Friday, October 28, 2011

Spookily Prescient: In Time

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

"In Time," Andrew Niccol's latest science fiction thriller, (he also wrote and directed "Gattaca" and "S1m0ne"), is set in a future where people have been genetically engineered to stop aging at 25, and time has replaced money as the new currency. Once someone hits 25, the neon clock on their forearm starts counting down, and they have one more year to live, unless they can earn, inherit, borrow, or steal more time.

The rich have hundreds of years on their clocks, while the rest--the 99%--live day-by-day, hour-by-hour, and minute-by-minute. Being poor means having about an hour left on your clock, and once someone's clock runs out, they drop dead.

Justin Timberlake stars as Will Salas, a factory worker in a "ghetto" called Dayton. He and his 50-year-old mother, (played by Olivia Wilde, see how that works?), live in a rundown apartment, working crappy jobs in order to live. Literally. In their town, every second counts, so there's no time to idly chat over coffee in the morning. (Literally.) (And if you think those "literallys" are annoying, prepare yourself. The time puns run aplenty in the movie.)

Their world appears to be a Marxian nightmare come to life, as workers have no choice but to slave for the wages set by the corporation overlords, because to not work is to die. Literally.

Will meets and saves the life of a man (Matt Bomer) over 100 years old, with over 100 years left on his clock--in other words, a really, really rich man. But this guy has had enough of living, and, in a suicidal gesture, gives all his time to Will. (In this world people can borrow or lend time by clasping hands. It's best not to think too hard about it.) Will, with all this extra time on his hands, (LITERALLY), decides to try and shake up the system, buying his way into the rich city of New Greenwich, to see how the better 1% lives.

The time-is-money thing is a genuinely intriguing concept, and for the first 45 minutes or so, the movie really works. It certainly fed into my inherent anxieties about time. (I am always watching the clock, worried I will be late to something, or run out of time before I need to get something done). So when two characters race towards each other with what could be their final minutes of living ticking down on their armclocks, I was genuinely tense.

But while the movie's political metaphor is spookily prescient, (I couldn't think of a better time for this movie to open, what with the Occupy movement spreading, and getting more heated), it's also disappointingly muddled, and devolves into a rather rote Bonnie and Clyde-meets-Robin Hood story, with Will kidnapping Sylvia, (Amanda Seyfried), the daughter of one of the world's richest men, (played by Pete Campbell Vincent Kartheiser). She, of course, falls in love with Will, and then joins in on his plan to crash the system, by robbing the rich and giving to the poor.

It's also at this point that it becomes another movie in which the hero is constantly running somewhere, while dragging his high-heeled girlfriend behind him. And she's not the only thing dragging: For a movie all about the sanctity of time, it really drags on, clocking in at almost two hours. (No doubt some will come out demanding those two hours of their lives back.)

Plot threads are brought up, but never fleshed out, (apparently Will's father was some kind of radical, back in the day, though we never really learn much more than that fact), and the addition of a gangster--or "Minute Man"--who robs and kills people for their time is pretty unnecessary, especially since Will's already got a cop--or "Time Keeper," (coolly played by Cillian Murphy), on his tail.

Ultimately, the movie isn't strong enough to get past all the questions its concept brings up, and that can get pretty distracting. To wit: Why is everyone riding around in 1960's and '70s muscle cars? Is it because those hunks of steal are thought to be safer, and no one wants to risk death by car crash? If everyone stops aging at 25, does that mean people younger than 25 are more desirable? Is 12 the new 21? How come there aren't any cell phones? Is it because no one wants to get (....literally) locked in to a two year contract with a crappy service provider?

And the biggest question of all: While Justin Timberlake is perfectly adequate in the role, (and, frankly, does the best he can with some really clunky and obvious dialogue), when the hell is he going to take a break from this acting thing and make another damn record?

Time's a wasting!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Unfortunately, No One Goes Crazy In A Shed: The Thing

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

When I first heard an updated version of "The Thing" was in the works, I was worried. When I heard it was going to be both a remake and a prequel, I was both worried and pissed. We don't need any more remakes of great movies in the world. Let's move on to remaking crappy movies!

But I was pleased to see that, in terms of story, "The Thing" really is a direct prequel to the 1982 film, (which, I guess, should now officially be known as "John Carpenter's The Thing,"--itself an adaptation of Howard Hawks' 1951 "The Thing From Another World"--since this prequel has nothing in the title suggesting it is anything but a remake). Unfortunately, in terms of plot, it follows many of the same scenarios seen in Carpenter's film, and that's where the movie falters.

There were some questions I had going into "The Thing," like, is the movie going to be entirely in Norwegian? The burnt-out station in the '82 film was filled with Norwegians, and the guy MacReady and his crew have the shoot-out with didn't speak English.

That little plot point is dealt with by placing an American paleontologist, Kate, (played by "Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World"'s Mary Elizabeth Winstead), in the center of that Norwegian station, thus forcing the Norwegians to speak English (most of the time). But, of course, there's one guy on the team who can only speak Norwegian. (You can guess what happens to him.)

Kate is brought to Antarctica after the Norwegian team discovers a flying saucer buried under hundreds of thousands of years worth of ice, and a creature frozen several yards away. She's got experience extracting frozen creatures from ice, although what she's dealt with in the past have been things of Earthly origin.

The scientist who recruits her is a shifty guy named Halvorson, (Ulrich Thomsen), and he decides they should take a tissue sample before carting the frozen creature back to civilization. This turns out to be a colossally bad idea.

Before long the alien thaws, escapes, and starts wreaking havoc, and the movie proceeds to play out much like the Carpenter and Hawks films (and the source material, the novella "Who Goes There") did, with the realization that this creature is a mimic, and it's possible no one is who they say they are.

We've come a long way from the creature shop effects or 1982, but that's not necessarily a good thing. I'll always believe that things (no pun intended) that actually physically exist in the world are going to produce a more visceral reaction than things (sorry!) created in a computer. And while credit should to be given to director Matthijs van Heijningen for using some actual creature props here, there's still too much CG, and none of the monster revelations produces the kind of "You've got to be fucking kidding!" reaction elicited in Carpenter's film. The Thing in this film just isn't that creative.

This Thing also doesn't seem that smart. Perhaps by the time it gets to the American camp it has learned a thing or two, but here, it manages to reveal itself at really bad times, and you don't really understand if its intention is to mimic people and take over the world, or just get back to its spaceship and get the hell out of there.

But this The Thing does do a few things right. It's a nice tribute to the 1951 version to have a female scientist amongst the players, and the test she comes up with to determine alien from human is clever. The movie is also very reverential to the 1982 film, and fans will be happy to see the mysteries seen in that burnt-out station are, for the most part, explained here. (And don't leave the second the credits start rolling. You'll be sorry.)

But, on the other hand, if you've seen the 1982 film, you'll recognize, beat for beat, the plot points here. Those people who are unaccounted for for periods of time--are they human? The person knocking at the door--is he human? The first attempt at creating a blood test is thwarted--just like in the Carpenter film--and a make-shift alternative is done instead.

But what this one does not take from the '82 version is any real sense of paranoia. "John Carpenter's The Thing" was all about paranoia, and when you found out a character you actually kind of liked was, in fact, the Thing, it stung.

In this one, there's a complete failure of character development for the majority of the guys in that station. They're all bearded, most speak Norwegian, and it's virtually impossible to tell most of them apart. Why are you going to care if someone's the Thing if you don't even know who the hell that guy was to begin with? In other words, there's no Wilford Brimley going crazy in a shed here.

Ultimately, "The Thing" is able to follow the one rule any sequel or prequel should, which is: don't fuck with the original. Fans of the 1982 film will probably have fun, but for anyone who hasn't seen that one, and chooses to see this one instead, well, you're missing out on the better Thing.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Crushing of Hope: The Ides of March

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Putting both George Clooney and Ryan Gosling into the same movie seems like an almost comical abundance of riches, but within the context of the political drama "The Ides of March," it makes a lot of sense.

Gosling plays Stephen Meyers, press secretary to Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris, (Clooney), who is running for the Democratic presidential bid. No year is given, although it feels a bit like a time pre-Obama. The focus here is the Democratic campaign, and Republicans get only passing mention.

Clooney the man is a staunch Democrat, and is very vocal about the causes he believes in. Of course, this has led to some call for him to run for office, and the character he plays here is, basically, what one would expect Clooney-as-presidential-hopeful to be: Unabashedly liberal and progressive, popular, charming, and swoon-worthily attractive.

So, it makes sense that such a candidate would have an equally charming and attractive press secretary. Gosling's Stephen is the face of the campaign, while the polar-opposite Phillip Seymour Hoffman is the campaign manager, Paul Zara, the man behind the scenes.

The story finds them in Ohio for the primary, with Morris up against an older and more middle-of-the-road candidate in a campaign run by Tom Duffy, a veteran manager played by Paul Giametti. Duffy sees the fire and ambition in Stephen, and convinced his candidate has the nomination in the bag, attempts to woo Stephen over to the winning team.

Except Stephen is a true believer, working for Morris not just because he thinks he will win, but because he believes he should win. New York Times writer Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei), who is a friendly if constant presence on the campaign, warns Stephen that he is only setting himself up for disappointment, as politicians will, inevitably, fall far below the pedestals you place them on.

Eventually, Stephen's meeting with the opposing side, the much-needed endorsement of a governor his candidate can't stand, and a comely young intern (played by Evan Rachel Wood), threaten to topple the entire campaign, and it is in the playing out of these dilemmas that the movie reveals its ultimately cynical truth.

I haven't been a big fan of political dramas in the past. I find real-life politics so ridiculous, rage-inducing, and sad that I tend to stay away from fictional accounts as entertainment since they so often just pale in comparison to the insanity of real life. "Ides" suffers a bit from that problem. At many times throughout the film I found myself thinking what we are actually facing as a country, and the trials facing the current administration, are more dramatic and intriguing than anything a writer could come up with. And the movie's placement in a world free of Obama and Tea Parties is kind of a distraction.

But Clooney the director is able to build up the suspense, and present what backstage politics may be like in an entirely believable way. What's missing here is a bit of levity. Clooney the man is very funny, and that sense of humor has found its way into almost all of the movies he's directed. Apart from the film's terrific opening, in which Gosling riffs at a debate sound check, there is not much humor, or a feeling of off-the-cuffness, to be found here, and as a result, much of the movie feels very stiff.

The film is based, for the most part, on a play called "Farragut North," and some of that theatricality remains. Most of the action takes place in hotel rooms, campaign offices, buses, and private jets, giving the proceedings the claustrophobic feeling that is probably inherent in any campaign. (You may be traveling the country, but you're really only seeing the insides of boring buildings in the process.) This basis in theater also means it is an actor's film; the movie is its dialogue and actors, and thankfully the cast here is outstanding all around.

Ryan Gosling isn't a showy actor, and I think he gets guff for that, with some critics equating his delivery to mere mumbling in the Brando vein. But I think it's much harder to emote internal anger than it is to scream and throw things, and by the end of "Ides" Gosling's Stephen is full to the brim with suppressed rage. The movie is nicely bookended with scenes featuring close-ups of Gosling, and his performance in both is a picture perfect portrait of the crushing of hope.