A scene from STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

United States. Directed by J.J. Abrams, 2015. Starring Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Max von Sydow, Peter Mayhew, Gwendoline Christie. 135 minutes. 9/10

On October 30, 2012, the Walt Disney Company announced its acquisition of Lucasfilm Ltd. With that purchase came a drive to develop the Star Wars intellectual property into a shared “cinematic universe” à la Marvel Studios’ MCU. Three years later, The Force Awakens–the first Star Wars movie of the Disney era, the first of a new planned trilogy, the first not developed by George Lucas–is finally available for mass consumption. The waiting is finally over. Is this the beginning of a new golden age, or are we doomed to repeat the prequel era?

Well, it’s like this. Having been almost eleven years of age when Fox released the film that wasn’t yet called A New Hope, J.J. Abrams (director and co-writer of The Force Awakens, as if you didn’t know) belongs to the first generation that had the mythic scope and narrative structure of Star Wars imprinted on the part of his brain that tells him how to properly tell a story with moving pictures. Because he’s a fan, he knows what a Star Wars fan wants out of a film billing itself as “episode seven,” the official successor to Return of the Jedi.

And what a fan wants from such a film is to get the same vibe, the same sense of wonder and excitement, that they had the first time they saw Star Wars (or The Empire Strikes Back, or Return of the Jedi). Whether Abrams succeeds is up to the individual filmgoer; Star Wars fans tend to have intensely personal relationships with the series. But he damn well gives it his all. Other reviews make much of how Force Awakens replicates the plot beats of the original trilogy, particularly New Hope. This isn’t a weakness; to the contrary, it’s a necessity. For better or worse, mythic adventure is a formula. Rules must be followed.

At any rate, it’s not as if simply “rhyming” the beats makes Force Awakens a remake of New Hope. Yes, Episode VII begins with the required elements: the “A long time ago…” caption, the STAR WARS logo receding into space, the opening crawl, the downward pan. From that point forward, Abrams doesn’t bother trying to George Lucas’s (Irvin Kershner’s/Richard Marquand’s) visual style. Even when he employs dissolves and wipes, Force Awakens looks like a J.J. Abrams film: more modern and kinetic and, yes, plenty of lens flares. BB-8, a spherical practical-effects marvel who has as much personality as any human character, sums up all the strengths of Abrams’ visual aesthetic in one concise, adorable package.

This extends to the script, which Abrams developed with Lawrence Kasdan (perhaps Lucas’s best screenwriter-collaborator, with apologies to Leigh Brackett) from an early draft by Michael Arndt. The lead characters have more depth than their counterparts in the original trilogy, a crucial element in the success of the main villain, Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren. Let’s be honest: as menacing as Darth Vader is, that’s more on the design and the performances of Dave Prowse and James Earl Jones than on the writing. Thankfully, Driver accepts the challenge and rises to it, bestowing a terrifying intensity and humanity to match.

There are no dud performances in what must be one of the strongest ensembles of the year: future films seem secure in the hands of Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac; Andy Serkis reminds us how he became the go-to guy for performances like this; Domhnall Gleeson and Gwendoline Christie make surprisingly good Nazis. Yet the film’s MVPs are veterans Harrison Ford and Peter Mayhew, both of whom are too old for this shit but pull it off anyway. Ford, in particular, looks more interested in his surroundings than he has in a long time.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens represents a new era for the series. It’s far too easy to be cynical about Disney’s plans for the property, planning to release a Star Wars movie every year (currently alternating Rian Johnson and Colin Trevorrow’s Episodes VIII and IX with standalones like 2016’s Rogue One) as long as fans care to see them. Only time will tell whether The Force Awakens is the herald of great things to come or a dead-end, but right now, we’ve every right to be optimistic.

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS poster.

A scene from THE MARTIAN.

The Martian

United States. Directed by Ridley Scott, 2015. Starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover, Benedict Wong. 144 minutes. 10/10

So one of the things you’ve probably notice me bemoan is the lack of epic, big-budget, thought-provoking science fiction that actually bothers trying to look like it’s getting the science right. The indie scene has had some success over the last few years producing thoughtful, low-budget SF; films like Upstream Color, Under the Skin, and this year’s very own Ex Machina have all stood amongst the best films of their respective years. But even the best recent tentpole science-fiction has been more about exciting the audience with awesome effects and action rather than evoking the wonder of science. Not that there’s anything wrong with that: I loved Star Trek, Looper, and Pacific Rim. But sometimes I ask myself, “Self, is Hollywood capable of producing something along the lines of 2001?”

I wouldn’t necessarily say The Martian is in the same league as 2001, but it’s a step in the right direction. Adapted from Andy Weir’s 2001 novel by director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods, Cloverfield) evokes the real-world verisimilitude of hard sci-fi without turning into a college seminar, and thrills and excites the audience without dumbing down the science.

Key to its success is Scott and Goddard’s interpretation of Weir’s protagonist, Mark Watney (Matt Damon), a botanist attached to a six-person team studying Mars from the “Hab,” their base located at the Red Planet’s Acidia Planitia region. A severe dust storm forces the team to abort the mission, but when Watney becomes injured and lost in the storm, his crewmates, believing him dead, return to their orbiting vessel and begin their journey back to Earth. Yet Watney does survive, and with no way to contact either his crew or NASA, realizes his only hope of making it home depends on surviving long enough to meet up with the crew of the follow-up mission–four years hence at a landing site two thousand miles away.

The film puts the audience on Watney’s side immediately, granting him an indomitable, endearingly nerdy personality who pledges to “science the shit out of” his predicament and vows that “Mars will come to fear my botany powers.” The immense challenges he faces excite him, not overwhelm him, and if he dies, he’ll do so knowing he was a pioneer, the first human in history to have an entire planet to himself. This is the sort of role that Matt Damon was born to play. His performance, which he tackles with his trademark confidence, is so effortless you often don’t notice what a good job he’s doing.

The fantastic characterization and acting aren’t limited to Mars, as the story intercuts between Watney’s plot and three others: NASA management handling the fallout of the botanist’s “death” and coordination of efforts to bring him back when they discover he’s alive; the actual work of the science teams; and his crewmates’ journey home. These plots feature performances equal to Damon’s, especially from Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, and the great Chiwetel Ejiofor as the NASA managers; Jessica Chastain as the mission leader; and Community‘s Donald Glover as a scene-stealing, eccentric astrodynamicist.

If there’s one flaw in the script, it’s that it never quite convinces the audience that there’s any real chance of Watney not making it back to Earth. Yet Scott keeps the suspense high, partly through Pietro Scalia’s perfect steady pacing, but mostly through effectively communicating the scale of everything. Between the cinematography and the effects work, The Martian looks like Scott filmed it on location on, well, Mars, not a soundstage with a green screen. The script also consistently reinforces the vast distances the astronauts must brave.

The Martian earns its place among recent science fiction classics not just through its visuals or its story, but by inspiring a sense of wonder in its audience, and by embodying a faith in the human spirit that may seem corny on paper but is intensely moving in its execution. This is what science fiction, as a genre, is for. One of the best of the year.

THE MARTIAN poster.

Conal Byrne stars in THE RECONSTRUCTION OF WILLIAM ZERO.

The Reconstruction of William Zero

United States. Directed by Dan Bush, 2014. Starring Conal Byrne, Amy Siemetz, Melissa McBride, Adam Fristoe, AJ Bowen, Scott Poythress, Tim Habeger, Lake Roberts. 98 minutes. 6/10

The concept of identity and what exactly makes an individual that specific individual has long been a popular concept in science fiction; with The Reconstruction of William Zero, Dan Bush, co-director of The Signal (not the one from last year), becomes the latest filmmaker to take the idea on. Conal Byrne (who co-wrote with Bush) stars as the titular William, a geneticist who emerges from a coma with only the sketchiest of memories. His twin brother helps him gradually relearn who he is…

…only to find out he’s not who he thinks he is–or more accurately, who he’s being taught to believe he is. He’s actually a “proxy,” or clone, of his “brother,” the real William Blakeley. The reasons for his creation are…complicated, but suffice it to say, the tragic death of William’s young son in an auto accident and the subsequent dissolution of his marriage to Jules (Amy Siemetz) form the basis of the original’s motivation.

As intriguing as the questions Reconstruction poses are–not just “what makes ourselves ourselves” but also “can we train someone else who’s not us to become us” and other philosophical meanderings–I had a hard time grasping exactly why some of the characters did what they did. Creating a clone of oneself and then teaching that clone to replace one doesn’t strike me as the most obviously intuitive thing for a brilliant scientist with a dead son and the secret of cloning to do. That doesn’t make it a plot hole, not exactly, but it seems a weird thing to do in a fantastical situation even without murky motivations on William’s part.

Nor does the story make the best of Next Corporation, the Williams’ mysterious employer. The boss may be full of cryptic pronouncements such as “this isn’t the sort of job you just quit,” but even a pool of shadowy, vaguely threatening operatives (including one played by AJ Bowen) can’t give Next a sinister or threatening, conspiratorial vibe. Sometimes a little ambiguity goes a long way, but in this case there’s just not enough meat on the bone.

On the plus side, Byrne practically radiates a sort of open blankness perfect for William; you can readily accept him as an empty vessel, looking for something–anything–of meaning to fill himself with (and his performances take on a new dimension once the third-act twist is revealed). Siemetz and Bowen always show up in movies like this; Siemetz in particular has an easy confidence in her role, it’s something she could do in her sleep. Bush keeps the suspense building up (despite a few awkward expository scenes, especially towards the end) and has a good eye. It’s all topped off with an analog-drenched synth score–nowhere near the same league as The Guest and It Follows, but better than the thousand others I’ve heard this year.

While The Reconstruction of William Zero doesn’t quite gel as solidly as it could have, it’s still worth watching: thoughtful and provocative, proof that science fiction doesn’t need big effects to work on screen.

THE RECONSTRUCTION OF WILLIAM ZERO poster

A scene from GREEN ROOM.

Fantastic Fest 2015: Wrap-up

Note to those who have been following my Fantastic Fest 2015 coverage: there isn’t any new content in this post, this is just the “Best Of” and Ranking segments broken off from the day 8 post for ease of reading.

Continue reading “Fantastic Fest 2015: Wrap-up”

The Witch

Fantastic Fest 2015: Day Six

On the sixth day, I watched: the John Hawkes-led neo-noir Too Late; the colonial-era horror film The Witch; the Polish supernatural drama Demon; the “extreme” and “controversial” anthology German Angst; Isaac Ezban’s Twilight Zone-inspired The Similars.

Continue reading “Fantastic Fest 2015: Day Six”

A scene from PARALLELS.

Parallels

United States. Directed by Christopher Leone, 2015. Starring Mark Hapka, Jessica Rothe, Eric Jungmann, Constance Wu, Michael Monks. 83 minutes.

Parallels is the story of Ronan Carver (Mark Hapka) and his estranged sister Beatrix (Jessica Rothe), who reunite when they both receive cryptic voice-mail messages from their eccentric father: be at a certain address at a certain time on a certain day. With Bea’s annoying childhood friend Harry (Eric Jungmann) in tow, they arrive at the location–a modern but seemingly deserted office highrise–at the appointed time. However, when they leave the building, they find themselves in a rubble-strewn post-apocalyptic wasteland–except for the building, looking shiny and completely out-of-place.

They also discover they were wrong about the building being deserted, as Polly (Constance Wu) shows up to deliver some exposition. Every thirty-six hours, the building…teleports? translocates?…to the same location in a parallel universe. Some of the Earths are very similar, some are very different. One may be exactly like the one the Carvers come from, only with one less mosquito; in another, human society was devastated by a series of nuclear attacks apparently triggered by…well, I’m getting ahead of myself here, but that’s the one we spend most of the second act in.

The film poses a lot of questions (who turned the building into a dimensional travel machine? How is the Carvers’ father involved? Does the Council of Ricks meet in the building?), very few of which the movie even remotely attempts to answer before its seemingly-inexplicable cliffhanger ending. Instead, the script spends inordinate amounts of time on tangential B-plots that don’t really go anywhere (a dilemma involving Harry and a less ethical alt-universe double comes to mind as an example). So what gives?

Well, it turns out that Parallels isn’t really a movie per se; rather, co-writers Christopher Leone (who also directed) and Laura Harkcom intended it as a series pilot, only nobody ever ordered the full series. The characters’ adventures likely end here, although Leone expresses hope that he’ll be able to continue with the story in some form. In the meantime, the studio “morphed [Parallels] into a stand-alone movie,” in the words of the project’s IMDB page.

I’m not really sure, then, how to judge Parallels. As a pilot, it has a lot of great ideas, an intriguing “mythology,” a flair for supporting characters and no small amount of wit and charm. Unfortunately, it also suffers from hackneyed plot beats, very little chemistry between the actors (Hapka and Rothe don’t just seem estranged, they come off like they’ve never rehearsed together) and a big widely-used-archetype-that-needs-to-die in Harry, the nerdy, awkward “nice guy” with a long-standing crush on Bea. He’s the sort of character who only works as a character–a real-life version would strike everyone as creepy–and even so, we seem to be moving away from romanticizing these Duckies and Lloyd Doblers.

That being said, many if not most pilots are iffy; actors need to grow into their characters, characters need to find their voices, and shows need to figure out how to do what they do best. Even when they’re good, they don’t always presage the direction the overall story will take. Leone and Harkcom might have ironed out many of the kinks with time. Maybe they’ll still get that chance.

However, Fox Zero Day released Parallels as a movie, and its provenance as a pilot requires research to dig up. And the truth is, it stands alone about as well as The Fellowship of the Ring would have if Peter Jackson had cut the final forty-five minutes and never made the sequels or prequels. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth watching, but I do have to warn you what you’re in for.

PARALLELS poster

Corey Rieger, Andrew Simpson, Orson Ossman, and David Pesta star in THE PHOENIX PROJECT.

The Phoenix Project

United States. Directed by Tyler Graham Pavey, 2015. Starring Corey Rieger, Andrew Simpson, David Pesta, Orson Ossman. 92 minutes.

In 1816 a young woman named Mary Wollenstonecraft Godwin spent a summer in Switzerland with her fiancée and two friends reading ghost stories and challenging each other to create their own tales of the macabre. Godwin spent the next two years developing her story into a novel, which she published two years later under her married name, Mary Shelley. She named that novel Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. Her work cemented the animation (or reanimation) of dead tissue as the proper vocation of the archetypal mad scientist.

The four scientists of Tyler Pavey’s The Phoenix Project–team leader Perry Frank (Corey Rieger), biologist Devin Fischer (Andrew Simpson), engineer Ampersand “Amps” Garner (David Pesta), and Perry’s assistant/protégé Carter Watts (Orson Ossman) share a goal with Frankenstein: they want to bring things that are dead back to life. The similarities don’t end there: while Perry doesn’t seem “mad” in the sense of most mad scientists, he exhibits an obsession, an affinity for the unorthodox, and a disregard for authority which often brings him into conflict with his teammates.

He also possesses a hubris similar to Frankenstein’s, continually insisting that the Project qualifies only as pure research for its own sake with no goal of a practical application. In other words, he wants to do it simply so he can prove he can. This doesn’t sit quite well with Devin, the closest thing Perry has to a rival for alpha-dog status amongst the team, who has his own motivation for involvement.

Small and intimate, Pavey’s film plays out almost like a documentary about the Project; indeed, the team videotapes their work and occasionally comments on it, on the assumption that the footage will prove useful to those studying their breakthrough. This sets the tone and mood for the film, making the finished product less of a horror film than one might assume. That doesn’t mean that Pavey entirely eschews horrific elements; indeed, the film’s tragic final scenes are fraught with dark implications. But even then, Project is more thoughtful than scary.

Ultimately, the subject of The Phoenix Project is what drives people to take on ambitious, paradigm-shattering projects like bringing the dead back to life. White it doesn’t quite qualify as a character study, it focuses on its characters with a laser’s intensity. That puts more pressure on the cast to perform than a more style-based production might. The roles require an odd kind of chemistry, as while their relationships don’t entirely qualify as friendships (save for that between Perry and Carter) but possess an intensity not often seen between co-workers. By and large, the ensemble rises to the challenge, with Simpson and Pesta standing out somewhat as the most complex, relatable characters.

The Phoenix Project isn’t everybody’s cup of tea: its stylistic simplicity doesn’t engage the viewer on the visual level. The tone is often cold, giving one the sense that Tyler Pavey has not so much directed a film as grown one in a lab. (And on a completely personal level, the characters’ white-bread hipster-ish-ness annoyed me: seriously, who would name their son “Ampersand?”) But, ultimately, the film works well as a specimen of thought-provoking science fiction in the vein of Primer.

THE PHOENIX PROJECT poster

Ryan Reynolds stars in SELF/LESS.

Self/less

United States. Directed by Tarsem Singh, 2015. Starring Ryan Reynolds, Natalie Martinez, Matthew Goode, Ben Kingsley, Victor Garber. 117 minutes.

Self/less stars Ben Kingsley as Damien Hale, a dying New York real estate mogul, who makes a Faustian deal with creepy Randian scientist Albright (Matthew Goode). Albright shares a dream with Steve Martin’s character in The Man with Two Brains, who foresaw “a day when the brains of brilliant men can be kept alive in the bodies of dumb people.” To this end, the scientist arranges to kill Hale’s diseased body but transplant his consciousness into the younger, sexier, more athletic, and less cancer-ridden body of Ryan Reynolds.

Albright assures his client than Hale 2.0 was grown in a lab–which, of course, means that it wasn’t. The new Hale realizes this when he starts having visions of being  War II vet with a young wife and sick daughter. On the plus side, it turns out he has access to his body’s former occupant’s élite military training, which will aid him in his quest to find out what the hell is going on, and, not incidentally, tear Albright and his organization a new asshole.

The bad news about Self/less is that it isn’t as thoughtful as I hoped it would be. The good news is that’s really not a problem, as the film has its own particular charms–and anyway, I already have a recent, intelligent “body-swapping to help a disadvantaged daughter” movie under my belt; that would be Advantageous.

Director Tarsem Singh (The CellThe Fall, and of course the music video for “Losing My Religion”) envisions the screenplay, by Spanish writers David and Àlex Pastor as a bit of a take on The Bourne Identity (hunky guy with a vague identity uses fighting skills he doesn’t quite know about to take down a shadowy agency who won’t leave him alone), with a bit of The Guest thrown in for good measure when Hale 2.0 tracks down the family of his former body. None of this is particularly original, admittedly, and the film’s plot development settles into a rote familiarity.

This didn’t surprise me. Singh doesn’t really do substance. This is, after all, the guy who asked audiences to accept Jennifer Lopez as a brilliant child psychologist with a minor in virtual reality mind-melds. What Singh does do is style, and he does style very well. Self/less is a gorgeous film, brilliantly designed and expertly staged action sequences. The car chases, in particular, are things of beauty. I do sincerely hope that the recent trend in coherent film action continues and overtakes the “if I shake the camera hard enough no one will notice that I never bothered to learn my craft” methods practiced by Michael Bay’s acolytes.

It helps that the filmmakers have assembled a strong cast well suited for the material. Kingsley gets Damien 1.0’s smug cockiness just right, even if he does struggle with an overwrought Brooklyn accent. Reynolds will never be anybody’s idea of a great actor, but he does provide a continuity of character with Kingsley, and every so often he shows hints of range one wouldn’t ordinarily expect. Goode understands he’s playing a Bond villain and adjusts his performance accordingly. The emotional heart of the film comes in two supporting performances: the great Victor Garber (Alias) as Hale 1.0’s longtime business partner and Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) as Hale’s estranged environmentalist daughter.

Self/less is action movie comfort food. True, it lacks real narrative ambition and doesn’t follow up on its more intriguing science-fiction premises, jettisoning them in favor of more overt and predictable emotional manipulation. But sometimes a taste of the familiar is exactly what you need.

SELF/LESS poster.

Jacqueline KIm stars in ADVANTAGEOUS.

Advantageous

United States. Directed by Jennifer Phang, 2015. Starring Jacqueline Kim, Samantha Kim, James Urbaniak, Jennifer Ehle, Ken Jeong. 90 minutes.

Co-screenwriters Jennifer Phang (who also directs) and Jacqueline Kim (who also stars) examine a broad range of issues in Advantageous, their dystopian near-future science-fiction drama. Kim stars as Gwen Koh, a single mother who loses her job as “head” of the Center for Advanced Health and Living. I put the word “head” in ironi-quotes because even though that seems to have been Gwen’s official title, and she seems to have the scientific knowledge to back such a title up, in terms of her actual duties she seems more like a glorified spokesperson. And since her superiors (represented by James Urbaniak and Jennifer Ehle) have decided that since they want to pursue a younger demographic, the middle-aged Gwen has to go.

This is an especially bad time for Gwen to be out of a job, as her thirteen-year-old daughter Jules (Samantha Kim) stands at a crucial juncture in her school career. If Gwen can’t cough up the exorbitant tuition fees for a prestigious private school (private schools seem to have been abolished), Jules’s promising future goes down the tubes. But since unemployment currently stands at 45%, Gwen’s chances of finding a job that pays her what she needs to make are grim.

That’s just a modest slice of the social commentary Advantageous offers: it also examines terrorism, surveillance, the media, and economic privilege–and that’s all before we meet her estranged cousin and her husband (Jennifer Ikeda and Ken Jeong), not to mention the plot’s real turning point, where we learn the true nature of the Center for Advanced Health and Living’s flagship product. On paper, the film looks well-meaning but stuffed to overflowing with ideas, threatening to burst at any moment.

It doesn’t, although by the end I did see a few dangling threads, leaving me to wonder exactly what they had to do with anything else and why they were there. They serve the world-building well, and one certainly can’t define the limits of the real world within ninety minutes. But I have to admit I would have liked slightly tighter plotting.

However, the script keeps everything under control by putting the focus squarely on Gwen and her relationships. The film’s economic reality isn’t too far removed from our own, and the Koh’s comparative affluence doesn’t detract from Gwen’s relatability. Similarly, while it would be easy to define the supporting characters in only one or two dimensions–Jules’s friends could be snooty Stepford Children; the Center’s leadership, bottom-line-obsessed Randian sociopaths–Phang and Kim wisely develop them as real(ish) people. Jennifer Ehle’s character, for example, might be the closest thing Advantageous has to an actual antagonist, but one gets the sense that she genuinely sympathizes with Gwen’s plight.

A film this focused on character needs a cast that can keep up with it, and the ensemble here is excellent, with Jacqueline Kim providing a solid emotional anchor, and impressive supporting performances, especially from Urbaniak and Samantha Kim. Jeong proves to be the film’s MVP, delivering a performance wholly removed from the bombast that defines his signature role (Community’s Señor Chang).

Advantageous might be a bit too ambitious for its means, but that doesn’t keep it from being an excellent science-fiction drama. Highly recommended for those who prefer their SF thoughtful and cerebral.

ADVANTAGEOUS poster