Bliss (2021)


Skating through life.

(2021) Science Fiction (Amazon Owen Wilson, Salma Hayek, Nesta Cooper, Jorge Landeborg Jr., Ronny Chieng, Steve Zissis, Josh Leonard, Madeline Zima, Bill Nye, Slavoj Zizek, DeRon Horton, Eugene Young, Dayne Catalano, Adam William Zastrow, Lora Lee, Darin Cooper, Roberto Montesinos, Kosah Rukavina, Tanya Alexander, Debbie Fan. Directed by Mike Cahill

In a speech in 1977, science fiction author Philip K. Dick posited the idea that the world we live in is not reality but a computer simulation, predating The Matrix by more than a decade. But what is reality, exactly? If our senses can be manipulated, who’s to say that what reality is may not necessarily be what we perceive it to be?

The reality that Greg Whittle (Wilson) lives in isn’t too appealing. He works in a phone bank whose drones endlessly apologize to callers for whatever technical difficulties they may be experiencing without offering any sort of solution to fix it. Greg is a professional apologist and he’s not even that good at it; much of his time is spent daydreaming, doodling a beautiful palatial mansion that he could never possibly afford to live in unless he had a rich trillionaire uncle that he didn’t know about.

His doodling hasn’t gone unnoticed and he is called into his boss’ office where his employment is terminated. However, when Greg accidentally kills his boss, he panics, hiding the body and running across the street to a bar for a cocktail to calm his nerves. There he meets Isabel (Hayek), an apparently  homeless woman with a fantastic story; the reality that Greg is in is a computer construct and most of the people, including Greg’s boss, aren’t real. Because Isabel is real, she can manipulate the computer program by ingesting yellow crystals through the nose, and to prove it to him, manipulates reality to make it appear as if what happened to Greg’s boss was a suicide.

At last, Isabel takes Greg into the real world, accessed by means of ingesting the much rarer blue crystals – so rare that they are unable to get the full dosage needed for both of them to remain in the real world. There, Greg finds a Utopia where poverty has been eradicated, labor is done mainly by mechanical means and most people live a life of leisure devoted to artistic and scientific pursuits. The home that Greg has been doodling turns out to be the place where he lives. But because they were unable to get the full dose of blue crystals, Isabel and Greg need to return into the computer-generated world to acquire a full dosage – plus there’s the matter of Greg’s daughter Emily (Cooper) who isn’t real, but whom Greg is devoted to nonetheless. In the end, Isabel and Greg are only able to gather enough blue crystals to send one of them back to Utopia. Which one will stay?

Bliss is meant to be a 103 minute mindfuck, meant to make you try to figure out which reality was real and which was the simulation – or maybe both of them are simulations. Or maybe both of them are real. You can get a real headache trying to keep it straight.

It’s a great premise, but unfortunately the execution is weak. For one thing, there seems to have been some fudging on the science and the economics; for example, one of the reasons poverty has been eliminated was that asteroid mining brought an influx of new wealth into the global economy, but if you study economic history (as in 17th century Spain, for example) you will realize that kind of influx of wealth tends to bring ruinous inflation that actually wrecks the economy. And the likelihood that those who made trillions of dollars from the ining enterprise would then donate an annual salary of half a million dollars a year to every living adult is so unlikely to occur as to be virtually impossible.

Also, while Wilson and Hayek are both talented individually, they don’t mesh well together here. Wilson’s laid-back persona almost necessitates some kind of balancing counter-performance and so Hayek seems compelled to get almost shrill in order to bring some energy to the proceedings. And considering that they are supposed to be soulmates, you never feel any sort of attraction between the two of them. I give points for Wilson doing the type of role he doesn’t take on very often, but unfortunately it isn’t enough here.

The ending, which I won’t reveal here, also feels largely unearned and unsatisfying. This is a movie with plenty of good ideas, but they don’t seem to have been thought out very well. Cahill has a tendency to overexplain (we spend an inordinate amount of time hearing about the various efficacies of the crystals and why they need to be snorted and not eaten) and at times it gets in the way of the story. Sometimes, it’s better to just say “this is the way things are in this world” and let the audience fill in the blanks.

REASONS TO SEE: Wilson tackles a role outside his comfort zone.
REASONS TO AVOID: The science doesn’t appear to have been very well thought-out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, a fair amount of violence and some scenes of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cahill studied economics at Georgetown; while a student there he struck up a friendship with future actress Brit Marling.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/25/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 28% positive reviews; Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Matrix
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Cowboys

Cave of Forgotten Dreams


Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Once you've seen one awe-inspiring cave drawing, you've seen 'em all.

(2010) Documentary (Sundance Selects) Werner Herzog, Dominique Baffier, Jean Clottes, Jean-Michel Geneste, Carole Fritz, Gilles Tosello, Michel Philippe, Julien Monney, Nicholas Conard, Wulf Hein, Maria Malina, Maurice Maurin. Directed by Werner Herzog

We are merely part of an endless unbroken line of vessels, stretching back tens of thousands of years to our earliest human ancestors. The line between us and them is not nearly so tenuous as you might think.

In 1994, rock climbers in the South of France discovered Chauvet Cave, a cave of unusual beauty and grandeur. That, however, is not why the great filmmaker Werner Herzog bothered to make a documentary. The cave is also home to the earliest known examples of cave art, dating back some 35,000 years.

The paintings are incredibly fragile and access to the caves is thus justifiably limited to only a few weeks a year, and only to scientists. Herzog had to receive special permission to film in the cave, and even then with a bare bones crew with lights that emit no heat and are battery operated as all his equipment had to be. They could only walk on metal planks two feet wide, and couldn’t touch the walls. They had to wear special suits that would prevent contamination of the fragile cavern eco-system and enter through a steel door that is locked electronically.

But the beauty behind that door! Scenes of horses, moving en masse; wooly rhinoceroses battling, the seductive form of a woman with a bison’s head, all drawn on curving walls and projections, giving the illusion of three dimensionality, which is why this documentary was filmed in 3D so that viewers could get the proper effect. It still gives me goosebumps that these are depictions of animals that have not walked the earth for tens of thousands of years but were witnessed by human eyes.

The drawings themselves are surprisingly sophisticated given the circumstance. The animals are shown to be in motion; you can almost hear the horses whinny. The cave sparkles with crystals from the calcification process of limestone stalagtites and stalagmites, adding an otherworldly air to a cave that is already locked in time. It was almost perfectly sealed off from the ravages of the elements when the cliff face collapsed and sealed it shut. That served to preserve everything inside it, allowing us to see these amazing drawings 35,000 years later.

There are a lot of interviews here with scientists, some of whom are a bit quirky (like the German musicologist who plays the Star Spangled Banner on an ivory flute similar to ones found in nearby caves, or the programmer who used to be a circus acrobat). All of them are clearly affected on a very deep level by the cave and the artwork within.

The interesting thing is that the cave wasn’t really a habitation. Cave bears lived in the cave (their scratches, footprints and bones are all over) and humans used it for what appears to be ceremonial purposes. We can only speculate at this point but some of the positioning of stones and skulls in the cave lead some scientists to theorize that religious ceremonies took place there.

This isn’t a scientific lecture however, although obviously scientists play an important role in the cinematic experience (occasionally too much – the movie might have been better served letting the images speak for themselves more often). Herzog isn’t interested so much in explaining things, but letting the audience come to their own conclusions. He is not asking questions like “what did they use to get those colors” or “what manner of worship was conducted there.” He instead asks questions like “When did humans first get their soul?” and “What makes us human?” which in my opinion are far more worthy and interesting questions to ask.

This is the kind of movie that is going to stay with you for a very long time. It will percolate in your head, change color and shape and lead you to examine greater questions about our place in history. Will it change your life? I can’t say that it will and I won’t say that it won’t, but it will almost certainly change your perception of life. A movie that brings out a genuine feeling of awe in the audience is rare enough and should be experienced without delay if it comes to a theater near you.

REASONS TO GO: You can’t help but be awed by the power of the cave drawings, and the scientists interviewed convey that awe.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many talking heads.

FAMILY VALUES: Might be a little too tedious for those with short attention spans but otherwise great for families.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is co-produced by the History Channel’s motion picture arm, History Films. This is their first feature release.

HOME OR THEATER: This must be seen in a theater for maximum viewing impact.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: Paranormal Activity

Land of the Lost


Land of the Lost

Welcome to the cosmic trash heap.

(Universal) Will Ferrell, Danny McBride, Anna Friel, Jorma Taccone, Matt Lauer, John Boylan, Brian Huskey, Leonard Nimoy (voice), Dennis McNicholas. Directed by Brad Silberling

The existence of parallel dimensions is a theory many well-known scientists are beginning to take seriously. As of yet, however, the theory is largely unproven, but what if there was a way to actually travel to a parallel universe?

Rick Marshall (Ferrell) is a scientist who thinks he has proven just that. His quantum…er, tachyon…oh hell, just call it a thingamajig and leave it at that…needs a little more financing to get properly tested and Marshall appears on the Today show with Matt Lauer (himself) to explain why the $500 million is so necessary. After Lauer reminds him that most credible scientists think he’s a lunatic, the two wind up getting into a wrestling match. Personally, I think Lauer could school Ferrell. He may be smaller, but you know he’d fight dirty.

The fallout from the Today show appearance is disastrous for Marshall. Already a laughingstock, the Today show footage is a YouTube sensation, and Marshall loses what little credibility he has left. He’s reduced to lecturing elementary school students on the wonders of science until he meets up with Holly Cantrell (Friel), a former Cambridge physics student who dared to find Marshall’s theories worthwhile. For this sin, she was cast out of Cambridge.

When she finds a fossil that appears to be hundreds of millions of years old – of a lighter imprint, she knows that Marshall’s theories are true. Marshall is further blown away when he discovers it’s his own lighter that she found.

Holly takes Rick to the area where she found the fossil, as well as several crystals that seem to be irradiated with tachyons or some such gobbledygook; the main thing is that the location is a cave that has been turned into a tourist trap by redneck fireworks salesman Will Stanton (McBride) who agrees to take the two on a tour of the cave on a yellow inflatable raft. As the tour passes one cheesy tableaux after another, the tachyon detector/ectoplasm reader/tricorder thingy begins to go nuts. Rick turns on his thingamajig, the earth begins to shake, the little stream turns into a raging torrent and the three of them are sucked into a whirlpool o’ doom.

Except that it turns out they aren’t so doomed after all. They wind up in a strange world with several moons, deserts and swamps co-existing side by side, and the detritus of our world in a sort of cosmic trash heap, with cruise ships, ice cream trucks, drive-in movie screens and hotel pools all left to rot away in the garbage dump of the universe.

Unfortunately, there are other things in this place – grumpy tyrannosaurs (who are sensitive about their walnut-sized brains), larcenous pteranodons, lizard people in tunics (whom, as Will sagely notes, you can never trust), and proto-humans with plenty of hair, one of whom named Chaka (Taccone) befriends them. They have also lost their trusty thingamajig so they are stranded there. Can they find their thingamajig so that they can activate the whosis and use its gobbledygook to get them home?

Sid and Marty Krofft, who produced the original television show on which this is based, act as producers so you have to assume that they signed off on all of the changes and updates to their somewhat campy creation (so we can’t make any grave-rolling jokes either). When this came out in the summer of 2009, Da Queen and I originally made plans to see it but the reviews were so uniformly bad that we decided not to.

That’ll teach us for listening to those damned humorless critics. There is actually a sense of whimsy to the movie that I found rather refreshing. There is a running joke about the thingamajig also playing songs from A Chorus Line throughout the movie, which seems to exasperate Will and Holly no end. The look of the movie is deliberately kitschy, not only in a nod to the original series but I think for the laugh factor as well. While some of the CGI creatures are effective, they don’t need to be quite so much here – that’s part of the movie’s charm.

Ferrell has made a career out of playing dumber-than-rocks characters – Ricky Bobby, Ron Burgundy and George W. Bush, among others – and he’s added another one to the list. Marshall spews out factoids on subjects he knows nothing about and it almost always comes back to bite him in the derriere. Ferrell is one of those guys that people either love or they hate. Those who get him swear by him and those who don’t avoid him like the plague.

Anna Friel is in my humble opinion one of the more underrated comic actresses working today, as her work on “Pushing Daisies” and this film show. While ladies like Katherine Heigl get a lot of the higher profile comic roles, Friel is at least as good. It’s a shame she hasn’t really had a big successful movie to bolster her career the way Heigl has had.

The humor is a little scattershot and true to a movie about a place that has a little bit of everything, so too does the script and in situations like that, some things will work and others won’t. However, when the humor works the movie is as funny as anything Ferrell has done in his career (except for maybe his Celebrity Jeopardy skits on SNL – “Your answer is Threeve. I’m sorry, that’s not a number and your wager is…Texas.”) and that’s saying something.

WHY RENT THIS: The art direction is marvelous and there are some pretty nice laughs here. Friel is a much underrated comic actress.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The humor misfires more often than it hits home. You get the impression Ferrell is trying too hard to be funny.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some scatological humor, some raunchy sexual humor and some drug references; might be a little too much for smaller children, particularly when it comes to the monsters but otherwise okay for most audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third version of the Sid and Marty Krofft kids show to be made; in addition to the original TV series and this, there was a second version of the TV show made in 1991 with Timothy Bottoms in the Ferrell role (although he was called “Tom Porter” in that version).

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a “day in the life of” feature regarding co-star Danny McBride.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Karate Kid (2010)