TIFF 2013 – Philosophical Zombies: Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s REAL

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Sometimes, when it comes to taking a hard look at foreign language films, you have to keep a little perspective – especially if you don’t speak the native language the film is presented in. Maybe that bad dialogue you think you’re hearing / reading is actually just a poor subtitle translation. Maybe that odd storytelling device you can’t quite put your finger on is some cultural nuance that you are failing to grasp. (One of the most famous of these is Bong Joon-ho’s THE HOST, whose atypical and abrupt tonal shifts are not something commonly found in the West.)

Unfortunately, none of that is the case with Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s REAL. The dialogue really is that bad. The exposition really is that ham-fisted and painfully cliché. And no, the sluggish pacing and tired story are not something that’s simply been lost in translation. All of these things are just part of the film, and they ruin a seemingly promising movie. Starring Takeru Satô and Haruka Ayase as lovers, the film follows Koichi (Satô) as he uses an experimental technique to enter the consciousness of his comatose girlfriend, Atsumi (Ayase). The plan is to try and lure her back to reality. As expected, things go horribly awry when reality and dream begin to intermingle.

REAL commits several cardinal sins of moviemaking. First, it’s boring. This is maybe the most important sin, because it prevents anything that happens later in the film from having any weight. The pacing can be occasionally excruciating through most of the film’s first half (as well as parts of the second) as we follow Koichi into Atsumi’s mind then back out again. This happens over and over with no clear point or purpose; Koichi doesn’t seem to have any clear idea what he’s supposed to do when he’s with her, and he wanders aimlessly on hunches when he’s not. More distressing is the fact that absolutely nothing is made of the fact that this is the first time he’s “spoken” to her in over a year – following her suicide attempt and subsequent comatose state, Koichi spends a year by her bedside. But when he finally gets a chance to “talk to” the love of his life – albeit only by interacting with her subconscious – he doesn’t seem surprised, or even care that much. No hug. No emotional toll. No sense that these two actually care about each other in any way, shape or form. So why should we care about them, or their struggle? We don’t, and the sluggish pacing had me glancing at my watch fifteen minutes into the film.

Which brings us to our second sin: REAL is painfully predictable. You don’t have to be a genre-whiz in this day and age to know how unclear-reality films work (even your uncool uncle has seen INCEPTION), so if you’re planning on taking one on, you better have some seriously surprising tricks up your sleeve. And while Kurosawa certainly has a stuffed sleeve or two, nothing that comes out of it is worth a damn because we’ve seen it all precisely one hundred times before. It takes no more than fifteen minutes of watching (ten or less, if you’re astute) to guess nearly every move the director has to make. So when the truth begins to unravel, it’s not surprising, or thought-provoking, or even entertaining – it just sits there like dead air, receiving zero reaction. High-concept stories of this type need to stay two steps ahead of their audience, and REAL can’t even keep pace with them.

And when Kurosawa finally starts to throw some real curveballs in the final act of the film, he undercuts it all with the third and final sin: the movie is just plain dumb. A surprising (but not particularly well-earned) eleventh-hour development about a childhood friend plays fairly well at first. And had Kurosawa chosen to end the film with that revelation, it would have certainly been stronger for it. But he doesn’t. He keeps going. And going. And going. Once he finally stops, he’s robbed his one promising idea of all its worth by turning the climax into a bizarre, unappealing and unimpressive creature flick.

The film is filled with moments like this. The first major plot twist occurs a little over halfway through the movie, and though it’s one of the most predictable developments in recent memory, it could be forgiven if the story which resulted from it was satisfying. But it’s not. Our realization over what actually caused our heroes’ coma is so dumb, so painfully counterproductive to everything that has come before and everything that will come after, that it’s no wonder there were audible snickers and laughs (at the film, mind you) during the screening.

Granted, Kurosawa has some interesting visual ideas, and there’s one particular moment of a melting cityscape that’s quite lovely. But beyond that, there is absolutely nothing worth recommending about this film. It’s dumb, unsatisfying, generic and generally insulting to its audience. Avoid it.

[D-]

d.a. garabedian

I Would’ve Followed You to the End: Edgar Wright’s THE WORLD’S END

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This review contains SPOILERS.

Once you’ve reached a certain point in life, everybody knows Gary King. Maybe he’s a friend. Maybe he’s a distant acquaintance. Hell, maybe he’s you. But he’s a real person, and he’s one of those rare breeds who manages to stir up a whole host of conflicted, complex and mixed emotions. Is he to be revered for his hedonistic and worry-free lifestyle? Pitied for his inability to let go of the past? Some awkward, indescribable mixture of the two?

Where you fall on this issue is almost certainly a matter of personal identity. The Gary King archetype is something of an agent of chaos, but more importantly, he is a mirror, reflecting one’s own personality back onto the self. He tells us more about who we are than who he is. How we feel about Gary King is directly related to how we feel about ourselves: the reverent are those in denial, the pitying those with perspective (though perhaps not complete perspective) and the conflicted those still grappling with certain indecisions in their own life.

And this is how Edgar Wright drops us into the final instalment in his Cornetto Trilogy, the aptly-titled THE WORLD’S END: among a group of childhood friends, all brought back together by The King in order to lay all their cards on the table. When Gary (Simon Pegg) – alpha-male extraordinaire and epitome of stuck-in-high-school scoundrel – reappears in the lives of his friends after a decade of no contact, he suggests (forces, rather) that they return to their hometown. The goal? To complete the Golden Mile, the pub crawl to end all pub crawls – one which they failed to complete on the last day of high school some twenty years earlier.

Though Gary’s initial motivations are entirely selfish, his mere presence at the core of this group of estranged friends is as revealing of them as it is of him. All of them are at fairly static points in their lives: Andy (Nick Frost) is a buttoned-up businessman, Oliver (Martin Freeman) is a respectable realtor, Steven (Paddy Considine), a recent divorcee, dating a girl half his age, and Peter (Eddie Marsan), who lives a quiet life with his wife and children. Gary’s existence is a mystery: nobody has seen or spoken to him in years, they’re not entirely sure what he’s doing with his life, and nobody seems to really be asking. His past (possibly present) drug problems are an implied (occasionally explicitly implied) issue, and his vagabond-esque demeanour suggests that they really don’t need to ask what he’s been up to – it’s almost certainly nothing good.

But the allure of one last chance to reunite with old companions at the turn of middle age is too strong to ignore. There’s resistance, certainly, but not as much as you’d expect; it doesn’t take long for Gary to convince his old friends to join him on this latest, maybe final, adventure. Wright (along with co-writer Pegg) is smart enough not to spin this setup with too much optimism or positivity: when we meet Gary, his desperation is obvious. Though it’s all played for subtle laughs, there’s nothing particularly encouraging about the situation. Gary’s tragic fixation on the past is less funny than sad, and his friends see it just as clearly as we do: he drives the same car, listens to the same mixtape he’s had in his tape deck for two and a half decades and dons the same duster he’s worn since the ’80s. Here is a man who is stuck deeply in the past, and he is both exciting and pitiable in equal measures.

The first 45 minutes of THE WORLD’S END is pitch-perfect. Wright continues to display his incredible kineticism as a filmmaker, and his storytelling abilities are first rate. The premise is something that is completely identifiable for anybody of a certain age, and it plays out with elegant simplicity: upon arriving in their old hometown, Gary expects everything to be just like he left it. He parades around town in a shot-for-shot recreation of the early scenes we saw of the group as friends, expecting people from twenty years ago to recognize and revere the legendary King. But this isn’t the case. Nobody seems to remember him, and as his absurd expectations for the recreation of the crawl become increasingly apparent, his friends become less willing to enable his troubling behavior. With each passing moment, it becomes more obvious that the great Gary King is floundering.

But then, things change. It’s at this point in the film that Wright, with absolutely zero warning, shifts the entire story. Just as Gary has reached his lowest point and his friends have resolved to abandon their hedonistic crusade, he makes an incredible discovery: the town has been overrun by some sort of extraterrestrial force who has swapped all of the inhabitants with robotic versions of themselves.

The shift is jarring, and is quite possibly the film’s greatest weakness. Unlike his previous films, there’s no feeling here that Wright has been carefully bread-crumbing his way towards the big reveal. Instead, the change in genre and story is more of a product of thematic extension, and proves that THE WORLD’S END is much more of an internal film than any of the filmmaker’s preceding works. Though that kind of ambitious storytelling is commendable, it would have been nice to split the difference a little bit more. Nevertheless, the development brings along with it a host of new ideas and character developments.

THE WORLD’S END is really two films merged into one: a classic story about men who are stuck in the past (even if they don’t realize it), and a throwback to old paranoia science-fiction films from the Cold War era. The juxtaposition is not as random as you might think. Though the initial clash between the two is certainly a bit off-putting, it becomes increasingly apparent throughout the film just how perfect a union the pair make. Wright beautifully captures the (now-antiquated) feeling of identity loss which was a natural product of films like INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and INVADERS FROM MARS, and he combines it not with the warring political ideologies of that era, but rather with a more universal and complex notion: that identity loss is not just some external thing that can be forced on a person. It can also be an internal thing.

Maybe it is as simple a parallel as High School vs. The “Real World” and The “American Way” vs. conflicting and threatening ideologies (and Gary’s continuous pleas for freedom are certainly verification of this), but maybe not. Maybe it’s something more than that. Gary is trapped in a place where his way of life is being threatened by the expectations, responsibilities and dangers of the real world, sure. But it isn’t just the new ideologies of age that are expecting Gary to change – it’s the paralyzing knowledge that there is no going back. This isn’t a war. This isn’t a situation where Gary is in constant and direct battle with an opposing ideology that could threaten his way of life. His way of life is over. Communism won. He’s nostalgic for capitalism, and he tries to recapture it in menial and pathetic ways, but it’s long gone, and he knows it.

The Cold War-era of science-fiction films was all about fending off invading forces, ones which threatened the very way that we exist and live our lives. There were always replicants and fabricants and replacements of all of the people that you knew and loved. It wasn’t just an external force; it was a creeping sickness, something which burrowed its way into your very being, distorting the things you held dear and transforming them into something unrecognizable, terrifying and often cruel. It wasn’t enough to know that one day this alien force would come to claim you – it had to take everything from you first. It had to steal away the identity of your friends and family before it came for you. And there was nothing scarier than losing your identity.

And this is where THE WORLD’S END succeeds with flying colors. It may stumble a bit on its way into the genre, but once it gets there, it lays its cards bare for all to see. Gary King lives a life in a post-war world. His people, his way of life, has failed. Some of his friends were body snatched before they ever re-entered Newton Haven: Peter, who settled down and started a family, is already gone. He shows sparks of life once he starts to drink – he’s perhaps the most susceptible to the charms of Gary, maybe the most in obvious need of a little return to the old way of life. But it doesn’t change the fact that the Peter which Gary once knew has already succumbed to this brave new world. The same goes for Oliver. His stiff, business-like attire and lifestyle are in direct opposition to his old personality. It’s appropriate that these two characters are the only two to “turn”. Try as he might, Gary can’t bring them back. He may have hope that they can be saved, but their succumbing to this new way of life is inevitable.

It’s interesting to note that both Andy and Steven retain their “humanity”. While Steven’s divorce leaves him free to venture back into the way of life which Gary cherishes so much, Andy’s situation is more complicated. His fellowship with Oliver and Peter’s new-world personas is nothing more than a facade. In reality, his family has left him. He is fighting with all of his might to resist the pull back towards Gary’s world, but the truth is that he is right back where he started, stumbling around, looking for his own feet in the night alongside The King. And so he survives the transformation process, “saved” by the destruction of his own adult world.

This conclusion brings us down an interesting path. We are shown countless times that Gary’s stubborn resistance to letting go is not something to be celebrated – it’s a sad, deeply upsetting reality. It’s the kind of thing that everybody copes with at some point in their lives, and Gary’s embodiment of it is the most extreme version of that trauma. And yet, the ultimate message at the end of the film isn’t to punish Gary’s pitiable behavior – it’s a (temporary) moment of triumph. In the end, when faced with the choice to either save the world by embracing this new, “adult” way of life, or to doom humanity to darkness by retaining our freedom, our heroes choose the latter. Is that a happy ending? Do we inevitably march to our deaths, embracing the things that were important to us at the cost of civilization, growth and maturity? Or do we “grow up”, letting the world live on for the sake of mechanical progress? The movie doesn’t really land on one side or the other.

More than anything else, however, this is a film about the nature of scars – physical, emotional, figurative, etc. Like everybody else in the world, all of our heroes suffer from scars. Peter’s are figurative: the old wounds of being bullied and neglected as a kid. Steven’s are emotional: the long-remembered pain of a broken heart and the betrayal of a friend over a girl. Oliver’s are literal: a birth mark which denotes his placement in the group as the object of ridicule. And Andy’s are physical: the scars of a car crash which ended the best relationship he would ever have in his life – his friendship with Gary.

Wright embraces these scars and makes them the focal point of his heroes’ journeys, using them to show just how similar in reality they are to Gary. All of them are forced to confront these scars at some point throughout the film. Peter allows his scars to consume him, seeking revenge and ultimately succumbing to the alien forces as a result. Steven must confront the girl of his dreams, as well as how it has always stood as a wedge between himself and Gary. All of these characters are stuck in the past, just like Gary. They are haunted. And whereas Gary seems to be the only character to embrace and explore his wounds, the others run from them, forcing them to the surface, where they must ultimately be confronted.

This is where Wright’s use of Cold War tropes plays perfectly into the themes of the film. The “blanks” / robots / no-bots / whatever ya wanna call ‘ems are pure expressions of their host – blank slates. It’s an old trope which goes back all the way to the ’50s, but Wright finds a new use for it here. Because truth be told, every one of these characters have reason to embrace a blank slate. They all have a reason to choose an option where their scars can be wiped clean, and they can start over fresh – at a cost. And while some of them do – though not, ultimately, by choice – the ultimate message of the film seems to be this: our scars are what make us human, and though the past may be the past, to ignore its importance to our present existence is to reject our own humanity. Which brings us, in the end, to Gary King.

Gary King is an incredible character. He is, without question, the most compelling and heartbreaking in the entire Cornetto Trilogy. His fear of losing his identity to the shifting ideologies of age and, more importantly, his fear that he has lost the most important thing in his life – his friends – consume him. The revelation that this entire adventure is a product of a suicide attempt sheds new light on the character. The scars he bears on his wrists are just like the scars of all the other characters: a product of his inability to let go of the past, and the way in which he is unable to cope. While the rest of our heroes choose to run from the past because of this inability, Gary’s path is a facade: he obsesses over it and allows it to consume him, something which is even more damaging than denial. When he screams that the Golden Mile is all that he has left, you believe him.

Pegg’s performance here is nothing less than stunning. It’s the performance of his career, bar-none, and he rises to every challenge that both he and Wright laid in front of him. The scene where he reveals the full nature of his trauma is earth-shakingly realistic, a brutal and powerful moment of devastating humanity. And when he chooses to destroy his robotic self rather than succumb, to accept his scars wholeheartedly rather than seek an escape from them (something which he has been trying to do for twenty years by living in the past), it is the most triumphant moment in the film. While this may be the most fully realized, dynamic and all-in-all excellent set of performances in any of the Cornetto Trilogy, Pegg stands apart as a highlight. Even Nick Frost’s refreshing straight-man routine can’t compete. At times eclectic, hilarious, dark and moving, Pegg turns in one hell of a performance.

THE WORLD’S END may be the least funny of the Trilogy, and it may be the most flawed (the transition into genre is not as smooth here, and its ending is less elegantly set up than in the incomparable HOT FUZZ), but it wins so many points for depth, complexity and emotional punch that it renders all problems moot. Only time will tell whether this is the best of the Cornettos, but as it stands, it’s one of the best of the summer.

8.5/10

d.a. garabedian

Of Hippos and Meerkats: Neill Blomkamp’s ELYSIUM

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Let’s face it: Neill Blomkamp is a man of great expectations. The young filmmaker was plucked out of obscurity by Peter Jackson in the wake of several impressive commercials and short films, and ever since then, he’s been on the radar of seemingly every big-budget, genre franchise in Hollywood. After his attempt at a live-action HALO feature fell through (in spite of Jackson’s collaborative efforts), he went on to direct the celebrated DISTRICT 9, a movie which landed him Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay nominations at the Academy Awards. He has since gone on to turn down offers to helm the latest instalments of both the STAR TREK and STAR WARS universes. Not too shabby for a kid from Johannesburg.

So, when it became clear that Blomkamp was far more interested in telling his own stories than in playing in somebody else’s sandbox, expectations mounted again. Here was another fresh face for the genre community, one determined to tell original stories. It’s a sad fact that this has become a rare treat these days, but it’s the harsh truth of the current Hollywood climate: big-budget, genre pics don’t often get made anymore if they’re not based on existing properties.

Enter ELYSIUM, Blomkamp’s long-awaited, sophomore follow-up to DISTRICT 9. Less allegorical than the content would have you believe, ELYSIUM drops us into the year 2154, where Earth has become a diseased, polluted and wildly overpopulated wasteland. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to take a look at this desolated landscape and see a kernel of truth at its core – population trends for our planet have become increasingly prevalent in contemporary fiction (notably, not just in science-fiction), and we’re reaching a boiling-over point. What happens when we’ve used up all our resources on our own planet, and yet have done little in the way of extraterrestrial colonization?

The answer Blomkamp arrives at is a simple, elegant and perfectly logical one: our class divides would effectively segregate the population even further, necessitating an entirely new habitat for the upper-class – one which does not associate itself with the desolation it has the means to ignore. And so we present the Have-Nots, left alone on Earth to their poverty, famine and general slum-based existence, and the Haves, wallowing in idyllic splendour, up in the titular space station orbiting Earth. The wealthy seem to spend their time doing one of two things: dressing up in pretty clothes in order to entertain guests, or dressing up in skimpy clothes to catch a few poolside rays.

It’s not the most original premise, but it is one that is fundamentally sound and is a relative hotbed for social commentary – something which Blomkamp proved himself adept at with the Apartheid-laced segregation of his debut. It’s the kind of concept that would find itself fitting comfortably alongside latter-year versions of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, THE OUTER LIMITS or even from the original run of STAR TREK.

Wisely, however, Blomkamp doesn’t seem overly concerned with banging the social reform drum too loudly. Sure, the film has its share of left-wing (maybe even socialist) interpretations, but they seem less an intended message than a natural product of the narrative. In a story with a class system divided so deliberately, having the lower-class rise up against their oppressors isn’t the equivalent of having a political agenda; it’s simply the only logical place the story can go, because history has proven to us time and time again that this is the only possible outcome of segregated classes. Blomkamp uses this premise as a jumping-off point to tell his story, but doesn’t linger too long on any one “message”. After all, our hero isn’t a revolutionary leader or a great resistance fighter – he’s just a selfish, troubled man who uses whichever side of the political landscape that will offer him the momentary advantage.

And that’s where ELYSIUM succeeds. It would have been much too easy for Blomkamp to set up Max (Matt Damon) as a political idealist. And if he had, then any and all criticisms about agendas might have been valid. But he doesn’t paint him as an idealist. He paints him as a normal, humble man; one who has felt and lost love and has made more than his fair share of mistakes in his past, but is ultimately a good person. He’s selfish, and he worries about his own needs, but he has a good heart, and he plays the cards he’s dealt. Max is not a hero. But he is our only protagonist, and a fairly realistic one at that. It’s not difficult to imagine that, given the circumstances under which he finds himself, we might also do the things which Max resorts to in order to just live his life – a life which is fundamentally unfair and troubled by injustices. His navigation of the political landscape is completely dependent on what he needs for himself and the people that he cares about, and nothing more. As those needs change and shift over the course of the film, his allegiances change and shift as well.

But truth be told, ELYSIUM’s major strengths do not lie in its story. Though it is perfectly functional, its characters arcs and motivations clear and distinct, it is not exactly the most compelling or unique narrative. It’s fairly easy to know where the story is going early on in the film. Luckily, that slight predictability is not enough to keep you from enjoying how the film unfolds, and that’s largely due to a few stellar factors that allow the film to retain its originality and creativity.

The first is Sharlto Copley. ELYSIUM’s cast is (mostly) made up of good performances which help ground the occasional silliness: Damon does a great job, William Fichtner (John Carlyle) is terrific (as always) but tragically underused and Wagner Moura (Spider) has a blast with his eccentric arms-dealer / political leader. The rest of the cast is fine – with the notable exception of Jodie Foster, whose performance is a unique and powerful misfire – but Copley comes out on top with his deliciously hammy Kruger character.

ELYSIUM has its share of over-the-top sensibilities, and Blomkamp knows it. When it comes to depicting the upper-class characters, the actors all share a very particular diction pattern – one which is nearly melodic in its overly-deliberateness. It’s almost as if Blomkamp ordered his upper-class-level actors to take the snottiest, most blatantly-defined diction and assume that would be how these rich folk of the 22nd century would speak. It works for some characters (like Fichtner, who manages to make it sound almost robotic, something which lends itself perfectly to his bureaucratic character), but not for others (like Foster, where it can at times be painful to watch). It’s an interesting choice, and it shows that Blomkamp is willing to let his actors have a little fun with their roles.

But nowhere is this more obvious than with Copley’s Kruger, the renegade operative living down on Earth. He’s absurd, he’s ridiculous, and he’s wonderfully entertaining to watch. It’s a pleasant surprise to see Copley – who played the clean-cut Wikus in DISTRICT 9 – let loose in a role like this, where rape, murder and a hilariously mysterious cloak I can only assume he found in a dumpster are all part of the job description. His delivery is perfectly absurd, and he seems to relish every word. And does a rogue sleeper agent who has been biologically enhanced with technology really need to carry a sword? Of course not, but it’s all part of the fun.

The second factor is Blomkamp’s impeccable – at times arresting – visual style. Though there are plenty of gorgeous images in this film, it’s the inventiveness of the imagery that really transcends. Several of the shots in the final action sequence are almost Edgar Wright or Zack Snyder-esque, with speed ramps and dolly shots blurring the line between reality and CGI. In another sequence, Blomkamp somehow manages to reproduce the snorri-cam shot from a distance as he follows Damon’s character into battle. Seeing a Blomkamp film means seeing things that you probably wouldn’t get in a normal blockbuster, and that will always be refreshing, no matter the film.

Lastly, there is the world-building. One of the most important weapons in any genre filmmaker’s arsenal is his or her ability to color each world they create with new and exciting ideas, creations and situations. Blomkamp is no different. His knack for imaginative ideas is on full display here; the film sometimes feels like it is absolutely bursting at the seams with imagination. Sure, the robotic police officers are not exactly breaking new ground, but the scene between Damon and his fast food restaurant mascot-inspired parole officer is priceless. From the vast amount of individually-unique weaponry (specifically the guns, which Blomkamp seems to have a real affinity for) to the various pieces of tech (like floating, holographic screens which appear out of thin air to update citizens with necessary information), Blomkamp and his team never spend too much time explaining or pointing out any of the world’s idiosyncrasies. And the mark of a fully-realized world is when there’s so many things to see, most of them need to be glanced over as givens, rather than objects of curiosity.

ELYSIUM is a quality entry in this year’s crop of blockbusters, and a welcome return by Neill Blomkamp. It may not reach the levels of DISTRICT 9 – which, admittedly, set an unrealistically high bar – but it’s a competently-made, original sci-fi film, and that’s definitely something to be encouraged by people who have grown weary of seeing more remakes, reboots, sequels, prequels and spin-offs than they could shake a stick at.

7.5/10

d.a. garabedian

Micro-Review: John Mitchell & Jeremy Kipp Walker’s THE HISTORY OF FUTURE FOLK

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John Mitchell and Jeremy Kipp Walker’s THE HISTORY OF FUTURE FOLK has been billed as (probably) the only alien / folk duo / science-fiction / action / romance / comedy movie ever made. It’s difficult to argue with that assessment, because it may be the most accurate description of the film you’re likely to find. After all, this is a movie where a duo of intergalactic space travelers come to Earth bent on its destruction, discover music and decide to spare the human race – all while developing a cult following as the bluegrass / folk duo, Future Folk.

If any (or all) of that sounds appealing to you, you’re certainly in for a treat. THE HISTORY OF FUTURE FOLK is a silly, absurd film, but its idiosyncrasies work in its favor, creating a rare level of charm. From the delightfully catchy musical numbers – there are several – to the goofy-to-the-point-of-endearing sense of humor, it’s difficult to ever peg the film down into any one category. And at an extremely brisk 86 minutes, it never has a chance to wear out its welcome. Mitchell and Walker continuously evolve the story in new directions (and genres) over the course of the movie, and by the time we reach the finale, it never feels like it’s had a chance to repeat itself. 

It’s noteworthy that the filmmakers choose to fully stick to their guns when it comes to the premise’s absurdities. There’s a lot of camp value inherent to these kind of stories, and they never resist putting it all up there on the screen – from the set decoration to the costume design, this is an indie comedy for the DOCTOR WHO crowd. Similarly, it should be acknowledged that the film never takes the easy way out, especially given its classic “fish-out-of-water” set-up. It dabbles briefly in milking humor out of initial alien-human interactions, but it’s all in the service of character development, and it never allows itself to descend into cliché sight gags and scenarios.

The film is not perfect, however. Its narrative is unambitious, though pleasingly so, and some of the sequences have quite obviously been included in order to tick off another genre, rather than because they organically evolved out of the story. But these are small nitpicks in an otherwise delightful story, and the writer / directors earn such huge points for originality and creativity that its hard to focus in on any of them. Really, this is just a very sweet film about connecting with other people (even if those people are actually aliens), whether that connection be through music or love. And even in spite of its goofy tone, Mitchell and Walker manage to pull off a surprisingly poignant ending – one which feels fully earned and emotionally resonant.

This is one of those rare properties that is just dripping with possibility. Much like the similarly eccentric Flight of the Conchords, Future Folk have the potential to expand into all kinds of different areas. In addition to the film, there’s already an album of music available online, and – given the right level of exposure – I could see a whole cult-following springing up around them. And deservedly so.

Hondo!

7.5/10

d.a. garabedian

The Trick is Not Minding That it Hurts: Ridley Scott’s PROMETHEUS

Thirty-three years ago, a British director named Ridley Scott – fresh off of a commercially disappointing debut feature – agreed to helm a science-fiction film that would eventually come to be known as ALIEN. Now, over three decades, three sequels and two spin-offs later, Scott returns to the franchise that he started all of those years ago in what might be the most bizarre and, in some viewers’ opinion, questionable way imaginable: PROMETHEUS.

PROMETHEUS is not a prequel to ALIEN. Not in any direct way, at least. Though the two films share common themes, ancestry, plot points, DNA and take place within the same universe, PROMETHEUS in no way leads up to the horrifying events that launched one of the most successful and long-running franchises in science-fiction history. And because of this, Ridley Scott (along with his screenwriters, Jon Spaihts & Damon Lindelof) has been given the ability to craft this impenetrably dense and mythologically rich feature that has been burning up the rumour-mill for the last several years. Free of any direct ties to the ALIEN franchise, PROMETHEUS not only stands remarkably on its own, but proves the rule that a story about questions would do wisely to remember that answers are not their logical extension.

Opening amongst a stunning series of landscape shots on an intentionally ambiguous planet, Scott and Lindelof come out of the gate swinging as we bear witness to what can only be described as the origin of life. A physically perfect, seemingly human character stands teetering over a rushing waterfall as a ship drones ominously above; stoic and silent. He opens a small container, reveals a black liquid and then drinks it. The liquid finds its way into his blood stream and then down into his very DNA, ripping him apart literally from the core. He crumbles, falls into the river and fades into nothingness, donating his own being to kickstart life on this barren little isle of rock.

Scott communicates this with wonderful, haunting visuals, and nothing else. There is not a trace of dialogue, context or any sort of hint to what exactly it is that we are seeing; for all intents and purposes, we are watching Jesus Everyman sacrifice himself for unspecified life to flourish and continue. This might be Earth that we’re looking at, far in the distant past beyond recorded or even conceivable history; then again, it might not. Maybe this prologue, existing delightfully and perfectly out of time, is not meant to throw us wildly into our past, but rather to show us somebody else’s present – or even their future.

And this is all before the title card.

What PROMETHEUS does so beautifully is something that few films are brave of enough to do, and even fewer are rewarded for doing: it asks questions, never pretending to know the answers. It exists solely on a plane wherein there is no why; there simply is. It is the puzzle without borders, the mystery box within a mystery box – the endless, impossible equation with no solution. And rightfully so: just as the characters in the film struggle desperately to find meaning in a place where there simply may not be any, the film never pulls any punches in telling the audience that the pursuit of answers is a journey with no destination. But it’s a journey worth taking, because sometimes interesting questions are infinitely more satisfying than interesting answers.

When we finally arrive at the beginning of our story, Drs. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) – a terrifically, perhaps naively optimistic couple – are on the verge of answering the great question: why are we here and, better still, was somebody responsible for it? Their anthropological and historical search leads them deep into the vastness of space, to a small, isolated system of planets where they believe the gods have pointed them. And much in the same way that the titular Titan may have overreached just a little too far in the face of the gods, our characters are reckless in the extreme. Lindelof goes out of his way to ensure that every choice these characters make – possibly to their detriment – is that of hubristic intent: when the Captain tells everybody to fasten themselves in during the landing, Holloway springs to his feet and rushes to the window. When they’re informed that the air inside the possibly alien structure is breathable, Holloway – and the rest, in spite of a few logical protests – immediately removes his helmet, laughing in the face of Death. What many have deemed as unintelligent characterization is instead a rather grimly accurate portrayal of the sort of hubris one might expect from a landing party sent with the task of meeting our makers.

Still, Scott never allows the seriousness of the thematic content to run away with itself. Sprinkled throughout the first half of the film is a generous assortment of quirk and whimsy, an almost imperceptible layer of tongue-in-cheek charm: characters, with their obnoxiously bulbous helmets (possibly mirroring their obnoxiously swollen egos), literally can’t move side to side without knocking into one another. Even the great Peter Weyland (played almost invisibly under a thick layer of prosthetics by Guy Pearce), as he gives what might as well amount to an epitaph via hologram in the form of a mission briefing, makes snide and awkward jokes, his dog nonchalantly rolling playfully around at his feet while people talk with utter seriousness (some of them, at least) about their mission to meet God. Its a delightfully absurd touch that keeps the film from totally drowning under its own ambition.

Because ambition is the one thing that PROMETHEUS has no lack of. From the moment that we are introduced to the android, David (with another scene-stealing turn from the increasingly impressive Michael Fassbender), in the opening scenes of the film, it becomes clear that Scott and Lindelof had a thematic cyclicality in mind that I don’t think anybody who heard the words “ALIEN prequel” could have imagined. As David wanders throughout the ship alone, playing basketball, dying his hair while watching LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and learning every known language under the sun, one gets the unmistakable feeling that this is the way that he prefers it – being alone. From the moment that the rest of the crew wakes and David is forced to take his place alongside (beneath?) them, there is a marked change in his demeanour. This is no subtextual resentment, either; David makes his feelings clear in open conversation throughout the film, particularly in a scene between himself and Holloway where he is not shy about the parallels between mankind’s desperate search for answers to their purpose and his own clearly defined, extremely underwhelming answer to that same question.

And therein lies the chief concern at the heart of PROMETHEUS: the generational cycles of creators to creations and the ways in which they react to one another. Though the relationship between man and his artificial creations is a topic that has been addressed in the genre ad nauseam for centuries, PROMETHEUS takes the rare stance of making our own creators a contributing and tangible factor in that discussion. It seems impossible to shake the fact that, underneath all of David’s programming and his veiled mission objectives from his own creator, there is a certain overwhelming relationship of curiosity between himself and the gods of his gods. Though it becomes clear throughout the film that David has a certain level of contempt for his creators – in that they created him, as Holloway suggests, simply because they could – he seems completely and utterly fascinated by the idea that he will get a chance to witness a possibly similar relationship develop between his own creators’ creators. It may seem obvious to blame his actions throughout the film as obeying orders or emotionally detached curiosity, but given the subtextual level of fascination he seems to have with discovering this generational, possibly inheritable, contempt for one’s own creation, there is a certain richness to this reading of the character that belies his questionable motives.

And yet, in the end, David is incapable of fully understanding Shaw’s desire for answers. Despite his apparent, possibly morbid desire to see mankind fall victim to the kind of meaningless existence that he himself must endure – his own creator introduces him as a soulless creature – he is still a robot, incapable of grasping the sentimentality and emotional relevance behind such questions. Still, it is impossible to deny the relationship between the gods and their grandchild: David is the only one capable of communicating with them, and he understands them a good deal better than their own children do. Wisdom, it seems, skips a generation. As does empathy.

Which brings us, naturally, back to ALIEN. Curiously to some – and frustratingly to others – some of the most compelling questions that PROMETHEUS raises are in direct response to the ways in which this film connects to the original. Though there is no direct link between the two films – ALIEN takes place on a nearby planet from the one in PROMETHEUS, and it is implied that the “Space Jockey” may have simply suffered from the same fate that the Engineers in the tunnels did in his attempt to escape / leave – their connective tissue feeds directly back into the questions of cyclical creation. Indeed, it is the discovery of the “black goo” in the canisters that fuels both the questions of why the Engineers decided to destroy us (hint: one does not crucify an emissary of the gods without suffering retribution) and where the xenomorphs originated.

One of the most compelling moments in the entire film, in fact (for fans, at least), is the moment when the crew enter the “Head Room”. Beyond the dozens of oozing black containers, the massive, stone carving of our species’ likeness and the unmistakable mural of a man getting his liver torn out lies the biggest question of all: why was the xenomorph’s likeness carved into the back wall of the room? What relationship is there between our gods, us, and this deadly, biologically perfect creature? Though a primitive version of the creature emerges from the final Engineer in the last scene of the film, it goes without saying that this mural undeniably proves that the xenomorphs existed prior to this moment. How did they exist, and in what manner? And how are they related to the Engineers? Do the Engineers worship them, as it would seem from the carving? Or are they an ideal form of life, a design that has yet to be fully realized? These questions are things that can only be speculated on, and are undoubtedly topics that have been left for the proposed sequel(s).

What is less speculative is the relationship between the xenomorphs and mankind, as per what is depicted in the actual film itself. In much the same way that the original ALIEN franchise dealt heavily in the symbolic representation of female struggles (what with all of the violently phallic imagery; imagery that is equally present here), PROMETHEUS does not shy away from topics of motherhood, rape and the links between parental figures and creators. Indeed, one of the most on-the-nose, feminist metaphors in the history of the franchise takes place here, in the most cringeworthy scene in the film: an emergency cesarian section, where a monstrous, foreign being takes root inside of the womb of an unwilling, host mother. And though the themes of rape and abortion are ever present here, what is more interesting is the way that this scene relates back to the cyclical, generational nature of creator and creation.

Once the film ends, we see a primitive Chest-Burster (curiously grown) emerge from the abdomen of the final, dead Engineer. This creature was implanted in the Engineer’s chest by the mother of all Face-Huggers; one that we can only assume is illustrative of what might happen if one of those Huggers from the first film hadn’t immediately attached itself to Kane’s face and had instead been able to grow and mature. But what is most curious about this chain of events is where that Hugger came from: a human being, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, who in turn was impregnated with it by one Dr. Charlie Holloway, who had unintentionally ingested a small dose of the black goo. If we are to extrapolate that what the Engineer had drunk in the opening scene of the film is indicative of this same substance, we are led down a very interesting path of potential creation, wherein David, the child of the children of the gods, may have been responsible for a brand new cycle of life – a new generation, all his own. That is, assuming that Holloway succumbed to the substance; instead, he sacrificed himself to prevent creation, denying David his moment of fatherhood.

Even more interesting is what this chain of events reveals about the origins of the xenomorph in relation to mankind. If we are to assume that the creation of this AlphaMorph was directly in the design of the Engineers – which is not a far-fetched assumption by any means, given their apparent deification of the creature and the lineage from which it springs – it suggests that this creature is, in many ways, mankind’s brother. Though it may have been designed as a harbinger of Death that our crucification of Jesus had warranted as punishment, it was still engineered, much in the same way that we were, and seemingly by the same hand. What this says about the relationship between this monstrous creature and our own is fascinating – especially if this brother was designed specifically to destroy the mistakes of the gods. In order to create, sometimes one must first destroy, and when ying fails, yang must take its place. I don’t even want to get into the mind-bogglingly dense implications of the AlphaMorph being created in a multi-stage process that included a biological kinship with both mankind and their creators; a son, born of father, by way of brother, by hand of…nephew? The mind reels.

Ultimately, PROMETHEUS is not a perfect film. Some of the dialogue is heavy-handed, its script needed a little expositional clean-up and many of the character arcs are indistinct or non-existent. Of course, it’s hard to argue a lack of characterization in a film that glorifies and outright proclaims a case of existential insignificance; after all, who the hell cares about the children when the parents, grandkids and brothers are all so interesting? It may be time to accept the fact that mankind is the least interesting branch on the family tree, weighed down by petty emotions, an overzealous spirit and a downright knack for hubris. It’s hard to sympathize with Shaw when her pouty cries of “why?!” remain the equivalent of an existential temper-tantrum. We get it: finding out that your makers aren’t all they’re cracked up to be hurts.

But the trick is not minding that it hurts.

9/10

d.a. garabedian

Micro-Review: Andrew Niccol’s IN TIME

From the man who brought us GATTACA all those years ago comes IN TIME, a disappointing science-fiction entry that begins with a promising premise and then devolves into predictability. Written, directed and produced by Niccol and starring Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried, the film centers around the idea of swapping literal currency for time: the more you have, the longer you live, and when your time runs out after the age of twenty-five, you die. It’s a clever premise that opens the door for all manner of ridiculous social commentary, and Niccol seizes the opportunity at just about every turn, giving us absurd dialogue such as Timberlake’s proclamation that he has no time for a girlfriend (emphasis: his). And, unfortunately, the film doesn’t ever strive to be anything more than than the haphazard political commentary that it is; Niccol seems more interested in class struggle and the financial crisis than exploring the far more interesting, existential concepts that the premise suggests. What we’re left with is a film containing embarrassingly heavy-handed dialogue, unbelievably blunt, allegorical themes and a plot that essentially boils down to another half-baked, high-concept Robin Hood rip-off.

Still, there are a few scattered moments of excellence that keep the film afloat, including some truly captivating and mesmerizing images (such as Timberlake and Seyfriend swimming in the ocean at night, their faces illuminated by the eerie, green glow of the time stamps on their arms) and a few choice moments of wisdom, though they are buried deeply beneath the surface of the obvious metaphors. The world building is also quite satisfying, and Niccol obviously spent some time constructing this living, breathing future that feels surprisingly honest and grounded; one simply cannot help but wish that he had taken the time to make his story something more worthy of the world’s fascinating premise. There is a terrific story in here somewhere; he just didn’t find it.

5.5/10

d.a. garabedian

Broken Mirror Theory: Mike Cahill’s ANOTHER EARTH

Spoilers, including discussions of the final scene, follow.

ANOTHER EARTH is the deceptively intimate embodiment of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”; or, rather, it is a deceptively intimate deconstruction of said poem, depending on your personal perspective on the film’s final shot. Using the high-concept, science-fiction backdrop of a second, mirror Earth entering our planet’s orbit, co-writer / director Mike Cahill and co-writer / lead actress Brit Marling explore the philosophical meanderings of alternate routes through life. As much a film about penance and imprisonment as it is about reflections and identity, ANOTHER EARTH crafts an appropriately ambiguous arc of one woman as she tries to find herself again following a tragic accident.

Featuring more shots of characters staring into mirrors than might be particularly wise for a film so obviously about our own reflective nature (including a “broken mirror theory” that makes its way expositively into the final act of the film), the film still manages to paint an impressively sincere portrait of a protagonist who desperately wants to move past the skeletons of her past. Whether it be by making amends, running away or cleaning up after herself – which she does figuratively at first, followed by a more literal interpretation – she is a character completely in limbo, unsure of how exactly to continue the life that she’s made for herself.

But it is these shots of reflections that are actually the key to unraveling the real mystery of the film: the final shot. There has been much debate as to what this ending actually means – does it represent an Earth Two where Rhoda never gets into her car accident, goes to MIT and finally achieves her dream of going into space, becoming an astronaut and eventually visiting Earth One? Or does it represent a mirroring of the Earths all the way up until the moment where she gives her ticket to John, thus making her sacrifice a noble but ultimately fruitless gesture? Both seem equally plausible, and Marling and Cahill leave it up to the audience to interpret, but if you ask me, it’s the latter.

In spite of the tasteful direction that Cahill provides throughout the film, his many shots of reflections seem to be much too on-the-nose – that is, unless you consider the possibility that they are there to serve a purpose other than thematic decoration. Up until the very end of the film, Rhoda sees her reflection in every pane of glass that she encounters, a possible metaphorical reflection of this other person that she longs to meet, interact with and, specifically, to be. And as Rhoda boards the train home from John’s house after telling him the truth, there is a very particular, lingering shot of the window opposite Rhoda, where her reflection – faded, but still hard and clear – sits in perfect symmetry.

This is the last reflection that we see for the rest of the film; the last example of symmetry between one side of Rhoda and the next. This may very well be because it is the last time before she performs her first truly selfless act by giving away her ticket. I, however, prefer to read it is as the final moments of synchronicity between the Rhoda of Earth One and the Rhoda of Earth Two – the last moments that they were ever true, mirrored images of one another before their roads diverged. This gives those questionably blunt images earlier in the film a deeper meaning, and provides a sincerity and depth to our protagonist that would have been less impressive had the entire film been nothing more than a philosophical “what-if?” scenario.

Still, however you read it, the ending is extremely powerful: the moment a reflection becomes more than something abstract and becomes a tangible object. Regardless of how John will fair on Earth Two – will he be reunited with his family, or find nothing but bitter disappointment? – this is still the meeting of symmetrical objects, a chance to learn from one’s self. Does Rhoda One find that her counterpart is simply the summation of her youthful hopes and dreams, or does she find her to be a selfish, petty girl, as screwed up by her own mistakes as she is, but without the redeeming factor of that one last, selfless act? It seems a far more fascinating scenario to imagine them having gone through the same ordeal, only to find that our protagonist – in spite of her desperation to escape her past – is actually the one that came out stronger and a better person for havingnot run; that her counterpart is the screw up, the selfish side of herself that she abandons when she gives up her ticket.

But I guess we’ll never know for sure. After all, Earth Two is just an abstraction – we never get to go there.

8/10

d.a. garabedian