Movie Roundup: Mechas, Mugwumps, and Samurai

Time for another batch of movie reviews! I’ve watched a ton of movies in the past few months, but I haven’t written about it in a while because I’ve been busy with things, most recently with packing up and moving to Lawrence. Now that things are settled and I’ve got some free time, I can get back to this.

The big thing I’ve taken away from the last batch of movies I’ve watched (which is much, much bigger than the sample size here) is that my movie-watching tendencies are changing. For one thing, I am much more willing to give up on a movie now, if I get thirty or so minutes into it and it bores or infuriates me. I don’t like giving up on stories, and I always want to give people the benefit of the doubt, but the fact is that there are so many other stories out there that may or may not be worth watching, and the majority of the time it just isn’t worth spending two hours on a movie when the first forty minutes are terrible. Hell, most of the time I can tell within twenty minutes. I’ve even given up on movies right before the final stretch recently because I just couldn’t take anymore (for instance, House of 1000 Corpses and Calvaire). They were just doing nothing for me at all, and I figured, why bother?

I’ve also gotten much more critical of genre movies that I have been in the past. I’m pretty sure that’s due to the fact I’ve seen so many of them now. I’m beginning to see where some movies base what they do off of what other movies have done, less so out of homage and more so out of a lack of imagination. A lot of sci-fi/fantasy/horror movies don’t do it for me anymore because I can call all their shots now. So, increasingly I’ve turned toward other kinds of movies, most notably noir and historical dramas. I really enjoyed a trio of British crime films recently, in fact – The Long Good Friday, Layer Cake, and Croupier – that I didn’t write about here, but I do want to mention them so people can seek them out for their own viewing.

But, there are reviews to get to, and with that I turn to the biggest blockbuster of everything I saw, and one of the hot button topics in film this summer…

Pacific Rim: Before and at the time it came out, this movie was the leading cause for activism in my own geek circles. It’s a movie about giant mechas battling transdimensional monsters for the fate of the world. It’s basically a live action retelling of the cartoon mashups I used to make up with my action figures when I was 11. There are obvious touchstones for fans of Mobile Suit Gundam, Godzilla, Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, and Neon Genesis Evangelion (oh goodness, yes). A $200 million blockbuster made by nerds, for nerds. Pure fanservice. (Which goes a long way in explaining the outright defensive stance many people took on behalf of the movie before they even saw it.) And you know what? It is a lot of fun to watch. The visual design and polish of the movie is fantastic, and it is very well shot for a CGI-heavy blockbuster. Guillermo Del Toro does in fact know what he’s doing when it comes to spectacle. The fights themselves are awesome, easily the main reason to see the movie. The story? Not so much. Like I said before, it’s cobbled together from bits of other stories and the characters are cardboard, mostly. I’m also fairly certain Charlie Hunnam might be the new Keanu Reeves. That speech from Idris Elba’s character that they play in all the trailers? It sounds cool in the trailers, but when I watched it in the movie I had flashbacks to Bill Pullman’s pre-climactic speech in Independence Day. Still, there is much fun to be had in the movie, so long as you treat it like the spectacle it is and accept the fact that it isn’t terribly original.

header-pacific-rim-epic-wondercon-trailer-unleashes-jaeger-furyUpstream Color: I really wanted to like Upstream Color, much like I really wanted to like Shane Carruth’s first movie, Primer. There’s a very strong imagination at work in this movie, but it’s a primarily visual, cinematographic imagination. It’s a gorgeous movie: beautiful colors, texture, camerawork, etc. The sound is impeccable too, as is Carruth’s score, which stands up surprisingly well even when divorced from the movie. The story in Upstream Color is somewhat coherent, but still convoluted. The emotional component of the movie is definitely stronger than it is in Primer, which is quite a welcome change, as I think Carruth is a bit too cold with his characters. In the end, I think that Carruth has potential, but right now he is much more gifted as a cinematographer and director than he is as a writer and actor. I think he relies too much on obscurity in his storytelling, to the point of annoyance. He frequently defends his obscurity as part of his process in interviews, which to be honest kinda bugs me. His obscurity comes from the fact that he isn’t actually presenting the pieces of his stories in such a way that they can be properly reassembled at the end. There is a strong difference between a story about an inexplicable thing and an inexplicable story. Carruth shouldn’t confuse the two.

Upstream-colorLunopolis: I found this one on Netflix, and it wound up being a semi-pleasant surprise. IT’s shot as a faux-documentary about a secret alternate history of America involving moon bases, the lost city of Atlantis, glowing moon rocks, Men in Black, time travel, and other things. So, it’s sort of a mashup of different conspiracy-ish things, the kinds of things that make UFOlogists and Forteans perk their ears up. I happen to have a fondness for Forteana, so I enjoyed it for that component alone. It’s a movie that doesn’t attempt to disguise the fact that it’s trying to depict something that is batshit crazy (albeit fictional), and I admired that. The story itself is both good and not-so-good. Once it introduces the time travel component, things get unnecessarily twisty and convoluted, which is unfortunate because it’s otherwise still quite creative. The other thing is that the story is so packed to bursting with ideas that the backstory of the movie overalls the foreground story. So, it would be easy to classify this as a case of the filmmakers’ intentions outspanning their grasp, but their overall energy and creativity of the movie must be commended.

LunopolisCobra: Wow, this movie is bad. Like, really bad. Even by 80s action movie standards, which quite frankly weren’t that high to begin with, it’s bad. This should be a Reagan-era-approved, by-the-numbers “badass cop fights crime with disregard for the rules” movie, thoroughly mediocre. And yet, it doesn’t even clear that mark. What it is, is flamboyantly bad. It’s a Marty Stu piece for Sylvester Stallone, who basically hired George Cosmatos as a ghost director for the project, much like Kurt Russell did for Tombstone. The hero is so hypercompetent and macho as to reach the point of caricature, complete with random expertise and skills and improbable weapons storage. Every other character in the movie is basically there to pay testament to how much of a badass Stallone – erm, Marion Cobretti – is. This setup is also so thoroughly transparent that it turns into an unintentional comedy. So yeah, it does wind up falling into the “so bad, it’s good” category.

Troll 2: Speaking of so bad it’s good, we have this little treat. I recently tried to explain this movie to my friend, Matt Switliski. I’ll just quote what I told him: “You remember The Room? This is an unintentional comedy goldmine of the same caliber, absolutely. It’s about goblins, even though the movie is called Troll 2, and these goblins are vegetarians. They only eat vegetables. But they eat people. See, what they do is make people ingest this poison that turns them into vegetable goo, and then they eat that. Apparently, that works better for them than just eating vegetables. So, this family goes to this town called Nilbog – yes, Nilbog, ‘goblin’ spelled backwards – and the goblins come after them so they can eat them, and the youngest son is the only one who knows what’s going on because his dead grandfather told him – he’s a ghost. Oh, and there’s a scene where the goblin queen makes herself hot – really, all she does is dye her hair brown, take off her glasses, brush her teeth really good, and put on a dress – and seduces a guy in a trailer by dancing around with a corncob. And then they make out in the trailer and popcorn erupts in the air. It’s that kind of movie.”

Naked Lunch: This is one of the better David Cronenberg movies I’ve seen, a step below Videodrome and The Fly, but still quite good. It features a lot of ingenious, twisted imagery: typewriters that turn into alien cockroaches and, ahem, copulate; a disembodied alien head that dispenses drinkable liquid from one of its antennae; bug powder that double-functions as a snuffable hallucinogen; etc. All of this is utilized, however, in service of what is in fact a biography of William Burroughs filtered through the imagination that spawned his famed book, Naked Lunch. Even though it traffics in speculative detail, the movie feels very faithful to Burroughs, even affectionate at times. What may be the issue with this movie, however, is that you honestly need to read Burroughs’s book to understand this movie. Otherwise, you’ll marvel at the strangeness, but the references in the strangeness won’t add up the way they should.

394951457_640I Sell the Dead: Watched this one just the other night on Netflix. It’s nothing special, but is a pleasant bit of horror comedy done very much in the vein of Don Coscarelli and some of his movies, with a fondness for character interactions and horrific elements that ultimately come across as absurdly glib and fun. It’s a story of two gravediggers who sell corpses for money and their rivalry with other gravediggers, and also their encounters with some very peculiar creatures, namely the undead (along with a more distinctly science fictional critter that I won’t give away here). It isn’t really a story so much as a series of events from the main character’s life, told by himself to a priest while he awaits his execution. It’s the kind of thing that could easily see a sequel or two, so long as the people behind it continue to find stories to tell.

Cypher: Netflix kept tossing this movie at me as a recommendation, and so I finally gave in and watched it just to shut Netflix up. My verdict? It’s not particularly good. I really hope it doesn’t bear out too accurately as an indicator of Vincenzo Natali’s other movies, because I do want to see Cube and Splice eventually. It starts out promisingly, peaking about a third of the way in with a fondly Philip K. Dickian scene depicting a mass brainwashing in a hotel conference room, conducted by shadowy corporations whose only function seems to be instilling their employees with false identities and then brainwashing them in favor of newer false identities, without notable reason or purpose. If it had stayed in that weird SF vein, I would have loved it more. Instead, it becomes a standard corporate espionage “who’s double-crossing who” intrigue for the sake of intrigue. Also, the characters suck. So, no, Netflix, you blew this one.

cypherUpside Down: My God, this movie really sucked. The premise is sorta cool, sorta incoherent: two planets are locked in the same gravitational orbit around their sun, hanging out in space like a pair of those Chinese arthritis balls resting in the palm of your hand. Each planet has its own gravity that affects only the people and things native to it. A person from Planet A cannot stand on the surface of Planet B because Planet A’s gravity will pull them back. However, they can stay on Planet B if they wear or weigh themselves down with matter from Planet B, much like ballast. However! Matter from one planet will ultimately burn up when in contact with matter from the other planet, so you can’t use the ballast for long. Now, this creates a lovely visual style for the movie, with unique use of color and staging; lots of altered perspective shots, people running on ceilings, gravitational shifts, very cool. The science, clearly, is shit. You can’t even properly call the gravity of the two planets “gravity” because, well, that’s not now gravity works. It’s a force field, not a rubber band. These physical rules are only created to serve the purpose of the story. Problem is, the movie then proceeds to constantly break these rules whenever it serves to benefit the story, to the point that having them in the first place is mainly pointless. And on top of all of this, the story sucks. There is genuine potential to be had – the more affluent planet constantly takes resources and manpower from the other planet, leaving it poor and decrepit. This should have been a story of social upheaval and change. Instead, this background is used in service of a story about two bland, unlikable paper cutouts of people who fall in love with each other and their struggle to be together, which I frankly did not give a rip about.

13 Assassins: This might be my favorite Takashi Miike movie! Which is strange, because it’s also not particularly Miike-esque, in the sense of how people characterize him from his horror cinema. Also, I have a fondness for jidai-geki stories. Nevertheless, this is a well-made, rousing movie. It revolves around thirteen assassins (duh), more specifically twelve samurai/ronin and one woodland hunter who joins up with them randomly, and their mission to kill a nobleman who is causing problems for Japan because of his ruthless cruelty. So, they clear out a small town in the Japanese countryside and turn it into a giant deathtrap for the nobleman and his men. This leads to the final third of the film, entirely composed of the sequence where the nobleman rides into town and the trap is sprung. And it is awesome. The action is well-choreographed and seriously gratifying, never dull or boring, always intense, with some seriously inventive set pieces, my favorite being an alleyway pincushioned with swords, which the samurai proceeds to use as a makeshift gauntlet to mow through a procession of mooks. If it helps, imagine it as a smaller, Japanese variation on 300 with less abs, more substance, and no racism.

Walkabout: This movie haunted me during and after watching it. It’s a simple story: a boy and his sister are lost in the Australian Outback after their salaryman father goes nuts and tries to kill them, only to off himself and torch the family car. They reach the brink of starvation and are then rescued by an Aboriginal Australian boy, who takes a shine to the sister. This movie is a lovely experience, one of the most beautiful movies I’ve watched. Nicolas Roeg lingers on scenes of nature and animal activity – lizards, birds, kookaburra trees, water buffalo, all in their perfect natural functions – and really makes you adore it all and also lament when human activity spoils it, as happens later in the movie when some callous hunters nearly run down the Aboriginal boy and shoot an animal for no clear reason. It feels senseless, and that has much to do with the intense empathy the characters have for their surroundings by that point, and also for our empathy with it. The heart of the movie, though, is the sweet, awkward budding friendship/romance between the sister and the Aboriginal boy. They are keenly aware of their own bodies and also each other at a time when they are going through adolescence, growing comfortable around one another. They are also divorced by their respective cultures; one mistakes the other’s ritual for bad magic or insanity. It all makes you long for the ability to put aside language and culture and just reach a state of union, with other humans and with nature.

A Field in England: The latest movie from Ben Wheatley, who made Kill List, an intense little gem that still sticks with me. A Field in England is much, much stranger, but it sacrifices some coherence for that strangeness, which leaves it as a less enjoyable affair, though still worth watching. Basically, it’s a story of an alchemist, Whitehead, fleeing a battle during the English Civil War (we’re talking 17th century, non-Brits) who gets roped in with some grunts in service of an evil man named O’Neill who wronged Whitehead’s master and is now in pursuit of some treasure supposedly buried in the titular field. What this all builds up to is bantering about alehouses, torture, rune divination, ingestion of “magic mushrooms,” and an apocalyptic battle of the wills between a coward and a murderer. Even with its flaws, and it’s definitely far from perfect, it’s still worth watching for anyone in pursuit of distinctive cinema.

fieldVelvet Goldmine: Now this was a trip to watch. The whole thing is ostensibly the story of the rise and fall of this glam rock star named Brian Slade, along with his various love affairs and musical endeavors, and also his attempt to fake his own murder on stage, which wreaks horrible consequences on himself and others. If I had to describe the movie, it’s basically a glam rock concept album brought to life, something David Bowie would’ve done (which is funny, because Brian Slade is basically a thinly disguised David Bowie, with liberal doses of Oscar Wilde splashed in). The story structure itself is pretty inventive, told in a nonlinear style that assembles various pieces from interviews with characters who knew, loved, and hated Slade. It’s very much set up as a “who’s the man behind the mystery” thing, with a vaguely SF-nal feel to everything – Brian Slade has a Ziggy Stardust-like alter ego named “Maxwell Demon” (as in Maxwell’s Demon, the famous thought experiment) who, like Ziggy, is not of this planet – and really, glam rock itself is pretty SF-nal, when you think about it. Gender bending, identity politics, the power of music, glamours and façades, it all feels very fantastical when seen in a movie, but it was pretty much par for the course in the scene itself and its music. It was all about building a new mythology, and that’s something this movie absolutely nails. Another thing that’s totally nailed down is the music; this movie has quite possibly one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard.

velvet goldmine6Cemetery Man: One of the most peculiar movies I’ve seen recently, and definitely one of the most imaginative. It’s a total mindscrew of a movie, in fact. Rupert Everett plays the caretaker of a cemetery in a small Italian town, and he has what amounts to the worst job in the world, since almost anyone he buries comes back to life as a zombie. He doesn’t have much of a life, since the majority of it is spent either burying people or killing them again. He attempts to have a love life, but that ends badly too, especially since they often die, and he has to bury them, and you see where this is going. Except you don’t, or you won’t. I didn’t. I refuse to say anything more on the movie, other than to say it’s well worth watching, if you can get your hands on it. (Apparently, versions of the whole movie exist on YouTube! I don’t know how legal it would be to watch it, but if anyone wants to take the plunge, that would be up to them.)

Cemetery-ManV/H/S/2: I previously reviewed V/H/S, this movie’s precursor, and found it lacking for many reasons, namely the annoyance of the found footage formats, the lack of actual quality storytelling, and the dependence on obnoxious, unlikable characters. If those problems hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have minded the blatant shock value of the movie. Those problems are definitely addressed  all around in V/H/S/2. Hell, I even liked this movie. I found three of the four segments ultimately forgettable, but still enjoyable in the moment. The first segment is still the weakest part here, a bit about a guy who can see malevolent spirits after a cybernetic eye transplant, although it does utilize its jump scares effectively. The bit with the guy on the bike becoming a zombie, shooting everything from the POV of his bike helmet,  was fun but slight. The ending segment, with the alien abduction at the slumber party, is a pleasant surprise, with its science fictional trappings standing out from the usual horror of the movie. One of the segments, however, is worth sitting through the whole movie to see: “Safe Haven,” directed by Gareth Huw Evans and Timo Tjahjanto. This one, about a news crew investigating an Indonesian cult with decidedly sinister, demonic underpinnings, is a minor classic. The escalation of this piece is fantastic, and once the payoff begins and shit hits the fan, it crackles with energy and intensity. It’s simply brilliant.

If…: If this movie and a handful of other novels and movies I’ve encountered are any indication, I would never, ever, ever want to go to an English boarding school. Good grief, no. The boarding school in If… is downright fascist and chilling. The prefects are abusive snobs, the headmasters are ineffectual and unattached, the teachers are bundles of neuroses, and young men like Malcolm McDowell’s Mick Travis have to play revolutionary to get their points across without being beaten down. If…, then, is a great movie. It functions on multiple levels, as both a horrid account of boarding school life and as an allegory for what happens when people are manhandled by institutions larger than themselves. Because of this odd mixture of detail and intent, among other things, the movies gives off this impression of being realistic and fantastical at the same time, and so the proceedings are deeply weird, never more so than in the final minutes of the movie, where Travis and his friends stage a literal coup against the school. The violence in the movie isn’t terribly explicit, but it is frightening, especially the scenes of corporal punishment; there’s a moment about two-thirds of the way through where one of the prefects canes Travis repeatedly with running windups, clearly above and beyond the recommended level of severity, that stands out in particular. The coup at the end isn’t as frightening, given that’s the point where the allegorical reading of the movie bulldozes its previously established reality, but it is chilling in the context of what we’ve seen from actual school shootings in the real world thirty-odd years later. So, then, does that make If… a prophetic work? It’s not impossible.


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