Movie Project #20: Face/Off [1997]

50 Movies Project #4: Contemporary Edition

The 50 Movies Project is an annual tradition at The Warning Sign. Every year, I select 50 movies that I feel I must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. This year I’m focusing on contemporary films (1980 to present day) that I somehow haven’t gotten around to seeing yet.

Face/Off [1997]

Face/Off [1997]
Director: John Woo
Writers: Mike Werb, Michael Colleary
Country: USA
Genre: Action/Crime/Sci-Fi
Starring: John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen
Running Time: 138 minutes

Going into Face/Off, I was hoping for a ridiculous, over-the-top action flick, and that’s exactly what I got. John Woo’s third American film is genius in that it sets up two of Hollywood’s craziest actors and lets both of them go off the rails.

Nicolas Cage is at his most deliriously best right from the get-go, playing a terrorist supervillain named Castor Troy. His archenemy is John Travolta’s Sean Archer, an FBI agent who is seeking revenge for the murder of his young son (killed by Troy, of course). Their first confrontation in the film depicts the age old battle of airplane vs. helicopter. Later, they fight on top of a speeding powerboat. The action scenes are signature Woo — stylish as all hell, and full of spectacular explosions.

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Godzilla (2014) Movie Review

Godzilla [2014]

Godzilla [2014] 
Director: Gareth Edwards
Writers: Max Borenstein (screenplay), Dave Callaham (story)
Genre: Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi
Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston, Ken Watanabe
Running Time: 123 minutes

Sixteen years.

That’s how long it has taken for another American attempt at a Godzilla film after Roland Emmerich’s critically-maligned 1998 blockbuster. With up-and-coming director Gareth Edwards (Monsters, and soon-to-be director of Star Wars), a star-studded international cast and a massive budget, all of the pieces appeared to be in place for a proper reboot. Yet while impressive in spots, Edwards’s Godzilla unfortunately manages to be underwhelming overall.

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Movie Project #16: Unbreakable [2000]

50 Movies Project #4: Contemporary Edition

The 50 Movies Project is an annual tradition at The Warning Sign. Every year, I select 50 movies that I feel I must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. This year I’m focusing on contemporary films (1980 to present day) that I somehow haven’t gotten around to seeing yet.

Unbreakable [2000]

Unbreakable [2000] 
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
Country: USA
Genre: Drama/Mystery/Sci-Fi
Starring: Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Robin Wright, Spencer Treat Clark
Running Time: 106 minutes

Riding the wave of success from the massive box office hit, The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan immediately followed with Unbreakable, a superhero origin film that has become quite a cult favorite since. Many would argue that this is his best film, though that’s hardly a bold position given his recent output.

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Movie Review: Her [2013]

Her [2013]

Her [2013]
Director: Spike Jonze
Writers: Spike Jonze
Genre: Drama/Romance/Sci-Fi
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde
Running Time: 126 minutes

In a world where a man can marry a video game character, is it really all that far-fetched that someone could fall in love with a computer operating system? That’s exactly what happens to Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) in Spike Jonze’s new film, Her.

Feeling more alone than ever after an unwanted separation from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), Theodore purchases a brand new operating system with advanced artificial intelligence. The OS has its own unique female identity named “Samantha” (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Samantha’s witty demeanor and intellectual philosophies intrigue Theodore, and the two of them quickly form a friendship. For the first time in months, he feels invigorated and ready to crawl out of his self-induced shell. Perhaps this broadening of his horizons is what pushes Theodore to seek out more than a friendship.

Her [2013]

On paper, this sort of relationship is odd and offputting. Yet in the world of Her, it’s not all that absurd. When Theodore announces his new girlfriend to his friend and neighbor, Amy (Amy Adams), she doesn’t flinch. After all, people are constantly talking on their smartphones in their own little worlds (though in Her, small earbuds have replaced phones).

While Theodore is walking through the futuristic Los Angeles, we are constantly shown dozens of people at a time, all of whom are talking at once — but never to each other. This is clearly a form of satire from Jonze, and it’s a bit sad just how much it hits home in today’s day and age. We have never been able to be so close to others yet remain so far apart. Quite honestly, I suspect we’re not too far off from having advanced AI like Samantha.

Her [2013]

And what a character she is! Brought fully to life with some truly impressive voice acting from Johansson, Samantha has quite the personality. It’s easy to see why a lonely soul like Theodore could grow so smitten with her. She’s funny, intelligent, open-minded and caring; basically, she’s the whole package, just not in physical form. Even Theodore’s friends grow attached to her; at one point, the two of them do a “double date” with another couple, and it never feels awkward at all.

There’s a lot to like in Her, from the performances (especially that of Phoenix, who honestly deserved an Oscar nod) to the wonderful score by Arcade Fire. My only beef comes from the ending. It was a bit too abrupt and nonchalant for my liking, though admittedly the final shot is a beautiful one. With so many ideas in place, it’s possible that everyone will pull something different from Her. Technology, relationships, compassion, humanity… can an operating system really take the place of a human? Is that sustainable? All I know is that given the time, we as humans will keep trying to find ways to make it so.

8/10

Movie Project #46: Solaris [1972]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Solaris [1972]

Solaris [1972]
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Writers: Stanislaw Lem (novel), Fridrikh Gorenshtein (screenplay), Andrei Tarkovsky (screenplay)
Country: Soviet Union
Genre: Drama/Sci-Fi
Starring: Natalya Bondarchuk, Donatas Banionis, Jüri Järvet
Running Time: 167 minutes

Solaris is a Russian sci-fi epic that requires a great deal of patience. Actually, that might be putting it mildly. Tarkovsky’s film feels every bit of its 167-minute running time (and then some). It has extensive, long takes of seemingly nothing of importance. One early scene shows a character driving in traffic for a good five minutes — that’s it. I’m not ashamed to admit that my first attempt at viewing the film months ago resulted in me falling asleep an hour into it. This time I started back over from the beginning and watched it all in one take.

Solaris is a notorious slow starter. The first hour or so focuses on a psychologist, Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), who is spending his last day on Earth at his elderly father’s home. Tomorrow, Kelvin will be flying out to the space station orbiting a distant oceanic planet called Solaris. While attempting to relax, he is visited by Henri Berton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky), a former space pilot. Berton warns Kelvin about his past experience near Solaris in which he claimed to have seen a four-meter-tall child on the surface of the planet. His superiors dismissed this claim as hallucinations, but Berton is adamant about what he saw. While Kevin and his father seem to agree with the hallucination theory, this meeting does plant some seeds of doubt in his head.

This, the film’s first act, moves at an especially methodical pace. There are long shots of the scenery surrounding the father’s home, particularly that of a small pond. This act is also where the extended traffic scene occurs; it is meant to portray a city of the future (fun fact: it’s actually Tokyo), but it seems so trivial in the scheme of things.

Solaris [1972]

When Kelvin arrives on the space station, the film grows more interesting. It turns out that of the three men stationed there, only two are still alive. The third, Kelvin’s friend, Dr. Gabarian (Sos Sargsyan), has committed suicide for reasons unknown. The two remaining scientists are uncooperative and have clearly struggled to come to terms with what has happened onboard.

Kelvin gets a glimpse into their mindset when he begins hallucinating himself — shortly after he gets on board, his dead wife appears in his room. Despite his best efforts to get rid of her, knowing she is truly dead, she just keeps reappearing. The theory is that the ocean on Solaris is causing these “visitors” to appear on the space station, there for all of them to see. What follows is less of an external conflict than it is a meditation on introspection. I can’t even begin to attempt to answer some of the questions this film asks, but there are some truly fascinating ideas in place regarding our place in the universe, sentient beings and the human psyche. At the same time, it’s awfully challenging to get to the point where these thoughts intrigue.

Solaris [1972]

This is a beautiful film, and Tarkovsky makes damn sure we know it with his intense focus on the surrounding environments (the comparison of the vast, open Earth to the claustrophobic space stations is especially noteworthy). There is a lot of eye candy, but that can only do so much to maintain interest.

I’m curious as to how the original 115-minute cut unfolds; the 167-minute version is just too much. I truly believe there is a great film within Solaris; it just needs a substantial amount of editing. (And this is coming from someone who ranks 2001: A Space Odyssey as one of his all-time favorite films).

6/10

Movie Project #37: Moon [2009]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

moon-poster

Moon [2009]
Director: Duncan Jones
Writers: Duncan Jones (story), Nathan Parker
Country: UK
Genre: Drama/Sci-Fi
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey
Running Time: 97 minutes

According to Moon, at some point in the not-so-distant future, nearly 70% of Earth will be relying on energy derived from the moon. At a mining base on the far side of the moon, there is one man responsible for overseeing the extraction of helium-3 and its subsequent delivery to Earth. This man is Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell).

With just two weeks left on his three-year work contract, Sam is starting to demonstrate signs of fatigue from his elongated period of isolation. The first time he is shown, he is looking all too rough with a Grizzly Adams beard. You can almost smell him through the screen. Aided by the idea of finally being able to see his wife and child, Sam cleans up with the help of his computer companion, GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey).

Moon [2009]

One day, after leaving the base to recover a helium-3 canister, Sam suffers a hallucination and crashes his rover into a harvester, knocking him out in the process. When he awakens, he is inside the base infirmary with no memory of his accident. GERTY isn’t all that helpful in explaining the incident, immediately causing Sam to grow suspicious. His further investigations leave him to believe that he may not be alone on the moon after all — although his frequent hallucinations make it difficult for him to determine just what is real.

To say anything more about Moon‘s plot would be a discredit to the film and to its director, Duncan Jones (yes, the son of David Bowie). There is a major plot twist that pushes the film in a new direction, one that raises questions about humanity, loneliness and the ethics of technology.

Although I am not as well-versed in classic sci-fi as I would like, it’s clear that Moon is influenced by some of the titans of the genre, the most obvious being 2001: A Space Odyssey. The introduction of GERTY immediately brings flashbacks of HAL-9000; in fact, Kevin Spacey’s vocal performance is not far removed from that of Douglas Rain. The HAL connection makes us question GERTY’s motives in the early going, though it does eventually become clear that the two computers are quite a bit different. It’s also hard not to see the 2001 influence through some of Moon‘s beautiful interior shots of the lunar base — Gary Shaw’s cinematography is often stunning.

Moon -- Sam Rockwell

But most impressive is the performance of Sam Rockwell, who is on screen for nearly every minute of the film’s hour-and-a-half running time. Rockwell generally impresses in every one of his roles, but this may be his defining moment. His performance requires quite a bit of range, and it’s all the more impressive that he is able to do so almost entirely on his own here. It’s a shame that he was pretty much forgotten about during the award season.

Moon isn’t a perfect film — its ending may be too “feel good” — but it is an impressive debut from Duncan Jones. Two years later, Jones would go on to make the underrated Source Code. His next project, a film based on the Warcraft video game series, is set to arrive in 2015. Given the near-brilliance of Moon, it’s easy to see why he is continually being rewarded with bigger budgets. And hell, if anyone can finally make a good video game movie, it’s probably Jones.

8/10

Movie Review: Gravity [2013]

Gravity [2013]

Gravity [2013]
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Writers: Alfonso Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón
Genre: Drama/Sci-Fi/Thriller
Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Running Time: 91 minutes

It’s easy to get swept up in the hype surrounding Gravity. Alfonso Cuarón’s latest effort is truly a technical marvel, and it is one of the most visually stunning films to come out in years. This is the type of feature that begs to be experienced on the biggest screen possible — IMAX 3D, preferably — and it’s the rare release that is garnering nearly unanimous praise from critics and audiences alike. Taken on these merits alone, Gravity is worth the trip to the theater. However, it is lacking in a few crucial areas, and these issues keep it from reaching the “instant classic” status that many are quick to label it as.

In theory, the idea behind the film is simple. Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a rookie on her first space mission, and veteran astronaut Ray Kowalski (George Clooney), on his last mission before retirement, are performing a routine spacewalk before disaster strikes. A Russian missile strike has caused a massive chain reaction, sending seemingly endless amounts of space debris heading directly toward them. Their shuttle is destroyed, and soon the two protagonists become split apart.

At this point, our attention is focused primarily on Ryan and her will to survive. She is given a slight bit of back story involving a tragedy that occurred back home, and this is used as an attempt to get us to connect with her. In reality, this little nugget of information feels contrived. Ryan’s story is something that has been done to death in cinema — can this emotionally broken character overcome the overwhelming odds to stay alive? — and the overall writing leaves a lot to be desired. There is also quite a bit of on-the-nose symbolism regarding the rebirth of human life, some of which feels out of place.

Gravity [2013]

Yet it is a testament to Ms. Sandra Bullock that we are in fact still able to resonate even slightly with her character. The decision to cast Bullock and Clooney — both of whom are comfortable and longtime fan favorites — was a stroke of genius. Going into the film, we already have some sort of connection to the characters simply because of who plays them. Bullock delivers what may be her finest performance yet, and she will certainly get some love during awards season. Clooney is basically playing George Clooney here, but it works for this role. His casual demeanor is the perfect complement for Bullock’s nervousness, and he makes the best of his limited screen time. I truly believe that much of the love for this film comes down to these two actors; if Robert Downey Jr. and Angelina Jolie, both of whom were originally attached to the project, had remained in the film, it could have been an unmitigated disaster.

It is especially impressive that even with these script problems, Gravity is a compelling film. The combination of Alfonso Cuarón’s direction and Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is a match made in heaven — just take a look at the film’s remarkable 17-minute opening shot as an example. Their work truly makes it feel as if you are floating in space, and the 3D is entirely organic. It remains to be seen how the film will hold up on DVD/Blu-ray, but as a theatrical experience, few are better.

8/10

Movie Review: The World’s End [2013]

The World's End [2013]

The World’s End [2013]
Director: Edgar Wright
Writer: Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright
Genre: Action/Comedy/Sci-Fi
Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan
Running Time: 109 minutes

It’s amazing what a difference 20 years makes, especially those years immediately after high school. Friends come and go, many start families, and some find lucrative jobs elsewhere. However, there are some that simply don’t change.

Gary King (Simon Pegg) is one such stalwart who is stuck in a high school mindset. A recovering alcoholic and drug addict (though obviously not fully committed to sobering up), Gary reminisces at an AA meeting about an epic pub crawl he and his mates once attempted during high school. The crawl, a 12-pub trip through their hometown of Newton Haven, was never fully completed. While telling his story, he realizes that he badly wants to see the pub crawl through to the end.

Gary starts reaching out to his long-lost pals, convincing Peter (Eddie Marsan), Oliver (Martin Freeman) and Steven (Paddy Considine) to join him fairly easily. The wild card is Andy (Nick Frost), who hasn’t had a drop of alcohol in 16 years after being involved in a serious accident. Yet even he manages to agree after being told a sob story by Gary; the caveat being that he drink tap water instead.

The World's End [2013]

And so the gang gets back together, some 20 years later, all living vastly different lives. Gary hasn’t changed a bit since high school — in fact, he is still wearing the same Sisters of Mercy t-shirt he wore during the initial pub crawl attempt — but the others seem to be well off. It takes some time for the five of them to bond, especially as Gary is all over the place with his childish behavior and inappropriate comments.

As the beers start flowing and the guys begin opening up, it’s a blast to listen to them shoot the shit over a few pints. However, it doesn’t take long for them to realize that something is a little off with their hometown. I won’t get into spoilers here, but the film goes in a *completely* different direction around the time the fellas hit the third pub. Things are not at all as they seem in little old Newton Haven.

The World's End [2013]

This jarring transition still brings plenty of laughs and some surprisingly spectacular fighting choreography, but it loses a little something along the way. There was potential for a genuinely great film about old friends catching up and trying to relive their “glory days”, but the zany direction the film takes feels like a bit of a setback. As such, this doesn’t quite live up to those from the rest of the Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz).

At the same time, there is still a lot to like here. The mashup of movie genres means you never know what’s going to happen next, and every member of the cast has their fair share of humorous lines. It’s also cool to see Simon Pegg play such a foul, lowlife character who still somehow manages to get us on board with him.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that The World’s End comes after two brilliant comedies from Wright/Pegg/Frost. This is clearly the weakest of the trilogy, but then again, it was always going to be hard to top its predecessors. The World’s End is an enjoyable film, albeit a messy one, but I hope it’s not the last we see from these guys.

7/10

Movie Project #49: Metropolis [1927]

Due to the surprising success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a part two for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

Metropolis [1927]

Metropolis [1927]
Director: Fritz Lang
Writers: Thea von Harbou, Fritz Lang
Genre: Drama/Sci-Fi
Starring: Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel and Gustav Fröhlich
Running Time: 153 minutes (restored version)

It’s hard to believe Metropolis is nearly 90 years old. One of the earliest science fiction films, Metropolis has been wildly influential over the years, and it feels well ahead of its time. Modern dystopian favorites such as Blade Runner and Dark City owe a great deal to Fritz Lang’s film, one of cinema’s most impressive achievements.

Set in the year 2026, Metropolis takes place in a hand-crafted dystopian city that has been divided into two sections. The lower, working class live underground, while the wealthy upper class are rewarded with luxurious skyscrapers and endless entertainment above. The two sides typically have no interaction with each other, but that all changes when a teacher (Brigitte Helm) from the subterranean city brings a group of children to the rich gardens above.

Metropolis [1927]

The woman, Maria, and the children are quickly escorted off the premises, but not before Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) takes notice. Freder, the son of the city’s dictator, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), instantly becomes entranced by both the beauty of the woman and the fact that there is a city of slave-workers down below. He makes it his goal to find this woman and learn about a world he knows nothing about.

Freder quickly becomes empathetic toward the workers’ plight, and he attempts to become a sort of mediator between the two classes. This takes an ugly turn, however, when a mad scientist, Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), is contacted by Joh to learn more about the rumblings of a possible mutiny by the workers. Rotwang has developed a man-machine in which he can mold into a clone of any living person. When he chooses to make a robot version of Maria, all hell breaks loose.

Metropolis [1927]

While the struggle between the different classes may feel familiar, what makes Metropolis really stand out are its impressive visuals. Eugene Schuefftan’s special effects are nothing short of remarkable, and the city itself looks absolutely stunning. Inspired by Fritz Lang’s first visit to New York, the skyscrapers are monstrous with an alluring futuristic design. All sorts of transportation are found in the city — long highways rise to great heights while airplanes buzz past — and the underground is a working hell.

There are many versions of Metropolis floating around, but thankfully an almost complete edition of Lang’s original vision resurfaced in 2010. This is the version I saw, and it can be found on Netflix Instant in its proper form. It’s easy to see why certain bits may have been cut, but overall this extended version is a wholly engrossing film that holds up very well today. A must see for any sci-fi fan or film aficionado.

9/10

Movie Review: Cloud Atlas [2012]

Cloud Atlas [2012]

Cloud Atlas [2012]
Directors: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski
Genre: Drama/Mystery/Sci-Fi
Starring: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Jim Broadbent, Doona Bae
Running Time: 172 minutes

Cloud Atlas is a mess, a huge, sprawling epic that jumps through different time periods at will. It’s also one of the most interesting films I have seen all year.

Based on the “unfilmable” novel of the same name, Cloud Atlas tells six different stories from six time periods — from 1849 to present day and far beyond. Each story uses different characters, but they all appear to be connected in some way. The film is here to show us how the lives of others impact those in the future, and that we as humans are connected regardless of our race and gender.

Cloud Atlas [2012]

With a running time of nearly three hours, there’s a lot to digest. The film itself is visually stunning and begs to be seen on the big screen, and it has an especially impressive score (composed by the trio of Tom Tykwer, Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek). On aesthetics alone, Cloud Atlas is a treat. However, I’m still trying to wrap my head around what I watched.

It’s no secret that a film of this magnitude will welcome a second viewing (at least). I spent a great deal of time trying to piece together just how each story was connected, and I kept an eye out for subtle (and not-so-subtle) hints that put the different eras together. With so many stories and characters to keep track of, it’s impossible to pull it altogether after one viewing.

Cloud Atlas [2012]

This will infuriate some viewers, no doubt, and I’m not sure the payoff is as exceptional as it could be. Regardless, it can be a challenge to keep us entertained for a full three hours, and I was genuinely enthralled for the vast majority of the feature. With so much going on, you really do need to give this your full attention.

It helps to have an absolute star-studded cast at the disposal of the film, and it’s a lot of fun to look out for the same actors in each time period. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess and Hugh Grant appear in every single story, always playing different characters (some major, some not). Hanks, in particular, is greatly entertaining, especially as the 2012 writer, Dermot Higgins, who is responsible for one of the film’s most shocking moments.

Cloud Atlas [2012]

Much controversy has been raised about the use of white actors playing Asians in this film. Normally I am against this so-called “yellowface” tactic, but there is no underlying racism here. This film is meant to show how we are all connected, regardless of race, and it’s not just white people playing minorities here. Both Halle Berry and Doona Bae (the popular South Korean actress) play white women at one point. Although sometimes the heavy makeup used by these characters becomes distracting, I thought that using this same group of stars for multiple roles was a brave choice, and the correct one at that.

Cloud Atlas has received wildly mixed reviews, which should be a surprise to no one. The buzz word going around is that the film is “ambitious” and for some this is a good thing, while for others it is not. I like a lot of what the film tries to do, and it is an entertaining “mess” as I mentioned earlier. Some plot threads could have been tightened up, and a few scenes felt unnecessary in the grand scheme of things, but for the most part the film succeeds. Love it or hate it, there hasn’t been another film like Cloud Atlas this year.

7/10