I spent about 20 hours in the back seat of a car this Christmas season, traveling across the country to visit family, which meant I had a lot of free time to kill. In the past I would spend that time playing handheld video games or reading books, but year after year I found myself not having enough time to finish some of those games or books during the trip, and then would never get around to finishing them once I got back home. This year, I decided to take advantage of my big-ass smart phone and download a bunch of movies to watch. I've now watched 11 movies in the past week, including the new
Star Trek Star Wars movie on the big screen.
I don't watch a lot of movies, so my critical eye is not trained enough to write a lot of proper reviews for the movies I actually do watch -- with rare exceptions. But, since it's been a while since my last article and it's taking me forever to finish my Thief 2014 review, I figured I'd throw out a bunch of mini reviews for the plethora of movies I watched this week. In the full article, you'll find brief synopses and spoiler-free reviews of, in no particular order: Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Interstellar, Gravity, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Mist, Avenged, Forever's End, Exile, Ex Machina, I'll Follow You Down, and Under the Skin.
It's also worth nothing that I was able to watch all of these movies for free (except Star Wars, which I paid to see in the theater) as part of Amazon Prime free movies. If any of these catch your fancy and you have Amazon Prime, you should be able to watch all of them except for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which sadly was removed at the start of 2016, and Gravity, which I got for free a while back on Google Play and just now got around to watching.
Also note: I typed up this entire article, pressed control+z to undo some formatting, and had the entire article disappear from the text entry window, and the online form saved the now-empty draft. So I had to retype all of this (nearly 4000 words) from the preview image that was left open, which doesn't let you select or copy any of the text. So I'm reading the preview image and touch-typing all of this at blazing speed with little to no editing, so please excuse any mistakes or typos, because they're likely to be more egregious now than they usually are.
Interstellar takes place in the near future, on an earth ravaged by dust storms that threaten to cut off the planet's food supply. As technological advances slowly come to a halt and the world's schools push more and more of its youth away from engineering and towards agriculture, former pilot turned farmer Joe Cooper finds himself unsatisfied with his life plowing fields and harvesting corn. A mysterious force of gravity starts communicating with him through his daughter's bookcase, sending him coordinates to a NASA space center, where he finds himself enlisted to pilot a spaceship through a wormhole in search of a habitable planet. After disaster strikes the mission team, Cooper must make a choice to carry on his mission to populate a new world, or return home to his family.
I really appreciated that this was a space exploration movie with a fairly solid grounding in reality. There's obviously some embellishment to the way laws of physics work, especially when it comes to speculative stuff like what lies beyond the event horizon of a black hole, or how dimensions beyond our three perceivable ones work, but it never goes completely off the rails like a lot of space movies tend to do. I also really like the slow build up, how much time is spent witnessing Cooper's ordinary life on Earth before it jumps into space; that made it really easy to care about Cooper and his family, and made the later space sections stand out more. There's genuine tension in watching the mission progress, as things go from bad to worse and the stakes continue to rise, and the movie's pacing keeps it engaging all the way through. This is easily one of the best space movies I've ever seen, and is definitely worth watching if you get the chance and have any interest in the subject matter.
Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play the role of modern day astronauts on a routine mission to fix up the Hubble Space Telescope. While working on the telescope, floating outside the shuttle in their space suits, a nearby Russian satellite explodes, creating a chain reaction as the debris from the satellite knocks out and destroys other satellites. The debris field descends on Bullock and Clooney with little warning and destroys the shuttle, forcing them to attempt to make their way to the International Space Station with what little propellant and oxygen remains in their suits. What follows is a series of disasters as Bullock and Clooney attempt to make their way safely back to Earth.
The movie is visually impressive, with its wide shots of the earth and the sweeping camera angles that float through space in long, continuous shots helping to make you feel like you're up there with the astronauts. The opening 10-15 minute sequence is stunning, and is perhaps reason enough to watch the movie all on its own, really giving you perspective on how tiny and insignificant an individual person is next to the grand size of the earth. Although the movie makes it seem like this is going to be an Apollo 13-esque realistic drama, it unfortunately turns itself into a farcical disaster/survival movie, where everything goes wrong in a cartoonishly exaggerated way, constantly one thing after another. There's no real plot to the movie, or any backstory or setup to make you care about what's going on, and having Sandra Bullock and George Clooney doing Sandra Bullock and George Clooney things on screen almost distracts from the real plight of the movie. The visual design, sound design, and cinematography are really good, though, which make it almost worth watching. Almost.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
A romantic comedy in which Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, distraught by their failing relationship, have their memories of each other systematically erased by a special clinic. After discovering that Clementine (Winslet) has already had the operation done following their heated breakup, Joel (Carrey) decides to have the same operation done on himself. But during the procedure, as he lies unconscious with technicians probing his brain, reliving each of his memories with Clementine, Joel decides he doesn't want to go through with it any more, and starts to fight back against the memory erasing procedure from within his own memories.
I'm not normally one to appreciate romantic comedies, but this one's premise had me interested from the beginning. The idea of selectively erasing memories is much like science fiction, and Jim Carrey plays a pretty straight dramatic role in this movie. Since the memory erasers start with Joel's most recent memories and work their way back, we get to see his and Clementine's relationship unfold backwards, which is an interesting way to tell a story, and throws the audience for a loop when you realize that sections of the movie aren't actually happening in chronological order. It's also fun watching Carrey consciously manipulate his memories, pulling Clementine into repressed memories and other places she wouldn't normally be. The two actors constantly slip in and out of following and breaking the script of their memories, so it's engaging to keep up with what's actual history and what're new events happening in their minds. And of course, the movie wraps things up nicely with a heart-warming ending that truly resonates. This is a solid movie.
Based on the novella by Stephen King, The Mist is a survival-horror movie in which residents of a small town suddenly find the town engulfed in a thick mist that contains deadly, monstrous creatures. Following a violent storm, protagonist David Drayton heads into town with his son, where they become trapped in the supermarket with a group of other survivors. Inside the supermarket, the group tries to learn what lies in the mist while preparing the store's defenses to ride out the storm. As the monsters break into the supermarket, a religious fanatic begins to lead a revolution from within, and the group begins to turn on each other. Eventually, David and his son will have to make a run for it and brave their survival out in the mist.
The Mist could almost be a zombie movie, if you took out the giant tentacled monsters, blood-sucking alien mosquitoes, and corrosive web-shooting spiders and just replaced them with zombies. It's rather similar to Romero's Dawn of the Dead, where the group holds up in a shopping mall, and The Mist's story focuses more on the drama between survivors than fighting the monsters, as most zombie movies tend to do. The monster designs are all quite impressive in The Mist, with a good enough variety to keep things interesting. The mist itself does a good job of hiding its horrors well enough in the beginning to instill a sense of dread in the audience, only catching glimpses of what lies within. The cast is brilliant, here, and really brings the interpersonal drama to life in a believable way. The pacing is pretty good, too, with a good balance between action scenes with gruesome deaths and the calm downtime as the survivors get to know each other better. The "twist" ending is a bit dumb when you think about it, but I love those kinds of endings that end on a down note. I wasn't expecting to enjoy this movie, but I enjoyed it quite a bit.
A young, deaf, mute woman named Zoe sets out on a road trip in her newly-acquired Pontiac GTO to visit her fiancee in New Mexico. Along the way, she witnesses two native Americans being murdered by a truckload of racist white men, who kidnap and subsequently rape and murder her. A witch doctor finds her near-lifeless body and attempts to save her with a ritual; he ends up infusing her body with the soul of an Apache chieftain who's out for revenge against the descendants of the men who hunted and murdered his people for sport -- the same people who raped and murdered Zoe. Aided by the new skills of a great warrior, Zoe sets out for revenge before time runs out on her zombified body.
Avenged is a fairly typical "revenge story" movie that really shouldn't stand out from the crowd, but the performances of each of the actors (the lead actress in particular, Amanda Adrienne) combined with the awesome gore effects and violent death scenes make it something special. Amanda Adrienne is simultaneously a sweet, lovable, innocent young woman and a badass killing machine -- a balance you don't see that often with typical "strong female" character in Hollywood movies, who tend to just be male characters in a female body, or else are overly sexualized. The racist antagonists are despicable people who you actually want to see die as painfully as possible, and their writing and acting make them seem like generally believable characters. Avenged really captures that indie grindhouse feel, which makes it easy to recommend if you're into violence and gore in your movies.
Six years after a post-apocalyptic event wipes out all life on Earth, the last girl on Earth, Sarah, is in for a surprise when people suddenly start showing up at her house. First it's her sister, Lily, who seems to have suffered some kind of traumatic event she doesn't talk about; then, it's a strange young man named Ryan who claims to have met her some time ago, who carried with him a picture he drew of her. He searched all over for her, and wants to bring her back to the city where civilization has supposedly survived. The rest of the movie features Ryan trying to convince Sarah to come to the city with him, and Lily trying to convince her that he's up to no good while Sarah slowly falls in love with him.
The movie's description and advertising promote it as being a post-apocalyptic movie, but it's really not -- that's a marketing lie deliberately intended to mislead audiences into thinking one thing is going on, in order for its twist reveal to work. I have no problem with twist reveals, but I don't appreciate being baited into a movie expecting something I like, and having it switched out for something completely different once I start watching. The actors do a good enough job with the material, but the whole thing is awfully simple and mundane -- the whole movie takes place in one house and the fields directly outside, and there are only three characters in the entire story. It's basically just a series of scenes in which people sit around talking to each other while the audience waits for something to happen. It's kind of boring, really, and the twist ending doesn't surprise much at all, and didn't make the preceding 80 minutes feel worthwhile to me.
In a post-apocalyptic wasteland, survivors of the small town of Sunderland are faced with a choice; go to school to learn from their alien caretakers in hopes of eventually being blessed and becoming one of them, or be exiled to the wasteland. Raised as children by the Angels, the now teen-aged school children know no other life than that of the wasteland and their angelic caretakers. One of the students, David, was intent on "falling" and being exiled to the wasteland when the Angel kills his mother, but after witnessing how the adults are now being reborn as new lifeforms in the Garden, he decides to become blessed after all. Until he discovers why the angels are killing people like his mother.
Exile offers a fairly original story, and that should be commended. It's an interesting scenario, with children being brainwashed by space aliens and happily obliging their rules and teachings because they genuinely believe that the "angels" are doing something good. The alien designs and effects are pretty good, especially for a low-budget indie movie, but the acting and set design leave a lot to be desired. A lot of characters talk with unnatural flow and emphasis, and the set design consists entirely of abandoned buildings and piles of junk in the middle of a desert, which somehow all looks too clean and staged for a supposedly post-apocalyptic wasteland. The characters are all pretty bland, utterly devoid of personality or backstory, and it takes a while for the plot to get going. I didn't regret watching this movie, but it's not one I can recommend because it feels like too much of it is "good ideas, poor execution." My thoughts drift more to how much better it could have been than how good it actually is (or isn't).
Caleb, a programmer for the world's largest search engine, wins a competition and gets to spend a week with the company's CEO, Nathan, on Nathan's private island. When Caleb arrives, he discovers that he won't be on just any vacation; he's going to be the human component in a Turing Test, which tests if an artificial intelligence is perceivable to a human -- if an AI can pass for human, then it is said to "pass" the Turing Test. Over the course of multiple sessions talking to Ava, Nathan's AI robot, Caleb develops feelings for her, fearing that Nathan will "kill" her if she doesn't pass the test. All the while, Caleb suspects Nathan may have darker motives at work.
Like Forever's End, Ex Machina shouldn't be that good; it takes place entirely in one setting, and the whole movie is no more than two characters on screen talking to each other, often about philosophy and theory. And yet, it works in ways that Forever's End didn't. Although they never leave Nathan's resort, every scene (except for the testing sessions with Ava) takes place in a different location, offering a lot of visual variety and exotic locales. And although it's always just two characters talking, there's a surprising amount of tension from beginning to end, because you're never sure what Nathan's angling towards, and there's always that element of doubt about whether Ava is actually demonstrating human qualities, or is just really good at mimicking them. The actors do a tremendous job portraying each of the characters (Oscar Isaac, as Nathan, in particular offers a really nuanced performance that keeps the character constantly fascinating and unpredictable), and the subject matter does what any good science fiction should: it makes you wonder about it means to be human, and where the possibilities of science might lead us. Highly recommend, this is a great movie.
I'll Follow You Down
After Erol's father, an esteemed particle physicist, never returns from an academic trip, having seemingly disappeared, Erol's life and family begin to spiral downward. Twelve years later, his mother kills herself, and Erol sets out, with the help of grandfather, to find out what actually happened to his father twelve years ago. By studying his father's notes, they discover that he invented a time machine and traveled back to 1946 to meet Albert Einstein, and was killed; if they can recreate his work and solve the missing parts of his notes, they can go back in time and prevent him from dying. But doing so would change history over the last 12 years, and Erol struggles to decide if the successful life with his girlfriend is worth risking to save his father and mother.
Time travel stories are a dime a dozen, but they usually tend to focus on large-scale crises. I'll Follow You Down isn't about saving the world or stopping some major catastrophe; it's a much more personal story about a young man who wants his father back in his life. The science fiction element in this movie is pretty subtle; the majority of the movie takes place in present time, as Erol and his grandfather work to solve the quantum physics that would allow time travel, and discuss the implications their journey would have on their own timelines while we, as the audience, get to witness their lives falling apart around them. This is really more of a drama than science fiction movie, and while that's certainly fine, the characters and the plot points don't feel nearly dramatic enough to carry the movie as a pure drama. Still, the story is engaging enough and the ending sequence when they finally complete the time machine offers a really satisfying conclusion.
Under the Skin
Two alien beings descend to Earth. One of them takes the form of a human male motorcyclist, who gathers a dead woman's body and brings it into a van, where Scarlett Johansson, born recently in the stars, takes her clothing. The motorcyclist takes off, and Johansson sets out in the van, trying to pick up and seduce lone men with no families or loved ones on the evening streets of Glasgow. Upon selecting a victim, she takes them back to the spaceship, which resembles a strange, run-down house, where the men fall into a black goo where they remain trapped until their bodies are harvested. As Johansson harvests more and more men, she begins to develop her own humanity and wrestles with her identity while the motorcyclist tries to track her down.
This is easily one of the weirdest movies I've ever seen. This movie is the definition of visual storytelling -- there's not a single word of dialogue that explains what's happening, you just watch the visuals and figure out what's going on for yourself. It's quite an impressive movie in that regard, especially with how much thought and emotion the director and actors are able to express with very limited dialogue. Johansson spends half the movie completely silent and expressionless, and yet we're able to get a strong sense of what she's feeling in those moments when she subtly breaks that character. The seduction scenes are genuinely unsettling, in large part because of the music and the general weirdness of everything. It's an absolutely fascinating movie, mostly because it felt so alien to me that I was captivated trying to figure out what was going on and where the movie was going, but actually watching the movie was a little boring because there are so many long, wide-angle shots where nothing happens. A unique movie, certainly, but not one I can recommend easily because it's one of those "love it or hate it" deals where I fell squarely in the middle.
Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens
After the events of Return of the Jedi, Luke begins a Jedi training academy where one of his students turns to the dark side, and Luke abandons his Jedi teachings to go into hiding. The Empire, decapitated by Emperor Palpatine's death on the second Death Star, has rebounded under new leadership to form the First Order, while the former Rebellion, still led by Leia Organa, is now known as The Resistance. Now on equal footing with the First Order, the Resistance is trying to push the First Order out of the galaxy once and for all, but needs to find Luke to make it happen. New characters Rey and Finn meet a droid who has a map to Luke's hideout, and try to get him to the Resistance while being hounded by the First Order and its Sith knight Kylo Ren.
Like many, I was a huge fan of Star Wars as a kid and young adult, but felt no love or attachment to the prequel trilogy. I went into The Force Awakens with an open mind, not expecting some great revival or anything as bad as the prequels, and walked out of the theater decently pleased. It's a well-crafted movie that genuinely feels like Star Wars -- something that can't be said of the prequels -- but a large part of that is due to the low-hanging fruit of simply reusing the same characters and ships as the original trilogy. To that effect, The Force Awakens feels almost detrimentally similar to A New Hope, with elements of Empire Strikes Back, almost as if they're just rehashing the original movie. While it's nice to see familiar actors Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher reprising their roles, I wish the new movie would've focused more on the new characters. The movie also moves just a little too fast, not giving you quite enough time to appreciate what's going on in individual scenes. There's some good stuff here and it works fine as a reboot of a beloved series, but there are hints of feeling a bit like a soulless corporate product, simply checking off the boxes and playing it a little too safe, doing exactly what the fans wanted so as not to risk messing it up. So, it's a fine movie, but it doesn't have the emphatic spark I would've liked, and that a Star Wars movie should have.