Category Archives: Reviews

In Time

In Time (2011)

20th Century Fox

Director: Andrew Niccol

Main Cast: Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, Cillian Murphy

Yeah, so the name Justin Timberlake may be more synonymous with a “dick in a box” than cinematic acting prowess, but he proves an adequate choice for the lead in Andrew Niccol’s dystopian sci-fi thriller In Time.  Will Salas (Timberlake) is a lowly nobody working in some factory in a futuristic ghetto.  There is no “money” as such, but “time” instead.  People have a “clock” in their arm that counts backward.  When it reaches zero, they die.  But so long as they have time, they stay the same age indefinitely.  All adults are about 25 years old.  Buying coffee or taking the bus?  Time is taken away.  Payment for a day’s work?  Time is added.  You simply hold your arm to an electronic reader, or grip another person’s arm in what appears like a slightly aggressive secret handshake.  Residents of the ghetto in which Salas lives seem to all have no more than a few days or hours of time, always in a state of desperation.  And this is definitely a ghetto.  Well, a “time zone” the characters call it.  Increasingly steep tolls are required to pass from the ghetto into other time zones.

It isn’t much of a plot spoiler to say that the movie hinges on Salas’ personal awakening, after coming into possession a large amount of time, in which he realizes that there is nothing “wrong” with the economy that has nothing for the residents of the ghettos.  Rather, the rich have devised a system to separate themselves from the others based on the unequal distribution of time.  Police called “timekeepers,” among them Raymond Leon (Cillian Murphy), are the hard-boiled enforcers of the order.  Yes, there has to be a romantic sub-plot, so Salas meets up with Sylvia Weiss (Amanda Seyfried), whose father runs the largest “time lending” chain–an outfit much like a payday loan business making loans at extortionate rates.  One then wonders if there will be a happy ending or not.

The plot captures bits of the German childrens’ book Momo oder Die seltsame Geschichte von den Zeit-Dieben und von dem Kind, das den Menschen die gestohlene Zeit zurückbrachte (1973) by Michael Ende (better known to American audiences as the author of Die Unendliche Geschichte [The Never-Ending Story] (1981)), which dealt with Men in Grey from a Timesaving Bank, and the short film The Price of Life (1987), in which characters die when a time account runs to zero and the rich are practically immortal.  The modern telling, though, also takes cues from the sort of high-finance intrigue that propelled The International (2009) and anticipates the grim and heartless social class conflict central to Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium (2013).  The central conceit of using “time” in place of “money” serves a useful role in highlighting how money is really a representation of social power, a unit of measure that expresses the holder’s claim on social wealth, or, society’s quasi-moral indebtedness to its holder.  This is normally the sort of stuff that one gets from reading rather dry, academic non-fiction books–and there indeed are quite a few that provide copious theoretical support for the film’s conceit.

Niccol made a name for himself with Gattaca (1997), another sci-fi thriller with comparable ambitions to portray a quest for justice in a repressive class-based society.  He’s a skilled practitioner, able to manage the pacing of a movie that draws most of its audience in with action sequences while still managing to hold together a coherent plot.  Viewers are asked to suspend disbelief that humans can have their mortality regulated entirely by technology, but not in the small parts of the movie.  You must accept that a person can drop dead if the clock in his or her arm runs out of time, but you are not forced to accept violations of the laws of physics for the sake of “action” when the fists and bullets start to fly nor to accept characters whose behavior shifts erratically.  Like a high school science teacher clamoring to “make science fun” enough that a little learning might happen, the objective is to do the action and romance stuff well enough to find a few moments in which to present the moral and economic premise of the film .  Quite unlike, say Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012) Batman movie, which delivers a reactionary and anti-democratic message that “the system” must be preserved despite its flaws (necessary or simply inevitable and unavoidable), In Time suggests that piecemeal tokens don’t work (like when Salas gifts an alcoholic friend too much time) but that large scale mass mobilization of the poor can correct the inequities of a system established by the rich for their differential advantage.  It’s an old message.  Leo Tolstoy makes the same argument in the final chapter of his The Kingdom of God is Within You: Christianity Not as a Mystic Religion but as a New Theory of Life (1894), for instance, and Gandhi put the idea into practice.  But if you miss the final moments of this film you might miss that message somewhat, and think instead that a kind of James Bond figure can dash in and make the difference by himself.

Matt Damon has made something of a career making movies like this.  Timberlake and Seyfried less so.  Cillian Murphy makes a good choice for his role as the anguished and vaguely morally troubled cop.  One can’t forget the casting difficulties for a script that calls for a society of people who appear to be about 25-30 years old but have lived decades (or more) longer!

This one is a good bit of entertainment.  It has a more solid sense of purpose than most hollywood sci-fi.  But in the mold with so much current cinema, the dystopian element predominates over the utopian.  Audiences are mostly in a mood today to relate to a story about recognizing a corrupt system and bringing it down.  It might take more time before the happy stories of what comes next can be told effectively.

Muriel’s Wedding

Muriel’s Wedding (1994)

Film Victoria

Director: P.J. Hogan

Main Cast: Toni Collette, Rachel Griffiths, Bill Hunter


Although billed as the story of small town girl Muriel’s (Toni Collette’s) attempts to “make her own way” in the world, what is most striking about this Australian comedy is that it is catalogues the typically conflicting attempts by various characters to advance their social status.  It is also well cast, well acted and well written.  Oh, and, unlike so many Aussie comedies, it’s actually funny.  Muriel is the daughter of an aging, insignificant local politician (Bill Hunter) with desperate, pathetic and cliched delusions of grandeur.  He considers all of his family members failures, more or less, holding him back from his ambitions.  Muriel leaves for the big city, Sydney, and her path there triggers events that put her family in a downward spiral.  Initially desperate for the approval of the popular girls from her high school, she meets another former classmate (Rachel Griffiths) on a holiday.  The two become fast friends, and share an apartment in Sydney.  Muriel feigns having a fiancee, and dreams of getting married.  These are the external validations she sees as crucial to her standing in the eyes of those around her.  She does achieve marriage eventually, in the most demeaning way possible.  Toni Collette is perfect in the title role–her big breakthrough.  Her performance at the big wedding (for a change, not the end of the movie) is wonderful, and just the expression on her face walking down the aisle–giddy, silly, unjustified, embarrassingly inappropriate, gloating, uncontained joy–encapsulates much of the movie.  The film always lands on its feet portraying the more-juvenile-than-they-realize aspirations of young adults in the 1990s.  There is no shortage of smaller gags, and the dramatic elements are well paced, seamlessly integrated with the humorous content, and and asset to the overall work.  All of the main characters seek social status, and many commit injustices against those around them to do so.  The “heart-warming” ending finds at least Muriel (she changes her name at one point to Mariel–to be a different person) changing her outlook on life.  Rather than seek a mild form of greatness (success in the big things of life–her version of the larger social stage) she chooses happiness (success in the small things in life–for her, friendship).  What makes this treatment so successful is that the ending makes no explicit statement as to whether Muriel’s “mature” choice of the path of “happiness” is borne of her own free will or merely through a zen-like acceptance of her social position.  Her father explicitly concedes to something like the latter.  Her mother (Jeanie Drynan) makes a tragic, but altruistic choice of neither.  Of all the characters in the film, the most selfless acts are by Muriel’s mother.  Muriel, despite her supposed growth as a person, has merely evolved from pure self-interest to a kind of ambivalent “two against the world” friend pairing that has the feel of a willing compromise among those closest to her.  This is the moral center of the film.  It holds that you should not harm others.  But in relegating the mother to a peripheral role, it puts little emphasis on selfless altruism.

Elvis on Tour

Elvis on Tour (1972)

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Directors: Pierre Adidge and Robert Abel

Main Cast: Elvis Presley


An unusual and innovative documentary that chronicles part of Elvis’ 1975 U.S. tour.  It features a “multi-screen” format, with multiple moving images presented simultaneously.  The crew filmed Elvis performing with multiple cameras, and the film frequently presents a given performance from multiple camera angles shown side-by-side, shots of Elvis interspersed with shots of the audience, and clips of similar performances from different shows presented together.  A similar approach was used a few years later in The Longest Yard.  This finds Elvis around the time he was just starting to decline.  He had a successful show in Las Vegas, and had started to take that tour on the road.  He did two shows a night, and the grind of doing a similar show for years on end was taking its toll.  The performances in the film aren’t all great, but there are some good ones–particularly further in.  The filmmakers demanded special access to Elvis, and that results in scenes that show him shuttled to and from shows, harangued by fans, and excerpts from a pre-tour interview.  The filmmakers clearly have no real interest in Elvis’ music, but are looking in on the culture of his fans with a mixture of amusement and condescension.  That’s fine, as far as it goes, because there is no narration or even titles throughout the movie.  Mostly you just see a series of documentary footage clips, though the non-concert footage gravitates toward the craziest fans caught up in a vague cult of personality, without any reference to any discussion of the merits of the music.  What’s interesting is that some of the rehearsal footage shows how much Elvis liked gospel music and how some of the stripped-down rehearsals sounded a bit more interesting that the grandiose treatments on this studio albums and in the live shows.  By 1972, Elvis’ show had settled into a formula, doing mostly the same songs over and over.  He and his band still play them remarkably well, considering.  Yet the more intimate rehearsal performances sometimes reveal something that always seemed obscured on the albums and concerts of the era.

Oz: The Great and Powerful

Oz: The Great and Powerful (2013)

Walt Disney Pictures

Director: Sam Raimi

Main Cast: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff

L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz series is often credited as being one of the most important fictional universes to emerge from America, or at least the first important one to break from European traditions of “fairy tales”.  There were many, many books written about Oz, various theatrical productions, and many movies too.  The success of the original printing of the book had as much to do with the format as the actual content.  It was a full color book with text set in a stylized arrangement that interspersed it with illustrations by W.W. Denslow.  Children’s books were not customarily printed so lavishly at the time, but the success of the first Oz book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) turned it into more or less an industry standard.  Critics debated whether Baum’s or Denslow’s contributions were the basis for the book’s success–though most tend to unfairly overlook the publisher George M. Hill Company’s role in arranging the lavish printing.  The credit given to Denslow caused a rift with Baum and the two ceased working together.  Denslow even published separate illustrations related to Oz without Baum’s involvement.  Following the smash success of the first book, Baum teamed up with a theater group and developed a Broadway show that deviated from his writings and played up the latest in theatrical special effects.  He tried later theatrical shows, but without the input of the Broadway team those fizzed.  The earliest movies were silent, and Baum himself made some.  He even developed a touring multi-media show that incorporated some silent films.  Then the 1939 film version starring Judy Garland, though not considered a commercial success at the time, went on to become one of the most iconic and beloved American movies of all time.  Other movies and shows followed, from The Wiz to Return to Oz.  Spinoffs and related books continued to be made.  Baum tried to pursue other work, but the financial rewards of the Oz series always proved too attractive, and he continued to write Oz books even after clear statements that the series was finished.

If you notice a trend in the history of the Oz works it’s that they have been manipulated, contorted and exploited in every possible way, by Baum and others.  There is nothing sacred about the Oz universe.  But an interesting detail is that the biggest successes have be borne out of collaboration, first between Baum, Denslow and the George M. Hill Company, but later with the Broadway show, then with the Victor Fleming, Judy Garland movie with songs by Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen.  So there’s a feeling that the entire enterprise is one that sort of invites reinterpretation and tinkering.

Oz: The Great and Powerful is a big-budget “prequel” by Sam Raimi for the Disney company, which recently gave Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland similar digital-effects-laden treatment.  While the Alice movie was a disaster, Oz: The Great and Powerful is actually quite good.

My interpretation of the film Continue reading Oz: The Great and Powerful

Fred Claus

Fred Claus (2007)

Warner Bros.

Director: David Dobkin

Main Cast: Vince Vaughn, Paul Giamatti, John Michael Higgins, Miranda Richardson, Rachel Weisz, Kevin Spacey, Elizabeth Banks

There is something rather interesting about this film, Fred Claus.  On the surface, it is an attempt to have an “offbeat” christmas movie like Elf, with sort of a bad streak along the lines of Bad Santa and plot elements that recall Office SpaceContinue reading Fred Claus

Zardoz

Zardoz

Zardoz (1974)

Twentieth Century Fox

Director: John Boorman

Main Cast: Sean Connery, Charlotte Rampling, Sara Kestelman, John Alderton


The strangeness. The red diaper. The moustache and goatee drawn on with marker. Surely, if you’ve read any other review of John Boorman’s Zardoz, or even seen the movie, these things are all common currency. Despite that critical debris, or maybe even because of it, there is cause to look at little deeper and further. Surely, this is an unusual movie. But it’s also not as unprecedented as many reviewers claim. It was unusual mostly by the standards of Hollywood businessmen. And who should care for those standards?

Zardoz primarily concerns itself with a dystopian future as in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, but fueled by the sort of elite/destitute class conflict that drives Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, as well as the psychological escapades populating Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo or The Holy Mountain. Yet, here, the emphasis is on a unique sci-fi setting, one that recalls the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and even Silent Running. But, really, the greatest influences seem to come from literature. There is a healthy dose of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (incorporated approvingly), a touch of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, and something of an attempt to rebut the sort of thinking that inhabited Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. There is a bizarre endorsement of violence as essential to human character, but seemingly in line with a Rousseauian pessimism about civil society representing a decay from the nobility of primitive culture.  There is something wrong, flawed, in this.  As an attempt at something meaningful, though, it’s intriguing.