2001: A Space Odyssey


The corridors of genius.

The corridors of genius.

(1968) Science Fiction (MGM) Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, Daniel Richter, Leonard Rossiter, Margaret Tyzack, Robert Beatty, Sean Sullivan, Douglas Rain (voice), Frank Miller (voice), Bill Weston, Edward Bishop, Glenn Beck, Alan Gifford, Ann Gillis, Edwina Carroll, Penny Brahms, Heather Downham, Mike Lovell. Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Sci-Fi Spectacle

There are those who insist that Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is the greatest science fiction film ever made. I suppose that will depend on how you define greatness; to my mind it is certainly one of the greatest and arguably the most artistic.

It is without a doubt one of the most influential movies of the last half of the 20th century, celebrated by film critics, filmmakers, scientists and movie buffs alike. Kubrick had wanted to make a science fiction film that was smart. Up until that time with the notable exceptions of Metropolis, Forbidden Planet and Things to Come most sci-fi films were absolutely horrible and rarely did much business at the box office.

Kubrick changed all that. He enlisted noted science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke to write the screenplay which he based partially on his short story “The Sentinel” (as well as five others to a lesser degree). Kubrick filmed the movie in three distinct parts: The Dawn of Man which depicted a group of proto-humans who encounter a mysterious black monolith which somehow inspires the apes to begin using tools. One of them, being an ancestor of humans, uses a tapir bone to smash in the skull of a rival. Our first tools are used to kill. Just perfect.

The second part, untitled, takes place on a wheel-like space station orbiting the Earth in the year 2000. Dr. Heywood Floyd (Sylvester) is on his way to Clavius base on the moon. At the station he encounters Russian scientists Dr. Smyslov (Rossiter) and his colleague Elena (Tyzack) who are concerned about rumors of a plague at Clavius. Dr. Floyd tells them he’s not at liberty to discuss it but we find out later that the plague is a cover story to keep the Soviets away from the base. In fact, something has been discovered buried in the Tycho crater near the base.

When Dr. Floyd arrives at the moon he goes out to the crater to see the artifact and we see that it is a monolith similar to the one we saw in the previous portion. When they pose for a photo in front of the artifact, the monolith emits a high-pitched noise which turns out to be a radio transmission aimed at Jupiter.

Eighteen months later begins the third portion, entitled Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite. A giant space ship, the Discovery has been sent to Jupiter to find out what the signal was broadcast to and what, if anything, did the broadcast accomplish. On board are three scientists in cryogenic sleep and two astronaut/scientists, Dr. David Bowman (Dullea) and Dr. Frank Poole (Lockwood). Overseeing the day to day running of the ship is HAL (Rain), a heuristically programmed algorithmic computer.

During the voyage, HAL grows paranoid and murders the sleeping scientists. He also manages to kill Poole but Bowman disconnects the supercomputer before it can kill him. Thus Bowman is alone when the Discovery reaches Jupiter. He finds there another monolith, floating in space near Jupiter. Bowman takes an EVA pod out to investigate and there he will find a great mystery, one that will transform him.

The movie has remained a favorite not just of the aforementioned film buffs, filmmakers and scientists but also of the 60s drug culture who saw the movie in record numbers, often on perception-altering drugs. The sequence in which Bowman examines the monolith, leading him into a vortex of light, color and strange images has been described as “an acid trip without using drugs” and one can only imagine what the sequence would be like on drugs.

The plot is a bit threadbare and much of it leaves a great deal to the viewer’s imagination, particularly the ending which was mind-blowing at the time but even Kubrick wasn’t quite sure what it meant. The film tackles a lot of interesting subjects, including the dehumanization of technology, the question of man’s continuing evolution and what our place is in the cosmos. Carl Sagan, the noted astronomer, was a big fan of the film and felt that it realistically depicted certain scientific realities although obviously the monoliths are fictitious – so far as we know.

Even today the effects remain impressive. It was one of the first films to allow product placement although it garnered no financial gain from it – the move was simply to depict the future as realistically as Kubrick thought was possible although in an unexpected way that ends up dating the movie somewhat. For example, the spacecraft Dr. Floyd uses to arrive at the space station is depicted to be a Pan-Am flight. Pan-Am ceased operations long before the film. The videophone conversation takes place on a Bell System phone but Ma Bell was broken up into AT&T and her many baby bells long before 2001. Of course, the Soviet Union was gone by 2001 as well.

Dullea and Lockwood mostly speak in calm, emotionless voices and seem to be so rational that any emotional response has been trained out of them. HAL speaks in a pleasant monotone that is meant to be reassuring but has come to represent the dangers of technology. One can see echoes of HAL in Siri.

I saw the movie during its initial release at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, one of the grand old cinemas constructed during the 1920s. At the time I found the movie to be somewhat boring and way over my eight-year-old head. My father, though, a science fiction fan, was upset by its trippy nature and disappointed overall, although he like millions of others was entranced by the vision of life in 2001. Although he didn’t live long enough to see what life in 2001 really turned out to be, I think he would have been impressed by some of the things that Kubrick got right.

2001: A Space Odyssey spawned three sequel novels by Clarke, the first of which was also made into a movie which was much more of a traditional type of movie. However, the original stands alone as a cinematic achievement. People love it or hate it; certainly it will evoke some sort of response. While I still find the stargate sequence to be self-indulgent and unnecessarily long, I can’t deny the movie’s continued power and impact. I suggest for those who haven’t done so yet to see this on a big movie screen the next time it appears at your local revival theater. This is one of those movies that benefit from the large screen, the theatrical sound and the overall overwhelming experience. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a masterpiece, flawed in my opinion but a recognizable masterpiece nonetheless.

WHY RENT THIS: Great atmosphere! Fishburne at his best, Neill at his creepiest.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Dialogue is a bit weak and some of the movie feels like we’ve seen it before.
FAMILY VALUES:  Some ape violence and human smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are 88 minutes without dialogue on the film including the Dawn of Man sequence and the Star Gate sequence; it was also the last movie that depicted human presence on the moon released before Apollo 11 landed on the moon.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The two-disc Special Edition DVD contains an audio interview with the late Stanley Kubrick, conceptual artwork of the special effects, Dullea reading varied interpretations of what the film means including one by Kubrick himself and a video interview with author Arthur C. Clarke from his home in Sri Lanka, who had a full-sized monolith in his garden – which monkeys play on!
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $57M on a $12M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mission to Mars
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: November Man

New Releases for the Week of September 19, 2014


The Maze RunnerTHE MAZE RUNNER

(20th Century Fox) Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Ami Ameen, Will Poulter, Patricia Clarkson, Ki Hong Lee. Directed by Wes Ball

A young boy awakens in a glade surrounded by an incredible and seemingly near-endless maze with no memory of who he is or how he got there. He finds himself in the same boat as a large number of other boys. Some very bad things lurk in the maze and despite the best efforts of those glade-dwellers to navigate the maze, no exit has yet been found but the boy’s arrival seems to trigger a change in things. For one thing, the appearance of a girl who seems to know who the boy is. But just as it seems the glade dwellers are on the verge of solving the maze, it becomes clear that there are those who don’t want the maze solved and will stop at nothing to keep the boys – and girl – right where they are.

See the trailer and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Young Adult Sci-Fi

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements and intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, including some disturbing images)

A Walk Among the Tombstones

(Universal) Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, David Harbour, Adam David Thompson. An ex-cop with a tragic past now works as an outside-the-law private investigator who is engaged by a drug lord to find the man who kidnapped and murdered his wife after the ransom was paid. What the detective finds is a team of serial murders so ruthless and sadistic that they go beyond anything he’s ever encountered – and now that they are aware of his investigation, he may end up being next on their list.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R (for strong violence, disturbing images, language and brief nudity)

Aagadu

(Eros International) Mahesh Babu, Tamannah Bhatia, Sonu Sood, Rajendra Prasad. Typically, very little plot detail has been released in advance of the film. All we know is that it is a police actioner with two police officers on a dangerous case together becoming romantically involved. I think.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

Daawat-E-Ishq

(Yash Raj) Aditya Roy Kapoor, Parineeti Chopra, Anupam Kher, Sunny Deol. A shoe sales girl from Hyderabad disillusioned with love due to all the dowry-seeking men who don’t give a fig for her one way or the other discovers the alluring charm of a young Lucknawi chef who becomes besotted with her. With two very dissimilar cultures in their way, the two will have to come up with their own powerful recipe for love.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: NR

Life After Beth

(A24) Aubrey Plaza, Dane DeHaan, John C. Reilly, Anna Kendrick. A teen boy’s life is destroyed when his girlfriend dies unexpectedly. When she miraculously returns, he determines to do and share all the things he failed to do before the close call. When she begins acting a bit oddly, he thinks nothing of it but soon she develops some unhealthy appetites and he slowly reaches the realization that his girlfriend is a zombie.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Zom-Com

Rating: R (for pervasive language, some horror violence, sexual content, nudity and brief drug use)

My Old Lady

(Cohen Media Group) Kevin Kline, Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas, Dominique Pinon. A down on his luck American seems to have his luck change when he inherits a Parisian apartment. When he arrives in France he discovers that there is an elderly woman already living there and due to the labyrinthine real estate laws, he is unable to sell the apartment for the money he so desperately needs. Worse yet, he is required to pay her a fee until she dies. With no more money left, he is forced to move in with her and her daughter and in doing so, a strange bond begins to develop between the three.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Dramedy

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material and some sexual references)

This is Where I Leave You

(Warner Brothers) Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda, Adam Driver. Four siblings, estranged from their parents, are brought together following their father’s death. His last wish is for them to live under the same roof for a week and so they do, never dreaming that this week will help them to heal old wounds, establish better relationships and help them find their best possible selves.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Ensemble Comedy

Rating: R (for language, sexual content and some drug use)

Tusk

(A24) Justin Long, Michael Parks, Haley Joel Osment, Genesis Rodriguez. An ambitious blog reporter has stumbled on the scoop of a lifetime. Reclusive adventurer Howe is willing to give him an interview but as the reporter finds Howe’s obsession with walruses disturbing, he has no idea just how obsessed Howe is – and what plans he has for the reporter.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Horror

Rating: R (for some disturbing violence/gore, language and sexual content)

Event Horizon


You know only bad things can happen in a place like this.

You know only bad things can happen in a place like this.

(1997) Sci-Fi Horror (Paramount) Laurence Fishburne, Sam Neill, Kathleen Quinlan, Joely Richardson, Richard T. Jones, Jack Noseworthy, Jason Isaacs, Sean Pertwee, Peter Marinker, Holley Chant, Barclay Wright, Noah Huntley, Robert Jezek, Emily Booth, Teresa May. Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

Sci-Fi Spectacle

The trouble with exploration is the unknown. We don’t always know what’s out there. We may have a good idea, sure but when you go out into the real unknown, it’s just that. Anything could be lurking out there. And it might just hitch a ride back.

In 2040, mankind makes the first great push beyond our solar system. The great ship Event Horizon, powered by the gravity drive, makes its way out to Neptune to truly begin its journey. The gravity drive manufactures a black hole and slips the ship through, allowing it to travel great distances – to any star in any galaxy. The Event Horizon powers up the gravity drive, hits the go switch – and disappears. Nobody hears a peep and the ship is presumed lost.

Seven years later it reappears as suddenly as it disappeared. Attempts to hail her yield nothing. A rescue ship, the Lewis and Clark is sent, commanded by the redoubtable Captain Miller (Fishburne). Along for the ride is Dr. Weir (Neill), the man who invented the gravity drive and has the best shot at figuring out what went wrong.

Once they arrive in the outer atmosphere of Neptune the mile-long vessel is as silent as the grave and unutterably cold inside. There is still power – it’s just not turned on. When Miller and his crew come aboard to see what’s happened, they find the video log mostly intact although it cuts off an instant after the drive engages. There are also disquieting signs of a violent end for the crew – bloodstains indicating that crew members sustained fatal and horrifying wounds – but no bodies.

As the rescue ship crew attempts to restore power so that the ship may be towed home for further examination, the crew begins to see strange things – hallucinations of people and places they know. It becomes clear to Captain Miller that wherever the Event Horizon went to, it has brought something back with it. And that something may be more deadly than outer space itself.

This is one of those movies that didn’t do well during its theatrical run and then acquired its audience through cable and home video. Savaged by critics when it was released, who compared it unfavorably with the classic Solaris – as unfair as it is inaccurate – the movie has become something of a cult favorite. One of the big issues that fans have with it is that it isn’t the movie that Anderson wanted to make. Rushed during the post-production process, the studio put immense pressure on Anderson –  who was making just his third feature film – to make its August 15, 1997 release date. Anderson did get the film ready for its release date but had to make a lot of studio-insisted cuts and felt that had he been given enough time to finish the movie properly would have come up with something superior. Fans have been clamoring for some time for a director’s cut version which Anderson doesn’t seem disposed to doing.

The truth is, this is actually a superior sci-fi horror flick that may be the best thing Anderson has directed to date (he’s also done four movies in the Resident Evil series as well as Death Race). Moody, atmospheric and grim, he has created a movie every bit as scary as the original Alien and even surpasses that film in some ways. Initially the audience is led towards thinking that the carnage aboard the Event Horizon is the work of some interstellar beastie but as the film wears on we discover that the destination can be a killer.

Fishburne, a couple of years before his signature role as Morpheus in The Matrix, is magnificent here as the taciturn and square-jawed Miller. As no-nonsense a commander as you’re likely to find on any space opera, he inspires confidence and despite some inner demons of his own is the kind of guy you’d follow to hell and back.

Neill recalls his villainy as Damien in The Omen: The Final Chapter which established the Australian actor in the United States to a great extent. Weir is tightly wound and maybe a few bricks shy of a load in the sanity department. The minute he gets aboard his baby, things begin to spiral out of control. Neill takes the character from cool, calm scientist to baleful madman in a believable way.

The ship is a character all its own with its silent corridors and empty rooms to the engine room with the gravity drive itself which looks a little bit of a cross between the Contact craft and a mechanical nightmare dreamed up by H.P. Lovecraft – that’s it in the photo accompanying this review. It looks suitably futuristic and scary as hell at the same time.

While the dialogue is somewhat stilted and there is a derivative quality to the film that is what set critics and some fans off during its initial run (Alien anybody?) the movie is nonetheless one of the finest sci-fi horror films ever made and a truly underrated classic. If you saw it and didn’t like it, it is worth coming back to and if you haven’t seen it, it is worth a look. As we enter the Halloween season, this is one of those movies that can get you right in the mood to have the heebie jeebies scared out of you – or into you. Like the great ship itself, the scares you get out of this movie are very well the same ones that are already in you – just waiting for the right vessel to release them.

WHY RENT THIS: Great atmosphere! Fishburne at his best, Neill at his creepiest.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Dialogue is a bit weak and some of the movie feels like we’ve seen it before.
FAMILY MATTERS:  Lots of gore and violence, a fair amount of cursing and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The script went through 65 drafts, which is a highly unusual number. Most feature films go from anywhere from two or three drafts to a dozen.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Collector’s Edition DVD has some amazing storyboards for scenes not shot, as well as plenty of making-of footage. The Blu-Ray edition has all this but adds a section on the post-production difficulties that resulted in the filmmakers having to release a movie that wasn’t quite up to their expectations.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $47.1M on a $60M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Stream), Amazon (rent/buy – free to stream for Prime members), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pandorum
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Sci-Fi Spectacle concludes!

Upside Down


Beyond topsy turvy.

Beyond topsy turvy.

(2012) Science Fiction (Millennium) Jim Sturgess, Kirsten Dunst, Timothy Spall, Blu Mankuma, Nicholas Rose, James Kidnie, Vlasta Vrana, Kate Trotter, Holly O’Brien, Elliott Larson, Maurane Arcand, Janine Theriault, Vincent Messina, Cole K. Mickenzie, Paul Ahmarani, Carolyn Guillet, Pablo Veron, Don Jordan, Edward Langham, Holden Wong, Jayne Heitmeier. Directed by Juan Solanas

Sci-Fi Spectacle

Most science fiction stories begin with the idea of “what if?” while the best ones end with the viewer shrugging their shoulders and accepting “why not?!”

For example, consider this; two planets that orbit one another and have dual gravity; on one world, gravity works normally but on the other it repels rather than attracts. The two worlds nearly touch on their highest mountain peaks and one corporation, Transworld, has built a skyscraper that connects the two planets permanently.

Both worlds are inhabited and are essentially products of their gravities. Those who live on one world will be untethered to the ground on the other and vice versa. On the middle floor of the skyscraper, there is one group of cubicles on the floor and another on the ceiling. There are a few other buildings with similar situations.

Adam lives on the lower world which some call Down Below. This is a world that has been ruthlessly exploited by the people of Up Above, who live in luxury and comfort. Down Below seems to exist in perpetual rainfall and gloom and its inhabitants eke out meager existences on the scraps of what they can acquire from up above.

As a child (Larson), Adam had met Eden (Arcand), a young girl from Up Above. The two click immediately but police from Up Above are not allowing any sort of interplanetary romance. In trying to return Eden to her home world, Adam watches in horror as she falls, apparently to her death.

Years later, Adam sees an adult woman (Dunst) from Up Above on TV and realizes that it’s Eden and she’s still alive. His love for her hasn’t undimmed over the years so he figures out a plan to use a beauty cream he’s invented to get him into Transworld, then pursue her and make her his. The problem is that Eden has a rather inconvenient amnesia and can’t remember anything before the fall. Secondly, in order to stay “grounded” as it were on Up Above Adam has to use a rare metal that tends to burst into flame after an hour’s use. Thirdly the authorities on both worlds are none too keen about having the interplanetary romance referred to earlier. It seems that Adam’s love is destined to be on another planet.

The concept here is truly interesting which is one of the movie’s grand advantages. It also is one of its biggest obstacles; the concept itself tends to paint the filmmaker into a corner. Solanas, an Argentinean filmmaker currently living and working in France, sets up the movie in an extended voice-over at the beginning of the film but I think he essentially tries to explain too much rather than just letting the audience go with it. That sets up the expectation that the movie is going to have a kind of rulebook that it will follow.

In fact, there are lots of holes in the theoretical aspects; for example, why don’t the people themselves combust when on opposing planets instead of just the metal? Wouldn’t the upward falls kill you just as dead as a regular downward fall? How can there be a sunrise or sunset when the two planets are both perpetually in each other’s shadow?

Truthfully, I’d be fine not requiring an explanation for any of those things but Solanas himself creates the expectation you’re going to receive one with the over-technical voice-over. A simple line could have done it – “I don’t know all the physics. It just works.” End of explanation and the show can go on, plot holes and all. Michel Gondry never bothers to explain himself; neither should Solanas.

Still even given that this is one of the most jaw-dropping imaginative visual stories you’re likely to find. The visuals of one group of Up Abovers dancing the graceful tango in a ballroom while on the ground Down Belowers dance in a seedy nightclub is striking, and much of the visual look recalls the Dutch artist M.C. Escher.

Certainly the have and have-not societies seem to be a nod towards the original Metropolis, one of the greatest science fiction films of all time, but Solanas doesn’t really pursue that aspect of the story. Instead, he’s looking to make a love story and this is indeed more of a romance than it is a science fiction film although the visuals are probably what you’re going to remember.

I don’t know if I would have used an idea for this kind of society to illustrate a kind of West Side Story thing; it’s a story that’s been done a lot of different times in a lot of different ways. Why create this amazing environment and then tell a story you could tell anywhere? However, that environment makes this movie worth seeking out. With attractive actors like Sturgess and Dunst delivering decent performances (and Spall in a supporting role actually standing out) this makes for a really good movie. I think it could have been a great one though.

WHY RENT THIS: Nifty concept. Nice performances by the leads.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: More of a romance with sci-fi overtones. Too many plot holes. Somewhat oversaturated cinematography.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence but not enough to be troublesome.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Floor Zero scenes were two sets constructed side-by-side as if the screen had been sliced down the middle and folded open. When characters interact from both worlds, the scenes were shot on both sides of the set simultaneously and then inserted into the frame digitally.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a surfeit of storyboards and how-they-did-it featurettes.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $8.1M on a $50M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Stream/DVD), Amazon (rent/buy/DVD), iTunes (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Sci-Fi Spectacle continues!

Sci-Fi Spectacle 2014


Sci-Fi SpectacleIt is no secret, particularly to those who have known me awhile, that I’m a science fiction junkie. My late father turned me on to the genre when I was a boy with the works of Robert A. Heinlein, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Larry Niven and I never looked back. I read everything I could get my hands on, from classics by Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury to novelizations of Star Trek movies.

I was pretty young when I discovered science fiction in the movie theater and was blown away by the movies of the time – Marooned and Silent Running among them. Later, as I got older, I was delighted by Star Wars and its antecedents and stand-alone movies like Blade Runner and E.T. to name just a few.

So when thinking of a mini-festival to run in September, science fiction seemed a natural fit. I tend to look forward to films in that genre all year long and even if the movies rarely turn out to be really good, I still love them just the same, even the bad ones.

However I do take my role as critic seriously and so my reviews will be as balanced as I can make them and the excessive affection I may feel for a movie that I know deep down is mediocre will hopefully not show through. In any case, this new festival begins today and will cover three movies that may be universally admired or barely heard of but all will hopefully tap into your sense of wonder as much as they did mine. Enjoy!

Mood Indigo


Audrey Tautou doesn't mind Roman Duris' extreme case of dandruff.

Audrey Tautou doesn’t mind Roman Duris’ extreme case of dandruff.

(2014) Romantic Fantasy (Drafthouse) Audrey Tautou, Roman Duris, Omar Sy, Gad Elmaleh, Aissa Maiga, Charlotte Le Bon, Sacha Bourdo, Vincent Rottiers, Philippe Torreton, Laurent Lafitte, Alain Chabat, Zinedine Soualem, Natacha Regnier, Marina Rozenman, Mathieu Paulus, Frederic Saurel, August Darnell, Wilfred Benaiche, Francis Van Litsenborgh. Directed by Michel Gondry

There are those film directors whose imaginations are so manic and so inventive that most of the rest of us can’t keep up. French visionary Michel Gondry, auteur of such films as The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, is one of those guys. Something like Terry Gilliam on an LSD trip, Gondry has employed a good deal of stop motion animation in his films and a kind of frenetic sense of humor that is sweet and avant garde all at once. Words don’t do his work justice; he speaks a language all his own and the only way to really understand what I’m talking about is to see one of his films, like his latest f’rinstance.

Colin (Duris) is a wealthy man who lives in a Parisian apartment that looks from the inside anyway as something of a railway car. His private chef Nicolas (Sy) is also his lawyer, a brilliant man who makes wonderful dishes that he sweeps into the garbage before Colin can finish eating them. Colin has created the “pianocktail,” a musical instrument in which the notes you play on the piano keyboard determine which liqueurs and mixers are being added into your cocktail.

With his best friend Chick (Elmaleh) having fallen in love with Alise (Maiga), who also turns out to be Nicolas’ niece, Colin realizes how alone he is and demands to fall in love. Nicolas suggests that he attend the party being thrown by Isis (Le Bon) which would necessitate that he learn a bizarre dance to a Duke Ellington song which has the odd effect of turning the legs of the dancer into elongated rubber limbs that allow the dancer to walk about like an art deco-era cartoon.

At the party Colin meets Chloe (Tautou), a waif-like girl who takes an instant liking to the tongue-tied and socially awkward Colin. The two go on several dates, most of which Colin is convinced that he’s messed up. Finally the two take a ride on a swan boat that is lifted by crane over the city and finally into a train tunnel where the two kiss. Six months later they are ready to be married.

It looks like life is going to be golden for Colin but in truth that is not the case. Chick is in desperate need of money so he can afford to marry Alise, and Colin is happy to lend it to him but instead Chick blows the not insubstantial gift on memorabilia related to his favorite writer, Jean-Sol Partre. Chloe gets a rare malady – a water lily is growing inside one of her lungs – and only being surrounded by fresh flowers can save her.

Based on a novel by beloved French novelist Boris Vian, this comes across as a cross between a romantic comedy, grand opera, French farce and a cartoon from the 1930s. Although the synopsis gives you an idea of the story, it can’t possibly prepare you for the visuals you’ll encounter, including an anthropomorphic mouse that lives with Colin and Nicolas, a doorbell that grows legs and skitters about the apartment until either Nicolas or Colin “kill” it and it returns to a docile state on the wall, an office full of writers who are writing the story as we go along on a conveyer belt full of typewriters like an assembly-line script (possibly a dig at what the movie writing process has become), a transparent limousine and a honeymoon in which it is always raining on Colin and the sun is shining on Chloe.

The imagery in fact can wear you down after awhile and given the fact that the American version is 30 minutes shorter than the French, one can only imagine how Americans would be unable to cope with those extra scenes. The humor is distinctly Gallic and can be deceptively subtle or unabashedly over-the-top.

Tautou, who is now and forever Amelie, is lovely here as the gamine Chloe. She is delightfully puckish and were she an American actress she’d be Greta Gerwig. However Gerwig doesn’t quite accomplish the innocent sheen that Tautou conveys so Tautou often comes off as child-like rather than childish. Duris, one of France’s biggest male stars, has an engaging grin and a gung ho “let the director throw whatever he wants at me, I’ll still be incredibly handsome” attitude.

Be warned that this is a bit darker in several senses as a film than Gondry’s other films have been. As Chloe gets sick, the colors begin to fade from the screen and the apartment is overrun with cobwebs, dust bunnies and decay. As the film reaches its end, the apartment gets almost no sunlight whatsoever. The sometimes silly humor is still in full force but it has a grim, gallows element to it that might be off-putting to those who have just managed to get used to the sunny, optimistic fun tone of the movie’s first half.

The imagery gets almost cloyingly cute at times and your capacity to absorb cuteness may well determine the level of enjoyment you have for the movie. Also I think that seeing the movie when you are able to give it your complete concentration is a plus, although here in Orlando it is playing only at the 10pm hour during its run here which may hurt the ability of older audience members (like myself) to enjoy it as fully as I might have.

REASONS TO GO: Some truly delightful images. Very inventive.
REASONS TO STAY: Overly cutesy. Sometimes uses out there images for their own sake.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexuality and partial nudity, mildly disturbing images and some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The writer whom Chick is obsessed with, Jean-Sol Partre, is a spoonerism for the name of one of France’s most decorated philosophers, Jean-Paul Sartre.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/14/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Science of Sleep
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Sci-Fi Spectacle commences!

As Above, So Below


Perdita Weeks wonders if there isn't an easier way to make it into Hollywood.

Perdita Weeks wonders if there isn’t an easier way to make it into Hollywood.

(2014) Horror (Universal/Legendary) Perdita Weeks, Ben Feldman, Edwin Hodge, Francois Civil, Marion Lambert, Ali Marhyar, Cosme Castro, Hamid Djavadan, Theo Cholbi, Emy Levy, Roger Van Hool, Olivia Csiky Trnka, Hellyette Bess, Aryan Rahimian, Samuel Aouizerate, Kaya Blocksage. Directed by John Erick Dowdle

Below the streets of Paris there is another city, a city of the dead. The legendary catacombs are where the remains of some say as many as eight million Parisians rest. Bones stacked neatly in ghoulish patterns – this is a real place, an actual tourist attraction in the City of Light. How perfect a setting it would be for a horror movie.

Scarlett (Weeks) is going to oblige us on that score. She believes that the legendary Philosopher’s Stone which European alchemists of the 15th century famously believed could change base metals into gold and allow the possessor to live forever, also rests in a secret chamber off the catacombs. She is a bit nutty on the subject – her dad (Van Hool) searched his entire life for the Stone and was ridiculed by the scientific community for it. His suicide only drove her into further obsession to find the artifact.

After nearly getting buried alive in Iran to photograph an elaborate Rosetta’s stone-like thing that would allow her to translate a map that she believes will lead her to the stone, the determined young scientist – who has several PhDs to her credit despite her youth – heads to Paris to find George (Feldman) who can translate the Aramaic and allow the symbols to be properly read.

George, once abandoned in Turkey by Scarlett so that she could continue her quest, is less than enthusiastic about helping her and her omnipresent cameraman Benji (Hodge) who is documenting the search. However, he agrees to put her in contact with urban spelunkers Papillon (Civil), Souxie (Lambert) and Zed (Marhyar) who agree to lead her to the place on her map even though it appears on no credible maps of the catacombs.

Once they get down there beyond the paths where tourists tread, strange things begin to happen. George, who is forced to join them by circumstances beyond his control, is definitely uneasy and Benji who is a bit claustrophobic is downright ready to turn on his heels and head back to the world above, sense that there is something not quite right and Papillon, who knows the area better than anyone except for La Taupe (Castro), a mole-like spelunker who went down into a forbidden tunnel and never was seen again. Of course, you know which tunnel they’re going to head down into – and where it leads may be the last place anyone rational wants to go.

Right now is a really good time to be a horror film, with an abundance of talented young up-and-coming directors showing immense promise and delivering in some cases some extraordinary horror films. While Dowdle qualifies as the former, his latest effort doesn’t qualify as the latter but don’t be put off – this is a very solid and entertaining horror movie that takes full advantage of its setting.

The cast is largely unknown although Mad Men fans might recognize Feldman but do solid jobs in roles that are fairly rote horror characters. I have to say Marhyar has one of the best “oh, crap!” expressions I’ve seen ever. It does make for occasional comedy relief.

The film is presented in a found footage format, which to my mind was totally unnecessary. We spend large chunks of time wandering down tunnels lit by headlamps and flashlights. Sure, this can be creepy but over the course of an hour and a half it gets old, plus because much of the movie is shot with GoPro devices the image quality is murky in places.

However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t an off-the-charts creepiness factor going on here and Dowdle knows what he’s doing when it comes to ratcheting up the tension to high levels. While there is a lot here that’s unremarkable, overall this is a much better than average movie when it comes to horror and in a year where the bar has been set fairly high for big studio horror pictures this one comes in right in the middle of the pack.

REASONS TO GO: Genuinely creepy setting. Some terrific scares.
REASONS TO STAY: Found footage is definitely passé and in this case, unnecessary. Could have shaved about ten minutes off.
FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of terror and violence, some of it bloody. There’s also pretty much non-stop cursing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first movie to be released in Legendary’s new deal with Universal after years at Warner Brothers.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/13/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 28% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Intermedio
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
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