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Kung-Fu masters with heavy metal hair kick each others’ bodies apart while the Ol’ Dirty Bastard raps about running game. This is the first five minutes of the RZA’s heavily anticipated directorial debut, and it is exactly what we were hoping for. The action is frenetic, and bloody as hell, and the music, while sliding toward the more traditional as the film goes on, completes it to create a satisfying whole. The hip-hop/martial arts aesthetic has never been better, and The Man with the Iron Fists is not only an essential piece of that legacy, it’s self-aware and exciting niche entertainment.

A decently complex but well-designed story structure is held together by running commentary of the Blacksmith (RZA), who feels at once out of place, with his modern locution, and spiritually engaged. We move from character to character under this guide, learning who the players are and how every piece fits into place in anticipation of the final showdown. The plot builds toward what promises to be an explosive ending, telling of a shipment of gold that’s headed through the violent Jungle Village, where seven deadly clans have gathered to wage war. Infighting in the Lion Clan has put a warmonger on top, a goofball psychopath named Silver Lion (Byron Mann) who seeks to claim the gold.

He stays in Lady Blossom’s (Lucy Liu) hotel, the same place where later a mysterious gunfighter, Jack Knife (Russell Crowe), will establish his lethal presence. Meanwhile, Zen-Yi (Rick Yune) is told of his father’s death at Silver Lion’s hands, and treks back to Jungle Village to avenge him and take the clan back. Predicting this course of action, Silver Lion dispatches his chief assassin, Brass Body (Dave Bautista), to deal with it.

Everyone needs a weapon, and so they all turn to the Blacksmith, who only wants to leave with his woman, a Blossom Prostitute known as Lady Silk (Jamie Chung). There are many characters here and a lot of recognizable names. As a co-screenwriter, the RZA manages to balance all of them equally, allowing for even minor characters like the Gemini Killers (Andrew Li and Grace Huang) ample screentime for badassery. There are also some key cameos, though apparently I missed Eli Roth’s. Watch for that one, I guess.

With RZA as a director, this does in a few ways feel like a debut film. The camera isn’t always confident or well-placed (though a few shots are downright beautiful), but the action is great — hyperviolent, flamboyantly bloody, and visually stimulating. There’s a rhythm to it that I assume a rap producer must have a feel for — the speeding up and slowing down for crucial moments and amplification of impacts is second nature to someone who not only lives and breathes musical timing, but has gorged himself on a lifetime of martial arts cinema to know well what works and what doesn’t.

And the story is perfectly structured for this premise. It’s an action movie, so there’s no muddling of the action with boring mythology or cliché and boring characters as in the last live-action Hollywood Chinese martial arts movie — The Forbidden Kingdom. Though this lacks the star power of that movie, it has a cast that not only looks great in their crazy costumes, but provides energetic or appropriately brooding performances. A particular standout is Byron Mann, whose Silver Lion enjoys what he does just a bit too much.

Though the RZA as an actor seems to take a backseat to the others, he shows his stuff in the moments he provides for himself, playing the Blacksmith with a subdued rage and mystical spirit that comes through in those sad, sad eyes. His voiceovers are just so damn entertaining, and his physical performance is believable in its own, fantastical logic.

On the writing side, there is a lot of dialogue that works, but is somewhat ‘dropped’ by awkward shot choices. There’s a moment early on where one of Silver Lion’s cronies agrees with a fellow soldier in that very obvious, bandwagon way, and the Silver Lion begins to call him on it, which feels like the setup to a punchline that never comes — there’s never a reaction shot of the dude, or really any change in frame at all from Silver Lion. It’s the small things like these that will eventually have you wondering abour later moments, like when the female Gemini notes that the Blossom cook’s beef is spicy, and he responds, “Oh goooood,” rather strangely but seemingly deliberately. Why include that moment at all?

Complaints are small and those are all of them. The Man with the Iron Fists is a hugely entertaining action movie with memorable characters and a plot that builds and intrigues, rather than complicates and alienates. Tarantino provides an introduction and trailer for Django Unchained before the RZA’s movie starts, and the Jamie Foxx-led ‘southern’ looks damn good, but the bar’s been officially raised for balls-out, exploitative, genre-literate violence.

5 problems for Resident Evil 5 (the movie).

This is a mission movie. Alice wakes up in an Umbrella facility the prisoner of past heroine and video-game avatar Jill Valentine. As Jill tortures her noisily in between asking somewhat inane questions like “Who do you work for?” there are secret forces at work. That being Ada Wong, another game character here introduced into the series for what might be the first time. Ada is working for — excuse me, with — Albert Whiskers, who releases the super-powered invincible zombie fighter Alice and also sends a crack team to retrieve her. The two parties fight their way through, meeting familiar faces along the way.

Problem #1. Retribution could have easily not have happened in this series. At no point does it offer a sense of self-worth or place in the storyline. I may not be the fairest judge of things, as I missed the last two in the mega-franchise, but I’m led to believe that perhaps the storyline itself may not be so valued. I wonder if somebody at the beginning, or around Apocalypse, decided to create a bare bones, rough rough outline — a plan for future installments to create a decent through-line. If they did, surely Retribution wouldn’t be on it, because it doesn’t advance the story. Or, it doesn’t do what fifteen minutes from another movie couldn’t.

It starts and Milla Jovovich is being shot off a boat that’s getting hit by Umbrella I assume, and she falls in the water. She wakes up in a facility, and needs to be rescued. The conflict is setup in the film — she could have easily not have woken up in the facility, and continued on her merry — with only a minor connection to the previous movie.

Problem #2. This is a lot like the original Resident Evil, which saw trained commandoes roving through creepy corridors and exploring biomedical facilities. It’s kind of like Aliens — and this would make Retribution the Resurrection. Only, instead of the more heterogeneous squad fighting aliens in inventive ways and everything’s an extremely bloody cartoon, Retribution is zombies and severely displaced game villains. Zombies with guns is gonna be your chief antagonist, among the axe dude more familiar in an African setting, and a giant Licker that once again reminds us of the original.

Zombies with guns? Come on. They’re the worst. They have the worst qualities of people and monsters, combined into a moorish alchemy blah that’s just very boring to watch. I didn’t even like the zombies with guns in Resident Evil 5, and that’s one of the great co-op games of recent memory. I want more monsters. Zombies feel cheap. They’re also rather unimaginative, especially in the context of a series with no shortage of interesting creatures to blast with acid rounds. Oh wait, you don’t do those either, Mr. WS.

Problem #3. They try something interesting here. I’m sure that the clone thing was born out of “How the fuck do we get M-Rod back in here?” but it might be the most recent example of my favorite phenomenon in movie series that have gone on too long — they have to come up with weird shit to keep it fresh. Back when we had so many horror franchises, even the weird shit went on too long, when everyone from Jason to Pinhead went to space with the Leprechauns. Here, we get clones that the artificial intelligence controlling Umbrella (the Red Queen from the first movie) uses in preposterously over-the-top experiments that test… something, I’m sure.

We have clones running around in artificial environments, not quite knowing what’s going on. How could you explain it to them, especially when one is a four year old girl? It’s an interesting premise, but it shouldn’t be here, and should be actually fleshed out. When the clone daughter of Alice asks if she is indeed her mother — upon facing a room of blank Alice clones — Alice says, “I am now.” What? I am now? Jesus, WS, you came really close to actual sci-fi drama. All she needed to say is — nothing. Just looked sad because in that moment, she was powerless.

But wait…

Problem #4. Alice is the most powerful thing in the universe. She’s always got an answer, and unfortunately in that moment it was a dumbass one-liner. I am now. Yeah, that helps. Also, when Leon Kennedy (yes) tells her to not go Ripley-style back for the clone girl because she isn’t as important Alice, Alice says, “That’s where you’re wrong.” Actually, no. He’s absolutely right. But you could’ve said, “I’m the most powerful thing in the universe,” and strode off. Why justify something that’s so wrong? Yeah it’s sad that this girl has to die, but you’re the one who’s supposed to save the last twelve humans on Earth. I think they need your help, because everyone else in this movie is shit, unless the plot requires them to be something else for the moment.

And about the clone thing one more time, it’s interesting for sure, but it means literally nothing. The AI that runs the place is like malfunctioning or something. These tests play out for no reason, or at least, to the whim of a computer. Take the zombies out, and you’d have like a poor man’s Eagle Eye. Make it a bit better? Poor man’s I, Robot, perhaps. I haven’t seen Colossus: The Forbin Project yet. I know you can’t reference Eagle Eye without that and expect to be taken seriously.

Problem #5. The Underworld moment. As if the connections between the two franchises weren’t many and varied as is, now we have to have Ada Wong doing the one thing we thought was cool from the entire Underworld series, that time Kate Beckinsale shot through the floor and went to, you know, like a different floor. Seriously, to close this out, let’s list all the weird fucking connections between Resident Evil and Underworld

– They’re the two biggest and only sci-fi horror franchises of the day
– “Strong” female characters (but they’re both tabula rasas)
– The leads are married to the directors (Anderson, Wiseman)
– Genre-challenged genre mashups (The Matrix meets… Hammer horror)
– Title etymology (Evolution, Extinction, Afterlife, Awakening, Apocalypse — can you tell me which are which?)
– Wentworth Miller (Speedman’s co-worker in the first Underworld)
– They’re both poor substitutes for Blade

The movie winds toward a resolution that cannot possibly fulfill the needs of our young, young hero. As David, Ted, and Joe descend through their increasingly dark journey, we can feel it. The only door at the end of this path they stumble down is a fate akin to death — depressing, resolute, yet somehow worse, as even though we all die and that’s sad, we understand death. The end that slow approaches isn’t something David can understand.

Spielberg is responsible for some of the best science-fiction adventure films of all time. Jurassic Park is thematically dark — as a cautionary tale about man’s futility against powerful and ancient forces — but it’s infused by an inspiring sense of adventure that sees its heroes bound from set piece to set piece. There’s a great wonder in its world and its creatures; it brims with ideas as it does imagination. AI on the other hand is related on the surface to this earlier film, but is unremittingly bleak. I don’t understand how a filmmaker with such a filmography could make a movie without hope or any shred of light — I don’t understand why anyone would make a movie like this.

It tells the story of David, a robot programmed to love and designed to replace the son of a grieving mother. After the son comes back and David’s kicked to the curb at the one hour mark, the unblinking affection-droid stalks gloomily through an increasingly hostile and apocalyptic world on a quest to find the Blue Fairy. As the audience and everyone flesh-and-blood understands, David is chasing a delusion.

The sadness that drenches the film is a product of AI being pulled in two directions. Not Spielberg and Kubrick, but traditional drama and something… alien. Joe also believes David might find the Blue Fairy and turn into a real boy. Why would he think anything else? He’s a robot. They’re all robots, and that means that they’re damned to experience only a few things, think limited thoughts, and suffer the emotional toll. They themselves are being pulled in two directions: human and inhuman.

The movie required an eXistenZ moment, that brief flash that completely unsettles you — remember when Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason-Leigh) repeats dialogue in the same intonation to Jude Law’s character, as if trapped by the rules of the video-game and rendered momentarily inhuman? It throws your perception of reality off and that’s what Jude Law in this movie should have done. We should have been reminded that Joe and David are robots for the sake of compelling drama, but it seems that the writer is more interested in the generic.

Interest in the generic isn’t the issue here, but the cost of what generic requires — the weight on the story that keeps the characters from going anywhere. Or at least, going to a place that is, once again, a delusion. The movie wouldn’t be so bad if it was more of a cerebral story about robots searching for meaning, but it is instead a story about humans who are told they aren’t humans who can’t be humans but want desperately to be human.

AI operates on a broken premise of human drama with a question pervading every step of its narrative — the layers of unreality in this case add up to a disconcerting ending. The question dogs an audience sympathizing in David: Is he going to realize that his journey is futile? And if he does, is his face gonna fucking melt again? Here’s a fake person struggling against an impossible enemy, one manifesting as fake, artificial nothing.

The so-called aliens, as so many are enthusiastic to point out, give David a happy ending. His mother is alive for one day the last human on planet Earth after two thousand years. His mother is essentially programmed to love him, and he is programmed to love her, so it works out — a exercise in flailing. The aliens (the robots that constitute a generally very cool idea in SF, evolving into pure shapes after generations of human absence) don’t understand because they’re so removed from humanity. Here it is again — that as a science-fiction idea follow internal logic, but because the aliens conform to the lines of human drama, the whole thing is ridiculous. They may be executing correctly, but they operate on a confused premise.

The audience watches these fake things spinning out in their predetermined paths — this is what robots will do without humans. They’re like computers playing out computer business, but because this is an important drama by Steven Spielberg, it’s a clusterfuck.

Believe me, I hate the term clusterfuck. I don’t use it lightly. But AI is a horribly depressing movie that’s nearly offensive. It reaches but is constrained by its mainstream potential. It needed to commit to a style or genre, but didn’t. A good analogue in the film is the Flesh Fair. Good concept, but held back by cliches: the evil Christian shit, the Tron-reject motorcycles with neon dogheads mounted on the front, and the improperly motivated scene’s end. A movie likes this didn’t deserve to be another common denominator throwaway.

Bloody Battle is 10% more futuristic than its predecessor, as measured in the new style fancied in the gangsters of the day — gas masks. The two movies take place in a familiar post-apocalypse, one where it’s likely that down under Master Blaster upholds his power in Barter Town, though Japan has a more cyberpunk feel (if Versus can be said to have a horror movie feel, for example). The war-torn buildings and desolate interiors offer an appropriately impressionistic environment for our formidable heroine Milly, though they also offer the audience’s best guess that Hard Revenge Milly: Bloody Battle is after all, a budgeted affair.

Though a larger world is implied, much of the story unfolds in parking garages and non-descript warehouses, with the occasionally dressed-up set peppered in for world-building’s sake. Fortunately, by the endgame this actually registers as insignificant, because the action these environments house is a specific flavor of stylized ultraviolence, one with flying kung-fu, cool poses, and wacky weapons that inflict impressive spectacle when unleashed on smug, gas-mask-clad do-wrongers.

The action in the film is one end of the Hard Revenge Milly equation that’s so frustrating. The premise of this sequel doesn’t stray far from the original’s plot, certainly not for the purposes of puzzling out what’s so problematic in an otherwise highly entertaining gore-fest. Milly, after massacring the gang that brutally murdered her husband and set her baby on fire, while at the same time tearing her body apart with knives and forcing her to watch, finds herself hunted by friends of the gang — as we learn from the hardly comparable Chan Wook Park’s Vengeance Trilogy, revenge is a cyclical, spiralling affair.

At the same time, Milly is approached by a young woman whose lover was killed, and seeks training for vengeance of her own. It may not sound like much, but keep in mind that the original movie was 45 minutes long, and this one still isn’t quite average feature length, clocking in at 74 minutes.

So what’s the trouble with Hard Revenge Milly?

The opening fight scene embodies a rare and beautiful ideology in action movie filmmaking, where the action hero is depicted as a slasher villain in how he/she dispatches foes. The only contemporary example that springs to mind is the critically discarded Punisher: War Zone, a film that sees Frank Castle slaughtering villains as if they were zombies — heads explode, bodies explode; the carnage is front and center, and there’s a gleeful joy in the application of a crazed badass to the action.

When this badass is essentially the Terminator, the entertainment is in the creativity of the hero killing slimy villains rather than the drama of ‘will the hero prevail?’ since there would clearly never be a question (there never is a question, regardless of what action movie you’re watching, but let’s not parade on the dreams of the Len Wisemans and the McGs of the world*). Punisher: War Zone succeeds where the 2004 Punisher fails (for one) in the villain department, because there’s a nemesis cold war going on — Frank Castle might be crazy, but Jigsaw and Looney Bin Jim are batshit. John Travolta? Not very threatening and surely no threat to Thomas Jane, which deflates the drama of ‘will the hero prevail?’

War Zone goes above and beyond, then, where Castle has gangsters to kill like a regular Jason, but with more RPGs, and these guys are no threat, but also a villainous element that provides any measure of suspense. Hard Revenge Milly: Bloody Battle, as well as its predecessor, have the same pretty Japanese pop-singer dude who happens to be a badass.

It’s odd, because while the end fight of the original is much longer than any other fight scene in the movie, it’s less entertaining because the guy offers a sizable opposition, and this is not what we were being driven toward with Milly tearing through people earlier. What makes this guy special? His kung-fu seems to be pretty good but he looks like everyone else and isn’t characterized appropriately in this regard. The sequel does a little better by having the villain be a cyborg, but any cyber-fuelled cool factor is negated by his villainy stemming purely from his sexual deviance — aka homosexuality. That’s great, guys.

This may sound like a lot of talk for something pretty unimportant, but the in-the-moment result is that Milly gets thrown around a lot by these lame villains where she should be trouncing everyone, save for something actually impressive. Anything other than yet another gangster dude. Like the Bride, Lady Snowblood, or Lady Vengeance, Milly gets her gender-equality fair share of the action movie beating, but to me it doesn’t make a lot of sense given the premise of what these movies are. This might sound like sexism, and it probably is, but this time, I honestly just don’t give a fuck. I don’t want to see a woman nicknamed Hard Revenge Milly getting her arm chopped off and defeated, only to win with further cyborg upgrades further down the road.

Not to mention that Milly technically falls into that more recently popular category of kick-ass females, here dubbed the Dragon Tattoo category, where only rape or violence against the heroine can incite bloody rebirth. That’s not a big deal here, because not only is Milly’s origin story so absurd, the movies are extremely obviously not meant to be taken very seriously.

I mean, look — when Milly cuts some dude’s body with her elbow sword, their high blood pressure sprays in an initially hesitant fountain in the grand tradition of Chinese and I think Japanese cinema. It’s great, silly fun, but it is metered a bit by Milly’s qualified badassery. That said, Bloody Battle is an improvement over an already entertaining original, one that reaches for eleven on the novelty dial in the fight scenes: we never know what her metal body’s gonna drum up next to slice and dice her foe, or what lethal new form this familiar weapon will take, but we know it’s gonna be bloody as hell. Meanwhile the action is intense and fantastical, remaining compelling through the whole of the two films with the promise that they’ll end in brutal, comedic splatter.

This movie is also interesting for its essence as a sequel. This is an instance where the follow-up deconstructs the original, showing the aftermath of the events in the first movie and the effects they have on the heroine. She isn’t just a killing machine, she’s a killing machine with no sense of control and a lost past that she can’t even be sure of. In a peculiar moment, Milly questions her memories in a spot of dialogue lifted straight from Ghost in the Shell. The self-deprecating doctor character plays Batou here, swatting down her Shirowesque cyber-Descartes existential quandaries much in the way the audience might.

Philosophical questions about revenge are paid equal lip service, but it amounts more to an intriguing setup to a theoretical third installment than an actually compelling discussion. Milly might be cursed by her vengeful journey, which infects others and only begets violence and death, but we’d rather see her kick some ass than mope around like the Major.

Or get her ass kicked by the villains, for God’s sake. Somebody needs to give this director, Takanori Tsujimoto, a bigger budget and put the lead, Miki Mizuno, in more action movies — they make a great team.

 

*Because I like Len Wiseman for some reason and I really enjoyed Terminator Salvation for some reason

Total Recall is pornography.

I’m ashamed of myself — I was railing against the Total Recall remake in the days before its release, though mostly in jest, saying things like “It was Arnold, not Philip K. Dick, who made Total Recall great” and other words of wisdom in a similar vein. I wanted to see Total Recall for reasons a product of hard cynicism — ranging from “I wonder what an Arnold movie is like without Arnold” to “I refuse to see Batman Begins 3*”, but didn’t include “I’m going to enjoy this.” Why wouldn’t I enjoy this? Despite the director’s not sterling resume, and the bland, depressing source (remake of an adaptation of an uncinematic short story), this movie is a complete joy, an absolute gem.

Total Recall 2012 benefits and suffers from its modernity. Gone are the more outlandish elements, like vagina-faced mutants and ancient aliens, and with those things the rapid-fire pace of imagination that elevates the original, which is reduced somewhat, though a significant residual fleshes out the world. And what a world — there is a broad and intimate attention to detail in a cityscape that takes turns being as big, beautiful, and absurd as the green and vertical city from Vanquish and the best Blade Runner mean streets since the original, beating out strong contenders for the throne like Natural City.

Granted, this reeks of ‘Christ, why even bother,’ much in the way of Natural City, and it’s true — Total Recall makes Minority Report seem more important than it is for crafting a Phildickian utopia that isn’t flooded by rain and defended by not umbrellas but neon parasols. It’d be a real issue if the city wasn’t so busy, so energetic, serving as a satisfying and dazzling backdrop for action that’s more intense and entertaining than expected in a PG-13 movie. It’s good action, not splatterfest action like the original. They’re both good, but in different ways. Nobody’s getting used as body shields, but I think Kate Beckinsale just punched Colin Farrell in the face with her vagina.

There’s zero-gravity, futuristic gadgets, and some very cool-looking robots thrown into the mix. It’s a streamlined art direction that offers a more focused, cyberpunk look than the original at the price of a playful, more unpredictable quality (like Inception vs. Paprika). Bill Nighy plays the resistance leader, but rather than being a mutant on the stomach of some other dude, he forgets where he is and assumes it’s The Matrix Reloaded, saying things like “Memories are constructs of the Mayan-dah,” and then looking up and winking at the Architect, who’s of course always watching.

The characters are pale shadows of their former selves (with one alarming exception), as there’s nothing visually interesting about them, and the serious attitude of the film keeps dialogue on the straight. I never realized how much of a non-character Quaid was until someone un-Schwarzenegger played him — he’s a blank slate searching for his identity, which is a compelling premise for a character, though better yet a short story, but doesn’t make for a particularly charming or memorable hero. He’s good at killing people, and that’s what counts, along with the generally strong performances — Bryan Cranston will never play a goof again, you can count on it.

When the fight is done and the hero and heroine look in each other’s eyes, it hit me what a hollow experience this movie was, favoring the ideas over any character development or drama, and not expounding on those ideas as expertly as the author, or introducing any new concepts. But then I thought back and remembered how much I actually enjoyed Kate Beckinsale’s character going around doing stuff. It’s sad that Richter and Sharon Stone’s characters have been combined into one, such that Ironside never gets his arms chopped off by an elevator, and nobody gets pierced through the skull with divorce, but Beckinsale plays one awesomely ass-kicking lady, a villain who isn’t sympathetic or interesting, but is extremely fun to watch. She runs hard after Quaid, and her physical performance heightens the action. And obviously, she looks good doing it all.

But this amounts to little more than pure guilt — guilty pleasure of the highest order. Total Recall may not be considered very important in the realm of science-fiction, but it’s unique for being one of the few action movies with nearly non-stop action. Quaid and Jessica Biel bound from set-piece to set-piece as the collateral damage and body count rise faster than you can groan at all the visual homages that put Terminator Salvation to shame. Why did the director say this movie would be more like the short story than the original movie? It’s just less like the original movie. There’s no tiny alien invasion, or anything completely odd.

This is a good thing, however. Total Recall 1990, an adaptation of a pretty good short story, is a really fun story, and I appreciate its immortalization in remake form, as well as the remake itself, which is an energetic and colorful adventure with a lot of pretty things to look at**, whether that be the city, the action, the robots, or the very attractive and active lead women.

*(On The Dark Knight Rises): Hey, the fights may be hampered by poor fight choreography and dumbass costumes, but he finally nailed the cinematography (stood still) and surrounded the action with pure spectacle — more like Batman Begins than… that other one

**(On Art Direction): Just one problem: the guns. The pistols were fine, but I recognize the rifles from reality, or at least, the reality of near future weapons that find homes in like, Ghost Recon. They look cool, but why not design something new? I could be wrong… maybe it was just a dream.

It’s the inexplicable and unexplained post-apocalypse, where we’re told that Japan is nothing but a wind-swept plain. Elsewhere, in the two abandoned buildings of this plain, Milly seeks hard revenge for the murder of her family and the fleshy parts of her body.

Hard Revenge Milly is a smart action movie. Not only does it grab the attention immediately with some sword-thanked arterial spray, it deals directly with the genre’s #1 problem — action movies can be unbelievably, shockingly boring. It does this by its runtime, which is roughly 43 minutes (it lasts the whole way, through the credits and after), effectively minimizing the exposition and everything between the fights that is empty content. There is almost no actor who can carry a movie without playing a character, which is why Arnold Schwarzenegger movies (barring End of Days) will always be great, and that’s often what happens in action movies across the globe. The effort given toward an original, compelling story is akin to the writer sullenly kicking an empty soda can across a dusty road.

Whether it’s reliant on special effects or physical combat, action can be pretty expensive, and cannot realistically fill 100% of the movie. Usually, unless it’s a John Woo flick, the action will be peppered in. To be fair, a lot of Hard Revenge Milly is talking and her waiting around for the action. Fortunately the action feels like live-action anime, which may sound pretty crass or cliche, but the end result is that while the choreography may not be as complex or impressive as we’ve seen elsewhere, there’s a fantastical logic to the martial arts that makes it difficult to keep up with, but what we do know is that those violent flashes sure look cool.

As we learn from Versus, there’s a tendency with these overly violent, stylized action movies coming out of Japan (perhaps taking inspiration from Versus) to favor how things look over the movement, such that still frames taken from any point in a fight scene will be well composed and super cool looking. This is where the anime comparison comes in — as early Japanese animation featured a lot of drawn still frames being physically manipulated for the camera, a style that’s been updated over the years to largely the same effect, where there’s detailed characters jumping through the air but moving somewhat stiffly when compared to the detail-lite but smoothly animated Disney cartoons.

With Hard Revenge Milly, there’s probably twenty total minutes of violence, but it’s pretty fun to watch for just such animated reasons. In one instance she does this kick thing and kind of flies off the guy, only to follow up with another attack in the next shot, sans any sense of momentum… or reality. She’s also got a sword — which extends from a pretty odd spot on her arm — that magically grows when convenient, like John Cho’s in Trek ’09. That’s the true joy in a movie like this, though the inventiveness of dismemberment tactics and the absurdity of the violence. Martial arts killers in Japan have an extra talent to turn people into geysers, which never gets old. Thankfully, because this movie isn’t really a movie but a short film, it doesn’t get old, which makes me wonder about the sequel, Bloody Battle.

Futuristic cell phones

There’ll be a review shortly for that one because there’s more I wanted to say about villains and feminism and stuff.

*spoilers for Prometheus*

For a man who went unmolested by science-fiction for thirty years of lucrative and critically successful career, Ridley Scott was launched into the fold by the greats in the genre. Dan O’Bannon, Philip K. Dick — it’s writers and storytellers who facilitate the direction of great films, and without them, story seems lost on filmmakers. This wasn’t readily obvious until 2012, when the much anticipated Prometheus landed to positive reviews but bewildered fans. The writers behind the movie cannot be fully blamed, as a complex history and the tides of the industry crippled our great craft before it took off to realms unknown — albeit ones predictable and mostly disappointing.

As disjointed and odd a story as Prometheus is telling, its financial backbone and subsequent success (not quite Matrix trilogy but a lot for SF), alongside its critical evaluation, speak to a recent development in science-fiction film: people taking it as seriously as the filmmakers. If Sunshine were released today, it’d be a similar story, but it went largely ignored in 2007. I’m also 100% sure that our buddy Roger Ebert would’ve given AI: Artificial Intelligence a perfect score rather than a three our of four stars*. This is a post-Avatar world, and while these movies aren’t great sci-fi, I’m enthusiastic about seemingly new properties making money on nothing but quality, as was the case with District 9.

As we know, this wasn’t entirely the case with Prometheus, but thumbs up for not calling it Alien: Prometheus or Alien: The Beginning or at this stage, Alien. Yes, the big, slime-dripping elephant in the room is the Alien franchise, a sci-fi horror giant that languished in relative obscurity after the critical failures of everything after 1986. Somehow, the Alien cycle, even in the air around a movie, makes a big push, making me wonder about Blade Runner 2, and even something like the Arrested Development movie. Is there something to be said for audiences given time to grow while a franchise is on temporary hiatus? Was 2005 too early for Serenity? We’ll have to see, but I’m optimistic about both of those near-future projects.

Alien helped Prometheus find its space-legs but ultimately destroyed anything it may have been. There would be no latter without the former, but this is the story of how a space exploration horror tale can be beaten into ungainly shape by the hammers of reference and homage. This prequel is meant to setup a series, but is being pulled in so many directions. Not only does it attempt to be as mysterious as the original film while demystifying areas of the universe (effectively trying its hand at the delicate art of answering questions while asking them), it adheres to one man’s interpretation of a film that was expanded by numerous creators, and implies a new series of its own, leaving an open ending.

In an environment such as this, how does a story even survive? Not well, the bluntest answer I can offer given source material with Prometheus as its title. The plot, on the surface, is classic stuff — spaceship heads off “The Sentinel”-style to find the alien god, and bad things happen. The motivation for everything that happens however is nonsense, and the bad things that happen alternate being random and expected — bad in both ways.

It’s a new day, and as overviewed, Prometheus has a history. It isn’t something completely new, and therein lies the fallacy of prequels — the excuse of story. Well we don’t need to cook up something new, or perhaps we can’t, given constraints of the universe, and whatever we slap on the silver will be accepted, so long as we mention “corporate runs” or something during the crew meeting. The first act of the film, the setup and introduction to the characters and world, is further hurt by the fact that Alien’s setup is what’s consistently praised in that film, among other things. Whatever happened to novelty? Alien was the first (one of the first, I imagine) to have blue-collar spacefarers and talk of bonus situations rather than the fantasy trappings of humble beginnings and promise of a grand adventure. Arguably the greatest terror of the film comes about in a computer monitor readout, one mentioning in less than verbose terms that the crew is but a means of company advancement, and are expendable.

Prometheus does nothing new, and in fact becomes this year’s Terminator 3, eliciting the most excitement from me by reverse-engineering old designs. Speaking of which, the world of Prometheus may be beautifully rendered and designed, but artistically it’s analogous to what the movie is holistically. We have by the end a smooth, pointy-headed Xenomorph with two jaws and nothing sexually horrific about it, and a few miles away the H.R. Giger toilet-bowl ship. Under that haunting Space Jockey face, also designed by Giger, is a blank human face and body. Prometheus is a mixing bowl of the old and the new, the latter of which feels uninspired. The intrepid astronauts explore this new territory and everything that happens is par for the course if it’s old, or ridiculous it it’s new. But that’s the science-fiction fan talking. Prometheus is a popular film, so perhaps it has merits beyond the world and the Alien connection.

Unfortunately the characters are victims of predestination, in that they fill roles I didn’t even know still existed, and the plot gets jumpy after the first hour. With such a straightforward storyline, one wonders why so much is seemingly forgotten by the writers — and everyone else. Why does nobody seem to care that Shaw is covered in blood? Don’t those scientists she just beat up care? Aren’t they curious that she isn’t pregnant anymore? The Guy Pearce revelation can’t be that mind-numbing. And doesn’t Shaw want that alien to be dead? Of course not, because then it wouldn’t be Chekhov’s Facehugger.

There is no sound logic to the movie, but often times things like this can be excused if it’s a more cerebral experience or something emotionally satisfying. Prometheus attempts to poke questions on religion and evolution, as well as Arthur C. Clarke modes of thinking with the alien gods and seeding worlds, but this isn’t that type of story. In a sci-fi horror, we typically only know as much as the characters do, and they know nothing. They’re exploring. In Childhood’s End, the aliens would actually exposit, but all the aliens want to do in Prometheus is play Frankenstein’s Monster and throw a fit. Answers are ahead however, as the ending implies. So Prometheus is an incomplete story that hints at more than there was actual story.

It’s a lot like the video-game Gears of War 2, whose story was so laughable it’s good fortune the gameplay elevates it to triple A status. The creators got all sequel crazy as Scott and co. did, seeking to answer questions with questions. The effect that has on the story is that Delta squad is going from place to place for next to no reason. What are we doing here? Well we’re trying to answer questions with questions, so we can’t really say. Prometheus isn’t just a sequel, it’s a super awkward piece in an entertainment franchise — a quasi-prequel to one movie that spawned a series that became the identity of the franchise, which comes fifteen years after the last official release. I rewatched Strange Days recently, and I feel like Angela Basset grabbing a now Ralph Fiennes-shaped Prometheus and shouting that this is real time, Prometheus. Memories are meant to fade. That doesn’t mean Prometheus needed to replace Alien, but it didn’t need to be so submissive to it, as if whenever Ridley Scott attempted to lift the 1979 classic off this new one the tail tightened around the throat, and don’t dare cut the leg…

As bad as Prometheus is, I still enjoyed the movie, though not nearly as much as if it were merely average. I enjoy the trappings, the visuals that feel like home in this fantasy-strangled film climate, and the ideas. I don’t like it when those ideas are tainted by brainless philosophy (so this is what people see when they watch the Matrix sequels…) and reached by insultingly flat characters. There’s a moment in the movie that in any other would have me smiling from ear to ear — the supporting cast (one group of many), the pilots and Captain Janek, sacrifice themselves by flying the eponymous ship into the Giger craft, and while Janek imparts some final charisma (I liked his character), the other two crewmembers have a third act payoff in joky dialogue which is now somber in this context. A good idea, but hindered by the fact that these characters weren’t really in the movie, outside of setting up this payoff. It’s so unnatural and difficult to excuse, but it was the best moment aside from “DIE!” which was also stupid in retrospect.

*I make this crack only because the man seems to give everything four stars these days. But then you look back and you’re like — 3/4 for The Matrix? On what grounds?! Granted, Strange Days and Dark City and other important films of the time were given good grades — all the more important because nobody has ever seen those very mainstream, very American movies

I had a strange thought some time ago. When movies like these come out, they aren’t the events that fans and filmmakers look back on and imagine. They’re movies with little concept of how much they’ll impact the world for the next thirty years and beyond. There is no futuristic city more quintessential than L.A. 2019, which isn’t far from now — but hopefully never comes to pass as it does in Ridley Scott’s apocalyptic cyber-fable.

The idea is so clean it’s almost painful. The story defines to me the beauty in science-fiction film, that of tight ideas which lead down fascinating roads of thought while maintaining and executing on a high concept premise. It isn’t just: “Bounty hunter tracks down and kills humanoid androids — STOP,” making it something like the more recent Surrogates, it’s “Bounty hunter tracks down and kills humanoid androids, an act that impacts the audience and characters on a moral and philosophical level, as these androids are distinguishable to humans only by a bizarre method of interrogation known as Voight-Kampff…”

In a recent interview with Cinemax to look back on Blade Runner during its 30th anniversary year, Ridley Scott revealed that Blade Runner was definitely his most personal film, though he followed that up with a moment of silence and thought and something like, “yeah, that’s it.” I suppose it makes since, not because Scott isn’t known for making films with very personal subjects (in that, he does everything from the Crusades and Columbus to espionage and modern warfare), but because Blade Runner is an emotional film that says quite a lot about humanity and violence — lofty themes atypical of science-fiction in film.

Because this is a sci-fi film, the emotion and that which says quite a lot are delivered in what we could call a non-traditional manner, considering the genres that do deal in these things more often than SF. There isn’t a lot of dialogue, or even character interaction, but there’s an unrelenting brooding about the atmosphere that looks pretty — though thirty years later it does show the construction behind its making — but hits you as a dead end for our kind, a shimmering monument to ourselves that’s choking out life and morality. Above all, it fills us with dread and loneliness, despite, or perhaps because of, the faceless crowds flowing in every direction, and being pelted with endless rain. It’s a perfectly impressionistic environment to house one man’s depressing, dehumanizing journey.

That’s exactly what Blade Runner is, this journey that chips away at Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), making it less of a dramatic tearjerker and more cerebral fare with a genuinely poigniant core. Characters struggle against forces beyond their control, whether it’s death or society (“If you’re not police you’re regular people”), and lose, even though the hero does achieve the dramatic need he establishes at the beginning of the movie.

LEGACY

Blade Runner also works because it’s one of the classic genre-mixers. It combines science-fiction with noir, a formula that’s sustained SF for years and years. In the context of this film, it’s a good blend, as the hard-drinking, chain-smoking hard-boiled is entirely justified in a bleak world where suddenly you can’t be sure of your own identity, and where the sky taunts you to join the “Off-World Colonies,” which I can’t imagine are any better than the ‘Hellscape’ of Los Angeles.

Anime in particular took to this new trope, referencing and embodying the movie in so many titles — but to no better effect than in Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, which does more than pay lip service to the visuals. In this 2004 sequel to Mamoru Oshii’s groundbreaking Ghost in the Shell, two police detectives scour the dark underworld of a futuristic Tokyo, maneuvering through yakuza strapped with illegal model cyborgs and the haunting, Gothic locales where minds can be easily lost to remote psychological warfare of the most invasive variety. Questions of humanity and the blur between flesh and metal — what Masamune Shirow refers to as the Man/Machine Interface — rise to the same effect, though in much clunkier, verbose terms.

Elements of Blade Runner have also found homes in America, in the oddest of places — anything from Mass Effect to Batman Begins. Science-fiction is great at capturing the imagination of fans and creators, and Blade Runner stands up there with Star Wars and Star Trek and frankly, has spawned better derivatives, which seem to be more venerating toward the source.

THE UNICORN

Maybe the greatest problem with the whole “Is Deckard a Replicant” thing is that he dreamt of a unicorn, and not an Electric Sheep. That would’ve solved it, put it down for good. Of course, there’s a bigger problem, that of harping on whether or not he’s a replicant, and proliferating the idea that it actually matters. What is gained from Deckard being a replicant? An idea, but only one that’s supplemental — the Philip K. Dick “aha!” at the end that gives us a notion about the world and the themes of the movie, a mechanic that Christopher Nolan most recently recycled in the ending of Inception. We are not meant to argue one way or the other, because that would be giving validity to something best experienced in its fleeting, epilogue form.

This is an issue of fandom, more specifically that of the science-fiction variety. This is odd because there are plenty of Philip K. Dick books out there with these kinds of endings — I think to Ubik immediately — but because there is no Ubik movie, there is no discussion, and Ubik is left alone as a thought-provoking, satisfying whole. It’s also an issue of medium, then. I think that we as audiences tend to value the literal over the figurative when it comes to movies, which unless established, portray things meant to be taken at face value. We’re seeing and hearing these ‘tangible’ things — they’re solid, concrete. When Deckard picks up that origami — it’s not the idea blending over the physical image and clouding our mind like it should.

This story format bias is interesting, but has only really haunted Blade Runner and a handful of others, as Blade Runner was brave but didn’t make its money back. It’s more of a cult success in line with The Thing and Streets of Fire, to name two movies from around that time, which often gives these movies its staying power. In the case of Blade Runner, it must just be that immortal question, that which is so backwards. In my mind, he’s a replicant insofar as he’s been dehumanized over the arc, but to say that creates a clash of how Scott sees the Android, and how Dick sees it.

In preparation for writing Nazi characters for his Hugo-award winning The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick did extensive and disturbing research, becoming fascinated by how robotic and callous people can be. He drew on that in his creation of the ‘andys’ in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, creating what were essentially empathetically-challenged humans, which Scott takes one step further. The replicants in Blade Runner are sympathetic, some more than others, but in the end, Roy is entirely human. But he’s a replicant. In the end, Deckard is a figurative replicant, but wouldn’t that mean that… he’s human? And besides, he’s also supposedly a replicant for real…?

I suppose it’s more to do with the blurring of the two. It’s not so much where one begins and ends, but that we as people are becoming colder, or have been cold and this city is a mirror, and this is how we can shoot a human woman in the back, in front of the endless crowds.

BLADE RUNNER, 2019

The future of Blade Runner is a recent development with the announcement of a sequel, which is definitely one of those sequels that’s always been ‘possible,’ but never really plausible. On one hand, it’s a shame, as Blade Runner has always felt more in line with great science-fiction literature, and should stand alone as a great story with a beginning, middle, and end, but on the other, this is great news.

Thinking on it, the things that made Blade Runner a true classic could be done again. It’s just… science-fiction in film isn’t a thinking man’s genre, and the current state of SF is best summed up in the Syfy Channel*: “We just don’t give a fuck.” Granted, there are surprises every now and then, and hopefully Blade Runner 2 will surprise us all. If it doesn’t, that’s fine. This is how I view things, after The Thing remake: I love John Carpenter’s The Thing as a fan of film. It’s a great movie with memorable characters and moments that shock and reinforce the bleakness. I love the new The Thing as a fan of general science-fiction because I love the story’s setup, and the things it can do. The Antarctic setting, the monster itself, the infighting — it’s not the best it’s been, but it’s more.

The world of Blade Runner has also had time to develop. Cyberpunk was born in 1982 and died ten years or so later. It saw a lot of classics, like Akira, the aforementioned Ghost in the Shell and its TV series Stand Alone Complex, Strange Days, Deus Ex, and even to some extent the Terminator franchise, though that’s been missing an entirely new world to populate. That’s what Blade Runner 2 can offer right now, when we know so little about it. A world — and if it’s anywhere near the original’s, it’ll be a good day for science-fiction fans.

But we’ll bitch anyway.

 

*Rant incoming

(Not that any future plans on this site should be trusted. I’d like to do that but once I said I’d do a retrospective on Mamoru Oshii and then I said I’d do a Ghost in the Shell retrospective and then a Wire recap… Someday)

This show was canceled due to poor ratings. While it started strong, it lost many viewers immediately, and never quite made them up across its thirteen week run. As much as I thought the show didn’t fully live up to its pilot episode, it’s still unfortunate that we won’t have any more. It’s a good thing then, that it ended so strongly.

By the end, Awake worked and didn’t work. It did round out its series premise pretty well, creating a whole narrative that is satisfying as science-fiction drama, but in the moment was clunky and awkward. The show didn’t need to be thirteen hours long, and would’ve worked better as a movie, as the best moments were those pertinent to the over-arching story — those in the first episode and the last two or three.

These moments, especially those in the series finale, are pretty intense and actually unpredictable. It’s good to see Michael Britten take risks and do things we don’t agree with, or put himself into dangerous situations — and lose at times. In this episode, he’s getting closer to the truth we already know, which puts his red reality in jeopardy.

*Spoilers to follow*

The big question throughout the series is ‘which reality is the real reality,’ and I did have a feeling that neither were, but with a title like Awake, I should’ve realized it was all a dream. So by the end the show becomes an interesting meditation on grief; it’s the story of a man grappling with the loss of loved ones and the journey toward acceptance. Accepting that one of his family members is dead runs parallel to accepting one reality, and in the show’s final scene we see that he’s finally awake, and his family is alive.

To reach this happy ending he must do as he always does, investigate, and it’s a great test to a seasoned detective. It’s a good story and when the ending revealed what was what the whole time, my first reaction was “lame,” but then the full weight of the situation caught up to it and the scene became a touching, satisfying moment that left me feeling pretty good about the series.

But then I thought back to those episodes in the middle, and on the whole, Awake was not a great show. It’s a narrative tugged back and forth by the realities of the television industry, which makes it a miracle that the story ended with an ending. There remain some loose threads, but it’s all good. Because when it’s over, we had in fact spent a whole lot of time following Jason Isaacs go around and solve cases by using parallel worlds, and that was pretty good.

And when time came to uncover the truth behind those worlds, we see the truth behind the series, that it was about a man struggling to overcome a fractured mind after a traumatic incident,who could know grief and accept it before everything returned to normal. Now that the show is over, sitcoms continue on, and we’ll wait for the next good, thought-provoking scifi show — just as it always is.

Return to the Awake Episode Guide

The season is winding down as tension and story ramps up in this, penultimate episode. Britten becomes more obsessed with Hawkin, the detective he suspects — or rather, is certain — killed his wife/son by running him off the road, the incident that started everything. Through trial and error between the two worlds, he slowly works his way up the mystery chain, jumping through hoops and endless second guessing (sometimes from those attempting to cover it all up), while getting into dangerous, sometimes deadly situations.

This is like, the perfect season finale’s eve episode, setting up what could be a solid, slam-bang ending. The over-arc of Awake is without a doubt its strongest element, as it uses the dream thing (the show’s premise) to its best effect. Britten learns something in one world and is able to use it in the other, while we keep his status in either in the backs of our minds.

Return to the Awake Episode Guide

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