Tag Archives: Sci-Fi & Fantasy

Godzilla (2014)

Never have kaiju been so loud, so big, and so bad.
(And did I say LOUD? And BIG? And BAD?)

And never have some of the best actors in the industry been so wasted.

I wasn’t expecting a character drama, not at all; I was just looking for some hardcore monster-on-monster cagematching; but as Pacific Rim showed, a small, small investment to make your characters distinguishable from each other goes a long, long way. THAT movie wasn’t high drama either, but at least I had a sense of who people were and what they wanted, and it enabled me to care about what happened, mourn over the losses, laugh at situational humor.

Godzilla only really has one character whose motivations you understand, and that doesn’t last long; and the rest of the characters are just filler. David Strathairn? Elizabeth Olsen? Ken Watanabe? Juliette Binoche? Bryan Cranston? Wasted or close to it. You could have cast this movie with nobodies and it would have trawled in the same box office haul, and the movie would not have been any worse for it.

(But it’s so LOUD! and BIG! and BAD!)

And no, Aaron Taylor-Johnson is not a bad actor in his own right, but his character here is just debris bounced from disaster to disaster, with little motivation of his own (except maybe “Homeward Bound,” kaiju eiga style). Which leads to probably the biggest reason why none of the human element worked:

The movie is not about the people, it’s really about the monsters — yet they spend 75% of the movie on the people without doing much with them.

The people never are able to stand in the way of the monsters, their efforts are obviously pointless from the start. Humanity’s only hope is Godzilla… and he shows up on his own to kill the other kaiju in order to “balance out nature.” He’s like starvation to an overpopulation of deer or a bolt of lightning to balance out electron quotas — the naturalistic deux es machina trashing the behemoths that humanity cannot, and he comes, he conquers, he descends to the ocean depths in glory at will, and one day he shall come again to judge the living and the dead kaiju alike, selah and thanks for all the fish.

(And “Gofira” is also terrible at cleaning up after himself, you’ll need one hell of a pooper-scooper… but I digress.)

((But wow, did I say it was LOUD? and BIG? and BAD?! ))

Godzilla is in essence the anti-Cloverfield. Cloverfield is in essence a love story using a city-razing monster as a backdrop, so keeping the monster hidden makes sense  and increases tension. Godzilla is really a monster movie that tries to use a love story as a backdrop (Dad wants to get home!), yet much of the movie focuses on Dad’s wanderings rather than on the Daddy Monster of them all. MOAH MONSTAH PLEEZ.

I still dream of a 90-minute IMAX 3D extreme-combat bonebreaking downtown-trashing smörgåsbord of destruction.

PS. Was that a handful of Zip disks being portrayed as antiquated technology? Oh horrors!

2.5/5

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Noah

While not a literal translation of the Old Testament story, “Noah” serves as a unique and decent-enough adaptation with some beautiful visuals and engrossing action sequences. Crowe brings solidity and weight to the role of this apocalyptic prophet, and even his occasional bit of singing (to address another amusing and tangential question) is commensurate with the movie’s needs.

Unfortunately, while Aronofsky offers some intriguing exploration of Noah’s prophetic visions and psychological headspace, on the large scale “Noah” is not one of his most resonant works. Aside from any fantastic quirks, the movie seems a bit more straightforward than Aranofsky’s other efforts (especially Black Swan and The Fountain); the director’s touch is most obvious during Noah’s prophetic dream sequences and the way he doesn’t flinch when showing the horrific outcomes of individual choices. Violence and emotions in this movie at times can be raw and explicit.

While Aronofsky has not literally recreated the story as Western Christians learned it as children on Sunday morning, it’s clear that he did his homework since even the stuff that left Baptists squirming in their seats has basis in Christian lore. For example, according to Genesis, there were angels that fell to earth to bed human women, and the offspring of that damned union were referred to as the Nephilim or (as often translated, correctly or not) “giants.” The Book of Enoch delineates further, listing the names of these fallen angels (called Watchers) as well as the specialized information that each imparted to humanity much as the Greek Hephaestus and Athena shared knowledge of the arts with men.

Aronofsky adapts this source to support the themes and plot  of his narrative. Here, the Watchers were angels who came to earth against the Creator’s will out of compassion for humanity, so He punished them by stripping off their wings and smothering their holy brilliance within grotesque shells of twisted stone. Now shambling rock giants, the Watchers bequeathed their knowledge to humanity, but men were unworthy and used that knowledge to not just destroy each other but lay waste to the planet. By the time Noah comes around, the world more resembled “Mad Max” than any proverbial paradise. Seeing the extent of their mistake, the Watchers finally threw in their lot with Noah, the Creator’s foreordained; and the Creator’s response to that choice can now provide a moral map to Noah as he struggles to reconcile the Creator’s judgment with His mercy. (The Watchers not only offer insight into the divine heart but also patch up weak spots in the narrative’s hull, justifying how Noah could feasibly construct such a huge boat so quickly, as well as defend it against the desperate human hordes that would steal it to survive.)

Aronofsky liberally adds other details to the mix. The character of Methuselah helps explain everything from where all the wood came from to how barren women might eventually become pregnant. He also establishes the character of Tubal-Cain not just as a physical foil but a moral contrast to Noah: The men offer competing visions for humanity between which Noah’s children must eventually choose, and Aronofsky avoids the temptation to stack the deck. Tubal-Cain raises some good points.

While none of those particular details occur within the Genesis account, they all help set up Aronofsky’s point of interest in Noah: How does a prophet of doom perceive and process the notion of mercy… if such a thing is even possible? Prophets are naturally severe in personality and perception, they foretell judgment on the community for good or ill; and for a man to persevere in such a large undertaking in the face of permanent human extermination would suggest that Noah by nature was an unyielding man, full of conviction that humanity deserved death for its crimes against innocent creation.

Aranofsky not only explores how that perspective might have developed in Noah as a boy, but he accentuates that bent to its logical conclusion and thus sets up the largest moral crux in the movie. Noah’s family is not exempt from corruption, they are all as human as those whom the Creator has destroyed; they are all descended from the first two people who ruined Paradise. So he must consider, what if his family was not chosen to be saved and restart the race of men, but chosen simply to bring the innocent animals to safety and then to complete the destruction that the Creator began, to prevent the world from being ruined yet again? Because of the severity of his loyalty, Noah must contemplate terrible actions in order to remain faithful to what he perceives to be the Creator’s intent, regardless of the cost to his family and whether anyone agrees with him. That final struggle, the battle within Noah’s heart, is one reflective of human beings in general: Is there a way to reconcile judgment with mercy… and how?

Even after Noah makes his decision, there are still ramifications to his past choices that the family must deal with. Perhaps the earth has been wiped clean of its current corruption, but only the future will tell whether that choice was effective.

 

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Believe (NBC)

If belief were enough, “Believe” would make the cut. But execution matters, and “Believe” has been struggling since the pilot. Its saving grace at the moment (versus “The River,” a darker but decent idea sunk mid-season a few years ago by flawed execution) is that its wider demographic might provide additional stability until everything settles.

“Believe” tracks the weekly adventures of a little fugitive named Bo with as-yet-unspecified mental powers (although so far we’ve seen telekinesis, telempathy, animal summoning, and even some precog) and her protector Tate (an escaped convict), running from the research thinktank that bred and trained her for its own purposes.

Sounds like an idea with potential bite? Well, not as currently implemented. The mix between Alfonso Cuarón and JJ Abrams is an odd one, resulting in  a hybrid that seems part “Firestarter Lite” and part “Highway to Heaven.” The simplistic but heartfelt resolutions seem aimed in flavor of ABC’s “Once Upon a Time” crowd (oddly, the latter seems darker), rather than kind of edgier work you’d expect from Cuarón’s involvement. Instead of some dark topics and incredible action sequences, we just get a little girl who intrudes into a different person’s life every week and helps resolve some painful issue in their lives — something Tate once refers to appropriately as her “door-to-door Chicken Soup for the Soul bit.”

With that kind of angle, “Believe” so far isn’t working well as a serious drama, but I suppose if NBC wanted to add a “feel good” show to its lineup, it could have done far worse. Bo’s relationship with Winter (the head researcher who trained and eventually took her from the facility to protect her) is endearing, and the fledgling connection between strong-willed Nate and Bo (where neither knows how they’re related… or at least Bo pretends not to) seems natural and real enough.

In fact, casting is one of the show’s strengths. Jake McLaughlin’s Tate is less articulate and more prickly than Sawyer from “Lost,” yet remains likeable because you know he’s not quite the jerk he aspires to be. And Johnny Sequoya in her first front-and-center role as Bo is intriguing — she’s cute, smart, sassy without being repulsive, the kind of self-assured and empathetic little girl who inspires you to believe even if you think she has no clue about how life really works. Delroy Lindo as Winter, protecting Bo against exploitation by his former partner Skouras (Kyle MacLachlan), projects a love for the little girl that remains palpable and untarnished; and MacLachlan’s ruthless pragmatism is balanced by an idealism for how Bo could help humanity to improve. One of the best scenes so far, in fact, has been the brief meetup between Winter and Skouras in a local delicatessen (a riff on the “coffee shop bit” in Michael Mann’s “Heat”) where they unexpectedly sit down to discuss their differences of opinion.

However, as mentioned before, the show kind of “plays” at suspense without being suspenseful. Every episode, there’s a lot of running, a lot of hiding, a lot of Bo disobeying Tate’s incessant nagging and doing things that almost (or actually) get them caught, then Bo doing something that helps them escape without hurting anyone, and… cycle, rinse, repeat. The old “Incredible Hulk” TV series could make this format work, but… in today’s TV world? The times, they been a-changin’.

And the action sequences are unbelievable: When people normally would get shot, the perpetrator doesn’t fire; when Bo could use her powers, she does so in the slowest and least effective way possible; escape routes conveniently occur in places where they normally wouldn’t (like the storm tunnel trapdoor in the hallway of a death-row maximum security ward, way back in the pilot). And so far, while Tate was chosen to protect Bo so that Winter wouldn’t lead anyone to her, literally every episode so far involves Winter personally stepping in like a deus ex machina to save them. Why not just keep Bo with Winter, at this rate?

“Believe” also utilizes repeated story flashbacks without seeming to be quite comfortable with the story device. “Lost” and some other series have been able to show flashbacks, flashforwards, flash sideways, flashing in every which way but loose, without ever needing to tell us “when” they happened by using setting, character appearance, timely pop culture elements, and other clues organic to the scene to signify time and setting… but “Believe” consistently stamps ugly subtitles on the screen to spell it out for everyone (and at least in one episode, multiple times for the SAME time period). A little more visual distinction in the scenes or a little more trust for the viewers would go a long way.

Finally, I was hoping for more honesty in a show where both Abrams and Cuarón were involved, but the story keeps selling out for the “happy ending.” [Note: HIMYM viewers disgruntled by their series finale might be more satisfied here.] For example, a soldier breaks off an engagement to his fiance without explaining why [although the reason is legitimate], and when Bo reintroduces the couple years later, the ex-fiance tells him (truthfully) that she still does love him, but she’s engaged to someone else, so they can’t be together now. Bo seems confused and a bit distraught by this turn of events, Tate feels bad but makes it a “teachable moment” about how sometimes things just don’t work out even when your intentions are good; and then “Believe” backpedals with a rather absurd “Snidely Whiplash” moment that suggests it doesn’t have the courage to enter ambiguous places.

Enjoyment of the show will depend on what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for a light, happy fix of goodwill, with a dash of the fantastic, then you might enjoy “Believe.” If you don’t like shows where people carry guns and girls throw cars but no one gets hurt and characters are more a plot contrivance of the plot than exploring the grit accmulated by living in a fallible and uncertain world, then it’s becoming more and more difficult to believe that “Believe” will go somewhere meaningful.

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The LEGO Movie

The LEGO Movie is one of the pictures where the less said about it ahead of time, the better. So I won’t say a lot about the specifics.

But I will say that this movie works on so many levels at once, it’s clear that despite the ease with which it unfolds on the screen, the lines and plot and themes were carefully thought through. This movie was lovingly crafted, and with deep respect for its audience. What comes off as cliche in other movies did not scan as cliche here.

It works as a pop-culture smorgasbourd (anything from fantasy and comic book tropes to science fiction movies and Saturday morning cartoons).

It works as a nostalgic peek at the toys that multiple generations have built with.

It works as a humor Gatlin gun, one laugh flung right after the next so that you might miss a few zingers if you’re not attentive.

It works as a self-referential story with strong overtones of The Matrix, dovetailing the efforts of freedom fighters to overthrow a despotic regime with one LEGO figure’s quest to find meaning for himself.

It works as an exploration of the relationship between parent and child — what kinds of expectations exist and what kinds of interactions are ultimately productive for everyone.

It works as a criticism of cultures that alternately squelch out creativity and freedom in favor of mindless productivity and efficiency, while at the same time frantically stoking the self-indulgent fires of each individual’s imagined self-importance.

It also works at the best kind of advertisement, not just as a venue for multiple product placement or by presenting options for what one can build with LEGOs, but by respecting and encouraging the creative spark that exists in EVERY person regardless of whether someone is zany or traditional, old or young. It says that we all can be remarkably inventive, regardless of our personality style, without a quiver of exploitation or snark in its voice.

And this last bit, in a movie that could have easily veered into becoming mostly cynical or somewhat trite, that could have favored part of its audience at the exclusion of other parts but didn’t, is what makes it truly remarkable.

4.5/5

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Divergent

One of Divergent’s strengths is that it isn’t “The Host” or “I Am Number Four,” but every time the movie almost becomes interesting, it swerves back to the format’s conventions.

Divergent is one of those vague post-apocalyptic tales that looks like it was paid for on someone’s credit card despite an $85 million budget.  It looks like it was shot in the ghost city of Pripyat, Ukraine; there are very little special effects (aside from maybe parts of the “fear” sequences and the short-lived zipline scene); and the prop lists consists of a train always running in the same direction, a springy net, an assortment of plastic guns, and whatever non-descript clothes the characters wear on their backs.

(As “The Host” exemplified, sometimes less is, well, less.)

People have labeled “Divergent” as “Hunger Games Lite,” which is understandable but rather unfair because “The Hunger Games” at least seems to make more sense. A revolution against the ruling class leads to the subjugated provinces being forced to pay tribute and having their children drafted into annual games for sport? That story is an old one; I can buy it.

What we have here, though, is more of internalized angst — the unnuanced adolescent quest for identity coupled with typical cynical mistrust of the system — externalized into a contrived plot. The remnants of Chicago have been divided into five rigid factions to which everyone must belong; and unless you’re “Divergent” (i.e., don’t fit into the system), you’re presented as part of the uninspired 95% — soulless, uninventive drones who just follow orders and support the establishment. Rebel against the system? Any sane person would, or at least set up a council populated by people from all the factions; but apparently few of the adults have any backbone or common sense, so that job is going to fall to the kids. The movie seems to be a cross between flipping the bird at tests like the popularized Myers-Briggs Trait Inventory (MBTI) and the typical unease teens feel at the thought of selling out one’s ambitions to find economic and social security in an undesirable career.

Woodley plays Beatrice (later renaming herself “Tris,” which sounds less stodgy), a daughter of Abnegationists who has reached the age of choice, but of course she tests as a multiple (Divergent) and ends up choosing Dauntless — which is not just the most exciting-looking faction but the one most convenient for the plot (since it allows for fighting and action sequences — the movie would far slower if she had picked the equivalent of the farmers, altruists, lawyers, or brainiacs). While they’re supposed to be cops and soldiers, Dauntless seems to spend the days and nights running around town whooping like drunk frat boys on the last day of class, climbing stuff and jumping off things. I suspect their mortality rate is much higher than the other factions.

Woodley is never quite convincing as a girl with enough edge to stay in the game; underneath she seems soft rather than hard. It’s telling that, no matter what trouble she gets herself into, her eyebrows and hair remain picture-perfect or merely mussed in the way a model’s would be. However, she and Tobias (Theo James, noticeably older than his character but more than adequately solid and empathetic) hold the movie together; both are likeable and relate well to each other, and I wanted to see them happy.

The movie trundles on by the numbers, each beat as predictable as the rails under a train track. Tris is the underdog but manages to make each cut mostly because she doesn’t quit. Tobias, the hot, kind, quiet guy, of course falls for her. And of course he is Divergent as well. (Believe me, that’s not really a spoiler.) She manages to bump a few times into Jeanine, the head of Erudite who also serves as the movie’s baddy; and Winselt plays the role with perfunctory coolness that doesn’t fool us for a second about her regard for Tris as more of a structural nuisance rather than an interesting rarity. Toss in some predictable family tragedy to clean up loose plot threads + provide additional motivation for Tris to really rebel, and you’ve got your setup for the next movie.

I can’t speak for Roth’s original text (which I haven’t read but suspect was deeper), nor for the travails of condensing this book to the screen, but the movie as completed seems overgeneralized — vague and thin. What would have happened if the factions and adults had been treated less as cliches? What if the deck hadn’t been stacked so much in favor of the Divergents? I’m hoping that later movies will reveal substantial reasons that could justify the existence of the faction system, or at least why the authorities fear those who have no regard for the establishment aside from simply the threat of losing their power.

You don’t necessarily need to be Divergent in order to be cool.

 

2.5/5

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The Host

The Host is the kind of movie you keep going back to over and over… because it’s impossible to watch more than 5-10 minutes at a time without either being completely bored out of your mind or completely shaking your head over what’s unfolding.

But it’s hard to complain in light of the fact that, despite all the critic outrage, this flop of a movie might really just be the fault of poor marketing and distribution choices. The reality is that this isn’t really box-office material; it should have been either direct to video or a made-for-TV feature. The trailer itself — “Alien doesn’t quite possess girl’s body, the hybrid flees back to the secret human base where no one trusts her” — tells you all you need to know to skip the first 50 minutes, and then the rest proceeds at the level of a teenage girl drama written for split showings on Nickelodeon and SyFy, where the biggest dilemma seems to be choosing which boy she should actually let kiss her.

The premise itself is fascinating. What really happens if an entire race of aliens takes over most of humanity? What would it feel like to have an interloper in control of your body, and what happens when you’re the interloper who realizes you are exploiting the enslavement of other independent beings? As two minds working together in one body, how do you navigate two worlds where both sides fear and hate you, to the point of destroying you? Instead of the complexity of such psychological and sociological navigation, we just get a lot of teenage angst and lust throw into a blender, with the lust itself being extremely subdued; and the headier ideas are mostly approached at the level of novice song lyrics scribbled in the margins of a high-schooler’s notebook.

There were also many, many bad choices here in terms of creating and maintaining dramatic tension, including how the entire opening (the capturing of Melanie and the insertion of the alien Wanderer) was handled so routinely. I’ve read a few pages of the book, so I’m aware that the movie is tracking the text here, but this was a chance to translate the story to a new medium and compensate for any deficiencies. I can’t imagine how that entire capture/possession/escape sequence could have been rendered with less suspense or made less interesting.

Meanwhile, the interplay between the human Melanie and the alien Wanderer/Wanda is handled as voice overdubs and simply doesn’t work in the way intended, especially when Wanda starts doing things Melanie doesn’t like (like kissing the wrong dude — or on occasion the right one) and we listen to her protest wildly (and ineffectively) in the background. There were so many moments that could have been dramatically interesting and instead generated unintended laughs.

There are also numerous “what?” moments, where the logic of the plot changes just-because — such as when Melanie pushes Wanda to return to the Resistance, where she is promptly imprisoned as an “it” (what the humans rather boorishly call the aliens), and then Melanie tells her there’s no way to prove she’s really on their side, so now they’re both going to die. Was the entire escape just an elaborate suicide scheme on Melanie’s part, or was it just lazy plotting? This lack of through-line for character motivation and rationality is one reason The Host just comes off as a big featureless jumble of ideas.

Along with constant emotional outbursts that mean nothing, we also are offered interchangeable characters, whether alien or Resistance, there to utter whatever pretentiously vague social truths should dominate the moment. (Besides, any time you hear the lines, “You need to kiss me. Melanie hates it when you kiss me. I need you to bring her back,” this is probably two sentences more than any normal teenage boy needs an excuse for in order to kiss a girl.)

There are some standouts among the cast. William Hurt as the Resistance leader brings some stability to any scene he’s part of, even if it’s not enough to elevate the material. And it’s too bad we didn’t get to see what Saoirse Ronan could really do in a starring role; she was capable in “The Lovely Bones,” and here she is earnestly compelling as Wanda, an inquisitive and yet private alien who means well and is mortified at how her people have enslaved humanity. Emily Browning gets a very short uncredited cameo at movie’s end. As Head Seeker, Diane Kruger actually starts to explore the darker side of the human/alien symbiosis until her plotline gets conveniently subsumed into another. Francis Fisher (“Titanic”) is rather wasted.

Probably one of the largest shocks of The Host is how Andrew Niccol, typically an interesting and thoughtful director, was so intimately involved (director and cowriter) in such a bomb. It almost bears speculation that he had been taken over by an alien who then struggled writing a screenplay for a race of beings it didn’t yet understand. If someone could get Charlie Kauffman to write that script, that might be a movie for adults worth watching.

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Mama

All the things we’ve heard about “a mother’s love” take on a decided chill in light of “Mama,” where supernatural arms of love don’t hesitate to smother and strangle wannabe protectors who horn in on her territory.

The movie begins with an unexpected death and two little girls taken by their father, and what almost happens next in a lost forest hideaway is unmentionable. Fortunately for the girls, someone (AKA something) is watching over them. And this is where their problems both end… and begin.

The father’s brother (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who also plays the father) never stops searching for the children and eventually they are found.

His relief is not matched by his goth slash punk slash whatever-she-is (we just know it involves a lot of black t-shirts/eyeliner) girlfriend Annabel, however, who is put off by the changes in location and lifestyle she must accommodate in order to raise these two little girls who mean so much to the man she loves. The rest of the movie is spent tracking her development from “other” to “mother,” and how that pits her against another maternal soul who has already laid claim to the children.

There are some things about “Mama” that unarguably annoying. For example, it’s packed full of “Dumb Things That Happen in Horror Movies Where You Wish You Could Strangle the Characters Yourselves Before the Monster Gets Them,” and I wish sometimes I could just lock up these characters for their own good, so that they wouldn’t go and do anything stupider. A significant portion of the action also takes place in yet another isolated “cabin in the woods.” And the characters often seem pushed about in order to make the plot work.

But there are also some good things. Jessica Chastain might not be entirely believable as a rocker girl despite the clothes and makeup, but she does believably track the progression from indifferent girlfriend to mother figure to these two girls she didn’t exactly welcome with open arms.

(As with at least one other critic I’ve read, I was reminded of the Ripley/Newt relationship from “Aliens,” which elevates what is a basic genre picture to something a little more substantial around the theme of motherhood between survivors. The more Annabel cares about the girls, the more I found I cared about the movie, even if at times the scenes and plot seem cobbled together.)

There are a number of horror tropes that occur in the movie, but “Mama” — knowing them by heart — doesn’t pretend to be original, it simply capitalizes on the expectations to generate scares and sometimes wildly succeeds. For example, in one scene, we suspect that Lilly is playing with Mama in the bedroom, but Muschietti makes us WAIT for it… agonizingly forcing us to track Annabel around the house until we can see (by visual elimination) that there is nothing human left in the house to be playing with Lilly. Mama is kept tantalizingly out of view (or at least masked by shadow) for the longest time. There’s also a scene with boxes that plays with expectation.

Visually, Mama herself is unsettling — a mix of computer imagery and an actor with an ailment called Marfan’s Syndrome, which results in distortions and elongations of the human body. Both Mama’s appearance and her methods of locomotion are effectively eerie.

But the movie’s heart really revolves around the little girls Victoria and Lilly. Feral kids absorb the traits and behavior of whatever beasts raised them, and when the girls are first found in the woods, they don’t move like people. Watching them scuttle about and play, I honestly felt like I was watching something more animal than human. Victoria, the older bespectacled girl who was better socialized before heading “into the wild,” eventually finds her way back to some semblance of humanity, recalling many things that she had merely forgotten; but poor Lilly, never being raised by people in the first place, seems hopelessly trapped between worlds. Victoria’s growing attachment to Annabel (versus Lilly’s fervid distrust of her) only drives a wider rift between the girls, and it’s clear that things will get ugly before they get better… if things getting better with Mama is even a possibility.

Eventually Annabel resolves the mystery surrounding Mama, and there’ s a final climactic confrontation of “mommo y mommo.” The ending seems like an attempt to split the difference between the sort of resolutions we’re used to; in that sense, “Mama” is more original in its conclusion than in other aspects, but is it a fulfilling resolution? Even as a producer, Del Toro’s trademark of melding beauty with horror might or might not work here. I found myself strangely indifferent, while simultaneously haunted by the ways we form attachments to people and things just out of familiarity, and how difficult it can then be to break those ties even when it might be in our best interests.

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The Fountain

“Why do you cry, Tomas?”

“To see Spain brought so low, with an enemy living within her borders, feasting on her strength,” agonizes the queen’s hard-driven conquistador. “I have failed her.”

“This loyalty of yours inspires you to protect Spain at any cost, but killing the Inquisitor is suicide,” says Queen Isabella.

The time periods change, the specific foe might change; but each narrative in “The Fountain” is one of clutching for life within mortality, something fallen humans have done (according to Judeo-Christian tradition) ever since God banished Adam and Eve from the Garden and placed a flaming sword there to keep the Tree of Life from our grasp.

But Tomas, the queen’s champion, has been sent to New Spain in hopes of locating the Tree. Tom, accompanied by a now-dying tree, travels through space to reach Xiabalba, Land of the Dead, part of a dwindling star. And in modern times, Tommy, a cancer research scientist, works frantically from extracts of the same tree to cure his wife Izzi before she succumbs to the tumor that is slowly killing her.

There is little doubt that the story of Izzi and Tommy is authentic, although whether you believe in the factual veracity of Tomas’ quest or Tom’s interstellar journey is up to you; Izzi herself writes the bulk of the past and future tales in her notebook labelled “The Fountain” before passing the last chapter off to Tommy to finish, truly making “their” story a joint effort. The question is whether Tommy will have the courage and wisdom to discern the authentic conclusion to the narrative versus the one he prefers.

Izzi and Tommy initially seem to share the vision that Tommy needs to cure her. “Take this ring as a sign of your promise,” Izzi’s regal counterpart says in 1500 AD. “When you find Eden, you shall wear it, and when you return, I shall be your Eve, and together we shall live forever.” But the further she proceeds into her cancer, the more Izzi explores the likelihood of her death and what eternal meaning can be found within it. This creates tension between the lovers as she becomes aware of patterns that Tommy can’t yet acknowledge, deepening their individual wells of loneliness at a time when each desperately needs the other even more.

Aronofsky explores pairs here — death and life, husband and wife, past and future. Are these things truly separate, or are they each part of the other, forever and always? Aronofsky lets even the imagery bleed together; the same lines of dialogue reverberate across the timelines (“Is everything all right?” / “Yes. Everything’s all right”), sometimes taking on different meaning depending on context, and in places visuals from multiple timelines are merged unsettlingly to blur differences and draw additional connections.

The Fountain is not an easy movie to evaluate. Could the story have been told better? On first viewing, I found myself moved in some spots and confused in others; a second viewing, once I had read a synopsis or two, proved much more profound and I can now recognize how interlocked the elements actually are. The story is much more efficient than it seems at first glance.

I do believe a movie should be accessible on its own merits, and yet there are ideas and images of such magnificence in “The Fountain” that I’m not only glad I invested the effort but recognize that perhaps some of the depth might have been lost with a simpler telling. Both Jackman and Weisz offer brave, vulnerable performances that linger with me, and the Kronos soundtrack lends the movie grandeur. The juxtaposition of human mortality with the notion of enduring love is not something that is easily resolved, so why should a movie about it be?

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Dredd

Dredd, unfettered by philosophical complication, reads as follows: Bad-ass futuristic cop trapped with rookie in building full of remorseless criminals. Will he get out alive? And will the rookie not just survive but pass her impromptu on-the-job initiation exam?

Simple story, still enjoyable.

Yes, the plot has similar overtones to the imported “The Raid” (despite the fact that “Dredd” actually went through a number of drafts before “The Raid” even got made.) And the original Judge Dredd with Stallone back in the 1990’s didn’t exactly win any awards. And the villain here (the notorious Ma-Ma) was a bit understated, even if ruthless by the atrocities she orders her hirelings to commit; a more rated-R-bordering-on-NC17 tallywhacking cluster of scalliwags doesn’t exist on this side of the virtual ghetto.

One of the most interesting aspects of Dredd was the character development of the rookie, a budding telepath without proper combat training who passes from soft-skinned naivety to a fully fledged “don’t f*** with me, mofo” mindset in the space of eight hours. The change isn’t just imagined, you can actually observe it, especially in the scenes she shares inside the heads of the crooks she’s forced to confront. She’s tougher than you might expect at first glance.

The other interesting angle was the SloMo drug, which is more than just a trip, it’s a stretched-out sparkly ride into the depths of a mental black hole that makes even one’s impending demise seem wondrous, like riding a demonic blood-guzzling unicorn spraying clouds of stardust and black powder. The movie is filmed in such a way that we experience these moments along with the characters; it’s about as good a trip as you can take without shooting up yourself.

For a drama, there might not be substantial meat on the bones, but for an action movie, it’s more than enough to lend some depth to the grit and grime of Mega-City One.

Urban’s done solid work in action movies (Riddick, Bourne, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings), and he’s just as capable here of believably taking and dishing out punishment as he was in “Red.” He manages to pull off Dredd while showing only his lower face — not the easiest job for an actor, especially one who is substantially easy on the eyes and might be tempted to coast at times. Stripped down to the basics, his version of Dredd is capable, unruffled, pragmatic, remorseless. Even the rasp of a voice works better for him here than for Bale’s Bruce Wayne, creating legitimate unease in the viewer rather than a plethora of snide fanboy comments on the Internet. 

If this cop pulled you over for a ticket, you wouldn’t try to talk your way out; in fact, it would be advised to just keep your hands on the wheel and do everything he tells you. In this world, Dredd is literally judge, jury, and executioner.

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Cloud Atlas

Invariably when I say I’ve seen Cloud Atlas, the first question always is, “What’s it about?” That’s like asking what the Internet is about — easy to ask, difficult to answer… especially if you’re trying not to spoiler the movie badly.

Since its release, like or dislike for Cloud Atlas seems to reveal more about the viewer than about the film. In one of the later sequences, Sonmi-451 says, “Knowledge is a mirror, and for the first time in my life, I was allowed to see who I was….” Well, Atlas is a mirror as well, a jumbled network of ideas and characters aiming to tell us more about ourselves, and trying to sort through everything on the fly can be dizzying. It took me two viewings to discern what through-lines exist, and a third to start noticing small repetitive details that pull the through-lines together.

In the broadest sense, Cloud Atlas explores the influence of universal karma in the lives of a few particular souls reborn across a span of five hundred years. The movie even provides its own metaphor for this journey in the orchestral piece entitled, “The Cloud Atlas Sextet,” which one of the characters composes but musically overlays all the segments. The gist is that we (human beings) create this music together; we are not separate from each other as we might imagine, not isolated strains; no, we all are part of the same symphony and not just contribute to each other’s melodies but are changed by them, for good or ill.

Cloud Atlas is ambitious and probably terrifying to film — the kind of feeling that you are leaping out into space without a rope and that a pack of savages awaits you at the bottom of the fall if you fail to fly. But the directors thought through everything, from what aspects of the book were most important to capture to what changes needed to be made in order to fit the medium of film.

One of the most brilliant conversions was the structure. The book is written in chiasmic fashion, where if you assign each part a letter, the structure can be depicted as ABCDEFEDCBA. The movie, however, spirals through the narratives in an ABCDEF approach, to set the stage for each, then continues to whirl from part to part based on the visual and audial hooks from each in a way that reinforces the moment’s theme and tone. In this way, the settings and characters are not only established before we can forget who everyone is, but there are tighter dramatic links between each story – the similarities in pattern are more obvious, the resonance more pronounced.

The souls are also of different makes and models. One struggles with suicide regardless of incarnation. Two others seem perpetual villains, their lot in life only worsening with each despicable or boorish act they pursue as extensions of the “order of the age” (and let’s clear this up front – society is not the hero in this movie, it’s the disease). There are souls that are good but bland, and the occasional noble spirit. And a few of these souls seem adept at finding each other, life after life, to reaffirm love once thought lost.

There is one soul in particular who swings between bad and good, incarnation through incarnation, until there is finally an opportunity for repeated acts of bravery to compensate for past patterns of cowardice and greed. Even then, salvation will be found jointly, if at all. “From womb to tomb,” says Sonmi-451, “we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.” We speak of individual souls, yes, but in a sense we’re all part of the same ocean and there is no division between us.

The actors are all invested; some succeed better than others. The stories are also of all different genre and tone — from noir detective and modern farce to scifi thriller and a version of Burgess’ Nadsat — so some sequences might be more palatable than others to a particular viewer. Still, the performances are most interesting in the vision they contribute to, even if it’s amazing how certain actors melt into their roles so much as to be almost unrecognizable. Complaints about makeup hold less water with the audience needing to recognize the souls via the actors, so makeup has to still permit some sense of who is wearing it. Having a racially and gender-diverse cast where all actors eventually portray all genders and nationalities in their various reincarnations reminds us that boundaries and categories are ultimately illusions, which would make the suppression of individual voices a form of social murder. The Wachowski siblings made this statement back in the Matrix, where rebellion against the system is mandated in order to save it, and it would be no wonder if Lana, with her unique background, has contributed an accentuated personal sense here of what marginalization of minorities can occur at the hands of the social order.

The strengths of Cloud Atlas seem to also be its weaknesses. It is big, broad, interwoven; multi-genred, generating a gamut of emotions; at times it can seem like a big ball of rewound yarn, unruly and rough around the edges, parts of it impenetrable until the outer layers unravel. It has characters that can be considered funny, scary, lovable, loathsome, admirable, resonant. At the same time, if you step back to see rather than getting lost in the details, you can see something bigger that all that, like a field of night festooned with twinkling stars … and the occasional brilliant comet streaking across.

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