Sunday, September 29, 2013

Skyfall (2012)

The Daniel Craig era of James Bond started out with such promise with Casino Royale. But things took a disappointing turn when Quantum of Solace ended up being less than the sum of its parts. The creators decided to switch gears a bit, and get some of the ingredients that were missing from the previous two films back into the mix. They also hired a director who is known for his character dramas, Sam Mendes. Would the gamble pay off?

England’s top agent, James Bond (Daniel Craig) is on a mission to keep a list of undercover NATO spies from being stolen in Istanbul. Things get a little out of hand and Bond gets shot from a moving train and plummets hundreds of feet into a river. Rough day. Now M (Judi Dench) is under the gun, because the missing list is used to expose the agents and get them killed. With MPs demanding her resignation, she goes into damage control mode with some help from Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes).

Luckily Bond was knocked down, but not out. He returns from his mini vacation when he sees MI6 headquarters get attacked. He picks up the trail of terror leading him from Shanghai, to Macao and back into London itself. The mastermind is a former agent named Silva (Javier Bardem) who has a love hate relationship with M (mostly hate). Now he will go to great lengths to make her pay, and pay again. Does Bond have a chance to stop the madman before he destroys M’s reputation as well as her life?

Good Points:
  • One of most beautifully filmed movies in the entire series
  • Interplay between Bond and M is excellent
  • We get some classic elements returned to the series

Bad Points:
  • Some very familiar plot and theme elements
  • This villain isn’t going to work for everyone
  • The musical score may be too subtle for fans of the brassy material

There is a lot to really like about this film, and most of that rests in the capable hands of Sam Mendes. He brings excellent character moments, wonderful visuals and some top-flight action to the film. Craig is still excellent in the role and everything here builds on the previous films and opens some new doors for the next one. While the script is a little too influenced by other popular films from other franchises, all told, this is one of the best Bond movies in the series, and definitely recommended.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 5
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 4
Direction: 5
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

In Depth Review
Bond noire?
After Quantum of Solace wrapped up Bond’s “origin” story, I was curious about where the creators would go next. They set up of the criminal syndicate, Quantum. Would they build on that idea and create a new SPECTRE concept? Would they maintain their very Bourne influenced trajectory? Would we have a hope in hell of seeing Q or Moneypenny in the next film?

Well Skyfall addressed all those questions definitively. Sadly, Quantum was dropped from this film, in favor of a more personal storyline for Bond and M. This doesn’t come as much of surprise given Sam Mendes specialty with character dramas. Most folks don’t remember American Beauty or Revolutionary Road for their intense action scenes or villains.

And yes, we don’t get away from the Bourne style visuals that have accompanied the Craig era. But there is a big difference here, Sam Mendes and director of photography Roger Deakins go out of their way to make this one of the most stunningly artistic looking films in the entire series. This should come as no surprise since the two have worked together since Jarhead, and they have created some amazing visuals together.

The movie has a lot of dialogue scenes, and moments where we get to soak in the surroundings. Camera angles, lighting and camera motion end up adding layers to the story, to the characters and to the themes of the story in ways that you just don’t expect in a James Bond film. The first half of Skyfall is gorgeous looking, with the cool blue neon lights of Shanghai contrasting with the rich golden hue of the floating casino in Macao. The vibrant colors add to the exotic feel of the travelogue, something that you come to expect in a Bond film, but handled so smoothly here.

Silva's coat fuses him with the dusty ruins.
The second half of the film introduces Silva, and from that moment the colors become less rich. Dirty whites, cold greys and deep shadows dominate the visual palate. The final confrontation at the Skyfall manor ends with darkness and flames, a visual hell, and one very similar to the inferno in Jarhead. London and Scotland play key roles in the second half of the film, but they are not glorified, but shown in an almost dreary de-saturated state (until the wonderful rooftop shot near the end of the film).  Simply put, this is the best looking James Bond film I’ve yet seen.

But even wonderful cinematography can’t save action scenes, right? One of my major issues with Quantum was the horribly edited action sequences. I ended up laughing in a few places because the chaos on the screen was so confusing it looked ridiculous, like someone trying way too hard. The rapid-fire Bourne influence had gone too far. Well, Skyfall dials all that back in favor of clearly orchestrated action scenes edited for maximum impact.

One of the most visually impressive scenes in the film.
Compared to the Brosnan era, where there was action around every corner, Skyfall keeps its action economical. The pre-credit chase and battle is handled well and gets things off to a great start. But my favorite action scene is the next one, where Bond goes hand to hand against a hired killer in Shanghai. The two silhouettes battling in front of the blazing blue neon is just stamped in my mind. Great stuff, and I love how the camera drifts slowly but steadily up to the combatants with few edits and a surprising fall.

After that the action scenes remain visually interesting and exciting, with a battle at the Macao casino with a surprise attack by a Komodo dragon. There’s the explosive escape and chase of Silva in London. Then there’s the final battle at the Skyfall manor where Bond, M and the old grounds keeper Kincade (Albert Finney) take on a mob of killers with a couple rifles, a knife and lots of old school traps. By this point we are invested in the survival of Bond and M, and the tension is pretty high. Mendes even throws in a huge explosion, just to remind us this is still a Bond flick.

Bond looks ready to take out some zombies.
Speaking of fireballs, the sound effects track is top notch. Explosions, gunfire and shattering glass are well synched and placed in the soundscape. They are also balanced very well, never overwhelming the dialogue and even allowing the music to make it’s mark. The Bond films rarely have any sound issues and always excel in this area.

For the music Skyfall shook up the mix. In 1997 David Arnold came on board to handle musical duties for the James Bond franchise. He took John Barry’s classic spy sound and modernized it with electronica, pulsing beats and a lot of power. The result was some of the best music in the entire series. Arnold had scored six Bond films and most film music fans were hoping for him to continue on. But director Sam Mendes has worked with composer Thomas Newman since American Beauty in 1999, and he saw no reason to drop him now.

So we get one of the most unique and atmospheric of all the James Bond film scores. The usual formula is for the composer to create a new theme for the film (at the very least, many have two or three new themes). This new theme is usually tied to the opening song. This becomes the identity of the film. It is mixed with the classic James Bond theme by Monty Norman, and you weave the two with some great action music.

Yellows, golds and reds are prominent in the Macao
casino scene.
Newman goes a different direction. He takes Monty Norman’s theme, and John Barry’s arrangement of the theme as a starting point. Then he uses elements of the theme in a deconstructed form. Or maybe he only uses the rhythm of the theme. Then he unleashes a full guitar version of the theme. Then he goes back to a simplified version that is barely recognizable as the Bond theme. It’s all very subtle but very interesting as well. Nearly every track is based on the James Bond theme in some way. He only uses the tune to the opening song Skyfall once, for a wonderful scene where Bond arrives at the golden casino. Check out a sample here. But other than that, the score ranges from intense action music (with some surprising electronics) to very quiet scenes of tension.

The opening theme song performed by Adele is a good one, fitting well into the classic brassy mold made popular by Shirley Bassey in Goldfinger. It’s a bit of a shame that Newman doesn’t do too much with it in his score. At the same time the song is very much rooted in the same sound as the James Bond theme. So it feels right at home with the rest of the soundtrack.

Skyfall boils down to the story of three lead characters, James Bond, M and Silva. As such, all three actors need to provide some good performances to make the whole film work. Daniel Craig has never slacked in his performance as James Bond, and here he gets plenty to work with. M essentially tells a fellow agent, Eve (Naomie Harris), to take a risky shot at the data thief as Bond is fighting him on top of a moving train. Bond sees this as M doubting his abilities and willing to loose him if the stakes are high enough. But it seems that Bond comes to accept this as a fact of his job. His life is always on the line as a 00 agent, and M always has the final call. Feelings shouldn’t get in the way. Craig plays this all very close, but his eyes tell us all we need to know.

M reflects on the toll her job takes.
Judi Dench has been a wonderful addition to the James Bond cast from since her appearance in Goldeneye. Her tough no-nonsense demeanor has always had an underlying hint of affection for Bond. When Craig came on board for the reboot, this dynamic shifted a little bit turning her into more than just a boss, but also a mentor. Skyfall gives Dench her juiciest role in the franchise since her key part in The World is Not Enough. Not only do we see her under the extreme pressure in her role as head of MI6, but we also see the toll her job has taken on her and the affect that seeing Silva’s rage has on her. Dench does a great job.

I’m a bit torn on Bardem as Silva. On the one hand, I see what they were trying to do with the character. His fury at M and her betrayal has poisoned the man deeply. Contrasting his response and Bond’s response to similar situations is an interesting game. But Bardem adds a deeper level of crazy over the whole thing. It feels a bit too much, more like a made for TV serial killer than the more realistic adversaries we’ve seen in the previous two films. But at the same time, this is a James Bond film and have a good villain is what makes the whole thing fun. I’m just not sure if the performance matches the overall tone of the film. It just feels slightly off. Contrast this performance to Sean Bean’s colder but equally angry performance in Goldeneye and I think we get a better idea of what a rogue ex-agent is really like.

The dead are a price M has to pay for.
That brings me to the other weak point of the film. There is some very obvious borrowing of plot elements in Skyfall. Some of this is intentional. This film was released on the 50th anniversary of the James Bond film franchise. Instead of going the more obvious route that Die Another Day took with working references from each Bond film into the new offering, in this case they were much more subtle about it. Things like M writing Bond’s obituary was taken from You Only Live Twice. Having a sequence on a train in Istanbul connects us to From Russia with Love. Even the casino in Macao is a nod back to The Man with the Golden Gun.

But the film that seems to have the biggest influence on Skyfall is actually Goldeneye. There’s an obvious call back when Q (Ben Whishaw) actually mentions the explosive pen from that movie. But there is also a more subtle thematic borrowing from the 1995 film: the idea of James Bond being an old fashioned, out of touch relic. This same concept was put (in blunt poetics) by M in Goldeneye – “… I think you’re a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the cold war…” In the older film, Bond had to prove that even his “old fashioned” techniques were up to the task in a new game where Cold War rules didn’t apply. It put him against a former agent, 006, who became disillusioned with M16 and decided to take his revenge on the country he served.

Q finds himself out maneuvered.
Skyfall follows the same lines, but in this case, Bond is no longer tied to the cold war. He is tied to the physical world, instead of technological one. In this film he is outmoded by Q and the superior technical prowess of his enemy (another former agent who has turned against the country he served). The twist here is that M is now firmly on Bond’s side, tied to his “old fashioned” way of handling problems. In fact the main theme (one that isn’t subtle in the least) is that “sometimes the old ways are best”. Bond’s use of physical violence, old fashioned tailing and observing, and going directly after a targer are what end up saving the day. All the technological marvels that Q uses end up causing more damage. But the simple radio device that Bond uses actually works the way it is supposed to. The final battle is finished with a knife, not a high tech gadget. It’s an interesting expansion of Goldeneye’s basic premise.

"We've caught you at last Loki, I mean Harrison,
I mean Silva."
But there are a few things I’m less fond of. The film works wonderfully in it’s first half, creating an interesting build of suspense, action and thrills. But once we meet Silva, the movie seems to lose its grip a bit. Part of it is Bardem’s performance, but there is also a very familiar vibe to the whole basic plot. Silva allows himself to be captured, then escapes as part of a master plan to unleash even more havoc. Sound familiar? Well if you’ve seen Dark Knight or The Avengers or even Star Trek into Darkness well you’ve seen this plot twist already.

Now in James Bond flicks I’m willing to suspend disbelief, it is part of what makes them fun. But Skyfall and all the Craig films are very serious, very realistic and therefore don’t go for that full-blown fantasy feel that we see in the previous Bond films. Even Dalton’s movies had a bit more fun in them than the Craig films seem to. So when you have the villain execute a plot that is so improbable and depends on so many things to occur just perfectly for it to work – well that wouldn’t stand out in a Brosnan, Moore or Connery film. But here, it does end up looking ridiculous. Luckily the finale scenes at the Skyfall manor bring things back to earth (for the most part) and it makes for a fine ending.

Bond pulls a Batman over the city of London.
The misstep is really not much of an issue in the long run. Skyfall is a very entertaining film. It’s got some great one liners, dry humor and the inclusion of Moneypenny and Q makes this the first Craig era film that really feels like the beginnings of the story is complete. We can now jump into a full-blown Bond adventure with Craig as the fully formed hero. In the final analysis I think I like Casino Royale a little bit more, but Skyfall is a close runner up and certainly shows us that Mendes can deliver an excellent James Bond film. I’m looking forward to what he comes up with next. But please, lets leave the Nolan Batman inspirations aside for now.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Score Sample - Skyfall - Thomas Newman

When director Sam Mendes was brought on to tackle a James Bond film, movie music fans pondered, would Mendes bring his usual composer, Thomas Newman? Or would he stick with the David Arnold, the man who had been scoring James Bond films since the 1990s starting with Tomorrow Never Dies?

Well obviously we got Newman, a man known for his intelligent but atmospheric music. This was a bit of a departure from the typical James Bond score where bombast is the name of the game. Newman sticks to his style, keeping things low key, but never boring. He takes the James Bond theme, deconstructs and modifies it. But some of the best tracks are the more obvious takes on the theme, and where Newman just gives us some classic Bond sound. Here is one of my favorite tracks Komodo Dragon which plays as Bond enters the casino in Macao. You'll hear hints of the classic Bond theme, as well as the main song from the film Skyfall.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Good Morning Satoshi Kon

One of the interesting things that you run into with folks here in North America is the idea that animation is a genre, not a medium. For them animation is limited to family friendly fare that doesn't deal with anything much more complex then "be yourself" or "try your best". Animation is fun and exciting at the best of times, but can be your typical kiddie stuff the next.  Sadly when some of these people see an animator who loves the medium, the first response is, "Well that is weird". Because of this genre concept, animation in North America seems stuck in a stasis most of the time, with it's true potential untapped.

Then you see the work of Satoshi Kon and understand what is possible in the medium. The man was a master, and it is painful to think that we lost him at the young age of 47 back in 2010.

Here is the final completed project he worked on. It's a short one minute film called Ohaiyo which translates to "Good Morning" made in 2008. It is also the only line of dialogue in the whole film. Like all of Kon's other works, it deals with the concept of self, perception and uses visuals to explore it in a single minute. It's a bit trite to say this is Kon in a nutshell, but it gives a taste of the amazing talent we only saw a glimpse of. Give this a watch and if you're curious seek out Millennium Actress or Tokyo Godfathers to take your first steps with a master of animation.

Full Filmography (as a director and or writer)

Monday, September 16, 2013

Paprika - 2006

Back when Inception came out in theaters audiences were thrilled by the concept of dream warriors diving into other people’s dreams and obtaining secret information. But anime fans felt like they had seen this story only a few years earlier. Where director Christopher Nolan kept a tight rein on the rules and dark visuals of his dreamscapes for Inception, director Satoshi Kon used the chaos and surreal nature of dreams to create a dynamic and colorful world where anything can happen. While the two films share many elements in common, Paprika is just as spicy as it name hints, and way more unhinged.

Dr. Chiba (Cindy Robinson) and her colleagues have created the ultimate dream machine – the DC Mini. Put this little device on your head and you can experience another person’s dreams (as long as they have a DC mini on their heads). Not only is this a fun party favor, but it can also be used to help people with psychological problems and stress relief.

Then someone steals the prototype and begins messing around with it. Not all the controls were in place yet, and anyone who’s already used the DC Mini is now susceptible to experiencing a full-blown waking dream. Chiba and her team must find out who stole the DC Mini and stop them before they break down all the barriers between the dream consciousness and the real world, as we perceive it. Luckily there is a dream warrior named Paprika (Cindy Robinson again) who has a little experience in these matters. But is she in over her head?

Good Points:
  • Amazing animation makes the dream world come to life
  • Balances humor and action very well
  • Has some great creepy moments

Bad Points:
  • A few too many characters weakens some of the storylines
  • Some of the English voice acting is not up to the task
  • The ending is anticlimactic

Kon takes many of the themes and concepts he explored in Paranoia Agent  and refines them down to a tighter story. The result is more coherent and streamlined, and yet still a bit clunky. Visually the movie is amazing, with Kon flexing his surreal muscles to great effect. But the ending falls a little flat. Still this is one of my favorites by the director and well worth seeking out.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 5
Acting: 3
Script: 4
Music: 5
Direction: 5
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

In Depth Review
There is a riddle to be solved, but Paprika doesn't
have the answer.
In many ways, Paprika is the culmination of the imagery and themes that fascinated director Satoshi Kon. It deals with perception of reality and the way dreams fit into that reality. It deals with questions of identity, is the real person the one in the dream or the one that is awake? It deals with our ideas of the future and how it can twist into something we didn’t expect or want. And it does all this while moving at a breakneck speed, exploding with creative visuals and delivering thrills, chills and laughs.

Of all the films by Kon, this appears to have the largest budget, and that makes the visuals some of the most impressive in his cannon. His character design remains familiar, and you’ll see faces you recognize from Millennium Actress or Paranoia Agent playing different roles here. But there is a cleanness to the design that was lacking in the earlier works.

Sure people talking on cell phones in a movie theater
are annoying, but this dream parade is something else!
But my favorite moments are the dream sequences, where Kon always excels. The movie opens with a dream circus, as the police inspector Konakawa (George C. Cole) finds himself searching the big top for a criminal. As he cases the area we start to notice little things are off. An obvious male clown speaks with a woman’s voice, a mask on the back of a child’s head suddenly has eyes and watches him. Then the ring master points at Konakawa and he is bathed in a spotlight. He blinks in the glare of the light and then finds himself in a cage in the center ring, like a circus lion. Before he can react the crowd rushes him, and in a scene inspired by Being John Malkovich all the onlookers have his face – including women and children. They start to paw at him through the cage and the ground suddenly becomes soft, as he sinks into it amid the roaring crowd we can see the terror on his face.

So yeah, Kon captures the nightmare feeling perfectly. His visuals continue in the same vein, often mixing subtle surreal moments with over the top explosions of colorful animation and bizarre imagery. He maintains his technique of keeping the viewer off balance by shifting sequences, often in mid-line or as the camera turns. Because we are often in the dream world (or in the real world as the dreams start to leak in) it all makes some kind of sense. I marvel at his ability to perform these visual slights of hand and yet never lose the audience, and we’ve seen his skill at doing this from the beginning with Perfect Blue.

The deeper Paprika delves into dreams, the darker
they can become.
Perfect Blue got pretty twisted visually, but Kon’s films have never delved into the darkness too much since then. Well Paprika changes that. Nightmare images abound and there are some great creepy moments: the worst being when Paprika is captured and abused by one of the villains. The man is essentially reaching into Paprika and pulling out the naked and helpless woman inside. It is basically a rape of the consciousness playing out In front of us.

But contrast that to some of the scenes where you can tell Kon and the animators are just unleashing the creativity. The dream parade is one of those sequences that will probably stick in your mind whenever you think of the film, because it is so strange, colorful and unique that you can’t help but be impressed with it. Hundreds of fantastical characters dancing, cavorting and flying around down the center of Tokyo is not something you see in any movie very often. There are also scenes where the character revel in the freedom of the dream world, like when Paprika flies into Tokyo for the final confrontation, or when she jumps from sign, to computer screen, to truck artwork to t-shirt during the opening credits. There’s a playfulness in these scenes that invites the viewer to sit back and enjoy the ride.

To go along with the surreal images, Kon’s sound team goes into overdrive to combine the real world sounds with warped, altered and synthesized sounds to put everything off kilter. It’s really a masterful job and it adds quite a bit to the feeling that you are witnessing some bizarre dreams playing out in front of you.

Dr. Chiba explores an abandoned amusement park.
But is she awake, or deep in a dream?
But one of the big heroes of Paprika is composer Susumu Hirasawa. He sticks to his typical style of using electronics and synths to create a series of musical vignettes. Kon then used these to build into his film, taking pieces here and there to flesh out the whole film. Hirasawa does some interesting work with human voices (his own in many cases) editing, warping and layering them in various tracks over the orchestral samples and pure electronics. It’s an eclectic mix, but it works wonders in the film and it unique to the film. Because of the nature of the film, some of the material gets very atmospheric and dark. But the parade tracks, and the theme for Paprika herself are gems. I think found Kon perfect musical collaborator in Hirasawa and it’s a shame we won’t get any more collaborations.

In many ways Paprika is like a summary of Paranoia Agent in a thematic sense. It takes many of the same elements and ideas and concentrates them down into a single slick story. Without all the characters fighting for attention and different side roads that Kon went down in the television series, Paprika is both more focused and dynamic than the television series. Dr. Chiba and Paprika are the main characters, but the way they interact with Dr. Tokita (Yuri Lowenthal) and Dr. Osanai (Doug Erholtz) affect perceptions by all three characters.

Konakawa literally finds no footing as the dream world
warps around him.
The first couple of times I had a problem with the character of Inspector Konakawa, who seemed to be added into the film as a kind of heroic figure to swoop in at the end and save Paprika. And while that does seem to be the case, there is more going on. Much like Tokyo Godfathers, Konakawa explores the concept of dreams in the sense of aspirations. As a young man Konakawa dreamed of becoming a famous film director (Akira Kurosawa is directly referenced in the film). But life’s path lead him to police work. However his job is causing him serious anxiety issues, which is why he is working with Paprika using the DC Mini and dream therapy. And while Konakawa’s journey seems to be running along side the main story, instead of intersecting it, the final moments of the film deal with him. I love the nod to Kon’s previous films appearing as posters in the movie theater Konakawa visits at the end.

Always remember, in a dream, the difference between
falling and flying is a matter of perspective.
Aside from that there is also the issue of the finale. I’ve never been a big fan of the ending. From a thematic and conceptual point of view it should work, but the execution seems a little too easy in the end. It feels anticlimactic, and a bit of a letdown after all the different things we’ve seen up to that point. In fact Paprika’s amazing escape from the main villain seems to promise something a bit more. But then again, there is a giant naked woman on the screen, so that will be a great finale for some viewers.

These two elements keep the film from really nailing a top-notch grade. Paprika ends up being a bit uneven in the final analysis. I really enjoy it each time I watch it, and I love how Kon really got down to the center of the themes he’d been working on since Perfect Blue. But in the end I think Millennium Actress had a bit more heart to it. Still for a swan song, Paprika shows the animator developing his abilities and heading toward something more interesting. It’s a shame we didn’t get any more work after this.

Dr. Chiba chats with Paprika. But which is real
and which is the dream?
Let’s return to the original question, was Paprika better than Inception? I firmly vote for a big “Yes!” Nolan’s films always feel distanced and a bit cold to me. The fact that such strict rules were imposed on dreams in Inception took away from the very fact that they were dreams. It is the unpredictability of dreams that makes them so appealing and horrifying. It is something that Kon grasps very well and indulges in his film. Nolan did explore how choices can affect the subconscious and create serious mental problems. In Paprika we have a similar situation with Inspector Konakawa. And in this aspect, I think Nolan’s use of the character is better integrated into the story and works better with the ending. With that said, I enjoyed Inception. I still think it is Nolan’s best film. But compared to the wonderful world created by Satoshi Kon, well let’s just say I’d rather have Paprika visit my dreams instead of Leonardo Di Caprio. I think she’d be more fun.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Anime Juke Box - Mediational Field - Paprika

Electronic music in anime is nothing new. Often the budget of a television series forces the creators to use electronic alternatives to actual orchestral scores. But every once in a while you get a score by someone who knows how to manipulate electronic music and make it work in it's own unique way. Susumu Hirasawa is one of those composers, and he may have found the perfect partner in director Satoshi Kon. Hirasawa combines techno beats, human voices (including his own) and various electronic manipulation to create his tracks. His work on Paprika is some of his best. Here is the track Mediational Field which ends up being the opening titles and the theme for our heroine, Paprika. He does some interesting things with this tune throughout the score, including adding full lyrics for the end credits. This is the tune at it's most playful and it works wonderfully with the opening credit animation.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Escape from L.A. (1996)

I knew plenty of people who wanted to see Snake Plissken return to the big screen. Escape from New York was such a fun blast of action adventure it seems like it would be a no brainer to return to the character. It took over a decade to finally get everyone back on board and put Snake into a new city, with new dangers and a new objective. The only problem was, “new” wasn’t really on the agenda.

Before you can say “Doh!”, the President of the United States (Cliff Robertson) loses the key to his doomsday weapon, a ring of satellites that can destroy all technology in any specific area he chooses. All because his daughter Utopia (A.J. Langer) falls head of heels for revolutionary Cuervo Jones (George Corraface) and steals the key and heads into Los Angeles. And wouldn’t you know it, L.A. is now an isolated island (thanks to an earthquake) and deportation location for undesirables.

So the powers that be grab Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) to go on a covert mission to retrieve the key, and kill Utopia, who has really disappointed her father. What follows in an action packed romp through L.A. as Snake meets new allies and enemies. Is Map to the Stars Eddie (Steve Buscemi) going to betray him? Will Taslima (Valeria Golino) end up as his girl? Is that really Bruce Campbell under all that make up as the Surgeon General of Beverly Hills? Keep an eye out for appearances by Pam Grier, Peter Fonda and Stacy Keach as our anti-hero attempts to Escape From L.A.

Good Points:
  • Kurt Russell is still the ultimate bad ass
  • The movie keeps it’s pace moving and it’s tone light
  • Contains some solid action scenes

Bad Points:
  • The plot and structure are nearly identical to the original film
  • The satirical tone of the film will annoy some viewers
  • Seems a bit tame compared to the original


You’ve got to approach this movie with the knowledge that it is pretty much a satire of Escape from New York. The edginess, darkness and gritty feel of the previous film are replaced by a wink and nod from the creative team. Everything here is over the top, the action, the humor, and the fact that the movie is pretty much a rehash of the previous film. It’s all part of the joke. You’ll either find this amusing, or kind of stale. Once you realize this, the movie is a blast of pure entertainment. It adds some social commentary to the mix and presents us with a bad ass Snake Plissken again. I’m still on the fence. I would have liked a bit more of an edge in the film, but I can’t say I wasn’t entertained.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 4
Acting: 4
Script: 3
Music: 4
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 3
Total:  3

Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Brick (2005)

This movie has come up a couple of times when I talk to fellow film fans about modern noire. The concept sounded a bit too cute to me so I never dove in. But one evening I saw it in my download cue and said, “What the hell, I’ll give it a spin.” Besides it has Joseph Gordon-Levitt in it and he’s impressed me lately.

Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) knows everyone and everything going on in his school. People come to him for information and for a fee he can find anything out. But things become a bit personal when he finds the dead body of his ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin) abandoned in a sewer entrance. Determined to find out who killed her and why, Brendan starts to snoop.

This leads him on a direct course with a drug dealer called The Pin (Lukas Haas), and his gang of thugs. Brendan is able to use his connections to convince The Pin that he’s on his side, and will aid him in a turf war with a competing gang. All the while Brendan is looking for the final clues that will point the finger at the killer. But will the lovely Laura (Nora Zehetner) be his damsel in distress or his femme fatale?

Good Points:
  • Transports classic noire to a modern world with panache
  • The dialogue is just too darn cool
  • Gordon-Levitt nails the noire hero trope

Bad Points:
  • May feel too fabricated to be really work for every viewer
  • The dialogue tries too hard to be cool
  • Will move too slow for some viewers

This is an experiment that really clicked for me. I loved the updated take on noire by placing it in a high school. The dialogue was a great mix of classic noire tropes and modern slang. Gordon-Levitt delivered in a role that was tougher than you’d think. Overall, it was a real treat for fans of The Maltese Falcon but willing to see the genre taken in a new direction.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 3
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 3
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Top Ten - Science Fiction Films Circa 2000 to 2013

My friend and fellow blogger John Muir took another science fiction related reader poll. This was one of his toughest assignments yet - to pick the top 10 science fiction films from the years 2000 to 2013. Lots of great lists were provided and you can check out the results here.

This one was very difficult for me. As I mentioned to John, I haven't been as voracious with my movie watching in the last five to ten years as I used to be. Well, let me qualify that, I haven't been up on my new movies as much as I used to be. Instead I've been delving back into the past, seeking out gems and seeing if I can unearth some new favorites. I've also been delving deep (and some may say too deep) into nostalgia. Ten years ago, I would have jumped at seeing Primer or Sunshine. These days, I've heard of the films, but haven't sought them out. The sad thing is, the recent movies I have seen haven't left much more than a surface impression on me. I found it difficult to find make selections on movies I'd only seen once and didn't remember too well.

So that's what I ended up with here, a list of movies that at the very least entrained me.  But I also found a few that made me think and some that did both (the highest praise for a sci-fi film in my opinion). I have no idea if these will go down as classics, I think we are still too close to most of them to determine that. In about five years, I'd like to revisit this list and see what I've added and which films have declined. So lets get started.

10. Serenity - 2005
After the television series Firefly got cancelled all too quickly, it felt like fans weren't going to get the closure they so desired. Then Joss Whedan did the impossible and got a big screen final episode created and launched into theaters. It has everything you want in a fun space opera flick, great dialogue, lots of action, interesting characters and an emotional punch at the end. It was a bit sad to say goodbye to some of my favorite characters from the television series, but Serenity ends our journeys with style (and leaves enough wiggle room for further adventures if Whedon decides to come back to this world).

9. Minority Report - 2002
Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg - I'll admit it, I wasn't too thrilled with that match. And yet against all the odds, the whole thing worked. I liked how Spielberg made what is essentially a very paranoid and dark story visually filled with over-saturated white light. This look has been copied many times since, but the impact in this film is impressive. It's also got a momentum to it, something that this director is always good at. Even Cruise works in the role, and the whole thing clicks well. The world created here is impressive and feels like it expands well past the screen. Overall it's an engaging and thought provoking movie.

8. Wall-E - 2008
Pixar was on a roll of making one great film after the other. Wall-E falls in the middle of that run, mixing so many disparate elements together to create a cohesive whole. The idea of having the protagonist be a mute garbage robot should not work (something Pixar did repeatedly in their most creative days). But the combination of amazing animation, an effective musical score by Thomas Newman, and a dazzling work of animation created a character you connect with and then thrill to when his adventure takes flight. While the movie's message may be a bit heavy handed at the end, the whole thing still works wonderfully and makes this one of Pixar's best (and you could argue, THE best).

7. Prometheus - 2012
Ridley Scott returns to the world of science fiction, something he did so well in Alien and Blade Runner, two films that appear on my list of greatest science fiction films. He does an admirable job, crafting a story of space exploration that delves into the true wonder and horror of the unknown. That alone should be enough to tie it to the film Alien, but in the end he went that extra step, directly connecting the two films in a way that just didn't click. For some viewers this was a deal breaker, for me, I found it to be an unfortunate coda. All that said, Prometheus has so many good points, amazing production design, some top notch performances and a tale of humans seeking their source and finding that the cosmic joke is on them. Lovecraft would love this movie.

6. Donnie Darko - 2001
There really isn't another movie like Donnie Darko. It combines teen angst, surreal visuals, dimensional travel and one of the creepiest imaginary friends ever into one film. It is another one of those movies that just shouldn't work, and yet it all comes together in a satisfying (although melancholy) way. You could argue that this isn't sci-fi, and you'd be right. But you could also argue that it is sci-fi and you'd be right. Not many movies straddle the genre lines so well. In end I enjoyed the film a great deal, thought about it a great deal and have watched it multiple times. It has to go on a list somewhere, and this seemed like a good spot. Besides, Frank told me to put it here.

5. Avalon - 2001
Mamoru Oshii always makes interesting films. I may not like all of them, but I always find them worth watching. His visual style is unique. He is methodical in his approach to storytelling, often slowing everything down to indulge in hypnotic visuals and philosophical discussions. Avalon has all these elements going on in it, but it also creates it's own world visually. The real world our heroine inhabits feels lived in, dirty and moist. The virtual world of Avalon with it's yellow tinged hue and apocalyptic surroundings doesn't seem like much of  an improvement. But it is the way the worlds meld that makes the film worth exploring. Besides how often to you see a Polish Japanese co-production. Less action packed than The Matrix, but also delves deeper into some of the ideas the Hollywood film explored.

4. Children of Men - 2006
This movie is a rough one. It was bleak, relentless and even the glimmer of hope at the end, didn't seem like much. Director Alfonso Cuaron crafts a movie that builds on humanity falling apart. It feels so real that it is disturbing to experience. Clive Owen does a superb job in the lead role. But I think it is Cuaron's camera work, pacing and editing that make the whole thing work so well. This movie was hard to watch, but it was impossible to forget. 

3. Paprika - 2006
You know there had to be some anime on there somewhere. Satoshi Kon's swan song picks up all the themes and ideas he's been exploring throughout his career and fuses them into a single film. The result is an explosion of color, creativity and off the wall visuals. The idea of dreams leaving our minds and exploding into our world seems ridiculous and yet Kon makes the whole thing work, adding in a wonderful heroine, Paprika to save the day. Like Kon's previous films all elements work together to create a roller coaster of realities, interesting characters, unique visuals and plenty of humor. The ending is a bit on the weak side, but for the most part this is one of the most dazzling displays of animation I saw in the 2000s. Well worth checking out.

2. District 9 - 2009
This movie has quite a few things going for it. You've got a wonderful performance by Copley  to give us a believable (but not likable) protagonist. Then you have a world crafted so well that it feels real. Much like Children of Men you can see our world twisting into this fate. But District 9 doesn't wallow in the darkness, and makes it's first steps toward a better future for that world. In the end, I clicked a bit more with this film (and having some anime inspired mecha suits didn't hurt). Worth checking out, but not for the squeamish, some of the action scenes are very intense and brutal. 

1. Moon - 2009
Everything about this movie worked for me. The big key was Sam Rockwell's performance. He is on screen for the entire film and plays the part perfectly. The script is well crafted building on a mystery and then delving into the social and scientific issues of the main problem. The production design is inspired, creating such a realistic setting on a restricted budget. Everything about Moon feels authentic. I even enjoyed the slow pace of the film, finding that it built up to it's conclusion very well. The pace worked for the film, allowing us to really understand Sam's state of mind and his final solution to the very disturbing problem. This is one of the few films on this list that feel certain will remain on it in the next five years.

I also had a few other films that I enjoyed, but didn't quite make the list.
So, are you up to the challenge? Do you have any favorites from this era of film making?

Looking for more top ten lists? Check out this link.