Thursday, February 26, 2015

Culture Shock 02.26.15: 'Predestination' raises bar for time travel

Hollywood has never done right by Robert A. Heinlein.

Heinlein (1907-1988) may have been the "dean of science fiction writers" and the first of science fiction's "grand masters," but you'd never know it from the movies based on his works. "Destination Moon" (1950), which Heinlein helped adapt, was the first science fiction movie to attempt some semblance of scientific accuracy, but that's about all it has going for it. "The Puppet Masters" (1994), with Donald Sutherland, is forgettable. And Paul Verhoeven's "Starship Troopers" (1997) is a misguided satire that fails on almost every level, especially as anything like a faithful adaptation of Heinlein's novel.

Leave it to the Aussies to get Heinlein right. Written and directed by German-born Australian filmmakers Michael and Peter Spierig ("Daybreakers"), "Predestination" is more than just the best Heinlein adaptation to date. It's arguably the best time travel movie to date, and it's certainly the best SF film of the past several years. Nearly flawless in execution, "Predestination" surpasses such lauded but flawed spectacles as "Interstellar" and "Gravity."

It's clichéd but true: "Predestination" is just too good, and probably too smart, for theatrical wide release in the U.S. But now, with the relentless hype of Hollywood's awards season finally subsided, this sleeper production arrives inconspicuously on Blu-ray and DVD.

"Predestination" is adapted — and expanded — from Heinlein's 1959 short story "All You Zombies," which thankfully has nothing to do with zombies (another played-out Hollywood favorite).

Ethan Hawke ("Boyhood") portrays a man identified in the credits as "The Barkeep." We know him to be a temporal agent — a time cop, charged with making sure history unfolds as it should.

But he's also a barkeep, and one day a man walks into his bar. It's the classic setup for a joke, only it isn't a joke. It does pack a heck of a punch line, though.

The man (Sarah Snook) was born with both male and female parts, and until giving birth to a baby girl, thought he — or, at the time, she — was a woman, if a somewhat atypical one, named Jane.

Jane has a rough childhood but grows up, as girls do, and even falls in love. Then the man she loves abandons her, and only then does she realize she is pregnant with his child.

After childbirth ruins her female parts, Jane transitions to a man, but being a father is no more in the cards than being a mother. A mysterious man slips into the hospital nursery and steals Jane's baby.

Robbed of both identity and daughter, the man who was Jane wants nothing more than revenge on the man who loved her and left her. And that's when the barkeep makes the man an offer.

That is probably the most misleading and incomplete plot synopsis I've ever written, because to tell you much more about "Predestination" would spoil the experience. I will say the story also involves time travel to four different periods and a hunt across the years to stop a terrorist known as the Fizzle Bomber. Yet even that doesn't tell you what the film is really about.

"Predestination" is a head-spinning experiment in paradox, and it's an ambitious, ambiguous meditation on what it means to be anybody. It's science fiction that does what only science fiction can do: lay bare the human condition. Yet it's also a twist-filled thriller that demands your full attention.

Working with a fraction of a Hollywood blockbuster's budget, the Spierig brothers have to be inventive. The result is some clever time travel effects that do more with off-screen leaf blowers than most directors do with millions of dollars in CGI.

Hawke gives an affecting performance as the time agent, but even his emotionally charged work is overshadowed by Snook's sensational turn in her dual-gendered role. We'll be seeing her in bigger films soon. Snook already has lined up a role in Danny Boyle's Steve Jobs biopic.

Whether or not the future is set in stone, "Predestination" seems primed to attain a cult following while other, higher profile SF movies slowly recede into obscurity.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Culture Shock 02.19.15: 'Fifty Shades,' 'Kingsman' both wish fulfillment

Dakota Johnson in "Fifty Shades of Grey."
Released the same weekend, "Fifty Shades of Grey" and "Kingsman: The Secret Service" look like a classic case of counter-programming. One is a romance — of sorts — that appeals to a largely female audience. The other is a violent, explosion-filled action movie taking dead aim at a young, male and testosterone-charged demographic.

It's like a TV network putting figure skating up against the competition's pro football broadcast.

But looks are deceiving, and "Fifty Shades" and "Kingsman" are as much alike as they are different.

Both movies are wish-fulfillment fantasies. To judge either as a straightforward drama is absurd. Critics realize as much when it comes to "Kingsman," but many do not when it comes to "Fifty Shades." It's an easy mistake to make, because "Fifty Shades of Grey" takes itself far too seriously, which is why it fails to satisfy the way "Kingsman" does.

"Fifty Shades" director Sam Taylor-Johnson has her hands tied. She must, above all else, please a core audience of "Fifty Shades of Grey" readers as well as the book's author, E.L. James, with whom Taylor-Johnson reportedly clashed, if the Hollywood trades are to be believed.

At times, we can see Taylor-Johnson struggling against her constraints. An early scene in which leading man Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) surprises our heroine, Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), in the hardware store where she works is funny and playful. It's also the one scene where Dornan and Johnson display any real chemistry. It gives us false hope. Otherwise, the only scene where either character feels like a real person is when Ana is partying with her friends — far away from Christian. (Naturally, Christian shows up to ruin the moment.)

If "Fifty Shades" is too serious to succeed as entertainment, it's too tame to succeed as erotica. The average HBO or Showtime series is more daring. The MPAA's habit of branding a commercially crippling NC-17 on virtually any movie that takes sex seriously guarantees that most movies — and especially wide-release films — won't. Anyone hoping "Fifty Shades" will rival Steven Shainberg's enchanting "Secretary" or Adrian Lyne's "Nine ½ Weeks" — or even Zalman King's feature-length fragrance commercial "Wild Orchid" — is in for a disappointment.

The best one can say for "Fifty Shades of Grey" is it dispenses with James' terrible prose. The play-by-play from Ana's "inner goddess" would have rendered the movie an unintentional farce.

The much-publicized scenes of R-rated bondage and discipline are beside the point. "Fifty Shades" isn't about kinky sex. That's window dressing. "Fifty Shades" is a more domesticated fantasy, one in which an ordinary woman tries to heal a damaged man with her love.

"Kingsman's" wish fulfillment is slightly less far-fetched. It's the fantasy of the boy of modest means plucked from the slums and given a life of gentlemanly excitement and adventure, along with beautiful women falling at his feet.

Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is the clever, good-hearted street tough recruited by Colin Firth's agent Galahad to join a secret organization of super spies who jet around the world looking fabulous, drinking fine Scotch and bedding the occasional femme fatale, all in the service of queen and country.

In this case, it means facing off against a technology tycoon and environmentalist crackpot played hilariously against type by a lisping, blood-averse Samuel L. Jackson.

Like "Fifty Shades," "Kingsman" improves upon its source material. For the second time, "Kick-Ass" director Matthew Vaughn has taken a grubby, unpleasant comic book written by enfant terrible Mark Millar and turned it into a joyously subversive movie. The result is a love letter to the Roger Moore era of Bond movies, mixed with gleefully cartoonish violence and garnished with a raised middle finger pointed at the capital-E Establishment. (How many movies dare imply President Obama is in league with a supervillain?)

"Kingsman" works because it embraces the fantasy "Fifty Shades" merely flirts with. Audiences deserve a movie that goes all the way.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Culture Shock 02.12.15: 'Jupiter Ascending' is pure pop art

The Wachowski siblings' latest sci-fi epic, "Jupiter Ascending," did anything but ascend at the box office last weekend. More than anything else, that seems like a testament to the ill will audiences still harbor toward "The Matrix Reloaded" and "The Matrix Revolutions."

When it comes to building up a fanatical following only to alienate it, Lana and Andy Wachowski have outdone even George Lucas. They're closing in on M. Night Shyamalan territory.

Unlike Shyamalan, however, the Wachowskis are still capable of making an entertaining movie.

"Jupiter Ascending" is exactly that, disastrous returns aside. Like the Wachowskis' underrated 2008 adaptation of the kitschy 1960s import "Speed Racer," "Jupiter Ascending" is a dazzling if somewhat uneven display of pure, unadulterated pop art. Unlike most of their peers, the Wachowskis still on occasion show us things we haven't seen before — at least not in a live-action movie.

You don't just watch "Jupiter Ascending." You become immersed in it. Seeing the movie unfold is like watching 60 years of science fiction paperback art come alive and envelop you with all the speed and urgency one experiences in Japanese animation. "Speed Racer's" box office failure didn't exhaust the Wachowskis' appreciation for anime, and with "Jupiter Ascending" the Wachowskis draw upon sci-fi traditions from both East and West, creating a fusion that bears an unmistakable Wachowski stamp.

There is more than a little bit borrowed from "Dune," too, both the book and David Lynch's 1984 adaptation. The score by Michael Giacchino often recalls Toto's for "Dune." And like Lynch's "Dune," the Wachowskis' "Jupiter Ascending" may have to wait to find its audience.

Mila Kunis plays our heroine with the pulp-magazine-hero name, Jupiter Jones. Jupiter's amateur-astronomer dad died before she was born, and she grew up in Chicago, raised by her mom (Maria Doyle Kennedy) and aunt, and living with an extended family of Russian immigrant stereotypes.

Despite her smarts and the fact she looks like Mila Kunis, Jupiter is forced to help her family scrape by, tagging along with her mom to dust the picture frames and clean the toilets of the well-to-do.

What Jupiter doesn't yet know is she's the genetic reincarnation of interstellar royalty, specifically the late matriarch of the Abrasax family, which owns most of the known universe, including Earth. That makes Jupiter the rightful heir to a lot of real estate. So, now the matriarch's three bickering children — Balem (Oscar nominee Eddie Redmayne, barely speaking above a whisper), Titus (Douglas Booth) and Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) — are scheming against one another, each trying to get to Jupiter, and her share of the universe, first.

Fortunately, before you can say "Cinderella" — and someone does, just in case you miss the obvious similarities — a dashing hero, although not a prince, swoops in to save the day.

Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) is a genetically engineered bounty hunter — a human gene-spliced with a wolf, making him an expert tracker — sent by one of the Abrasax siblings to bring in Jupiter. But he's not the only bounty hunter on Jupiter's trail, and after a few firefights and chases, Caine and his old friend Stinger (Sean Bean), end up taking Jupiter to claim her inheritance. And that sets up more chases and more firefights. The repetition would be too much if it weren't all so gorgeous. Space battles have never looked so good, and the scenes of Caine "skating" across the sky propelled by his anti-gravity boots put the flying scenes in most superhero movies to shame.

Sadly, it isn't all pretty explosions. This being a Wachowski joint, "Jupiter Ascending" is probably 20 minutes too long, with brief lapses into pop-Marxist flame throwing aimed at a "capitalist" straw man. The Wachowskis also try their hands, unsuccessfully, at comic relief, with a detour lifted from "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy."

"Jupiter Ascending" isn't deep. Its story isn't original. It won't make people rethink their lives, and it won't revolutionize filmmaking, sci-fi or otherwise. But for a couple of hours, it'll take you on a ride that raises the standard for "eye candy." That's not to be underestimated.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Culture Shock 02.05.15: 'Annabelle' is another prequel misfire

Creepy-looking dolls, in the right light and given the right atmosphere, can be frightening in small doses. Think Talky Tina from that episode of "The Twilight Zone" or the clown doll from "Poltergeist."

When it comes to maintaining the chills for an entire feature, however, there's 1978's "Magic" starring Anthony Hopkins — and then there's not much else.

So, "Annabelle" arrives on Blu-ray and DVD with two strikes already against it. First, it's a movie about a creepy-looking doll, and second it's a prequel, detailing events that occur before James Wan's superior 2013 movie "The Conjuring," which at least wrings a few scares out of its hackneyed premise.

Director John R. Leonetti ("The Butterfly Effect 2") unfortunately can't wring much from Gary Dauberman's "Annabelle" script, which follows virtually every scary-doll cliché until it pivots, finally, to its cop-out ending. Doll rocking in a rocking chair when no one is looking? Check. Doll tossed in the garbage only to reappear with no logical explanation? You betcha.

Still, as with most genre movies, which we approach expecting — if not demanding — they adhere to some sort of formula, all this would be forgivable if only "Annabelle" gave us something else to cling to. Good direction or cinematography, engaging performances or a sense of humor can go a long way toward redeeming the formulaic.

Dauberman's screenplay flirts with some ideas, interesting and otherwise, only to abandon them. Set shortly after the Manson Family murders of 1969, "Annabelle" looks at first as if it might be a throwback to horror films of the early 1970s, where, in the shadow of teen rebellion and Roe v. Wade, horror often took the form of demonic children and pregnancy became a kind of body horror. Roman Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby" gave birth to Larry Cohen's "It's Alive," and so on.

Mia (Annabelle Wallis) and John (Ward Horton) are expecting their first child when their neighbors' teenage daughter Annabelle, who had run off to join a Manson-like cult, returns home and murders her parents. She then wanders into Mia and John's house, where she discovers Mia's doll collection, taking a liking to one doll in particular before killing herself.

Naturally, the doll, which was spooky enough to begin with, is now possessed.

Thus starts the familiar litany: strange noises, bumps in the night, inanimate objects that take on a life of their own. This being a 1969-70 period piece, Mia soon finds herself under assault from appliances that seem chosen just for their retro stylishness: a sewing machine, a record turntable, an out-of-control stove top that ignites a pan of Jiffy Pop.

Just when we think we know what kind of movie we're in for, "Annabelle" switches gears. We go from pregnant woman under assault to mother defending her baby. Dauberman's script burns quickly through the clichés of not just one but two horror subgenres. One might think that would at least keep "Annabelle" from being boring, but it does the opposite. We're assaulted by horror tropes more often than Mia is assaulted by items listed in the Sears catalog. It becomes numbing.

Even more, we're assaulted by Leonetti's roving camera, which swirls so violently Leonetti seems to be overcompensating for his lack of anything interesting to show us.

Give "Annabelle" credit in one department, though. Everyone believes Mia's outlandish story about her doll being possessed, which spares us the additional tedium of watching Mia shout at everyone about how she's not crazy. Her husband believes her, the friendly parish priest (Tony Amendola) believes her, and the woman who owns the book shop with the useful occult section believes her (Alfre Woodard).

With its colorless performances and unimaginative story, everything about "Annabelle" feels inauthentic. It's a cynical bid to milk more cash from the audience that made "The Conjuring" a hit.

That's the studio's prerogative. But if "The Conjuring" is your thing, you're better off waiting for a proper sequel to come along. It's scheduled for release next year.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Culture Shock 01.29.15: Amazon confronts 'The Man in the High Castle'

The camera pulls back to reveal a theater marquee advertising "The Punch Party" starring Rock Hudson and June Allyson. It could be one of those romantic comedies in which Hudson so often appeared in the 1960s, often with Doris Day. But it isn't.

This movie is playing only in Nazi-occupied America.

Welcome to the world of "The Man in the High Castle," based on Philip K. Dick's 1962 Hugo Award-winning science fiction novel of the same name, set in an America that lost World War II.

From that shot of the marquee on, "The Man in the High Castle" plays with our expectations. Nothing is entirely as it seems. There's the small irony, for instance, that one of the actors still able to work under America's Nazi regime is a closeted gay man. His movies are no threat.

"The Man in the High Castle" is part of Amazon.com's latest slate of pilots, and of the retailer-turned-studio's hour-long drama prospects, it's the one most deserving of a full-season order.

Few artists teeter between genius and madness in quite the literal way PKD did.

Dick's struggle with mental illness translated into stories about people who are never quite sure what is real or what is fantasy. A man could come to find out the world he thought he inhabited was all a dream. Or he could learn that what he thought were paranoid delusions about a vast conspiracy controlling everything were real.

A lowly resident of the science fiction ghetto during his lifetime, Dick has, since his death in 1982, been welcomed into America's literary pantheon. Through his novels and short stories, and through osmosis, Dick has become the SF writer with probably the greatest influence on popular culture. He certainly is one of the most frequently adapted, for better or worse. The movies "Blade Runner," "Total Recall" and "Minority Report" all spring from his sometimes fevered imagination.

At the helm of "The Man in the High Castle" is executive producer Frank Spotnitz ("The X-Files"), who also wrote the teleplay. The setting is roughly the same as in Dick's novel: an America where World War II dragged on past 1945 and Germany developed the atom bomb first, allowing the Nazis to vaporize Washington, D.C., and successfully invade the continental U.S. The story picks up in 1962, with the United States divided into two regions: Nazi-controlled territory east of the Rockies and Japanese-occupied territory along the West Coast, with an impoverished neutral zone in between.

The pilot opens in New York, where Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), trying to live up to the example of his war veteran father, joins up with a resistance cell. No sooner does he receive his mission — to transport a secret cargo to resistance contacts in the neutral zone — than the secret police strike. Joe is on the run from the outset.

On the West Coast, Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos) becomes involved with the resistance inadvertently when her sister, who is on the run from Japanese authorities, hands her a package containing movie reels labeled "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy." The film, made by a mysterious figure known as the Man in the High Castle, depicts a world were the Allies defeated the Nazis and Imperial Japan. It's a typical PKD conceit: Inside a work of alternate history, history itself becomes fiction.

So, film canisters in hand, Juliana takes up her sister's assignment and heads toward the neutral zone and an eventual meeting with Joe, which is where the pilot leaves off. But the episode is at its most  compelling when concerned with the deteriorating relations between Japan and Germany. The only thing worse than occupation is becoming the battleground for rival occupiers, which significantly raises the story's already high stakes.

Spotnitz squeezes a lot of potential plot threads into just an hour, while cinematographer James Hawkinson (NBC's "Hannibal," aka the best-looking show on television) gives everything an appropriately cinematic gloss, despite some obvious budget constraints.

"The Man in the High Castle" looks like it could be one the better PKD adaptations. The best of all worlds is where it makes Amazon's cut.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Culture Shock 01.22.15: 'Wonder Women' perfect movie riffing material


Say what you will about the Philippines under martial law, it was a great place to make a movie on a shoestring.

President Ferdinand Marcos was a kleptocrat with expensive tastes and a high-maintenance wife, so for relatively small sums by Hollywood standards, he gave budget-conscious filmmakers the run of the islands. So it happened that the early 1970s produced such Philippine-lensed classics as "The Big Doll House," "The Big Bird Cage" and "Women in Cages," among a host of other inexpensively made, quickly shot and fondly remembered movies of the drive-in era. Pam Grier owes her stardom in no small part to Marcos' willingness to do whatever it took to keep Imelda in Prada.

Grier returned to the U.S. as the women-in-prison genre's breakout star and began top-lining movies stateside such as "Coffy" and "Foxy Brown." But back in Philippines, directors were still churning out exploitation flicks to ship back to the States. One of them was 1973's "Wonder Women."

Now "Wonder Women" is one of the latest video-on-demand offerings from Rifftrax.com, the current movie-mocking venture from "Mystery Science Theater 3000" alums Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett.

The Rifftrax guys have been on a roll with their recent VOD titles, from 1987's "ROTOR" (think "RoboCop" by way of "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" with the budget of a senior class play) to the infamous 1951 how-to-survive-a-nuclear-blast short "Duck and Cover." And "Wonder Women" is no exception. Nelson, Murphy and Corbett are at the top of their game, riffing with a confidence that takes viewers back the glory days of MST3K. There's no point now in MiSTies wishing for "Mystery Science Theater" to return; for all practical purposes, Rifftax is MST3K's second coming.

Apart from some brief poolside nudity that wouldn't have gotten past basic cable's standards and practices department back in the day, "Wonder Women" is exactly the sort of movie MST3K used to do best: entertaining schlock on its own, but comedy gold once the riffs start flying.

First of all, "Wonder Women" is not to be confused with Wonder Woman, although it's entirely possible the movie's distributor welcomed such confusion as long as it put butts in seats.

Tough-guy actor Ross Hagen (familiar to MST3K viewers from "The Sidehackers" and "The Hellcats") stars as Mike Harber, a safari-jacketed super spy soldier of fortune insurance investigator, or something, who takes an assignment to track down a criminal organization that's kidnapping star athletes and selling their organs.

Said criminal organization is run by Dr. Tsu, played by a bored-looking Nancy Kwan ("The World of Suzie Wong"). From her secret lair in the financially advantageous Philippines, Dr. Tsu oversees our titular all-women army, including exploitation mainstay Roberta Collins ("Caged Heat") and Maria De Aragon, who definitely didn't shoot first as Greedo in the original "Star Wars." (Seriously.)

Other supporting players include frequent Pam Grier co-star Sid Haig ("The Devil's Rejects"), as Dr. Tsu's financial go-between, and Philippine Peter Lorre look-alike Vic Diaz, who must have been contractually obligated to appear in every U.S. movie shot in the Philippines in the 1970s.

The plot is paper thin and serves mostly to provide Hagen reasons to shoot things and/or get beat up by various wonder women, which, when you throw in a free trip to the Far East, seems like nice work if you can get it. But insubstantial as it is, "Wonder Women" provides more than enough material for Mike, Kevin and Bill to work with. The seemingly endless chase scene through a Manila market district is one of the high points in the history of talking back to movies.

Exploitation fans will appreciate seeing "Wonder Women" in a new context, while for newcomers the Rifftrax VOD (available for $9.99 at Rifftrax.com) is the safest way to ease into the world of Philippine-shot exploitation flicks. Interested viewers can move on to Mark Hartley's fun 2010 documentary about the '70s Philippine exploitation boom, "Machete Maidens Unleashed!"

Friday, January 16, 2015

PR: Marvel talks 'Star Wars' No. 1

Star Wars returns home to Marvel Comics in this week's highly anticipated Star Wars No. 1 by writer Jason Aaron (Thor, Wolverine and the X-Men) and artist John Cassaday (Planetary, Uncanny Avengers). (It was worth the wait. — FH)

To make sure the entire galaxy knows it, Marvel has released this promo video. Enjoy.