Tag Archive for sci-fi

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World Review (Film, 2012)

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is the cinematic equivalent of freestyling at the club and dropping the mic when the beat drops out. Lorene Scafaria’s debut directorial effort (she previously wrote the charming screen adaptation of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist) is a strong, stylish work fully committed to its conceit.

And what is that conceit? Scafaria wanted to write a film about the end of the world where the world actually ends at the end. No final mission to save mankind, no last minute “Look, it’s turning!” moment–just a film about the last days of mankind. It’s a tremendous success.

seekingafriend Seeking a Friend for the End of the World Review (Film, 2012)Dodge (Steve Carell) learns the world will end in three weeks due to a cataclysmic asteroid collision with earth. As soon as the radio story ends, Dodge’s wife flees the car and never comes back home. The world is ending and no one wants to waste their time being with anyone or doing anything they don’t want to except for Dodge. He goes to work, pays his housekeeper, and tries to make the most of the world ending. Then Penny (Keira Knightley) climbs outside of his window on the fire escape and quickly befriends him after years of never talking in their apartment complex.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is a very dry comedy. The humor is dark and underplayed at the same time. A party scene sees seemingly reasonable adults cut loose and try out some of the worst illegal drugs available. Riots start just to start riots and restaurant employees hunker down and keep the party going 24/7 because why not? The world is ending. Who cares? Live for once in your life.

Except Penny and Dodge don’t want to live for once. They’ve already spent their entire lives screwing up at every turn and they’re tired of it. They don’t want excess. They want some sense of normalcy. Dodge seeks out the love of his life and Penny tags along because Dodge can get her on a recreational plane straight to England. They’re friends out of convenience, not out of any expectations of anything happening. The world will end in three weeks, so why not go out fighting?

The brilliance of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is the refusal to play into the ridiculous antics you would expect when the world will end. Do people get high and do stupid things? Of course. But Dodge and Penny stand their watching people throw their lives away and they choose to take the high road at every juncture.

That, right there, is the core of this film. You know what should happen in this kind of story, especially since it’s a comedy. Yet Lorene Scafaria refuses to take the predictable route. There is nothing typical about the world of this film, so why should the people that inhabit it play to the cliches you would expect of them? They will live their lives however they need to so they can go peacefully when the world ends.

Rating: 9/10

Thoughts on Seeking a Friend for the End of the World? Sound off below.

Holy Motors Review (Film, 2012)

A homeless woman begs for money on a busy sidewalk. An action star shoots an elaborate weapons sequence in a motion capture suit. A dying man consoles his grieving daughter. What do these characters have in common? They are all the same man, hired by an unknown force to act out big budget Hollywood pictures in real life.

Holy Motors is an experimental film by writer/director Leos Carax. It hinges itself on the obsession with film itself. People go wild over narrative filmmaking even though it is a total fantasy. How would the same people respond when confronted with monsters, murder, mayhem, and tragedy in real life?

holymotorsmotioncap Holy Motors Review (Film, 2012)

The closest comparison I can make is to Shion Sono’s Noriko’s Dinner Table. Both films involve characters hired to assume false identities and interact with real people. They both contain strict performance schedules, elaborate costume changes, and the absurdity that can only be created when people willingly participate in real world melodrama.

The difference is that Holy Motors uses this hired guns conceit as the substance of the film. There is no greater story arc because the mysterious Monsieur Oscar and his limo/mobile makeup/wardrobe trailer driver Celine do not change throughout the film. They know the job they are hired to do and they do it. Celine preps the file for the next act while Monsieur Oscar goes out and performs. She keeps him on schedule and gets him to each event on time. She herself acts when she has to in order to insure the secrecy of their shared occupational field.

Evaluating a film like Holy Motors comes down to how successful the experiment actually is. Does Holy Motors work on a conceptual level? I think so.

holymotorsmakeup Holy Motors Review (Film, 2012)There’s something oddly satisfying about watching Monsieur Oscar adjust wigs, apply spirit gum, and remove prosthetics in between jobs. His character rips back the curtain on the effects-heavy nature of even a slice of life drama at this point.

Why is it so necessary to completely transform one actor into another when there’s bound to be an actor better suited to the role as written on the page? Is this level of difficulty and effort essential to how we need to view film? A wig is one thing, but reconstructing faces with latex and glue just to make an actor become another actors is something else.

Holy Motors explores a wide range of film genres, so the various scenarios can feel a little unbalanced. A strange mob/action scenario that came off as strange to me might make perfect sense to you while the musical sequences that worked for me might leave you cold. Leo Carax is clearly willing to alienate some of the audience some of the time to bring his vision to life. The result is a film that succeeds at its conceptual mission, sometimes at the expense of the audience.

Rating: 8/10

Thoughts on Holy Motors? Sound off below.

Ring by Koji Suzuki: Lost in Translation

The challenge of translating a novel from another language is balancing the style and tone with the literal text. Lean too far towards literary flourish and you’re radically altering the content of the book. Stay too true to the literal text and you lose the nuance of wordplay in the original language that probably can’t carry over directly.

The English translation of Ring by Koji Suzuki poses an even greater challenge. The novel centers on a newspaper reporter and a philosophy professor who use the scientific method and many hours of research to solve the riddle of a potentially deadly video tape. Is the blunt prose the intended effect of Suzuki to best represent the non-fiction world of the two main characters? Or is it an unintended side effect of translating a medical sci-fi novel so couched in Japanese culture?

ringkojisuzuki Ring by Koji Suzuki: Lost in TranslationRing, the inspiration for the popular Japanese horror series and blockbuster US remake, is a quiet investigative thriller. Kazuyuki Asakawa, the newspaper journalist trying to find out how four teenagers all died at the same time from heart failure, is not a particularly engaging protagonist. He is a calm and understated man more than willing to take no for an answer. He would rather hold his cards close to his chest than risk being told no before he sees a story through to the end.

Ryuji Takayama, the philosophy professor who gets caught up in Asakawa’s nightmare, is a loathsome protagonist. He brags about all the girls he has raped and is more concerned with drinking and his young female students than getting any work done. When he focuses, he’s smarter and more intuitive than Asakawa. He just chooses not to focus as hard as he should.

Asakawa travels to a remote resort to spend a night in a cabin rented by the four deceased teenagers. He finds a note in the guestbook that mentions a strange unmarked tape and chooses to watch it himself for clues into the death. The man has convinced himself that the four young people died from an undiscovered virus and anything in the cabin could lead him to the cause. The end of the tape tells him he will die in seven days if he does not carry out a charm to save himself. However, the charm instructions were erased from the tape by the teenagers after they watched it.

The Ring series is now defined by the iconic image of the stringy-haired ghost Sadako (or, in the US version, Samara). Koji Suzuki presents a far more disturbing alternative. Sadako is not some monstrous child built of pure evil and chaos. She is a staggeringly beautiful young woman who faced overwhelming adversity throughout her life. Once you take out the evil element of the tape’s curse, you enter a bizarre world where the plight of two men fighting for their lives is less tragic than the tale of the woman responsible for their ordeal.

Suzuki’s Ring novels are willing to explore a very dark world. Your level of interest will come down to how well you respond to the translation. The prose is very dry and matter of fact. The tone doesn’t change when the focus shifts between Asakawa and Ryuji and the description of the tape reads the same as a discussion over when to break for lunch at the library. Ring is a fascinating story that doesn’t pop on the page like it could.

This review was written as part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read series. Go read some great book reviews for charity.

Cloud Atlas Review (Film, 2012)

Lana Wachowski, Tom Twyker, and Andy Wachowski have accomplished something very special in Cloud Atlas. They discovered a clear and natural way to tell a metaphysical narrative of love, kindness, and actions echoing throughout all of time. Each scene in the six very different storylines is connected by an emotional or physical event that ties the core group of spirits together over centuries. The method becomes clear at the halfway point of the film, where explosions, falls, and acts of aggression rapidly echo throughout the flow of history.

cloudatlasneoseoul Cloud Atlas Review (Film, 2012)

Cloud Atlas is not breaking any new ground in theme or philosophy. It’s riffing on the same emotional core of films likes Babel and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. If you choose to live your life in a good way and are willing to put others’ needs/the greater good above your own priorities, you’ll eventually have good things come back to you. Behave poorly and selfishly and you’ll face great struggles later on. The spirit itself is neither good nor bad, as one spirit can flip back and forth from great fortune to great pain in a relatively small period of time.

The innovation from the Wachowski siblings and Tom Twyker is essentially creating an anthology film that feels like a cohesive narrative without a framing device. There is no comic book to guide you (like Trick’r Treat), no charismatic gatekeeper carrying you from tale to tale (like the Amicus horror anthologies), and no linear story acting as the clothes line to hang the other tales on (like Creepshow). The writing/directing trio connect the stories through casting choices and parallel narrative motion.

The same core cast populates all the tales of Cloud Atlas. Tom Hanks plays everything from a privileged doctor on the high seas to an angry mob-tied author to a post-apocalyptic survivor fighting for his family. Halle Berry plays a rich white woman, a Korean surgeon, and an investigative reporter as everything from a silent cameo to the only lead character in a story. Doona Bae plays a Mexican guard at an illegal sweatshop, a beautiful genetically engineered server, and a prostitute (among other roles).

When dealing with a narrative about the connections between life and the universe, the traditional boundaries of gender, race, and social class no longer bind. The constant presence of the same cast–recognizable in an instant because of birth marks, voices, and distinctive facial features–makes the skips in time and space much easier to understand and connect.

cloudatlastime Cloud Atlas Review (Film, 2012)Perhaps this casting choice is the most controversial element of the film Cloud Atlas. If a character is supposed to be white in one story and Korean in another, why not cast a Korean actor to play the Korean role? Isolated from the film, the decision to cast a smaller cast of actors to take on six or more roles each seems questionable.

Within the film, it is a clear way to connect the stories. You might not like seeing Jim Sturgess and Keith David–a white and a black man, respectively–playing Korean citizens in the future world of Neo Seoul, but the context of the film–specifically a huge sign later in the film that makes it clear that some of this “yellowface” makeup is actually poor underground plastic surgery to look like the beautiful genetically engineered workers of the future–makes you accept the possibility that maybe the spirit isn’t bound to one racial or gender identity.

Maybe the decision to have actors of one race play another race is a way to hit home the larger narrative of tolerance as many of the characters who abuse people–homosexuals, African slaves, women–are forced through cosmic events to live in those roles in the future.

Controversial or not, Lana Wachowski, Tom Twkyer, and Andy Wachowski’s casting and narrative decisions are what make Cloud Atlas such a successful feature. This is a film that anyone should be able to watch and understand in their own way. It’s a Rorschach test of a film, where you can see what you choose to see in it. If you go in with an open mind and an open heart, you might walk away feeling a sensation of hope for all of humanity. Good or bad, right or wrong, everything that happens in this lifetime has the potential to change the future for everyone. Why worry about strife when choosing to live this life can be the best decision you can make?

Rating: 10/10

Thoughts on Cloud Atlas? Share them below.

The Disney/LucasArts Experience

Last week, Disney announced that they purchased LucasArts from George Lucas for just over four billion dollars. They intend to make a new trilogy of films that will start to come out in 2015.

To be perfectly honest, I think it’s a great move. No one* will ever be able to take away what George Lucas did with the original trilogy or even the highlights of the decidedly uneven second trilogy (first trilogy? Stupid chronology).

Disney has deep pockets and has proven its metal in recent years with big budget action/genre pictures. The Pirates of the Caribbean series is a worldwide sensation and the worst you can say about the latest one is “popcorn fluff.” At least it’s attractive popcorn fluff with good acting.

Furthermore, Disney, as a rule, is not an all CGI company. They still incorporate a lot of practical effects in their work. For them, CGI is digital enhancement, as it should be. Sci-fi in particular needs as much believable physical presence as possible to be accepted by the audience. If it looks fake, they won’t fall for the story.

Let’s go a step further. The Avengers was still made by Marvel even though Disney owns the company. Same with The Muppets Studio taking the lead on The Muppets. Just because Disney owns the production company does not mean that Disney is going to make the company change how they work. There’s a huge rift between a Disney animated feature and a Pixar animated feature.

If I had to hazard a guess, I’m pretty sure the main indication of Disney involvement in a new Star Wars feature will be their blue and white castle logo at the start of the film. Everything else will clearly be LucasArts.

The big difference to consider is George Lucas’ involvement. He’s not going to direct and Disney plans on using an original story. That means anything you heard about the post-original trilogy chronology and story arc is probably wrong. Other than the rules, species, and locations of the universe, we have no idea what is going to happen.

I do enjoy this music video welcoming Princess Leia into the cavalcade of Disney Princesses. I would like to point out, though, that Disney company has yet to retcon a series created before they owned a company to move someone to Disney Princess status.

And the logical next step: Disney has had Star Wars-themed mouse ears and merchandise for decades. It’s sold in the lobby of the Star Tours ride. I can’t confirm at this point if they still sell stuffed Ewoks, though I can confirm that I wanted to take the animatronic Ewok that was briefly incorporated into the end of the ride home when I was much younger. So fluffy.

Thoughts on the LucasArts takeover? Share them below.

*Except for George Lucas himself. Put down the editing bay and leave the puppets alone.

Sound of My Voice Review (Film, 2012)

I’ve spent the better part of a day trying to find an angle to introduce you to the insanity of Sound of My Voice. So much happens that there’s no easy way to get into it. Suffice it to say that Brit Marling (writer/actor, Another Earth) stars in another mind-bending low budget science fiction feature that hinges on the imperfection of humanity and the role of fate in all human relations.

Peter and Lorna infiltrate a growing cult to make a documentary film. The cult centers around Maggie, a beautiful young woman who claims to be from the future. The cult members have to scrub their bodies and wear sanitized clothing provided by Maggie’s assistants before they’re allowed to visit with the time traveler. Maggie demands total devotion to the cause. Asking a question or raising a concern won’t get you kicked out, so long as you accept the response Maggie gives you.

soundofmyvoiceclean Sound of My Voice Review (Film, 2012)

Brit Marling teams up with writer/director Zal Batmanglij (The Recordist, Brit’s Marling’s debut film) to bring a disturbing vision of science fiction to life. Like Another Earth, Sound of My Voice centers on human relationships. Unlike Another Earth, Sound of My Voice actually has the narrative heft to hold up the weight of all the conceptual content and character development.

The film neatly separates into three acts centered around the three main characters. First, Christopher Denham’s Peter gets to define the story. Visiting Maggie’s cult takes all of his concentration because he clearly wants to laugh in her face and call her a fraud. He’s tense and unwilling to play the part beyond the mandatory codes and conduct to maintain objectivity. Denham adds a believable sense of frustration to the struggle of trying to leave a mark on the world with one big project: his documentary.

soundofmyvoiceconnection Sound of My Voice Review (Film, 2012)The second act is all about Maggie. Whether Brit Marling is on the screen or not, her character overwhelms the story. She indoctrinates the cult members and Peter and Lorna struggle not to be suckered in by her claims. Maggie is a wild and unpredictable force, her physical weakness balanced by a calculating mind that lets her get whatever she wants.

The third act shifts the focus to Lorna. Nicole Vicius draws your eye throughout the film but wisely lets the other players show off. Vicius’ carefully crafted performance ushers in all the revelations in the film. She is the only one trusted enough on first sight to actually meet with Maggie’s assistants outside of their basement home. Her discomfort is perhaps the greatest source of tension in the film.

Sound of My Voice is a very clever film. Marling and Batmanlij work together very well, balancing her unexpected reframing of sci-fi tropes with his sharp eye for visual storytelling. This is a film that knows a whisper is more mysterious than a scream and a battle of wits is far more devastating than any big action scene could ever be.

Rating: 9/10

It’s been a really strong year for indie sci-fi and horror and Sound of My Voice is no exception. It’s always worth pointing out that Brit Marling debuted both Sound of My Voice and Another Earth at Sundance in 2011. She has the potential right now to go down in the history books as a master of sci-fi.

What do you think? Sound off with your thoughts below.

Repo! The Genetic Opera: A Cautionary Musical Tale

Somewhere deep inside Repo! The Genetic Opera is a great dark sci-fi/horror story. The idea of a dystopian society where one company controls the organ trade as a credit business is solid. Not to brag, but one of the first slipstream stories I ever had published (way back in 2001) was about signing up as an organ donor for monetary credit in the same kind of future. It’s a coincidence that lets me realize how strong this story could be in the right hands.

If you take each individual song as a separate event, Repo! The Genetic Opera could be mistaken for a good film. It is not. The songs in the context of the film are either so static that they stop the film in its tracks or a direct retread of established exposition.

“Chase the Morning” is the moment where the actual plot of Repo! begins. It’s very late in the film to start the story, but that’s another issue altogether. The only thing established in this song is Blind Mag knows Shilo’s family. We already know that Shilo’s mother is dead. We already know her father locked her in the house to protect her. And we already know that Blind Mag knows her retirement from GeneCo means she will lose the eyes the company gave her.

Yet, for three minutes, we see Blind Mag tell Shilo she knows her. Shilo responds every time by pointing out that her father doesn’t want her to interact with the outside world. After 20 seconds, we’re at a static musical impasse. Nothing is gained from the song except the cool visual of the animated projection out of Mag’s eyes. Half the songs in the film have the same problem.

The other issue is redundant songs. They’re more dynamic and musical than the static songs, but they’re literal retreads of plot points that were just established.

The creative team was so bent on not creating a traditional movie musical that they broke rules just to break them. A big aspect of telling a musical story is establishing plot in song. If you bury the big story posts in dialogue, no one will remember. Set them to song and they won’t forget.

Take “Zydrate Anatomy” as an example. Isolated from the film, you think it tells you a whole lot of improtant information. The pain killer used in cosmetic procedures is highly addictive. People will do anything to get some for cheap back alley procedures. It’s a painless drug that wipes away all memory of discomfort from the procedure.

In the film, however, the comic book artwork that provides heavy exposition throughout the story just said those facts. The chance of that song having any lasting impact beyond a catchy industrial beat is destroyed by a refusal to let the songs drive the film. Almost all of the exposition songs have the same problem. If it’s not established in the comics, it’s established in the first 30 seconds of one of the static songs twenty minutes before.

You have to walk before you can run. This creative team didn’t even learn to crawl through the basic principles of movie musicals before making one. The result is a random accumulation of music videos that lack impact or cohesion because they either say nothing or repeat what was already spoon fed to the audience.

repo Repo! The Genetic Opera: A Cautionary Musical TaleIt’s actually quite amazing that Darren Lynn Bousman and Terrence Zdunich managed to conform so quickly to actual musical standards in The Devil’s Carnival. They clearly learned something from the struggles of selling a sung-through film that is not actually a musical or opera. Repetition is actually a device used in their second big screen horror musical and it works because the repeated plot reveals new information about the story, characters, and setting.

Technically, any story could become a musical. The key is actually committing to the musical style. You will never succeed in creating any form of art you disdain. Repo! The Genetic Opera is such a clear attempt to fight against the traditional concept of movie musicals that it never even had a chance of succeeding as a quality film.

If you want to make a musical, make a musical. If you don’t want to make a musical, don’t do it. You can’t take both approaches at the same time unless you don’t want to make a good film. Repo! The Genetic Opera proves that.

Looper Review (Film, 2012)

Time travel is tricky. You’re dealing with a theoretical construct that can radically change the course of everything we know or will know in the future. Make the wrong move and you’ve destroyed the world.

Looper plays fast and dangerous with this concept. In 2042, time travel does not exist. But it does exist in 2072. A powerful mob has emerged in the future using time travel as a way to eliminate people standing in their way. The executions are carried out by loopers, people in present day 2042 who are paid in thick silver blocks strapped to the back of their mark to shoot and kill at point blank range. If you receive a delivery of gold blocks, you have closed your loop: killed yourself from the future. If you fail to close your loop, you will be hunted down like an animal until your mistake is corrected.

loopers Looper Review (Film, 2012)

Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) fails to close the loop on Old Joe (Bruce Willis) after a large chunk of exposition. This sets off a fast speed sci-fi/action story that builds its suspense in quiet, two person scenes. Eventually, Joe sets up a stakeout for Old Joe at the farmhouse of Sara (Emily Blunt), a young woman who left the seedy nightlife populated by the high rolling loopers in the big city.

If there is a problem with Looper, it is the big block of exposition at the top. Yes, the rules of the universe need to be established or else the story would make no sense. It’s just done through cliche nightlife montages and dull voice-overs. The actions–loopers doing their jobs, loopers discovering closed loops, loopers running from the mob–are far more effective at telling the story than monotone descriptions of all things looper.

If you can stick with the dry spell at the start, Looper turns into an odd but often clever sci-fi picture. Old Joe’s story borrows much of its premise from Terminator, but is elevated by some of Bruce Willis’ stronger work in years. He manages to bring a great sense of humanity to a man forced to take on an unthinkable task for self-preservation.

loopersara Looper Review (Film, 2012)Even more effective is Joe’s time at Sara’s farm. Emily Blunt dominates the film with a strange spin on the mother in peril trope. She’s only watching out for her son because he has no one else to care for him. She loves him and resents him at the same time. Yet, if anyone dares to step foot on her property, she will shoot them down without a moment of hesitation. Sara is tough and unsympathetic until the best plot twist in the film unfolds.

Looper is an enjoyable popcorn film. Unfortunately, it relies on many tired sci-fi and gangster film cliches to structure a story with many novel concepts. The film only comes alive when it steps away from the expected beats, but those experimental moments are rare.

Rating: 6/10

Thoughts on Looper? I just found myself wanting more for most of the film. I enjoyed myself. I just think it didn’t go far enough. What do you think? Sound off below.

Watch: Wookie Bellydancing

If this video doesn’t make your day better, I don’t know what will.

We’re dealing with a video that promotes peace and unity with absurdity. A band of Klingons performs a Wookie song that translates to “Peace.” Then, a Wookie maiden enters the stage to bellydance with a prop.

The performance is the work of il Troubadore. Their goal is to perform all the Klingon music known in the universe. Originally founded as a period and world music group, they claim to know over 700 songs from 60 different countries and add new songs to their set list every week.

They have been collaborating with bellydancers from the start. Including a bellydancer in a routine for a sci-fi bellydancing contest only makes sense. Having the bellydancer dressed as a Wookie rather than as a Star Wars slave girl is an odd stroke of genius. The crowd laughs at first until they realize that the dancer in the costume is as skilled as any other participant in the contest. It’s an interesting moment of self-reflection in sci-fi fandom that can create laughs and discussion.

Thoughts? Share them below.

The Hunger Games: Tradition Trumps Reality

I’m beginning to think I didn’t give The Hunger Games film a fair chance. True, I did give the film an 8/10 rating upon release, but how much was I really focusing on the film itself? I sat there with trepidation, hoping that the adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ fine young adult novel was thoughtful and not exploitative. I was afraid of missing anything that could be construed either as needlessly sensational or blatant copying from that other government-run child murder tournament.

I rewatched The Hunger Games over the weekend and noticed so much that completely went by me the first time around. The acting in this film is very good. I singled out Stanley Tucci and Jennifer Lawrence in the review and I stand by my comments. The caveat is how much the work of three key players in the film went unnoticed the first time around.

thehungergameseffie The Hunger Games: Tradition Trumps Reality

Elizabeth Banks might give the finest performance in the film. Her presentation of the puffed up rules obsessed Effie Trinket is the key to the Capital’s corruption. Effie is clueless when it comes to human emotion beyond her own. Even then, the only emotions she has are the ones that allow her to advance her career in The Hunger Games. Her instinct is not to support the young tributes from District 12 but to reprimand them at every interval.

These key moments of cold brutality zip by in an instant because Banks’ Effie knows she is always being watched. During the breakfast on the train where Katniss and Peeta finally get Haymitch to open up, Effie’s one concern is the condition of the train car. Katniss stabs at Haymitch with a knife into the table and all Effie can do is cry out “That’s mahogany!” before slipping back into the finery of Capital culture. It’s a blink and you’ll miss it moment of pure disgust that lets you know where her loyalty is.

thehungergamesseneca The Hunger Games: Tradition Trumps Reality

Another cold and calculating cast member who avoided my detection the first time around is Wes Bentley. This adaptation of The Hunger Games gave the evil visionary of the games, Seneca Crane, a much larger role than in the book. Bentley actually crafts a memorable villain out of these new scenes.

Bentley’s Seneca is only concerned with his own job. This is not a matter of status like with Effie; this is a matter of survival. As head gamemaker, Seneca has to answer to President Snow himself. If the president isn’t happy, no one is happy.

Bentley’s performance is so calculated and restrained that you can easily miss what he’s going for. He is the office manager from hell. The circular amphitheater of the control room is his pool of cubicles. The design he spent a year crafting is up to a large crowd of carefully trained engineers shooting holographic representations of real threats into the arena. As soon as a danger is realized, he quickly doles out praise. Bentley takes the body language of corporate America and applies it to the senseless execution and murder of children from all over Panem. I was more terrified of his optimistic and professional presentation than I was of any danger in the arena. At least the dangers of the arena, tributes included, don’t celebrate their own mayhem with a pat on the back.

thehungergameshaymitch The Hunger Games: Tradition Trumps Reality

The third cast member at least has a redemption arc to work with. Woody Harrelson’s performance as Haymitch, the only victor ever to come from District 12, is most effective when he’s not the center of attention. The early part of Haymitch’s journey is far more distant and cold than his alcoholic exploits would suggest. What it really means is that Harrelson chooses to distance himself from the action to create a stronger impact later in the story.

Haymitch tells Peeta and Katniss that they need to embrace their own deaths as they’re probably not coming back alive. He’s seen enough District 12 tributes dead in the arena to know how unlikely it is that the poorest district will ever be victorious again. Where Collins’ places his shift to a supportive role after the breakfast scene, the screenplay gives Harrelson room to make a more believable arc.

Harrelson’s Haymitch goes from forced distance to calculating optimist when Peeta and Katniss reveal each other’s strengths. From there, Harrelson takes his time with opening up Haymitch’s actual personality. He starts with a slightly wider eye and a more relaxed posture. Then he gains the ability to smirk and actually engage with his tributes. By the time the games start, Haymitch is the most affable and energetic presence onscreen. I almost wish his later scenes were actually scripted rather than glossy montages of schmoozing sponsors to hear how he changed his voice to sell his tributes.

The Hunger Games as directed by Gary Ross is unmistakably Katniss’ film. It has to be. It was the easiest way to turn a distinctive first person novel into an epic feature film. Because of that, so much of the work of the supporting cast (the tributes, especially) goes by in quick montages. The only expanded characters are the ones running the games, not the ones training or fighting in them. Structurally, those new scenes exist solely to avoid a monsoon of clunky exposition about how The Hunger Games function for people who did not read the novel.

It’s easy to focus on the look of the film, the direction, and the tremendous performance of Jennifer Lawrence. I just wish I had the mindset the first time around to watch for everything else.

Anyone else check out The Hunger Games again now that it’s on DVD and Blu-ray? I’m tempted to actually purchase the Blu-ray for myself after renting the movie. It’s very well done. I don’t adjust film ratings after a review, but I’d be tempted to bump this one up to a 9/10 based on the tracker jacker scene alone. That one made me stop the DVD and walk away the second time around.

What did you think? Has the film held up so far? Notice anything new? Sound off. Love to hear from you.

Face Off 3.2: Arrrr

Last night on Face Off, SyFy finally went with the most obvious challenge based on the judging panel. Ve Neill is a regular judge on the show. Two challenges have previously gone into her wheelhouse. Ve won Academy Awards for her work on Mrs. Doubtfire and Ed Wood. So, the gender swap challenge in season one and the Tim Burton challenge in season two made sense.

But why has it taken three seasons to challenge the contestants to make an original pirate for the Academy Award winning makeup artist behind many of the designs in the Pirates of the Caribbean series? It finally happened last night and Ve, once again, looked like she was having the tmie of her life. The challenge was so amazing that the show didn’t even air the Foundation Challenge. No complaint there. It allowed for an entire cutaway segment on bad pirate jokes.

faceoff0302challenge Face Off 3.2: Arrrr

The full Spotlight Challenge was probably one of the hardest in the history of the series (outside of the finale challenges). Each contestant was randomly assigned a pirate-like element–barnacles, swords, netting, etc.–that they had to incorporate into an original pirate character in three days. The winner would receive $5000, the largest challenge prize in the history of the show.

The results were overall quite impressive. The judges decided that Roy, Sarah, and Laura had the top looks for the challenge. Would you look at that? Three repeats from last week. Looks like execution as well as design are the criteria to win this year.

Roy had to create a pirate based on daggers. His design was insane (again). His pirate was a vicious woman who storess her assortment of weaponry in her body. These daggers were designed to look like an extension of her rib cage and the whole thing was brutal. The paint job was solid. I just wish he didn’t go with a gray skin tone against the bright oceanic colors.

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Sarah had to find inspiration in sea urchins. She studied her subject in depth to pick up every detail she could. From the thickness of the spines to the yellow uni–the roe, Sarah did not miss an opportunity to focus her design on sea urchins. She also sculpted and molded so quickly that she was able to blow Ve away with a completely fabricated costume on the Day 2 workroom visit. The rancid yellow skin town was a perfect match for the model-operated oozing uni gag for the judges.

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Laura, once again, brought flawless execution to a well planned concept. The only reason I can think for her loss here was her randomly assigned object: shells. Shells are easy. What Laura chose to do with them was extraordinary. She turned her model into a living snail obsessed with a glowing jewel at the bottom of the ocean. The movement of the fabricated plant life in the back was especially impressive.

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Ultimately, Sarah won the challenge for gong that one step above everyone else. Pirates are crowd pleasers. Why wouldn’t you try to add on a surprise for the judges when they evaluate your work up close?

The bottom three contestants were Eric, C.C., and Jason. Each rankled the judges for very different reasons.

In Eric’s case, his technical execution was bad. He had to incorporate a spyglass into his design and it came out like a bad Halloween costume. The proportion was all wrong. The telescoping handle was far too long to look believable in the context of the character. With a better paint job, he might have gotten away with it; he didn’t. Even the costuming and roughed up flesh weren’t particularly well done.

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C.C. struggled the entire episode. She had no idea what to do with barnacles until most of the first day was done. Though she has special effects makeup experience, her expertise is beauty makeup. She didn’t have the experience to make a cool design concept actually pop on screen–symmetry is not your friend in effects makeup and this was a mirror image down the bridge of the nose–and she even struggled with painting the piece. This does not take away from the judges telling C.C. she has chops. The sculpt, poorly designed as it was, actually looked good and her application was great. She just got caught messing up in a week where most of the field really rose above expectations.

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Jason was in the bottom three for a simple reason: his jewel-themed pirate had nothing to do with jewels. Sure, he crafted a lofty backstory to justify a pirate covered by an octopus. The only reference to his actual task was a jewel in the palm. Not a good way to be remembered by the judges. You’re hired to do a specific job in the makeup industry and choosing to ignore that job for something cooler is not the way to build a reputation.

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C.C. was eliminated. The judges heaped praise on her and encouraged her to pursue special effects makeup as a field. They saw tremendous potential in her–including her professional attitude and enthusiasm–and that’s a huge compliment from this panel.

Thoughts? Do you think the judges made the right choices? I would love to have seen Alana in the top 3 as her crab design was really well executed in spite of (once again) being rescued by her fellow competitors for time management issues. If she picks up the pace, she could take the title.

What do you think? Sound off below. Love to hear from you.

All the images from the post come from the SyFy Face Off galleries. Makeup shots here; contestant shots here. Check them out.

Film Review: Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)

To steal a portmanteau from The Fairly Odd Parents, Safety Not Guaranteed is the most threatmantic sci-fi picture you’ll see this year. For every cute and silly scene played up for big laughs, there’s a dark and serious moment to balance it out. You never know when or why the turn will happen. It just does.

Darius is an intern at a general interest magazine. She has no idea what she’s going to do with her life. She has no friends and no real source of income. Jeff, one of the staff writers, brings her along on a gig investigating a classified ad. Someone is looking for the perfect companion to join them on a dangerous time travelling mission. After a quick series of misfires, Darius becomes the bait for the magazine story.

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You won’t know why anything is happening, but it will make sense

The joy of Safety Not Guaranteed is not knowing what will happen next. Oh, you can predict all you want. There’s no way you’ll figure out everything that will happen. Between the tonal shifts and the true ensemble feel of the film, you just need to learn to trust the film. Five very different characters share the spotlight. Another six pop up to refine and change the context of the story. Lest you spoil yourself before you go, you’re not going to know what to expect. That’s a good thing.

Derek Connolly’s screenplay will put you at ease. It’s so easy to let go once the whole investigation is set into motion. The comedy is natural and the character development rich and welcome.

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Safety Not Guaranteed likes to linger on inactive characters

The movie has a really unique rhythm to it. Since it’s an ensemble romantic sci-fi comedy suspense (?) picture, Conolly and director Colin Trevorrow have to let scenes linger longer than expected. In other films, an actor walking out of a car to do something important would lead to a scene change. In Safety Not Guaranteed , the camera hangs back for a few seconds to show what the other characters are doing while waiting in the car. It takes a few scenes to start to feel out the beats, but it works well to define the parameters of a strange story.

The cast is more than able to handle all the odd things Conolly and Trevorrow throw at them. Aubrey Plaza gets to show so much range beyond her typical pouty cynic as Darius. She’s clever, she’s funny, she’s honest, and she wants everyone to be happy even at her own expense. Jake Johnson is a perfect balance as Jeff, playing a character who should be more put together than his intern in crisis but is perhaps the biggest mess in the film. Jenica Bergere and Karan Soni round out the writer/artist group nicely as Jeff’s ex-girlfriend and other intern, respectively.

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Duplass is committed to Kenneth like his life depended on it.

All of these players can be funny in their own ways, but they exist to contrast and boost up Mark Duplass’ turn as Kenneth. Duplass embodies this role. There is not one moment of hesitation in his performance. The beauty of Safety Not Guaranteed is trying to figure out of Kenneth is serious and sane or joking and unhinged. Duplass does not crack in his time traveler/survivalist role unless he is put in a situation so stressful that anyone would be vulnerable. It’s a masterful turn that deserves recognition.

Safety Not Guaranteed is one of the more unusual sci-fi films to come around in years. It’s not a big idea film like Prometheus and it’s not a character piece like Another Earth. It is a narrative-driven story about a group of lost souls trying to find worth in a five line classified ad.

And really, what more could you want in an adorably menacing sci-fi romantic quirky indie comedy movie?

Rating: 9/10

Thoughts? Have you seen Safety Not Guaranteed yet? Do you plan on it? Sound off below. Love to hear from you.

Film Review: Prometheus (2012)

I don’t know if we’ll ever get a true hypertext novel. I’m not talking an online, pick and choose what you want to read thing. I’m talking a totally immersive text ala the holodeks in Star Trek.

If we never reach that point, we can at least absorb what a new wave of science fiction films are giving us. Movies like Sunshine, Prometheus, and Moon are less about the individual story being told and more about the creation of a rich universe filled with ideas to ponder and debate. To judge any of these films on the story–when there is story–alone would be a pointless endeavor. They’re not narrative features. They’re idea films.

Prometheus, the latest sci-fi/horror epic from Ridley Scott, seems to do away with traditional notions of storytelling all together. The plot–presumably taken from the screenplay by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof–is nothing more than an excuse to tell a series of vignettes concerning the reality of life and death in the contexts of faith, fantasy, science, and society.

prometheusreviewmap Film Review: Prometheus (2012)

Cave paintings, sculptures, architecture, all with the same map and figure

The crew of the Prometheus is on a mission to explore a distant planet that may hold the key to human existence. Drs. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) believe that an ancient race of alien lifeforms created all of humanity. A series of cave drawings are found all over the world with the same cluster of stars in them. Shaw and Holloway convince Weyland Enterprises, under the guidance of executive Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) and android David (Michael Fassbender), to fund an expedition to prove once and for all the origin of life on Earth.

Prometheus succeeds and fails in its approach to this small bit of plot. If you view the film as an interactive text designed to stimulate the mind and provoke a response, it’s a great success. If you view it as a prequel to the Alien series or an actual attempt to answer questions of our origins or the existence of god, it’s a total failure. This is not Avatar. There are no easy answer here. This movie exists to make you think, think, and think some more.

The acting is strong. Rapace, Theron, and Marshall-Green have a great dynamic that drives the conflict until the darker sci-fi elements invade the story. Michael Fassbender, however, steals the show. As David, the humanoid android whose only purpose is to see to the needs of the expedition, Fassbender creates one of the most compelling sci-fi images in year.

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David is the ideal human, save being totally self-absorbed and unfeeling

His perfect veneer–blonde hair, blue eyes, white teeth, lean body, charming smile–is all the more disturbing for his convincing portrayal of a human-like creature who cannot empathize at all with the lives of the people who created him. The entire mission is a mystery to him as he has no desire to find out why anyone creates anything. He will never be born and he will never die. Their concerns mean nothing when weighed against his orders to serve the mission.

Ridley Scott attempts to do something so different with Prometheus that people are bound to be disappointed. No one can have all their expectations met because his goal is not satisfying any singular goal. Would the film be easier to absorb and discuss if he focused in on a single issue or a specific character’s development? Yes. Would it be as rewarding as the debate his sprawling sci-fi epic has created? No.

prometheusreviewshaw Film Review: Prometheus (2012)

A dream expedition puts a religious scientist at odds with herself

It’s impossible to even suggest how to approach a film like Prometheus. It’s easier to try to discount elements. It’s not funny (except for when it’s hilarious). It’s not a prequel (except for when it totally is). It’s not a character study (unless you count humanity or faith as a character). It’s not a creature feature (unless people behaving badly count as monsters to you). It’s not survival horror, space opera, or a showcase of special effects (except for when those overtake specific character arcs again and again).

Prometheus is everything and nothing. It is the alpha and the omega. It’s is the best and the worst film you will see this year. It is brilliant and flawed. It is beautiful and ugly. It is inspiring and lifeless. It is all of these things because the goal is an exploration of humanity through the lens of speculative fiction.

Is it entertaining? Depends on who you talk to.

Rating: 8/10

What did you think of Prometheus? Sound off below.

Watch: The Sound of Prometheus

My Prometheus review is going up tomorrow. I’m carefully constructing my argument and just need to let it rest overnight to make sure my angle makes sense. I will say I enjoyed the film a lot. I’m just struggling to clearly explain why.

One of the more baffling arguments against Prometheus, to me, is the intrusive sound claim. The music is too invasive. The sound is overblown. Too much is happening for space.

Have we been so spoiled by Alien‘s tagline, “in space, no one can hear you scream,” that we’ve forgotten how integral sound was to that movie? Lack of score does not mean lack of sound. So many of the major moments were set up by a brief moment of absolute quiet before a big explosion of events onscreen. Otherwise, everything made noise: doors, computers, controls, people, footsteps, and the cat, just to name a few.

The same applies to Prometheus, just slightly off. If the music stops playing, you have problems. Even the naysayers have to acknowledge that this is a beautifully mixed movie. The sound is possibly more immersive than the 3D visuals.

SoundWorks Collection is an excellent series of videos that deals with the how and the why of sound design in big movies. Their newest video is all about the wealth of sound in Prometheus. The sound team argues that the atmospheric scoring is the silence of this movie. It’s an intentional choice, not a random musing or mistake.

So what do you think? Did you like the sound design in Prometheus. I’ve heard arguments both ways and some are rather compelling against it. Sound off below with your thoughts.