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.