Minority Report — CLASSIC FILM PICK
Steven Spielberg's 2002 treatment of author Philip K. Dick's dystopian short story is a visually arresting murder mystery as prophetic about the obliteration of personal privacy as the story’s “precog” characters are at predicting murders before they occur. For the film’s neo-noir look Spielberg employed a bleach bypass process to create a washed-out monochromatic appearance. The method has since been repeatedly copied as a kneejerk visual style for many other film genres.
The year is 2054 in Washington D.C., where murder has been eliminated for the past six years thanks to a Justice Department program called "PreCrime." Think Patriot Act. In a high-security government facility, three carefully guarded psychic humans — called precogs — prophesize murders from their semi-conscious states. Agatha (Samantha Morton) is the female precog endowed with the strongest sense of foresight. Floating in a saline pool, the trio’s brains are wired to computers, thus allowing the PreCrime unit — lead by Captain Jon Anderton (Tom Cruise) — to apprehend murderers seconds before they commit their would-be crime. Since the film’s release, of course, the American government has initiated preemptive wars, arrests of terror "plotters" who never got past the talking stage of their future crimes, and drone strikes that make a “PreCrime”-styled approach to domestic law enforcement seem prescient.
Anderton joined the program after the disappearance of his young son tore apart his marriage. His emotional Achilles’ heel serves as an ideal tool for the powers that be to set him up as a poster-boy killer in order to obfuscate other illicit secrets.
In a trope recognizable to fans of sci-fi movies like "Logan's Run," precog-based evidence that Anderton will kill a victim within 36 hours sends him on the run from the same team of enforcement agents he once led. The “minority report” of the film’s title refers to conflicting intelligence among the precogs regarding their hive-mind premonitions. If there is such a conflict in the precog’s report on Anderton, it resides inside Agatha’s mind. In order to infiltrate his former workplace and retrieve the potentially vindicating information from Agatha, Anderton undergoes a gruesome eye-transplant procedure performed by a doctor he formerly helped imprison.
U.S. District Attorney detective Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell) is also hot on Anderton’s trail, as part of an investigation into potential flaws in the PreCrime program.
Spielberg borrows elements from films as diverse as “The Big Sleep” to “Don’t Look Now” to “The Man Who Fell to Earth” to articulate his vision. The movie's combination of old and new influences energizes its believable futuristic elements. Targeted advertising follows citizens wherever they go — addressing them by name at each point of contact. A highly conceptual “maglev” system allows computer-controlled cars to travel vertically as well as horizontally. 3D holographic—anticipating today's Apple-created "pinch screens"—recordings of Anderton’s son and ex-wife allow him to revisit his past during a melancholic episode that resists the film’s otherwise noir aspects. Such thoughtfully designed features contribute to the film’s success as a pioneering achievement in the dystopian genre.
Paul Thomas Anderson Tries Too Hard and Not Hard Enough
For all of the over-exaggerated attention – read publicity ploy — given to “The Master’s” loose narrative ties regarding the Church of Scientology, Paul Thomas Anderson’s cinematic dog lacks any amount of storyline, arc, or likeable characters. The movie is a riddle not worth solving. As a high-budget experiment in avant-garde filmmaking, “The Master” is barely tolerable if not entirely watchable. Anderson’s ballyhooed process of shooting the film in outdated 70mm comes off as a needless gimmick. The look of the film might be pristine, but what’s being shown leaves much to be desired.
The cinematic sleeping pill features an all-in performance by Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell, a rudderless PTSD-suffering World War II Navy veteran who makes Mickey Rourke’s alcoholic version of Charles Bukowski in “Barfly” seem like a lightweight. Freddie has a knack for drinking anything with alcohol, including torpedo fuel and paint thinner. The year is 1950. Freddei’s Freddie is like a character right out of Lou Reed’s iconic song “Street Hassle.” To paraphrase the song, He can never find a voice to talk with that he can call his own. So the first thing he sees that allows him the right to be; he follows it. It’s called bad luck.
In San Francisco, Freddie stumbles onto a moored yacht inhabited by L. Ron Hubbard alter ego Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). The boat is headed for New York via the Panama Canal. Onboard are Dodd’s group of faceless cult followers and his loyal collaborator wife Peggy (Amy Adams), and two young adult sons — probably from another marriage. Dodd catches Freddie with a freshly made concoction of questionable hooch — Freddie poisoned some poor soul with the last batch he made while working on a farm picking cabbages. Dodd befriends the helpless scoundrel. Dodd appreciates Freddie’s animalistic nature and utter desperation. He may harbor homosexual feelings for the wacked-out stowaway. Freddie is a perfect test subject for Dodd to try out his “process,” a ritualized survey of repeated questions. “Have you ever slept with a member of your family?” Dodd asks. For Freddie, the answer is yes.
It’s evident that Anderson is evoking a time in American culture when people had limited access to information. Wartime propaganda created a strange kind of isolationist psychology that adventurous people sought to escape. An impromptu religion based in science-fiction fantasy just might do the trick.
“The Master” is all theme and no substance. A modicum of social context and gratuitous sex hardly distract from the parlor game Anderson plays with his audience. Joaquin Phoenix’s damaged character reflects his own troubled behavior over the past half-decade so much that you wonder how much of it is just Joaquin playing himself. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal seems trapped in amber. Lancaster Dodd is such a huckster and a shyster that you can’t get on either side of him as a protagonist or an antagonist.
As with Lou Reed’s notorious album of over-modulated feedback (“Metal Machine Music”), the audience is left to decide if the movie is some kind of bad joke, or an artistic project gone horribly astray. If you’re the kind of person who likes anti-narrative movies made up of barely connected scenes that defy all rules of dramaturgy, then you might get something out of “The Master.” All I got was bored, sleepy, and hungry.
Rated R. 138 mins. (D) One Star - out of five/no halves)
David Cronenberg’s adaption of Don DeLillo’s 2003 dystopian novel contains a lot of ideas — too many for the film to sink its teeth into. Set mainly inside the sound-and-bullet-proof limousine/office of billionaire money-mover Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), the story crawls though Manhattan traffic, which has slowed to a snail’s pace due to a presidential motorcade. Twenty-eight-year-old Packer wants an old-fashioned haircut. Packer’s security man Torval (Kevin Duran) runs alongside the vehicle dressed in an obligatory black suit. Packer is a talker. He feeds off conversations he has with a parade of women who enter his strangely public yet private auto sanctuary. His wife of recent weeks, Elise (Sarah Gadon), is not among them. He likes to converse with Elise in diners, where he questions her about when they will have sex again. “Soon,” she promises. Not that it matters much to Packer, since he frequently sates his libido elsewhere. For example: Juliette Binoche’s Didi Dancher. Elise complains that her husband “smells of sexual discharge” when the couple dine together. He tells her it’s due to his daily medical examination, which, indeed, he has recently undergone. This day’s check-up revels he has an asymmetrical prostate. That the punch-line-ready examination takes place in the car while Packer talks dirty to his finance chief Jane (Emily Hampshire) while propped up on his arms. The movie is not without some smirk-inducing humor.
Packer represents the 1%. He is under attack, and he knows it. He is waiting to be killed. Like a serial killer leaving clues he wants to be hunted and killed. To him, “the logical extension of business is murder.” He jokes with his chief technology analyst Shiner (Jay Baruchel) to “put a stick of gum in his mouth and not chew it.” Packer sardonically theorizes that rats could be the next unit of currency. The movie wallows in this kind of dry wit until you feel the sand slipping off the paper. This is one of Cronenberg’s least plot-driven movies, and that's not a good thing. If these brief lessons in “self-denial” and “social responsibility” are supposed to inform or instruct the audience in any way, they do not.
With its nearly claustrophobic automobile image system, “Cosmopolis” comes across as a play that’s been turned into a movie. The esoteric nature of the dialogue feels oh-so Off-Off-Broadway. Cronenberg only gets one opportunity to set free his trademark twitch for sudden violence, but the unprovoked act arrives without reason or logic. The moment — set on a public outdoor nighttime basketball court — seems tilted to justify our suspicions about how ruthless and self-destructive Packer is. It does so in such a clumsy way that it only distances the audience more from a narrative that’s already stretched thin.
When Packer finally does walk into an actual barbershop for his unnecessary haircut, the barber is an ex-cab driver no more able to cut a head of hair than cut a diamond. The sequence is just one of many narrative dead ends that contribute to an overall sense of futility. Most of the film’s supporting characters come and go in glorified cameos. Pattinson’s unreliable anti-hero protagonist is the kind of character that will beguile some young audiences who might desire to be just like him — cold, calculating, and wealthy to the point of endless boredom.
If intellectual sarcasm is your thing—hello, college kids—you might like “Cosmopolis.” For most audiences, the movie is far too pretentious for its own good.
Rated R. 108 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
STRANGE DAYS - CLASSIC FILM PICK
One of the most ambitious examples of the dystopian genre, Kathryn Bigelow's "Strange Days" (1995) is a forward-looking predictor of America's economic collapse that combines sci-fi and political elements with a back-handed love story.
Set on the potentially apocalyptic eve of the millennium, and co-written by James Cameron and Jay Cocks, the film's hook is a futuristic black-market mini-disc technology called SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device) that records real-life experiences directly from the cerebral cortex of the wearer. The recorded experiences can be relived by anyone with a SQUID player and a bootleg copy of the original disc. Adrenaline-pumping criminal activities and sensual encounters provide hot commodities that former LAPD officer Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) deals to "wire-tripping" junkies. Lenny desperately wants to steal back his ex-girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis) from Philo (Michael Wincott), a sleazy record producer who promises to sign rock-singer Faith to a record deal. At home, Lenny keeps a stash of intimate SQUID recordings of his relationship with Faith that he returns to frequently to remind him of what he’s lost. Lenny is a broken loser feeding on the negative energy that surrounds him in turbulent Los Angeles. No amount of humiliation or physical abuse is sufficient to make him forget his loss.
The film opens with one of nine virtuosic point-of-view sequences from inside the mind of a SQUID-wearer. A gun wielding masked robber accompanies two rowdy accomplices through a Chinese restaurant where cash is grabbed before cops arrive to chase the audience-as-subjective-criminal to a rooftop showdown that doesn't end well. Lenny snaps out of the deadly event he has been viewing. He’s angry that his SQUID disc connection Tick (Richard Edson) is trying to sell him a “blackjack” snuff clip. Indeed, the four-minute sequence bristles with hair-raising energy.
“Strange Days” owes adebt to Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom,” the film that ruined his storied career. A key subplot involves a SQUID wearer who rapes and kills a woman upon whom he places the recording device so that she sees what he sees as he kills her.
Kathryn Bigelow exhibits an acute eye for detail and an affinity for maintaining an energized tempo to the action. As a woman filmmaker, Bigelow also sinks her teeth into a seething sensuality that emanates from her powerful female characters. Juliette Lewis’s nude scenes spring from the screen with slinky feline determination. Lenny’s best friend Mace (Angela Bassett) carries equal protagonist duties. Bassett’s theme-carrying character simmers with a fury that consistently erupts with ever increasing force toward the story’s socially volatile climax. If ever there was proof that a woman filmmaker can go toe-to-toe with the boys in the arena of complex action sequences, this is it. You’ve never seen chase scenes like these before.
The Hunger Games
The Hunger Games is Only an Amuse Bouche
By Cole Smithey
However true to Suzanne Collins’s popular young adult novel, Gary Ross’s filmic adaptation of “The Hunger Games” is a dystopian thriller that falls flat — really flat. Forget that Collins herself co-wrote the screenplay with director Ross and another screenwriter.
A puzzling pre-roll explains that society is being punished for an “uprising” that set off a war related to a redesigned America consisting of 13 Districts; the new country is called Panem. For the last seventy-odd years, there has been an annual competition wherein each district selects a “tribute” of a young man and a woman (aged 12 to 18) to fight to the death in a computer-rigged environment. The games serve as a ritual reminder of the overpowering military might that looks down on its citizens from above. Think “Rolllerball” (1975) without the scathing social and political commentary. As a dystopian story, “The Hunger Games” is underdeveloped at best.
A shuffled backstory involving an impoverished coal mining community in District 12 introduces Jennifer Lawrence’s destitute character with the cringe-inducing name of “Katniss” Everdeen. The hokey name is like a cross between Candice and Catnip. Katniss uses her advanced archery skills to illegally bring home game for her mother and younger sister Prim (Willow Shields) to share. She likes to go hunting with her boyfriend. Naturally, Katniss is the better hunter. Happily, there’s no sign of any devastation from global warming in the lush forest where she hunts.
Stanley Tucci plays Hunger Games television host Cesar Flickerman. With a blue pompadour and gaudy sequin suit, Tucci’s flaming Caesar gives expository commentary, and conducts interviews with such society string-pullers as Wes Bentley’s Seneca Crane, who answers to President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Seneca wears a strangely designed beard to proclaim his place as a villain with style. Donald Sutherland works masterful magic with his character's dish soap dialogue to momentarily transform the mundane and inept source material.
The action begins in earnest after Prim is chosen at a public raffle — called the “reaping” — to participate in the Hunger Games. Katniss steps forward to offer herself up as a volunteer tribute in Prim's stead. She’s assigned a mentor who comes in the guise of one severely miscast Woody Harrelson playing Haymitch Abernathy. “Make people like you” is the message Haymitch stresses to Katniss in preparation for her appearance on Cesar’s well-attended entertainment show. The “like” precept hangs in the air over the proceedings like a bad joke. Perhaps the author was spending too much time on Facebook when she wrote the story. Only by getting the masses to like her can Katniss hope to secure sponsors that will help support her cause during the kill-or-be-killed competition. The winner is awarded with unlimited wealth.
Slack pacing, poorly developed subplots, shabby camerawork, and miscasting dog the movie. Incongruous tonal shifts disguise more than elucidate a bloated story with subversive aspirations it can’t fulfill. For all of Jennifer Lawrence’s charms — and they are many — the gifted actress is no competition for a wobbly script and weak chemistry with Josh Hutcherson, who plays Katniss’s fellow District 12 competitor Peeta. The script demands that Hutcherson’s character be submissive to Katniss. To that end Hutcherson’s characteristic golly-gee boy scout fits the bill. But as soon as a romantic connection is called for between Lawrence and Hutcherson crickets start chirping under the theater seats.
The story simply doesn’t pay off on anything it promises. Modern society is presented as a vacuous place inhabited by clowns. Wealthy idiots savor the entertainment value of watching 24 young people kill each other in an artificial environment controlled by a room full of computer technicians given to arbitrarily changing the rules on a whim. Forest fires and imaginary creatures are implemented to control the action on the playing field. Humans become fodder for an interactive video game. Everything about “The Hunger Games” is a rehash. If not for Jennifer Lawrence’s ever-commanding performance, there would be no redeeming value for a movie that goes on two-and-a-half hours too long.
Rated PG-13. 142 mins. (D+) (One Star - out of five/no halves)