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March 7, 2019

Filed under: movies»commentary»scifi

Stop trying to hit me

At the end of this month, in keeping with the horrifying march of time, The Matrix turns 20 years old. It's hard to overstate how mind-blowing it was for me, a high-schooler at the time, when the Wachowski sisters' now-classic marched into theaters: combining entirely new effects techniques with Hong Kong wire-work martial arts, it's still a stylish and mesmerizing tour de force.

The sequels... are not. Indeed, little of the Wachowski's post-Matrix output has been great, although there's certainly a die-hard contingent that argues for Speed Racer and Sense8. But in rewatching them this month, I've been struck by the ways that Reloaded and Revolutions almost feel like the work of entirely different filmmakers, ones who have thrown away one of their most powerful storytelling tools. By that, I mean the fight scenes.

The Matrix has a few set-piece fight scenes, and they're not all golden. The lobby gunfight, for example, doesn't hold up nearly as well on rewatch. But at their best, the movie's action segments deftly thread a needle between "cool to watch" and "actively communicating plot." Take, for example, the opening chase between Trinity, some hapless cops, and a pair of agents:

In a few minutes, we learn that A) Trinity is unbelievably dangerous, and B) however competent she is, she's utterly terrified by the agents. We also start to see hints of their character: one side engaged in agile, skilled hit-and-run tactics, while the authorities bully through on raw power. And we get the sense that while there are powers at work here, it's not the domain of magic spells. Instead, Trinity's escape bends the laws of time and space — in a real way, to be able to manipulate the Matrix is to be able to control the camera itself.

But speaking of rules that are can be bent or broken, we soon get to the famous dojo training sequence:

I love the over-the-top kung fu poses that start each exchange, since they're such a neat little way of expressing Neo's distinct emotional progress through the scene: nervousness, overconfidence, determination, fear, self-doubt, and finally awareness. Fishburne absolutely sells his lines ("You think that's air you're breathing now...?"), but the dialog itself is almost superfluous.

The trash-as-tumbleweed is a nice touch to start the last big brawl of the movie, as is the Terminator-esque destruction of Smith's sunglasses. But pay close attention to the specific choreography here: Smith's movements are, again, all power and no technique. During the fight, he hardly even blocks, and there aren't any fancy flips or kicks. But halfway through, after the first big knock-down, Neo starts to use the agent's own attack routines against him, while adding his own improvisations and style at the end of each sequence. One of these characters is dynamic and flexible, and one of them is... well, a machine. We're starting to see the way that the ending will unfold, right here.

What do all these fight scenes have in common? Why are they so good? Well, in part, they're about creating a readable narrative for each character in the shot, driving their action based on the emotional needs of a few distinct participants. Yuen Woo Ping is a master at this — it's practically the defining feature of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, on which he did fight direction a year later and in which almost every scene combines character and action almost seamlessly. Tom Breihan compares it to the role that song-and-dance numbers play in a musical in his History of Violence series, and he's absolutely right. Even without subtitles or knowledge of Mandarin, this scene is beautifully eloquent:

By contrast, three years later, The Matrix Reloaded made its centerpiece the so-called "burly brawl," in which a hundred Agent Smiths swarm Neo in an empty lot:

The tech wasn't there for the fight the Wachowskis wanted to show — digital Keanu is plasticky and weirdly out-of-proportion, while Hugo Weaving's dopplegangers only get a couple of expressions — but even if they had modern, Marvel-era rendering, this still wouldn't be a satisfying scene. With so many ambiguous opponents, we're unable to learn anything about Neo or Smith here. There's no mental growth or relationship between two people — just more disposable mooks to get punched. "More" is not a character beat. But for this movie and for Revolutions, the Wachowskis seemed to be convinced that it was.

At the end of the day, none of that makes the first movie any less impressive. It's just a shame that for all the work that went into imitating bullet time or tinting things green, almost nobody ripped off the low-tech narrative choices that The Matrix made. Yuen Woo Ping went back to Hong Kong, and Hollywood pivoted to The Fast and the Furious a few years later.

But not to end on a completely down note, there is one person who I think actually got it, and that's Keanu Reeves himself. The John Wick movies certainly have glimmers of it, even if the fashion has swung from wuxia to MMA. And Reeves' directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi is practically an homage to the physicality of the movie that made him an action star. If there is, in fact, a plan to reboot The Matrix as a new franchise, I legitimately think they should put Neo himself in the director's chair. It might be the best way to capture that magic one more time.

February 13, 2019

Filed under: movies»commentary»scifi


Sunshine wasn't particularly loved when it was released in 2007, despite a packed cast and direction by Danny Boyle. In the years since, it has somehow stubbornly avoided cult status — before its time, maybe, or just too odd, as it swings wildly between hard sci-fi, psychological drama, survival horror, and eventually straight-up slasher flick by way of Apocalypse Now. But it's intensely watchable and, I would argue, underappreciated, especially in comparison to writer Alex Garland's follow-up attempts on the same themes.

"Our sun is dying," Cillian Murphy mutters at the start of the film, and the tone remains pretty grim from there. The spaceship Icarus II is sent on a desparate trip to restart the sun by tossing a giant cubic nuclear bomb into it — a desparate quest, made all the more desparate by the fact that nobody on the mission seems particularly stable or well-suited to the job. Boyle sketches out each crew member quickly but adeptly, giving each one a well-defined (if sometimes precious) persona, like the neurotic psychologist, the hot-tempered engineer, or the botanist who cares more for her oxygen-producing plants than the people onboard (or, viewers suspect, the mission itself). NASA would never put these people in a small space for more than a day, but they're a marvel of small-scale human conflict almost from the very start.

That approach to character is emblematic of Sunshine's construction, which is really less of a plot and more of a set of simple machines rigged in opposition to each other. An early miscalculation in the position of the ship's sun shield leads to a series of cascading crises, each of which provides both physical challenge as well as ratcheting tension among the crew from dwindling resources. Yet there's only one real plot twist in the whole thing: the murderous captain Pinbeck of Icarus I, driven mad by his own journey toward the sun. Everything else is established clearly and methodically, with ample recall and signposting — it's the rare science fiction movie that doesn't cheat. Even Pinbeck's slasher-esque rampage shows up in clues for savvy viewers, who can clock a missing scalpel and scattered bloody handprints on rewatch.

Similar to an obvious inspiration (and personal favorite), Alien, one of the film's greatest special effects is the cast. Boyle gets a lot of mileage out of Cillian Murphy's After Effects-blue eyes, but you can't go wrong with Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh, Benedict Wong, and Rose Byrne. Still, for my money, Cliff Curtis is the film's MVP: as the doctor/psychologist Searle, he's both bomb-thrower and mediator in equal measures. His obsession with the sun leaves him visibly burned, like a Dorian Gray painting of the crew's mental health. And yet, unlike Pinbeck (who he clearly parallels), Curtis manages to keep his perspective straight and a wry sense of humor — he may love the light, but he's not blinded by it.

So why isn't Sunshine canonized, especially in a climate-change world where "our sun is dying" passes for optimism? Why is it considered a misfire, when Garland's flawed Annihilation was seen as a cult hit in the making? It's still not clear to me. Maybe it just got lost in the shuffle: 2007 was a good year for movies, including There Will Be Blood for the serious film aficianados and The Bourne Ultimatum or Death Proof for surprisingly well-crafted genre fans. Or maybe it's also just too close to its nearest relatives: too easy to write off as "Event Horizon without the schlocky fun" or "Solaris, but for stupid people." Either way, it feels overdue for reconsideration.

August 11, 2014

Filed under: movies»commentary»superhero

12 Percent of a Plan

I would love to have been in the meeting where someone pitched Guardians of the Galaxy. "We're going to take all the good will you've built up through the Marvel comic movie franchise, and then spend it on a space movie with characters that nobody really knows, one of whom is a heavily-armed raccoon." And then even weirder, it worked: Guardians is pretty good. Maybe it tells when it should show a little too often, but it never stopped me from enjoying myself. It's got a great soundtrack, good writing, well-done special effects, and most importantly, a really watchable cast.

Of course, this has been the case with most of the Marvel movies. I mean, let's be honest about, say, the Thor franchise, which have been a fun pair of movies considering that they're composed almost entirely of gibberish: Norse gods with British accents (who are actually aliens) fighting against elves and ice trolls (who are also aliens)! The whole thing is completely incoherent, but nobody cares because of the casting: everybody onscreen is good-looking, compulsively charming, and clearly having fun with a very silly premise.

But there's one thing that's been bugging me about the Marvel flicks, including Guardians, which is their endings. Namely, that they've all got the same one: the bad guys summon/control/take over a huge flying object, which immediately crashes headlong into a city.

  • The Avengers: Aliens crash giant worms into New York City.
  • Thor: The Dark World: Elves crash giant spaceship into England.
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Nazis crash giant aircraft into the Potomac.
  • Guardians of the Galaxy: Lee Pace crashes giant accordian into alien planet.

Explosions follow, while the heroes rush to tackle the portal/controller/big bad at the wheel. Lots of buildings fall over in the process, and people run through the streets while looking up and behind them (oddly enough, hardly anyone ever trips). Lance Mannion refers to it as the "obligatory ad for the video game," and while that's harsh it's not inaccurate, because it does feel a little bit (between the overused CGI and the framing) like watching someone else play God of War. A lot of money went into it, and someone's clearly having a good time, but it's not necessarily you.

And to be clear, Marvel's not the only company writing screenplays this way. Star Trek: Into Darkness, for example, was a movie that committed every sin in the screenwriting book (and then added a few) but arguably the worst part was the meaningless and cruel spaceship crash at its climax. Over at Fox, X-Men: Days of Future Past has Magneto tossing an airborne baseball stadium at the White House. Huge flying objects are the new glass jail cell.

The problem with these pyrotechnics isn't just that they're repetitive and tasteless (although they are both), it's that they're ineffective: by destroying a huge chunk of a city, the writers are aiming for huge cinematic stakes, but by portraying it from a wide-angle lens (and, in PG-rated films, refusing to show any of the resulting bodies and carnage) there's no sense of drama. It's just computer-generated buildings falling over in the distance: who cares?

For a movie like Guardians, which has no real point other than to be a fun space adventure, it's bad enough that there's a good fifteen minutes of watching architecture instead of the characters that are the real draw. But it's more acutely frustrating for something like The Winter Soldier, which spends its first 90 minutes referencing the modern surveillance state, which is a tricky, subtle political problem. And nothing says "tricky" and "subtle" like sending three flying aircraft carriers through a building in Washington, DC.

Maybe that's expecting a bit much from a huge media property with a multi-year cinema domination plan. Marvel wants to put people into seats twice a year, and if that means making the same movie over and over again, that's fine. It's certainly never stopped anyone else (see also: Transformers and Harry Potter). If they're not even sure they can make a movie starring a woman, the chances they'll mess with the formular are pretty slim.

But look at it this way: now you know when you can take a bathroom break without missing anything. I figure you can stay away until the end of the credits, at which point you'll learn which comic-book movie will drop a giant metal object on Paris next year. If we're all very lucky, it'll be Squirrel Girl's turn eventually.

January 9, 2010

Filed under: movies»commentary»scifi

Wool and Water

'I can't believe that!' said Alice.

'Can't you?' the Queen said in a pitying tone. 'Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.'

Alice laughed. 'There's no use trying,' she said `one can't believe impossible things.'

'I daresay you haven't had much practice,' said the Queen. 'When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.'"

--Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll

Everything you've heard about Avatar is true. As a visual experience, it's lush and seamless. At the same time, the dialog is ludicrous, the plot is flimsy, and the message is sledgehammer blunt. It shamelessly fetishizes native cultures while perpetuating the lame White Man Saves Brown Blue People From Themselves plot. And for a director known for his strong female leads (Sarah Connor, Ripley, Lindsey Brigman), it largely relegates its women to background or supporting roles only. And long--oh, is it long. They could have chopped it in half, easily, and while it would have still been awful, they would at least significantly lower the audience's risk of deep vein thrombosis.

But these have all been discussed by countless people elsewhere (here's a good take). What struck me about Avatar, while watching a particularly leaden chunk of monologue, was the realization: not only did someone write this, they then paid someone else to deliver the lines, then threw further cash at a crew of animators to painstakingly render it--in 3D, no less. That's Avatar in a nutshell: vast, unfathomable amounts of money deployed in the service of incredible mediocrity.

The general viewpoint, by those who enjoyed the movie anyway, seems to be that these elaborate visuals compensate for the flaws in the writing, editing, and direction. Disagreeing with this makes me feel like something of a Grinch, since words like "wonder" tend to get thrown around when discussing its landscapes and weird alien horses, and I do hate being accused of a lack of wonder. We're supposed to applaud the extensive craft that went into Cameron's project, according to this view.

But from my perspective, we're a bit like the White Queen these days, in a state of constant suspended disbelief. We're surrounded by amazing images. During my lifetime, I've seen the state of the art go from the NES to the PS3, from stop-motion to Up. A few years ago they made Fred Astaire dance with a vaccuum cleaner in a commercial, an act which at the time was an arresting (if necromantic) idea, and is now pretty much unremarkable. My phone can superimpose directions to the nearest Waffle House on the view in front of me, for heaven's sakes. I see six impossible things before breakfast. Games or movies or whatever, it ought to take a bit more than a well-rendered forest scene to impress us, or pull us in emotionally.

So instead of applauding, I think about the stories that could have been told with this kind of technology if it were given to more playful or inventive directors--Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Chris Nolan, or Guillermo del Toro, for example. It's hard not to feel a profound sense of waste, because these are directors that have accomplished what Cameron is supposed to have done: show us something that we've never seen before. Even the Wachowskis (and there's something I thought I'd never say again): think about what a mind-blowing experience The Matrix was the first time you saw it. Now there was a movie that used novel, elaborate special effects to actively mess with your sense of reality, as well as to tell a story that--if not completely original--at least aspired to more than surface depth.

But then, maybe that's the problem. Set out to tell an interesting story that requires some new effects, and you get The Matrix or Dark City. Aim to blow people's minds solely through the power of your budget, and you get The Matrix Reloaded--or Avatar.

March 17, 2009

Filed under: movies»commentary»croooow

Downstream: Antibody

The problem with deciding to liveblog the worst of Netflix's streaming selection, I suspect, is going to be finding movies that make for bad viewing but good commentary. The films need to be sincerely bad, not intentionally campy (the Troma Films canon) or pre-parodied (Kung Fu Mummy, Vampire Dentist). Like Transmorphers, they should mean every awful minute, because it's harder to mock a movie that already has a sense of humor about itself. I'm also hoping to avoid (for now, at least) direct-to-video sequels and "collection"-style films, which sadly means I will have to hold off on Adam West's Tales from Beyond. (All of those are real films. I am not making this up.)

Eventually, I'm sure one of these things will end up a total dud due to the above factors, or simply because it's so bad that it's literally not funny. But I have high hopes for tonight's viewing choice: Antibody stars Lance Henriksen in a rehash of Fantastic Voyage--but instead of saving a scientist, they're hoping to... well, we'll see.

0:00 As required by law, the titles are a combination of A) Helvetica with gratuitous Outer Glow Filter, and B) computer-generated X-rays.
0:02 FBI Agent Gains (Henriksen) arrives at the Russian consulate, where a bomb has been planted. He berates the cop for the small perimeter that's been set up, then asks for everything within a two-mile radius to be evacuated. I'm not sure what kind of bomb causes destruction for only two miles around, but I'm sure he knows what he's doing.
0:04 "Where's your vest?" asks the cop on duty. Gains says he doesn't need a vest, because he gets the big ones, by which I assume he means the bombs. "If this goes off, bring in a mop." A two-mile wide mop, I guess.
0:05 Gains opens up the bomb by somehow figuring out the code on one of those old Nokias they used to give away with a basic contract, then figures out its cunning laser tripwires with the ol' cigarette smoke trick. The filmmakers must have been disappointed that they couldn't get Richard Dean Anderson for this part.
0:07 Airport security calls: the terrorist has been found, probably because he's holding a huge detonator and singing loudly in some Eastern European language. "Take him out," Gains says. This is a bad idea, because apparently killing him sets off the bomb. For great justice.
0:11 According to fake TV news footage, Henriksen's character is actually named "Gaynes." So sue me, I'm not fixing it.
0:12 Gaynes faces an investigatory committee. He can't explain why his actions were negligent, he testifies, because the evidence is top secret. And who classified it? Gaynes himself. Ha-HA! Take that, irony!
0:13 It turns out that the detonator our Russian terrorist was waving around was entirely fake--the real detonator was a nano-scale electrocardiogram inside his body! "We both know what this means," says Gaynes. That the terrorist is the designer of the cell phones in Zoolander? That there are no small parts, only small terrorists? That you maybe shouldn't have had them shoot the guy? Henriksen doesn't elaborate.
0:14 ONE YEAR LATER: MUNICH, GERMANY. No, no, hang on! Tell us what "this" means first! Don't leave us hanging!
0:15 They leave us hanging. Instead, we get an incredibly awkward conversation with Gaynes's inexplicably Russian daughter, followed by an encounter with a journalist hunting for a story on the anniversary of the bombing. Gaynes is now running a security firm, and after some light banter he revokes her press pass for the tech summit he's coincidentally handling. Never mess with people who buy ink by the barrel, my friend. Or fictional American news networks ("ANN"). It never ends well.
0:18 Two terrorists drive by the summit in a disguised van. One turns to the other and snarls "Destiny is ours!" in the same tone of voice that most people would use to order a cheeseburger. And then they ruin the journalist's shot by driving behind her. Well, that'll teach her to set up in a driveway, honestly. Mr. Destiny almost shoots the reporter for catching them on tape, but the second terrorist stops him because "it'll be over before they can review the tape." Remember this.
0:20 As the summit begins, the terrorists take up positions in the kitchen, where they begin their villainous plan: heating the lobster bisque, and then shooting the cook when he complains. I'd like to see that on Top Chef.
0:24 Even though you've seen this in about a million sub-par thrillers, Gaynes appears to have missed the kitchen in his security plan, allowing the terrorists to bring in their big, obvious AK-47s and take the summit hostage. The terrorists force the German chancellor outside and--you still remember the camera-shy bit from earlier, right?--shoot him in front of a small crowd and demand a camera crew.
0:26 Proving he has his priorities straight, Gaynes calls his daughter (who is at the airport in Chicago) to tell her to cancel her flight to Munich. You know, it takes what, 16 hours to fly from Chicago to Germany? I think he could have delayed that call. Especially since...
0:26 ...the formerly-reclusive terrorist leader takes over the ANN news broadcast, announces his real name to the world, and states that there's a nuclear device in the city that he'll detonate if his demands are not met. It could just be me, but I think they'd probably divert international flights in that situation.
0:28 "What would you say to critics who call you a bloodthirsty lunatic?" asks the reporter. Not the follow-up I would have picked.
0:29 Inside the building, Gaynes remains unmolested in the security office. Even though it's perfectly light inside the building, they switch to infrared cameras, which in this movie are monochrome green. Gaynes and his staff decide to take out everyone except the ringleader, Moran, who is identified by his "inner peace." What follows is the worst. Counterterrorism. Ever. A lot of people are shot, and Moran is wounded.
0:31 Luckily, Dr. Theodore Bichall was at the conference, and he's an expert on a new miniaturization procedure being prototyped at a top-secret German research lab. Clearly, their best hope is to shrink down and remove the detonator--not, you know, stabilize the patient while they locate the bomb or anything like that. Because that would just be crazy.
0:34 Dr. Saverini, one of the researchers, raises the valid point that they should try microsurgery instead of miniaturization. Bichall shoots this down, insisting that they can't operate if they don't know where the detonator is. And the best way to find it, obviously, is with a tiny submarine. We also meet the other two team members, Julio and Natalia, who are adorably dim and ethnic.
0:36 Before entering the body, though, everyone has to be disinfected, which means everyone's favorite science fiction trope: naked airlock strobe lights! Thankfully, we are spared naked Henriksen footage. Gaynes also gets a phone call from his second-in-command, who does in fact confirm that air traffic has been rerouted to CDG. Take that, continuity!
0:40 The submarine, named the Helix, bears a suspicious resemblance to the sets from Alien, and seems much bigger than it looked from outside. Gaynes gets a tour of the heavily-armed shuttles/escape pods. But I'm sure they won't need those.
0:43 We have shrinkage!
0:46 I have to say, Lance Henriksen doesn't phone this in. It's a badly-written, silly role, but he sells it as much as he can, reacting to some patently unscientific dialog about white blood cells and blood vortices. Somehow, despite all odds, Gaynes doesn't get that the crew's references to "whites" is about the immune system. Maybe he thinks that Moran is filled with tiny skinheads or something.
0:52 Having made it through the heart, the Helix now enters the Exposition gland.
0:55 "Do you ever wish we could tell people what we do?" mourns Natalia. Julio takes the opportunity to make an XFL joke. All five people who remember the XFL laugh. I guess better topical humor was out of their budget. Gaynes and Saverini flirt a little, including the phrase "Brad Pittiful." I'm very uncomfortable right now.
1:00 To get from the abdomen to the brain as fast as possible, they run a shunt outside of the body. So I guess the shortest distance between two points is a long curve? Once in the brain, the Helix is attacked by white blood cells, and the crew mans the guns. Yes: shooting lasers around inside someone's brain does seem like a good way to keep them alive. Sadly, Natalia is killed when she takes a shuttle out, but not before admitting her utterly predictable love for Julio.
1:06 Bichall draws the white blood cells away from the ship by injecting blood from someone with a cold. Injecting it directly into the brain through the jugular. This plan seems completely consistent with modern medical knowledge.
1:07 "I could have disarmed the Big Bang in twenty-four minutes." Ooh, baby. Talk relativistic to me.
1:09 Why is it, on b-movie spacecraft, every door has a combination lock? What designer thought it was a good idea for emergency personnel to have to punch in a code when moving around the ship?
1:13 Just as Gaynes is stumped on the detonator problem, his daughter calls from Paris--where another bomb has been planted! This is otherwise known as "end justifies the means" continuity: decisions by characters that don't make any internal sense until information is revealed that they couldn't possibly have known.
1:16 The code to disarm the bomb turns out to be "disarm" in direct numerical code (4, 9, 19, 1, etc.). No, wait: it's actually "disarm" in Spanish! No, wait: it's actually the sum of the numbers! No, wait: it's lucky number 777! It's a good thing the terrorists put big, easily-identifiable number codes all over the circuit-board.
1:21 At the moment of truth, Julio is killed by a rogue skin mite. A skin mite swimming around in the brain. Take a moment to savor that one. It almost kills Saverini, but she's rescued by Gaynes, and they escape into a needle that Bichall has inserted into the brain via Moran's neck (again). This plot point seems entirely consistent with modern medical knowledge.
1:25 There's just enough time for some more awkward flirting before the pair is restored to full size. We close with Gaynes meeting his daughter at CDG in Paris. "You look a little taller," she says. I've got one word for you, lady: lifts.

Arbitrary final rating: 2 out of five brain-dwelling skin mites.

February 17, 2009

Filed under: movies»commentary»croooow

Downstream: Transmorphers

Ah, Netflix streaming. Originally a neat idea that I used once in a blue moon, now a feature that I would miss dearly if the XBox decided to go belly-up once again. Its selection has grown much more mature recently, including such films as No Country for Old Men, El Orfanato, and several seasons of Macgyver.

But what about the other side of the Netflix Instant Queue, the side that features such dubious entertainments as Species 4, Excessive Force II, or (I kid you not) Womb Raider? Someone has to watch these things. And since I love bad cinema with the force of a thousand Mansquito jokes, it might as well be me. For your vicarious amusement, please enjoy the following notes.*

To kick things off, we're going to start with Transmorphers. "Wait," you might ask. "You mean the ill-advised Michael Bay adaptation of a beloved merchandising scheme from the '80's?" I wish. No, this is far worse: a similarly-named cash-in published just in time to benefit from confusion at the retail counter, especially given its strikingly familiar DVD box art. This is going to be great.

0:00 Let's all thank Starz Play for bringing this fine film to us, and reminding us that it is, in fact, rated "adult" for violence. I think this only highlights our societal need for much more creative rating systems.
0:01 We open with a voice-over saying that mankind sent out a message of peace to the universe. Five years later, they received their response: an asteroid shower made of substandard CGI.
0:02 Techno credits!
0:04 From their undergound bunker, the humans pick up readings of advancing robots. In response, they're going to deploy a set of very generic marines, an electromagnetic device, and some astonishingly poor line readings.
0:06 "What about those brainscans we hear about?" Oh, my friend. I don't think you have anything to worry about.
0:08 It should be noted that Transmorphers was "written, directed, and edited by Leigh Scott." Scott also has writing/acting credits in Wolfsbayne and The 9/11 Commission Report, making him the poor man's Uwe Boll--something I don't say lightly.
0:11 The marines storm into the outside world, which looks like an empty construction lot with a bad strobe light infestation. One of them begins to spasm, with a bad nosebleed. Either the brainscan is real, or the fake lightning triggered his epilepsy.
0:13 Elapsed time to "It's a trap!" - 13 minutes.
0:14 The marines are slaughtered by giant robots, mostly from offscreen. One robot does kind of turn into a tank. So, you know, transmorphing achieved.
0:16 One man! Could lead! This mission! And that man is named: Warren Mitchell. But is he too radical? People in leather clothes debate this for a little while, and then eventually thaw him out of cryostorage. You know what I always wonder? When mankind goes into the underground bunkers in these movies, where do they keep getting their cotton t-shirts and animal skin? Or their eyeliner, for that matter?
0:19 Mitchell is inexplicably British. He asks to have "Walker" and "Itchy" on his team. The administrators are understandably reluctant to revive people with nicknames like that, but eventually agree to thaw out one of them. Of course, since we're informed in earlier dialog that Walker didn't make it through the freezing, it seems kind of pointless to quibble over poor Itchy.
0:23 "He hasn't changed a bit," complains the general. Well, he was frozen, after all.
0:24 In an unexpected--seriously!--twist, the (female) general tells Mitchell to "stay away from 'her'" because they (the general and the person to be avoided) were married three months after he went into cryosuspension. Said wife (who turns out to be one of the bickering leather-wearers from earlier discussion) immediately goes and joins Mitchell's commando team. This will go well, I'm sure.
0:27 Mitchell provides a pep talk to his squad--and by pep talk, I mean that he orders them to attack him, and then beats up on them for either hesitating or for attacking him. As a management technique, it's probably less than effective, but it's still better than making the team read "Who Moved My Cheese?"
0:31 A scientist in a jumpsuit and blue-tinted glasses outlines a plan for destroying the robot computer system via their fuel cell. It's kind of hard to pay attention to him, since there's a woman next to him dressed like Ulala. She has no dialog or apparent purpose, except to distract the viewer from the scientist's tortured exposition. It goes without saying that this is the movie's high point.
0:35 There's some generic political intrigue, leading up to a shrill, pointless shakycam fight between the women soldiers. Two steps forward, about a million steps back. The director uses the fresh editing technique of splitscreen cuts, making this like something like 1968's Thomas Crowne Affair, but without the jazzy score, Steve McQueen, or a sense of shame.
0:40 The general and her wife share a tearful farewell, and then Mitchell's squad prepares to deploy. Their method for countering the brainscan, according to Itchy, is to count backward from one hundred. Science fiction writers everywhere are kicking themselves for not thinking of that one.
0:44 The transmorphers attack, looking suspiciously like leftover assets from the Journeyman Project games, although (like all great b-movies) the firefight features sound and visual effects stolen from Doom. It always gives me flashbacks to the mod scene of the mid-nineties.
0:48 One robot steals Itchy's girlfriend, and the general's wife swoops off after her using a jetpack ripped directly off the back of a downed robot. I don't think that's how technology actually works. The marines destroy the remaining robots using (I kid you not) exploding frisbee grenades. The physics of that may be questionable, but even worse, imagine the sad consequences if these guys get confused while packing for a trip to the beach.
0:49 Back at the battleground, scientists in a tent open up the robot and find a mixture of old car parts, red jello, and cotton cobwebs. Mitchell tells them to leave it behind in order to go look for the missing squad members "with guns blazing." End result: the mission fails, the wife remains lost, and no robot computers are hacked. Promotions all around!
0:55 Even though there's a tracking device in every robot, the marines bring one back to base anyway. This gives the scientist a chance to deliver some more exposition, perform surgery with a cordless drill, and then kill the cyborg parts of the robot, thus leading the enemy directly to human HQ. Who's in charge of training here, Gaius Baltar?
0:58 Leigh Scott may have many talents, but ADR sync is not one of them. As the scientist explains the shocking plot twist (his first android was--gasp--Mitchell himself!), you can almost fool yourself into thinking that it's pretty good for a German dub.
1:01 For added comedic effect, Scientist Character proves that Mitchell is a a secret android by twisting his arm offscreen, triggering the Doom "airlock door" sound effect. It goes without saying that this is the movie's high point.
1:03 They plug the fuel cell into Mitchell using a pair of uncomfortably bulky acupuncture needles, and then it's off for the final fight scene. In a surprise move, the robots launch an aerial attack--surprising, because they've done that in every fight scene so far.
1:07 Mitchell and his team drop in via flying snowmobiles. At this point, it's still not the stupidest thing I've seen. "Do you know how to fly those things?" asks the scientist. "No." says Mitchell. Dude, it's a snowmobile. Nobody knows how to fly one.
1:10 By now, the human forces have deployed a bunch of fighter aircraft from big Bond-villain hanger doors, as well as some giant EMP satellite dishes. We clearly have different ideas of "secret underground hideaway."
1:11 Elapsed time to "Noooooooooo!": One hour, 11 minutes.
1:14 Mitchell's commando team lands and enters the transmorpher mainframe. But--surprise--it changes into a giant robot! Bet you didn't see that coming. Clearly, this is the movie's high point.
1:16 Funny thing about the transforming robots in this movie: they don't have any actual reason to transform. So, for example, a giant robot carrying a howitzer will turn itself into... a tank with a howitzer, which it then fires. Uh, sure. Because you know, a giant robot with a gun is much more ridiculous.
1:19 Inside the tower/robot, Mitchell manages to get past its defense system, which is based on biological sensors instead of something sensible, like motion trackers or infrared. They're clearly working off the Evil Overlord theory of security. He sacrifices himself to shut down the transmorpher network, causing a lot of robots to fall over. We're not shown what happens to the ones currently shaped like tanks. Maybe they turned back into robots, then fell over.
1:20 Time for a victory montage! You might think that's the best part. You'd be wrong: over the end credits, still frames from the fight scenes are inserted after being run through the "watercolor" Photoshop filter. I can't imagine why every movie doesn't do that, unless they decide to spend the money on seasoned actors, or special effects, or quality post-production instead.

Arbitrary final rating: 1 and a half out of four lesbian robot snowmobiles.

* Now that you can stream Netflix in Firefox, someone really ought to write a plugin to add pop-up commentary in realtime. Any takers?

July 22, 2008

Filed under: movies»commentary»classic

At Least It Wasn't Powerpoint

In my circle of friends, at least, Twitter seems to be used primarily for complaining. Which is not a bad thing, because the people I follow are very good at finding insightful things to criticize. And they often make me think about my own opinions. Take, for example, this post from Acid for Blood's Brinstar:

I've been watching all the James Bond films in chronological order lately. The Connery Bond films are unbelievably awful.
Blasphemy! Well, not really. Depending on your metric, Brin's not wrong. Several of the Connery Bonds are pretty bad: Thunderball and Dr. No never did much for me. None of them have any particular progressive cred, either, what with Bond's rampant misogyny and the peculiar racism of You Only Live Twice.

Bond himself is an unabashed vision of British colonialism. He's crude and not particularly intelligent. He's ruthless and amoral--he cheats whenever possible to get an edge. Bond sees the world as a collection of exotic scenery, with which he will attempt to either bludgeon into submission or have sex. This is part of what makes the Connery version fun to watch, because Connery captures the vicious, low cunning of the character better than any other actor has done. He's less the gentleman, and more enthusiastic about his license to kill. But this is also why Judi Dench's lecture as M at the start of Goldeneye is so satisfying. When she calls him a "sexist misogynist dinosaur" and a "relic of the Cold War," she's absolutely right (and this display of spine only makes Dench's woman-in-distress act in The World Is Not Enough more dismaying).

In his book Action Speaks Louder, which as far as I know is the only academic study of the action movie genre, Eric Lichtenfeld theorizes that the heart of the archetype is the "Man who knows Indians"--i.e., a character who can fight the bad guys because he at least partially identifies with them and can understand them. I don't think this was ever exactly true of the Bond films: the titular spy could never come up with schemes as elaborate or overwrought as his foes. He's really just a blunt object that Her Majesty's Secret Service hurls at various dangerous lunatics. But it is true that his role as the hero--and Connery's success in that role--has as much to do with his blackened soul as anything else.

But if the Bond films with Sean Connery are uneven, they also contain moments of both brilliance and chutzpah. For example, my favorite scene is probably in 1964's Goldfinger, just after the infamous laser-bifurcation-no-Mr.-Bond-I-expect-you-to-die conversation (Goldfinger also added the fantastical gadgetry to the Bond films, which eventually ran amuck and was thankfully restrained in Casino Royale).

At this point in the movie, Bond has been captured by Goldfinger and is being held at his Kentucky ranch. He sneaks away through a secret passage and finds himself watching, through a series of small slits in the passage's low and oddly-shaped ceiling, Goldfinger explaining his plan to an assembled group of mobsters. The mafia thugs have brought him everything he needs, Goldfinger says, to irradiate all the gold in Fort Knox, thus raising the price of his own, non-radioactive gold. To explain the tactics required, Goldfinger gestures towards the room where Bond is hidden, revealing it to be a giant, hydraulically-lifted model of the military facility he plans to raid.

Thus far, this is pretty good, if slightly ridiculous, staging. It's the genesis of a number of Bond movie traditions, including the plan's explanation by the villain and the over-elaborate death trap. We laugh at these things now, and they're parodied to death by the Austin Powers series, but it's actually a pretty good source of straight-faced melodrama. Still, it's nothing on what's to come.

So here we are: Bond's hidden in a giant scale model of Fort Knox watching Auric Goldfinger expansively explain his evil plan to the mobsters who have provided him with supplies, including nerve gas to knock out the guards. Man has "achieved miracles in every field of human endeavor... except crime!" he exclaims. And so, to cap off his presentation and simultaneously check his merchandise, Goldfinger traps the mafia dons in the conference room and kills them with a dose of their own nerve gas.

Are you following this so far? The man built a huge visual aid for the sole purpose of explaining himself to people he will immediately kill. Why bother? Heck, why even fly the mobsters out there in the first place--don't they have delivery staff for their weapons of mass destruction? It's an extravagant scene that serves no purpose except to paint, in very broad strokes, just how bad Mr. Goldfinger is. It's a set-piece of frankly monumental stupidity. And it is awesome.

May 27, 2008

Filed under: movies»commentary»drama

In Cold Blood

Capote is, as the title indicates, as much (or more) a movie about the writer as it is the crime he wrote about. But the most interesting part of the movie is not the character of Truman Capote, no matter how well-performed, but the book that he writes. And even then, the movie treats it as a side note, even as it's being constantly praised by almost every character.

What I find fascinating about the book, as told by the movie, was that it's based in large part on Capote's own actions--he hires lawyers to keep the subjects alive, cajoles them, plays them against each other--but he is, if I remember correctly, mostly absent from the actual book. This is entirely in keeping with the "true crime" journalism that the piece purports to be, but of course it's as much novel as non-fiction--Capote relied on his memory for quotes and recall of interviews, and he retold large parts of the story, including the internal dialog of several participants.

In this way, Capote points out, the author begins to think of the people in his book as fictional characters--he's increasingly distraught and upset as they refuse to give his work a quick, snappy ending. Eventually he avoids the calls and telegrams coming from the killers, hoping to distance himself from them, just as he distances himself from the events of In Cold Blood within its pages.

Without In Cold Blood, I wonder, would we have missed out on the entire genre of novelized true crime that has now become typical (The Devil in the White City, perhaps, or Under the Banner of Heaven, which bears no small resemblance to its predecessor)? Probably not: a central conceit of journalism for some time now has been the invisible narrator--the reporter is assumed to be irrelevant to the story being reported, by both the readers and the reporter themselves. In some cases this is true, but often it is not. And the device of dramatization allows those latter cases to be hidden behind a thick layer of prose. Who knows how much the observer is actually entangled with the observed--and who cares, when it's such a good yarn?

Which is a bit of an ironic message, coming as it does from a dramatic retelling of the real Truman Capote's character flaws.

April 24, 2008

Filed under: movies»commentary»classic


When did American movies get to be so long? It's hard to remember the last time I got out of a theater in less than two hours--and not just for elaborate dramas, stuff like Atonement, but even action flicks. Transformers was two hours and 24 minutes! For a flick based around giant robot cars!

Casablanca was 102 minutes. And it's been years since I watched it, but I don't remember it being a particularly speedy film. Citizen Kane has a running time of 119 minutes. The Maltese Falcon also manages 101 minutes. Comedies, of course, were generally far shorter.

Maybe it coincides with color, since when I look at a few movies from the 70's (Three Days of the Condor, The Amityville Horror, Marathon Man) they seem to have standardized into our now-customary two hours (Soylent Green, however, is still only 92 minutes--OF PEOPLE!).

Now, this is just a feeling I've got. I'd love to see a graph of average movie running times per year, just to see if I'm right. But I suspect that I am, and that films have gotten longer, steadily or perhaps in bursts with each generation. Which causes problems for me, honestly, because my attention span has only shrunk--or perhaps more accurately, has restabilized at 1:30, about the time it takes to watch two episodes of hour-long television in the age of DVD and DVR.

To play devil's advocate, maybe longer running time is a product of the more elaborate film vocabulary in use. Films are no longer just stage dramas performed onscreen. They have a complicated relationship and interaction with the camera's viewpoint, and that relationship requires more time and energy to develop than the static shots of many early filmmakers. This is a reasonable point.

And yet, it seems hard to argue that today's longer movies are better due to their length, or that they're telling more complicated stories. They're telling longer stories, no doubt, with more events and more intricate film technique. But do they need to be longer? Are we better off for having those extra 20-30 minutes of running time? Could anyone honestly say that Casablanca needed an extra half-hour? And if you made it today, how long would it be? Chances are, probably longer than I'm comfortably able to watch.

March 25, 2008

Filed under: movies»commentary»scifi

Great Names in Direct to Video

"Tinarie Van Wyk-Loots."

That is all.

Future - Present - Past