically paced movie with numerous scenes that were tense, creepy, and visually very pretty.  This movie weaves its narrative into the previous film damn near flawlessly, making its own additions to the mythos and using simple behind the scenes production decisions to build entire plot lines around.  There is little neck tingling stuff and big shocking stuff.  It is a fun movie.
            What is more this thing apes stuff from other really good movies and blends them in.  There is stuff from "The Shining" and "Silence of the Lambs" that make the central antagonist just fascinating.  They also, through use of established supernatural elements explore back through time creating a very interesting way of doing flashbacks.  They create a story reason for why the characters are watching the past... It is like in "Dredd" when they create a drug that slows down time, so that they can shoot some actions in slow motion and pretty and it makes sense in the narrative.  Excellent, excellent work.
            There is only one complaint that I can point to in the technical department: they dub over an actress in the opening scenes of the movie with the voice of a much older actress.  I have no idea why, I knew which character the actress was supposed to be a younger iteration of without the additional audio clue.  That starts the movie off on a bad foot for me, but unless you are the type of person who would notice and care about those sorts of things (like me) then I doubt you will care.  As far as story is concerned, I don't really care for how they ultimately resolve the issues of Patrick Wilson's character and his son, played by Ty Simpkins (who did a good job), but that really wouldn't matter to most people as their story is pretty much over with.

            Also, good job on the part of Rose Byrne.  A good portion of the movie is her moving around the house and looking like she is going nuts.
            So those factors kept this from being a truly great movie, but I would definitely put it in the top 10 (maybe the top 5) of the year.  Watch it back to back with the original and you probably wouldn't notice that they were produced nearly 3 years apart (the kid actors aged I suppose).  I am probably being too hard on this movie, and I definitely feel it is not getting enough credit from critics and audiences that said it was not as scary as the first one.  I thought it was more scary because the antagonist is a ghost rather than a demon, and ghosts get to have back stories and motivations that inform their actions and can serve as stand ins for deeper and darker subject matter than a demon, which by definition is evil for its own sake.