Thursday, February 25, 2016

Less Than Zero (1987) ***

Instead of all those school assemblies telling kids to “Just Say No To Drugs,” every teenager should just be required to watch “Less Than Zero.” No one wants to use drugs after watching this movie!

Loosely based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis, “Less Than Zero” is a tale of three high-school friends whose lives diverge after graduation. Clay (Andrew McCarthy), Blair (Jami Gertz), and Julian (Robert Downey, Jr.) are spoiled, rich kids from L.A. For high school graduation, Julian's dad gives him the money to start a music production company, an opportunity that he promptly blows. Blair skips out on college to continue her modeling career. Only Clay goes off to school. He returns for Christmas break to find his old friends with cocaine habits, and Julian in debt to a drug dealer. Blair begs Clay to save Julian from his downward spiral of drug and alcohol binges, but saving Julian from himself proves a daunting task.

There really isn't that much plot to describe in this film. It's a pretty basic story about drugs ruining someone's life, and the film doesn't delve much into motivations or backstory. There are a few things that make “Less Than Zero” memorable:
  1. An awesome soundtrack including the Bangles' kickass cover of Simon and Garfunkel's “A Hazy Shade of Winter”
  2. Gorgeous, noir cinematography
  3. Steamy sex scenes with Jami Gertz
  4. Finally, Robert Downey, Jr.'s powerfully ugly portrayal of a drug addict. Watching Julian circle the drain is horrifying and mesmerizing.
“Less Than Zero” feels really intense while you are watching it, but afterward there is a certain letdown when you realize the story didn't really mean all that much. The film is also marred by the tacked-on final scene, which was reportedly forced on the director by the studio. The movie is worth watching, but like its characters, it is more style than substance.

3 stars out of 5

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Hunger (1983) ***

David Bowie died recently, so I've been listening to his stuff a lot lately, and then the idea of watching “The Hunger” came up. All I knew about this movie is that Bowie plays a vampire, and that there's a lesbian sex scene between Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve. What more do you need to know, really? If those two things aren't enough to make you want to watch it, then it probably isn't for you.

“The Hunger” dispenses with some of the tropes of vampire movies, including the stupid teeth. Deneuve's Miriam and Bowie's John just carry a little knife around their neck for when they want to open up someone's throat. They also have no problem with the sun. They do thrive at night, however, and the film starts with an artsy sequence of the two picking up a couple of victims at a nightclub where the band Bauhaus is playing “Bela Lugosi's Dead.” When they aren't drinking blood, Miriam and John spend their time playing music, being stylish, and taking hot showers together. John is looking forward to an eternity of this, so he is shocked to find himself starting to age. Miriam is not so shocked. She, it turns out, is the senior vampire, and for some reason, the junior vampires she creates only last a few hundred years. She has seen this happen to several lovers, but rather than supporting John through his painful dissolution, she distances herself from him. When John seeks help from Sarah, a doctor who does research into aging, Miriam starts to fall for Sarah. Without giving away any spoilers, I will just say that John's fate ends up being a powerful metaphor for how it feels to be dropped by your lover.

“The Hunger” is an art film, slow-paced at times, and not for everyone. It's a wonderful and intense movie, however, beautifully filmed in that gauzy, '80's style. The confusing ending was tacked on, presumably to suit a broader audience and to set up a possible sequel. Otherwise, though, the film is worth checking out, and that Sarandon/Deneuve lesbian scene alone is worth the price of admission.

3 stars out of 5

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Ex Machina (2015) ***

There's an amazing British TV show called “Black Mirror,” which explores, in Twilight-zone-like stories, how we interact with technology. “Ex Machina” star Domhnall Gleeson appears in an episode, which I remembered as I was thinking about how “Ex Machina” is like a longer version of a “Black Mirror” episode, although not as incisive.

Gleeson plays Caleb, a computer programer who wins a week's retreat at his billionaire boss's house. When he arrives at the remote complex, he learns that he isn't just there to vacation. His boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac) wants him to help do a Turing Test on his new robot, Ava, to determine if it has true Artificial Intelligence. Caleb finds himself falling in love with Ava (Alicia Vikander), who turns out to be smarter than either Caleb or Nathan.

My complaint about “Ex Machina” is that it's twice as long as an episode of “Black Mirror,” but only half as interesting. That's not to say it's a bad movie at all; I just wish there were more to chew on. The best-developed character is Nathan, who is also the least sympathetic. He sees himself as a Bro, an athletic, beer-drinking, guy's guy who happens to be good with computers. He is, in fact, just another in a long line of mad scientists, with all of the megalomania and misanthropy of the breed. Actually, he is more of a misogynist. He views himself as simply an inventor, but he imbues his creations with clearly female qualities, then mistreats them. Caleb and Ava, ostensibly the most important characters, are never very well developed.

As retellings of the Frankenstein story go, “Ex Machina” is impressive primarily for its visuals, including Ava's feminine body, made up of transparent panels and glowing cables. We can see right through Ava, but it still feels like we don't get very far below her surface. We never get to delve far into the rich implications of Ava's existence. “Ex Machina” is a movie that never explores all its possibilities.

3 stars out of 5

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Martian (2015) ****1/2

It's Oscars-time again, which means opportunities to see lots of “elegantly restrained dramas,” not to mention movies about the Holocaust and gay people. Movies, as Eric Cartman would say, “about gay cowboys eating pudding.” Not that there's anything wrong with that. Many of those movies are actually quite good. It's nice, though, to see a quality picture that is forward-looking, funny, and full of action. I'm talking about a movie that doesn't sit on your Netflix queue while you psych yourself up to sit down and watch it. “The Martian” is that movie!

Matt Damon plays astronaut Mark Watney, who gets lost, presumed-dead, and left behind in a Martian storm. When he wakes up in a pile of sand to find himself alone on the red planet, the enormity of his situation is evident. Even if he can find a way to signal earth that he is alive, it will take four years to mount a manned-rescue operation, and he only has enough food for a few months. Mark doesn't just throw in the towel, though. He figures out ways to grow food, make water, signal earth, and so on. As he describes it later, “You solve a problem, then you solve the next problem, and if you solve enough problems, you make it home.” Meanwhile, the all-star cast back on earth tries to figure out a way to bring him home.

“The Martian” created a quandary for Golden Globe voters earlier this year. The movie is clearly a drama, but it's so full of humor that it wound up being nominated, and winning, for Best Comedy. Most of the credit for this goes to Matt Damon, who spends most of the movie acting by himself, and just kills it. He's funny, cool, and believable as an astronaut-scientist. He is also able to be poignant at times without sinking into sentimentality.

As good as Damon is, the movie gets a strong assist from its supporting players, including Sean Bean, Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, and Chiwetel Ejiofor. The movie also looks great. The scenes of Martian storms, mountains, and canyons are stunning.

As for the science, this is a movie that gets it right. Andy Weir's novel, on which the film is based, is reportedly considered required-reading at NASA. It's remarkable that the book was self-published on Amazon, chapter by chapter, before getting discovered and becoming a best-seller. For the movie, NASA was consulted extensively, and they were probably delighted to be involved. “The Martian” is not just funny and thrilling, it's inspiring. The film really celebrates the adventure and the necessity of space exploration, so much so that I might say it verges on NASA propaganda if I didn't agree with its message so much. As it is, this is a refreshingly positive movie for awards season, a non-cheesy, hopeful movie about what human beings can achieve.

4.5 stars out of 5

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) *****

Patrick Dempsey starred in a movie back in 1991 called “Run,” and the most striking feature of the movie was how aptly-titled it was. There was more running in that movie than in “Chariots of Fire.” His character literally RAN from the Mob for almost the entire movie. “Mad Max: Fury Road” joins this elite crew of perfectly-titled movies. It's full of fury, and almost the entire movie takes place on the road, in moving vehicles.

“Fury Road” finds Max (Tom Hardy) still wandering the post-nuclear wastelands, haunted by the memories of those he failed to save in the first three Mad Max movies. He gets caught and enslaved by a bunch of cancerous cult-followers who serve the emphysematous Immortan Joe. One of Joe's elite fighters, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) has had enough of his crap, and she helps Joe's harem of sexy ladies escape from his Citadel. Joe and his army of dune-buggy driving lunatics give chase, and Max is along for the ride.

I don't know if I've ever seen a movie this action-packed, and certainly not an action movie this good. People with heart conditions should stay away. 90% of the run-time is non-stop driving, crashing, and fighting. In most movies, so much action becomes numbing, but “Fury Road” manages to keep you invested with touches like the flamethrower-guitar player. It's thrilling, and yet the movie also manages to be about something. Imperator Furiosa isn't just making a stand against slavery, she is trying to reach “the green place,” the idyllic land of her youth. When she realizes she is never going to see it again, her despair resounds louder than any explosion in the movie. Max, for his part, starts out completely broken and amoral, interested only in his own survival, but ultimately he cannot resist helping the helpless. Then there's the Warboy, Nux, unrecognizable as Nicholas Hoult with his shaved head and white skin. He starts out as just one of Immortan Joe's many followers, but when one of the harem girls befriends him, he finds something more in himself than just a desire to die in battle.

There's been a lot of debate about whether “Fury Road” is a feminist movie. On the one hand, Furiosa is a strong, female figure, Max's equal in every way. On the other hand, some feminists are upset that the ladies still need Max, a man, to help them escape. I can tell you that when I was watching the movie, I wasn't thinking about any of that crap. This is just a great movie. Period. The acting is excellent, and the action is superb. In the old Mad Max movies, the bad guys on motorcycles just swung axes at the cars, and the road fighting never made a lot of sense. In “Fury Road,” the tribes seem to have perfected road-fighting, using grappling hooks, explosive harpoons, and these long, swinging poles that allow a fighter to board an enemy vehicle or even snatch someone out of it, all while racing pell-mell across the desert. As for being feminist, I would say “Fury Road” is more humanist. It's true that Immortan Joe's only use for a woman is if he can have sex with her or extract breast milk from her. It's no better for young men, though. He only values them if they can fight and die for him. This is a society that can only treat people like meat, earning their compliance with subsistence rations and the promise of a glorious afterlife. The message of “Fury Road” is that men AND women can and should rise up and fight for something better in this life.

5 stars out of 5