Interstellar Review

interstellarI recently saw Interstellar, the highly-anticipated film from director Christopher Nolan. It’s not without its flaws, but it’s a very ambitious film that deserves a place in the canon of ‘hard sci-fi’ cinema. Its indebtedness to predecessors such as 2001 and Contact is evident throughout, but it manages to make a unique contribution to the genre through its ideas and impressive visual imagery. If I have one criticism of the film, I would say that the third act is too metaphysical (an odd criticism for a student of philosophy to make!). To say more about that, however, would be to spoil the ending of the film and this is a movie that should really be entered spoiler-free. Read on at your own risk if you haven’t yet seen it, although I will try to avoid major spoilers in this review.

The film begins by establishing that earth is running out of food. Humanity has reverted to an agrarian society; everybody has become a farmer, including former test pilot and engineer, Cooper, played by Matthew McConaughey. He and his family, including his precocious 10 year old daughter Murph, live on a farm that’s reminiscent of something from Ken Burns’ documentary The Dust Bowl. Murph begins to experience strange phenomena in her bedroom, such as books flying off the shelves. She concludes that a ghost is responsible. This sets up the first of the film’s ‘big ideas’: the tension between science and skepticism on the one hand and spirituality and sentimentality on the other. Without delving too deeply into spoilers, part of what the film attempts to do is overcome this dichotomy.

Murph’s attempt to interpret these messages from beyond leads her and her father to discover a secret NASA installation overseen by Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and his daughter (Anne Hathaway). They are planning a risky voyage to find a new home for humanity among the stars. The NASA team has discovered a wormhole that leads to another galaxy. Three astronauts have already gone through the wormhole in search of habitable worlds and have sent back some promising data. Professor Brand recruits Cooper to lead the mission to reach these potentially habitable planets. Cooper makes the decision to leave his family and embark on what’s likely to be a one-way mission into deep space. Because of the time dilation effects of deep space travel, he will experience time at a slower rate than those on earth. He faces the possibility that his family, including his children, will age and die before he ever gets back — if he ever gets back. However, as Professor Brand reminds him, in order to survive, humanity must think as a species, not as individuals.

I won’t say anymore about the plot, because to do so would get into spoiler territory. Instead, I’m going to talk more generally about the themes involved in the film. There are almost too many ideas going on in this film (although that’s preferable to there being too few) and there’s definitely a balancing act going on between the rigor of the science — which by sci-fi standards is quite high — and metaphysical speculation. Throughout the film, the characters speculate that gravity holds the key to understanding the mysteries of the universe. From my layman’s understanding, this speculation is rooted in recent theoretical physics. Stephen Hawking has attributed the creation of the universe itself to gravity and other theoretical physicists have speculated that gravity might be evidence of the existence of extra dimensions and even other universes. In the film, however, this scientific account is juxtaposed with the notion that love — something not easily quantifiable — is in some sense the most fundamental force in the universe. Again, I can’t say too much about the way this theme plays out without giving too much away. Suffice it to say that in a movie ostensibly about the technical aspects of deep space travel, wormholes, black holes, and relativity, the film devotes about a third of its running time to a very metaphysical exploration of the power of love to literally transcend space and time.

Interstellar’s turn into metaphysical, quasi-spiritual territory towards the end of the film has divided audiences. I think you’ll either like it or you won’t. I’m actually quite conflicted about what side of that divide I fall on. I rather liked the dilemma with which the crew is faced at a certain point in the movie — whether to return home or press on and find a home for the human embryos they carry with them. The film’s resolution to this dilemma is to try and have it both ways. It’s a creative solution, I suppose, but it feels a little too much like an M. Night Shyamalan film (albeit one of his better ones). The twist ending, which Nolan has employed in The Prestige, Inception, and The Dark Knight Rises, doesn’t really work for me here. To be fair, the film sets up the dichotomy between science and spirituality from the beginning and its eventual resolution — a New Age-y interpretation that sees the counter-intuitive world of arcane physics as making room for spirituality — is not completely out of left field.

That said, the film should be seen for its visuals alone. I found it to be the most visually compelling film I’ve seen this year and the best example to date of Nolan’s ability as a visual director. Unlike Inception, which I felt was marred by clunky exposition, Interstellar places much more confidence in the power of the image to convey the story. There is, of course, some expository dialogue, but nothing like the excesses of some of his earlier work. In Interstellar, Nolan trusts the visuals to carry the narrative to a much greater extent than he has in the past and, in my judgment, this is a promising development.

If you’re a fan of 2001 and Contact, I think you will enjoy Interstellar.


I Believe in Gotham City

Guest blogger and comic book aficionado, Jason Major, takes an in-depth look at the Gotham trailer and offers some predictions on the upcoming series.

Gotham is an upcoming show on FOX TV Mondays that is about Detective James Gordon trying to fight crime in Gotham City after the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents. Far from just a Bruce Wayne origin, the show is described as a crime opera focusing on the cops and the fall of Gotham City and the origins of the villains and world of the Dark Knight.

The first full extended trailer has been released as well as a “Villains Themed” shorter trailer can be seen here:

My review of the trailer may be different than than that of the TV series itself, but so far it is shaping up to be fantastic. The trailer itself takes on a more cinematic look, and I’m sure if someone took the time to mash it up with a Batman trailer, it would almost look like the origins of a new Batman movie.

The look is very similar to me to the Batman: Animated Series of the 90’s — a modern yet retro look with retro-looking clothing, a very Noir-ish looking Gotham. Even the producers admit their influence is from New York in the 70’s.

One of the promising aspects is that they are looking straight at the source material for the cops and supporting cast for Gordon, using the Gotham Central comic book (a comic which focused on Gotham’s cops in a world with Batman) for reference and using established characters like Renee Montoya, Harvey Bullock, Crispus Allen and Sara Essen to further populate its world.

Villain-wise, we are being promised many of the “big bads” of Batman very early on. The Penguin is a key character here, more based on the newest Batman: Earth One graphic novel (a reboot comic version of the character), where Penguin is skinnier and smaller than round and fat, but also much more vicious. Selina Kyle (Catwoman) is also part of the cast, as a young homeless girl/thief, and Edward Nygma has been given a new origin as a forensic scientist with a penchant for puzzles and riddles. A young Poison Ivy was also shown in the trailer.

The Joker has also been promised sometime, very possibly by the end of season one, although “with great care and thought”. My own hope is that they go with the classic Jack Napier/gangster Joker. I would be interested in seeing a Noir-like origin for the Joker, perhaps as a gangster with a troubled past who eventually becomes the Red Hood before becoming the Joker we know. My guess is that Joker will become a supporting character once he is introduced.

The Batman: Earth One graphic novel is set on DC’s New Earth One, where they are doing graphic novel reboots of their characters separate from their New 52 line. Its influence on Gotham is seen both in Penguin and also a new approach to Alfred as more of a Butler/ex- marine bodyguard (this version was also used in the new Beware the Batman cartoon). In many ways, this version does make some sense, as Bruce is only 10-12 years old right now.

The trailer looks fantastic, and despite what else you may read from internet fans complaining about “this will suck because it is not Batman”, early reviews from critics and word-of-mouth suggest they are looking at this series to become a breakout hit at Fox. A full-season order would not be picked up for a show at this time usually, and a full-season order shows more confidence in the final product.

Also, I find many of the complaints unfounded. For example, comparisons can’t be made to Smallville. Superman’s mythology as Superboy/young Clark Kent has a lot less in the comics in terms of classic villains and world-building. I would argue that Batman has one of the greatest rogues gallery, but also one of the best supporting casts in all of comics. There is a lot of great world-building that can be done if they do a nice mix of gangster/street-level villains and classic rogues gallery. Also, none of the creators of Smallville have anything to do with the show. Both Bruno Heller and Danny Cannon were heavily involved in CSI, which is by far a better comparison for Gotham. CSI seems to have lasted for quite some time now and had multiple spin-offs. Other shows Bruno Heller has been involved in include Rome and The Mentalist, both critically-acclaimed shows. Ben Mackenzie was a cop on the crime drama Southland, as well as the voice of Batman on the animated movie Batman: Year One, which seems like good groundwork for his role to me. Donal Logue was also acclaimed on Sons of Anarchy and Vikings, (and also has comic book cred in Ghost Rider as Johnny Blaze’s friend) and the cast is surrounded by interesting characters as well.

Gotham’s challenges, in my mind, will live or die by the writing. For me, part of the problem with 21st century television is that shows are so serialized that they hard to follow from week to week and you give up and wait for the DVD/Blu-ray release. One way Gotham seems to be avoiding the problems of serialized TV is that the producers/directors have mapped out already the entire first season. This is a stark contrast to a series like Smallville, which in my opinion seemed to be made up as they went along. Also, here’s hoping the procedural-like formula will help it be a show that will be more easy to jump into. If done right, it should be simple for new viewers: Gotham is corrupt; Gordon is trying to stop the escalation; Bruce is one day going to become Batman.

The other potential problem is if the story becomes too repetitive. Will the series still feel fresh two years in, while we are continuing to wait? Will they use too many of the big villains too soon? Batman has a large encyclopedia of villains. If they mix the gangster-type villains, the classic more well-known rogues, and revamp some of the lesser-known rogues, plus the more traditional police procedural murders/cases, Gotham could have a chance at becoming a very interesting crime epic.

The actor playing Bruce Wayne has a lot on his shoulders. I would love to see this kid grow into Batman through the more classic origin: by studying hard and learning from the world around him. The producers have promised that you won’t see teen Bruce Wayne drama. Instead, you’re going to see a kid who knows early on that his calling is to become the saviour of Gotham. My hope is that they will play first with the classic origin where he tries to do this through the law until it becomes self-evident that this is impossible. It’s important here to remember that the classic origin for Batman is more rooted in Batman wanting to make sure that his personal tragedy never happens again. It’s less about vengeance and more about justice and taking his tragedy upon his shoulders and preventing anyone else from having to go through that again. The child actor has to interestingly portray a character going through this transformation into the Batman, rather than a character in a soapy teen drama.

I believe in Gotham City. I believe that a crime opera in the shadow of Batman could work. Only time will tell if I am right, but for now the Dark Knight rises on television. (Yes, I know, I had to.)

Top Ten Modern Martial Arts Movies

Guest-blogger Robert is back to share some of his favorite recent martial arts movies. Be sure to add your favorites in the comments. Enjoy!

I have been a fan of martial arts movies since I was a teenager. I remember distinctly the first time I saw a martial arts film and immediately being completely blown away. The movie was cropped to full frame, the channel wasn’t coming in terribly well and, as if that wasn’t bad enough, it was also dubbed. None of that mattered though because it was Drunken Master 2. I had never seen anything with that kind of kinetic action on screen before in my life and it had a lasting impact. To put this impact into perspective it is important to realize that the kind of big action movies that defined the 80’s and early-to-mid 90’s weren’t being made anymore. Arnold was going through the motions and not doing career defining work. Sly wasn’t in Rambo shape any more and wasn’t picking the best projects either (the less said about his Get Carter remake the better). Even action super star Jean Claude Van Damme was entering the sub-par direct-to-video period of his career. After being starved for several years of action on film that wasn’t shaky cam, brutally rehearsed CGI nonsense, Drunken Master 2 immediately filled the void. This just happened to coincide with the beginning of the era of the DVD, and enabled me to own movies with better quality and at a better price than was possible with VHS.

Hundreds of martial arts movies later, I want to try to introduce martial arts films to people who may feel the same about the action movies Hollywood is making today as I did back when I happened to catch Drunken Master 2 on TV and everything changed. I also understand that knowing where to start can be confusing. In light of that, I have compiled this list of ten martial arts movies made since the year 2000 that are a great place to start, making your journey an easy one, young grasshopper. This list isn’t a ranking though, as any one of these films are an excellent choice and would be a great first foray into the genre. With that in mind, onward to the list.

10_banlieue1310. Banlieue 13 AKA District 13 (2004)

You probably expected a film from Asia, but don’t let that put you off this great French language parkour action film. Parkour is the art of moving from A to B as quickly and efficiently as possible, usually in an urban environment. In the not-so-distant future, Paris authorities have walled off District 13 to keep its unruly residents in check. When a nuclear device is stolen by a powerful drug lord who is a resident of District 13, super-cop Damien Tomaso has to go in to disarm the device. He finds himself teaming up with parkour master and District 13 resident, Leito, to accomplish this mission. Not knowing whether to trust Leito or the government who sent him on this mission, Damien Tomaso has to discover the truth and bring the bad guys down. The martial arts in this film are fantastic and it has a great atmosphere and energy that is unique to the films of Pierre Morel and Luc Besson. Damien Tomaso uses a Savate (French kick boxing) style infused with practical Krav Maga-style disarming techniques, while Leito’s street running is incredibly kinetic and fun to watch.

9_blackbelt9. Kuro Obi AKA Black Belt (2007)

Set in the 1930’s when massive cultural changes were dividing Japan, this movie at its core is about two karate masters with opposite philosophies on what the meaning of karate is and their journey down those paths. I’m not going to go into the plot any more than that; I would much rather the movie be seen and the story unfold in the beautiful and elegant way it was intended. In my opinion though, Black Belt is THE karate movie. The karate is authentic and incredible to behold on screen in all of its brutality. At the same time, the karate is incredibly beautiful in its simplicity and deeper philosophical meaning. This is one of those special films that gets to the heart of why martial arts are still relevant today and why millions of people still seek out schools to learn these old ways of uniting mind and body with singular purpose. A must see film in the genre and I can’t say enough good things about it.

8_SPL8. Saat Po Long, AKA SPL, AKA Killzone (2005)

When a police detective finds out he doesn’t have much time left due to a brain tumor, he decides to do whatever it takes to bring down the crime kingpin he has been trying to bring in his entire career. With his unit behind him, he begins going outside the law to do whatever it takes, despite the protests of a new member in the department. What follows is an epic blood-letting that ends in two incredible action set pieces. With Simon Yam playing the detective with nothing to lose, Donnie Yen playing the new cop trying to do it by the book, and martial arts legend Sammo Hung as a deadly crime lord, this film has the best of old and new talent in the genre. Great action movies that also have great writing and performances aren’t common and this one is well worth any action fan’s time.

7. Ong Bak (2003)7_ongbak

In a small Thai village, black market antique traders steal the villages Ong Bak, which is a Buddha statue, and prompt the village to send their youngest temple monk, Ting, to Bangkok to get it back. Besides his vows to be virtuous and unattached to material things, Ting has also trained his whole life in the Muay Thai style of Nine Body Weapons. When the peaceful approach inevitably fails, Ting communicates in the only language gangsters are able to understand: blunt force trauma. Chances are if you follow action films you have already heard of Ong Bak. It’s impact on the industry was huge at the time of its release and it seemed to get more attention than most martial arts films do in the mainstream. This can mostly be attributed to the incredible martial arts depicted in the film and the excellent cinematography that captures it in a way that makes the fast and brutal movements so easy to follow on screen. Without a modest cultural understanding of why the Buddha statue that was stolen is so important to the people in this story, you may find the character motivations a bit confusing. But the movie does an excellent job of making these cultural concepts quite clear in the beginning and the action will sweep you away and have your jaw on the floor in short enough order anyway. If you haven’t seen Ong Bak yet, pick up this future martial arts classic as soon as you can. You won’t be disappointed.

6_flashpoint6. Flash Point (2007)

Set before Hong Kong’s reunification to China, Flash Point is the story of Hong Kong police Inspector Jun Ma and his fight against a powerful Vietnamese-Chinese drug ring run by three brothers. When Inspector Ma’s undercover operative is compromised, he goes on an off-the-books rampage to destroy the gang from the top down. Whereas the story is a typical one for a Hong Kong action movie, Flash Point puts it on film extremely well. The story services the action very well and this movie is all about the action. I want to avoid spoilers as much as possible, so I’ll just say that the sixteen minute bone-crunching conflict at the end is one of the best ever put to film. Not only does the film cement Donnie Yen, who plays Inspector Jun Ma, as one of the best martial arts actors of all time, but it also is an excellent showing for Collin Chou, who plays the eldest brother Tony, as an action star. In order to win the day, Inspector Jun Ma abandons his strict style for something more free-flowing and reactive. It is a subtle homage to the philosophy of Hong Kong action super-star Bruce Lee and his Jeet Kun Do; a nice touch. Must see for the incredible sixteen minute action climax alone.

5. Fearless (2006)5_fearless

Jet Li’s American films have been a mixed bag. But his body of work from China is some of the best of the martial arts genre. Way back in 1991, Jet Li filmed the classic Once Upon a Time in China, which would have him come back for two excellent sequels. It isn’t uncommon for fans to mention Once Upon a Time in China 2 as their favorite kung fu film. It is rare that any actor in any genre could make that kind of impact again, but Jet Li does with Fearless. If Once Upon a Time in China proved that Jet Li could perform as a kung fu artist on screen with some of the best, Fearless proves that he can act with some of the best too. Jet Li plays martial arts master Huo Yuanjia who is vain, lacks discipline and will fight any challenger for fame and fortune. His reckless vanity and ego lead to the loss of his family and self-imposed exile from his home. After being rescued by kindly people living in a simple farming community, Huo Yuanjia learns what the true meaning of kung fu is and uses his talent to defeat foreign oppressors in a tournament. Fearless is a near perfect kung fu movie. Its themes of the dangers of vanity and virtues of true kung fu have been staples in Chinese martial arts movies for decades, but are presented so eloquently here that it is a must see film. If at all possible, watch the director’s cut.

4_manfromnowhere4. The Man From Nowhere (2010)

Cha Tae-sik has retreated from the world due to past tragedy and lives a quiet life running a small pawn shop in a less than desirable neighborhood. His only friend is So-mi, a little girl who lives in the building with her heroine addicted mother Hyo-jeong. When Hyo-jeong steals heroine from the mob, gangsters kidnap her and So-mi. Cha Tae-sik then has to use deadly skills he acquired in his mysterious past to find So-mi and save her from a life of enslavement to a drug cartel.

South Korea has really emerged as a great film producing country. Thankfully, they are still producing martial arts movies too. The Man From Nowhere isn’t a typical martial arts movie in that it doesn’t ponder the real meaning of martial arts or anything of that nature philosophically speaking. The martial arts are present and are absolutely necessary to move the plot forward through martial conflict, but are just a tool the main character uses on his mission. The movie is shot beautifully and has a documentary feel to many of the scenes, giving a gritty and urgent feel to the movie without shaking the camera and losing the audience. Not only is the martial arts action in this film excellent, but the story is incredible as well. The standout performances by Bin Won, who plays Cha Tae-sik, and Sae-ron Kim, who plays So-mi, really do prove that not all movies that have a child as an integral character need be cringe-worthy. Definitely track The Man From Nowhere down and watch it. And then watch it again.

3. 13 Assassins (2010)

When the cruel son of the ruling lord mutilates a young woman, it becomes clear to a small group of retired samurai that if he is allowed to inherit his father’s position a new feudal war will wreak havoc upon Japan and its people. Mustering their group of thirteen to assassinate him as he travels through a small village, the thirteen assassins must overcome impossible-looking odds to complete their mission.

A list such as this cannot be complete without a samurai film on it. I saw 13 Assassins in theaters during its limited release and was blown away by it. Directed by Takashi Miike, whose work tends to be more toward the small budget horror side of the spectrum, 13 Assassins is the opposite of anything that can be described as small. This period action film portrays hundreds of foot soldiers and enough blood to make even the iron-stomached cringe. Bringing to mind the best of the samurai films by the likes of master filmmakers Kurosawa, Gosha, and Inagaki, 13 Assassins is a breath of fresh air in the martial arts genre. The struggle of the retired samurai to decide the right action makes the build interesting. Is bringing the horror of war upon a small group of soldiers and breaking the law really the right thing to do if it means preventing a war of enormous scale and suffering? Watch and decide for yourself.

2_raidredemption2. The Raid: Redemption (2011)

In Jakarta’s slums, an apartment building is run by a notorious gangster who sells shelter and contraband to the criminal element of the city. A SWAT team is sent to raid the building and clean out the underworld element flourishing there. When the mission goes pear-shaped, novice SWAT operative Rama must fight his way out of the building, full of criminal residents trying to kill him and his team, if he ever hopes to return to his home and family.

I saw this film when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and was shocked at how such a simple premise could be turned into such a compelling martial arts film. There are more fights in this movie than perhaps any other film I’ve ever seen. The variety is also welcome as guns, batons, hammers, axes, machetes, knives and empty handed fighting all wind up in the mix. The martial arts in the film is Indonesian Silat and it is effective looking as well as pleasing to the eye. Described by its director Gareth Evans as a martial arts survival horror hybrid, this one isn’t for the faint of heart. The violence is brutal and wince-inducing. And in a weird way that is why you won’t be able to look away when you watch it. The spectacle is truly jaw-dropping and if bone-crunching martial arts madness is what you crave, The Raid: Redemption is the right ticket.

1_ipman1. Ip Man (2008)

Ip Man is a quiet and independently wealthy man living in the town of Foshan in Southern China. Aside from the occasional closed door sparring session with other kung fu masters of Foshan, Ip Man is content to practice his Wing Chun kung fu, drink tea with friends and spend time with his wife and son. Even defeating the occasional Northern kung fu brawler looking for trouble doesn’t shake the pleasant routine Ip Man enjoys in Foshan. Then the Japanese invasion of 1937 changes everything and Ip Man must then apply his skill in Wing Chun to defend his fellow mistreated Chinese and defeat the Japanese who challenge him to a martial arts duel to determine Japanese superiority.

In the opening remarks for this list, I mention that this list isn’t a ranking of these films but just a list, with any of these films being worth your time. But if it was a ranked list, Ip Man would still be in the number one spot. It successfully combines the themes that define the perfect kung fu movie, themes concerning the true meaning of kung fu, friendship and the Chinese cultural identity. The Wing Chun is a joy to watch on screen and the action is top notch. Ip Man is the defining kung fu movie of the new millennium so far. If you could only watch one movie on this list I would suggest this one.

Under the Skin Review

UNDER-THE-SKIN-poster-Under the Skin is a science fiction film by Jonathan Glazer based upon the novel of the same name by Michael Faber. It stars Scarlett Johansson as a mysterious woman who prowls the streets of Edinburgh picking up men. She lures them into her van, on the pretense of a sexual liaison, but they meet a much less pleasant fate. I can’t say much more about the plot without getting into spoilers, and I don’t want to spoil the film if you haven’t seen it, however there may be some minor spoilers ahead.

Under the Skin is almost an experimental film. Some of the movie is shot in a hidden camera documentary style. The men that Johansson (her character is never named) picks up, in some cases, are not professional actors and the scenes are improvised. However, it’s difficult to tell which scenes are improvised and which are scripted. The experience is very consistent throughout. The dialogue feels authentic, and slightly awkward. The situations are quite awkward. The men seem mostly confused by Johansson’s overt advances. A lesser film would have portrayed the men as stereotypes, aggressively seeking sex, such that we feel less sympathy for them when the role of predator is reversed. But that doesn’t happen here. There’s much more subtlety. The novel, which I’ve also read, is even more subtle because the reader is privy to the character’s internal monologues. However, it’s impressive that the film manages a similar effect given its economy of dialogue.

This brings me to another point: this film is almost entirely visual. There is very little dialogue and none of it is exposition. The story is revealed to the audience slowly and requires intellectual effort on their part. The film’s pacing is very methodical. The central character’s motivations remain ambiguous. There’s no wasted dialogue or wasted scenes. Everything that happens contributes to developing character or advancing the story. Such economy is rare in movies these days, but I greatly appreciate it in this film.

Film Review Under the SkinThere’s also an art imitating life dimension to the film. In the movie, Scarlett Johannson’s character is traveling a strange, dare I say alien, landscape and interacting with people who don’t recognize her for who she is. In shooting the film, Scarlett Johansson was ‘undercover’ as it were, in a place the Hollywood A-list doesn’t frequent, interacting with people who didn’t recognize her. I wonder if there is a commentary here, intentional or otherwise, about the nature of celebrity. Famous people are just like the rest of us ‘under the skin’ as it were. If intentional, this is a dimension of interpretation that the film adds to the book. In the novel, the character does not look like Scarlett Johansson; she is not necessarily even attractive. So initially I worried that Johansson might have been miscast. However, she is outstanding in the role and her casting, especially given the subtext of the film, is a stroke of genius. And, like most men, I confess that the prospect of seeing skin in Under the Skin piqued my interest. By the way, if you’re uncomfortable with full frontal nudity (male and female) this is not the movie for you. However, the nudity is not gratuitous and Under the Skin avoids becoming an exploitation film. Again, a lesser film could have easily crossed into that territory.

Under the Skin is ultimately a study in contrasts. It combines the candid camera-style documentary footage with sparing use of impressive visual effects. It combines professional actors and unsuspecting passersby with seamless consistency. It combines mundane settings with otherworldly horror. Its narrative style reminded me of The Twilight Zone. In fact, I would love to see a shortened, monochromatic fan edit with an intro by Rod Serling, or a reasonable facsimile. Under the Skin is a welcome return to the more deliberate, more cerebral science fiction film-making of the past. And for that, I appreciate it.

The ending is sure to divide audiences. Moviegoers booed when it was first screened at film festivals. However, for me, the ending works. Perhaps reading the book prepared me for it. I remember thinking that the novel ended on an anticlimactic note, and perhaps audiences will feel the same way about the conclusion of the movie. Upon reflection, however, I realized that there was no other satisfying way to end it. Arguably, the film does an even better job than the book in capturing the irony of the ending. Suffice it to say, you’ll understand why it’s called Under the Skin.

I would recommend this movie to science fiction fans. I think it’s even a good movie to introduce non-science fiction fans to the genre. In a summer of loud blockbusters, this is a quieter film that audiences might overlook. It’s playing in limited release, but it’s well worth seeking out.

Godzilla (2014) Review

This week’s post is by guest-blogger, and monster movie fan, Robert Mullin. Enjoy!

godzillaThere can’t be many people out there who don’t at least recognize Godzilla. With a film history spanning sixty years and thirty films, Godzilla is in rarefied air with other globally recognizable icons like Superman, Popeye, Mickey Mouse and Tintin. But if you are perhaps not familiar with Godzilla at all, he is an extremely large lizard monster that is awakened by nuclear testing in the Pacific Ocean and wreaks havoc on Japanese cities with his enormous size and nuclear breath. Sure, it sounds silly when it is summed up like that, but the original film had a powerful impact on a post-war Japan. Needless to say, the character really took off and spawned many sequels and became part of the pop culture of the 20th century. We now have Hollywood banking rather successfully on the name Godzilla, because anything that already has brand awareness makes their job easier. Now then, on to the review of this reboot of Godzilla at the hands of the American filmmakers, but word of warning: there are going to be spoilers. If you haven’t seen the film yet, skip down to the bottom of this review and read the conclusion in which I will outline why you might want to consider seeing this film or not. You’ve been warned.

The opening credits of the movie explain part of the origin story of Godzilla himself, highlighting stock footage of nuclear bomb tests in the Pacific that are now revealed to be attempts to kill Godzilla. The credits end and we’ve made the jump from 1954 bomb tests in the Pacific to 1999 in the Philippines. We are then introduced to Dr. Ishiro Serizawa, played by Ken Watanabe, who works for a group called Project Monarch that are investigating a collapsed mine in the Philippines. Inside, they find two large eggs, one that is intact and the other which has hatched and made it to the sea. Meanwhile, Janjira nuclear plant engineer Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche), who is also some kind of nuclear engineer, are investigating possible damage to the plant. Suddenly, what were slight tremors erupt into an earthquake which damages the plant core. Joe Brody ends up sealing off the contaminated levels to prevent the nuclear radiation from poisoning the entire region and, in the process, seals his wife Sandra inside to perish with her team.

This becomes the catalyst that drives the best human story in the film, as Joe Brody doesn’t believe the earthquake story that is used to cover up what exactly caused the earthquake that compromised the Janjira plant and killed his wife. Jump forward fifteen years and we see Joe Brody’s son, Ford Brody, arriving home in San Francisco after demobilizing with his explosive disposal unit. Upon arriving home, he receives a phone call that his father has been arrested in Japan for illegally crossing the contamination zone surrounding the nuclear plant that was destroyed. After getting bailed out, Joe Brody tells his son that he believes that the official story about an earthquake causing the Janjira meltdown is a cover up and that he has evidence to prove it at his old house inside the contamination zone. Together, they go to their old home, but are captured by a military patrol. They discover that the contamination zone actually was a cover up and the nuclear plant was destroyed by a creature evolved to feed on nuclear energy. The creature has formed a cocoon around the nuclear core and is feeding off of the radiation and growing. Without warning, a massive winged insect-like creature emerges and wreaks havoc before flying away. During this encounter, Joe Brody is fatally wounded and promptly dies, leaving Ford Brody to carry the rest of the movie as our main human character. The creature is named MUTO by the military (standing for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) and begins flying east toward the United States.

MCDGODZ EC052Aboard aircraft carrier USS Saratoga, Dr. Ishiro Serizawa fills Ford Brody in on the real reason for all of the nuclear tests in the pacific during the 50’s: the military was, of course, trying to kill Godzilla. He goes on to explain that Godzilla and the MUTO are alpha predators from billions of years ago that feed on radiation and as the radiation on the surface subsided, they moved closer to the Earth’s core. But with mankind’s prolific use of radiation as a source for energy and weapons, these creatures are surfacing again. It is confirmed that a second MUTO is already in the US and it’s the mate of the Janjira plant MUTO. At this time, the US Navy spots Godzilla following the first MUTO and concludes they will meet in San Francisco. Needless to say, the Navy is correct and Godzilla confronts the two MUTO creatures in San Francisco and a giant monster battle ensues.

Godzilla 2014 doesn’t have a complicated story or terribly compelling and deep characters. You would be understandably disappointed if you saw the trailer before seeing the film and were looking forward to Bryan Cranston being the main character. Unfortunately, Cranston’s screen time in the trailer is disproportionate to his screen time in the actual movie. Instead, our main human interest character is Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who isn’t terrible by any means, but lacks all of the emotionally convincing cues the audience is treated to in the first third of the film thanks to Cranston. Juliette Binoche also turns in a stellar performance and is an interesting character but has even less screen time than Cranston. I guess the studio didn’t want great performances and characters we might care about to distract audiences from the mighty Godzilla. And that approach ultimately wouldn’t be a bad take if they had put more Godzilla in the movie. Instead, for much of the first two thirds of the movie whenever Godzilla is going to fight a MUTO or smash a building, the film cuts to a scene of a regular person reacting or simply jumps to different characters watching it unfold on television. We get to see Godzilla through a regular person’s perspective but the human characters aren’t interesting enough for this to work. Thankfully, this approach is abandoned about two thirds into the movie and audiences get what is one of the finest displays of Godzilla in the character’s history. Up until that payoff, the movie does drag in places. But the payoff is so full of the joy of the character that I can’t help but feel that this movie accomplished what it set out to do.

Ultimately, if you aren’t a fan of Godzilla, this movie isn’t going to convert you. But if you even have the faintest fond memory of being a kid and watching the Toho Godzilla films, then this will appeal to you immensly. I have always liked monster movies, so I am by no means unbiased. But I do always try to judge a movie by looking at what the filmmaker was trying to accomplish and then attempting to determine whether he was able to do that. Gareth Evans and the rest of the people involved in making this film, accomplished what they set out to do and rebooted a beloved character for children and adults alike. In a movie landscape where dark and gritty takes on characters I cared about growing up are taking away the very elements that made me like those characters in the first place, Godzilla stands apart.