Upside Down

Wow! This gem totally flew under my radar until I read something about it last week. I picked up the 3D Blu-ray this week and was blown away.  First of all, this film is gorgeous. The imagery here is just astounding. On top of that, we are given an original concept for a sci-fi/fantasy romance with some social commentary sprinkled on top. I want to stress the fantasy part of the sci-fi/fantasy description. If you try to scrutinize the story here from a scientific perspective it will not hold up at all. There is an almost fairy-tale type logic at play here that you need to embrace in order for the film to work for you.

Upside Down opens with a voiceover setting up the film’s premise and this is almost a requirement due to the high concept at work here. It seems there are two twin worlds orbiting a sun, and they each have their own gravity. Matter from the upper world always follows the gravity of that world, and matter from the under world always follows its’ own gravity. You can offset the gravity of your base world with inverse matter from the other world–essentially weighing yourself down with matter of the other world so you don’t drift “up”. In addition, after about an hour opposing matter in contact with each other will begin to heat up and then burn.

Adam and Eden cross paths at a young age. Adam is from the underworld–the impoverished lower class world. Eden is from the flourishing, high-class upper world. There is not supposed to be any contact between worlds unless it is through the monopolizing mega corporation that coordinates the exchanges between the two worlds.   After many years of visiting each other at a point where the worlds come close together, They are discovered by a border patrol, and Eden suffers an accident in the escape.  Years pass and Adam is hard at work on a special compound using the power of a pollen/honey substance that comes from bees that cross the boundaries between the two worlds. This compound, being used as an anti wrinkle cream, defeats the workings of gravity on a given world. Adam soon learns that Eden, whom he thought lost, is working at the Mega company and so he brings his invention to them in the hopes of finding a way to cross the worlds’ barriers and reunite with his lost love.

I will leave the details at that as I do not want to spoil a film that I am sure many have not seen. Suffice it to say that Adam and Eve are not named with any subtlety.  Jim Sturgess as Adam and Kirsten Dunst as Eve do fine work, and  Timothy Spall truly shines as Adam’s quirky co-worker and friend who does not quite fit into the predefined way of life in the upper world.The film works primarily as a high-concept romance, but also contains some fun adventure set pieces including a platform jumping section that truly felt like an old-school video game brought to life. Upside Down also comments on corporate monopolies, the haves and have-nots, and societal discrimination as well…all rather timely in the era of the 99%. YOu can not escape the loss of humanity in the office vistas with endless rows of cubes–both above nad below.

The 3D in the film is the subtle  kind where it used to add depth and recede into the screen as opposed to pop out at you. I found the subtlety appropriate for the tone of the film.

Upside Down is not a perfect film. If you study the rules too hard things do not all add up, and the use of the concepts of up and down is almost pointless. However, if you can look past that and get caught up in the spectacle and romance, you may find yourself lost in the film’s charms and engaging in the suspension of disbelief that a good fantasy provides.

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In Defense of Prometheus

“This is just another tomb”

In Prometheus, when Holloway discovers the amazing  “canister” room with the  giant head statue on LV-223 , he is disappointed. He had a certain experience in his mind about what to expect here. He envisioned benevolent creators, still alive and waiting to greet him and share their wonders. What he found was something completely different, yet still an earth shattering discovery of epic proportions. However, he is unable to accept things being so different from his expectations, and staring at such wonders is left to proclaim “This is just another tomb”

I believe audiences similarly had set expectations when they entered the theater to see Prometheus. They were looking for a suspense and action onslaught that served as a direct prequel to the Alien series. When Prometheus did not give them exactly what they anticipated, the turned on it, declaring it “just another crappy sci-fi movie.” I however, found Prometheus to be an amazing piece of cinema, with a tone more  akin to 2001 then to Aliens.  Prometheus deals with heavy questions of faith, destiny, and religion…even bio warfare… all on a gorgeous palette. Pepper the heady ideas with some action and terror, and I feel you have a riveting sci-fi classic.

Re-watching Prometheus last night, I could not help but notice that religion is a major theme in this film. The voyage in Prometheus is essentially a search for our makers. The notion of arriving on LV-223 on Christmas is clearly not accidental. Let’s back things up a bit….In Prometheus it is revealed that the Engineers, the race of super beings found on LV-223, are our genetic ancestors. The prologue of the film shows an Engineer being sent to earth to sacrifice himself for the sake of engineering a new race of beings–man. It logically follows that in the world of Prometheus, the engineers are our “Gods”. As evidenced by the various cave paintings that Holloway and Shaw have discovered, they have visited us from time to time to check on our progress.

Later in the film, it is revealed that the stockpile of the genetic ooze–this primordial sludge that brings on evolution of some sort….may in fact be a biological weapon, and the ship that crashed on LV-223 was headed for earth. It seems our makers may have decided that we were not progressing well after all. They are going to wipe us out, most likely through the spawning of a new creature, a super predator designed to wipe us out. Of course this super predator will eventually lead to the xenomorph creatures of the Alien franchise, but that is for a later time.  The question Prometheus asks at this point is what have we done to cause our makers to turn on us in this way? Is it the way we treat each other? Is it our disregard for the state of the planet?  Or perhaps something more unsettling? Back in the canister room there is an amazing mural that resembles some sort of creature–perhaps somewhere between a xeno and an engineer…in a crucified pose. Crucifixion clearly is a religious symbol originating on earth. Why would these creatures be using it? Well, if these engineers are our “Gods”, who have visited us from time to time as our shepherds, is it possible we mistreated one? Perhaps we crucified it? And perhaps this godlike creator being, misunderstood and crucified by a faction of man, became an inspiration for an entire earth religion?   

I could go on and on. I did not even get into the Christmas conception, by an infertile woman, of an evolving species. Nor did I discuss Shaw’s dream discussions with her father about heaven, and paradise, and what one “chooses to believe”. My point is there are so many layers to Prometheus that I feel it gave viewers way more to contemplate than they were prepared for. I hope with time more folks will discover the beauty, depth, and power of Prometheus. I know I will be there at the opening for the next film in the series, hoping for even more to chew on.

Man Of Steel

NOTE: This review contains Spoilers

For years friends and I have discussed what we wanted to see in a new Superman film. I remember the constant recurring  theme–No More Origin! We wanted a film that started with Superman BEING Superman. A heroic, noble, super being among men, honor bound, loyal, and most importantly facing a massive threat that tests the immense power of the last son of Krypton. How many more times did we need to see Krypton destroyed and baby Kal-El sent to earth, raised in Smallville by the Kents? Let’s get to the good stuff!

Well, without beating around the bush, Man of Steel is not that film. However, it is an  an all together different beast that enthralled me while covering familiar ground in new and innovative ways. I will later get to the one point that keeps coming back to bother me that keeps me from calling this a perfect Superman film. But oh how it comes close.

Man of Steel begins on Krytpon, and we spend a fairly lengthy amount of time here. We are immediately shown a world of technological wonders as Kal-El is born to Jor-El and Lara. Yes some of Krypton’s sites and technology reminded me of other films–The Matrix came to mind at times, an exciting flight on a winged creature reminded me of Avatar, and I was even reminded of some of the settings in the Star Wars prequel. As a whole though, this is the most in-depth, fully realized  view of Kryptonian life we have seen in a Superman film, and this is a civilization nearing its end. Kryptonians have been forced to resort to population controls to try to stem the over harvesting of resources their expansion has caused, but it is too late. Krypton is dying.  

Kal-El is soon sent to Earth, the last hope for the Kryptonian race. General Zod, Krypton’s Military defense leader, born and bred, has staged a failed military coup. He and his followers are banished to the Forbidden Zone shortly before Krypton’s destruction.  All of the Krytpon prologue  is staged in spectacularly epic fashion, giving us a rip-roaring start and pulling us in.

Soon we are seeing the wanderings of a twenty something Clark Kent, and this jump in time is what really made the film work for me. The film wisely skips back and forth between time settings, so rather that sitting through the Kents’ finding and raising of Clark, discovering his powers, etc in one long section…we dive in to a Clark who is aware of his abilities but holds them back for fear of the response of human kind. He wants to help, he wants to be the noble hero, but the fear of the  reprocussions of revealing himself has been deeply ingrained in him by his father. And this history with the Kents is interspersed as flashbacks. So without having to take in the scenes of Clark’s youth in a long chunk, and with the novel approach to the way Jonathan Kent raises Clark, I never felt like I was retreading old ground. I was constantly engaged with the film.

Now to be clear, the film does not slavishly follow Superman lore. Elements of the timeline are changed, and Lois is looking for Superman way before Clark has been to Metropolis or the Daily Planet. Bits of urban myth have been left in Clark’s wake, and as a prize-winning reporter, Lois follows that trail and finds Clark. She knows Superman before she knows his alter ego. These changes to the cannon do not generally bother me, as I feel when adapting comics to the screen steadfast mimicry is not always the best path. A film is not a comic and what works best for one medium may not work for another.

That said there is one element of the story that troubles me. It is the item that I mentioned earlier that keeps me from calling this the perfect Superman film. In one of  Clark’s flashbacks with the Kents, there is a tornado, and while Clark takes his Mom to safety, Jonathan Kent returns to the car to rescue their dog. Clark and Pa Kent soon exchange a knowing look, but Jonathan shakes his head. At the risk of death he still will not allow Clark to reveal his abilities. Clark watches his father die,  a death he could have stopped with minimal effort. This right here is the point in the film I am having trouble with. Superman does not do this. While I know the point of this film is that this man is not yet the Superman we have come to know….that we are seeing  but the initial step on the path towards Kal-El developing into that man…it still does not sit right with me. Superman let his father die.

As the plot in the present moves forward,  General Zod and his fellow banished Kryptonians are free of the phantom zone, and trace Kal-El to earth. They want the codex that El has passed on to Kal-EL, for it is the genetic map for future generations of Kryptonians. Zod plans to terraform the earth into a new Krypton, sacrificing humankind to make way for the rebirth of Kryptonian society. Kal-El, born of Krypton but now a son of Earth, will not stand for this.

The second half of the film is that epic Superman battle we have dreamed of. Awesome adventure, epic heroics, massive effects and set pieces—it is all there and it left me with a big grin on my face, high fiving my son at key points in the excitement. One has to wonder though, as Superman gives his all to defeat Zod, just how many humans have actually fallen as collateral damage to the massive battle through their streets, buildings, vehicles… perhaps even homes? There is really nothing on display as far as Kal-El going out of his way to keep humans out of harm’s way…until the penultimate moment in the battle.

Superman has Zod in a headlock, and Zod, seeking to hurt Superman in any way he can, is aiming his heat vision at a cowering group of humans. Left with no choice, Superman snaps Zod’s neck, ending his life, and also killing off his last peer Kryptonion. Superman’s final victory is also his loss, and the scene carried an emotional heft for me.

There are two epilogue scenes, one that felt wrong to me, and one that completely sold me. The first comes when Superman downs a satellite from orbit that apparently the government was using to try to locate Superman. Confronted by a general, Kal-El claims that he is here to help, but on his terms. He does not want to be found. When asked how they can find him if they need him, he informs them to have faith. I can’t put my finger on it, but this response just seemed wrong to me–almost too smug for Superman.

However, next we see Clark Kent starting work at the Daily Planet (a job he wants as a way to keep his ear to the ground)  and a knowing exchange with Lois. It was a perfect note to end on, leaving the sequel to begin with Clark ensconced at the paper, working with Lois, and perhaps ready to take on more of the noble hero role that defines Superman.   

I know that my few  issues with Man of steel stem from the path that Chrtopher Nolan,  David Goyer, and Zach Snyder have chosen to take with this story. They are not giving us the Superman we expect. In this version, Kal-El has not yet evolved into that completely selfless hero. Perhaps some of that choice stems from the fact that today’s audiences may not be as accepting of that level of over the top heroics. Their whole approach is to ground Superman in reality wherever possible. Their approach asks–if there really was this alien sent to Earth as a baby what would his experience be like? I commend them for finding a fresh approach, and for 95% of the film it works. However, Superman is not Batman. The nature of Batman’s character leaves a lot more room for grey. Superman’s has always been more of black and white, right and wrong. If I am right, and the plan is that Man of Steel is the springboard for that Superman to take flight from, then I think we have here a great beginning.

Revisiting The Hobbit and the 48 fps Question

 

As a huge fan of all things both Middle Earth and Peter Jackson, the release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was a pretty big deal for me. At the time of its theatrical release, a lot of discussion centered on the 48 frame per second edition that certain theaters would be screening. As my local theater had the 48fps 3D version showing on their RPX screen, it was my format of choice for the several theatrical viewings of the film that I attended.

My initial reaction to the new format was that it was sharp and detailed, with amazing 3D, but somehow created distance from the film. It had an almost soap opera quality to the image, something that I initially found distracting. It felt more video than film. As I took in my first viewing, over the course of the film’s running time I seemed to adapt to it. And upon subsequent viewings I was prepared for the different quality. By the time I had finished with my trips to the theater to watch The Hobbit, I thought the 48 fps format had won me over. Surely you can’t go wrong with clarity and detail?

Jump to the present, where I recently purchased a 3D 1080p LED set. I just finished watching The Hobbit again, this time at the good old-fashioned 24 fps rate. And the verdict? I felt like I was seeing the film for the first time all over again. Instead of feeling distanced from middle earth, I felt much more drawn into the story. I loved the Hobbit from my first viewing, but tonight I REALLY L-O-V-E-D the Hobbit.  The Hobbit is a long film, and I was fully captivated to an even greater extent than I was in the theater.  I fully believe this is due to being more comfortable with the 24 fps rate.

What does this mean for the future? Will 48 fps eventually gain the same “intimate” feeling with enough exposure? What format will the sequels be shown at, and which will I choose to see? I don’t know the answers to these questions at this time. What I do know is I am really glad I finally experienced the film at 24 fps 3D. I have a whole new level of admiration for a film I was already quite take with.

Sadako 3D

The Ring series , and the first film in particular, were really influential in the J-horror boon. Re-releases of Asian horror films in the U.S. soon led to a glut of American remakes, and eventually as happens with these crazes, the market became over saturated with lesser quality films, and eventually interest waned.

Now comes the release of Sadako 3D, an attempt to restart the Ring franchise. Sadako 3D Arrives following the first 3 films, the American remake and its sequel, and countless copycats since. The result is lackluster. In no way does Sadako 3D live up to the creeping dread of the original. What we have here is a film overflowing with 3D gags, and a weird tonal shift from psychological horror to an outright monster onslaught. It does have its merits as a fun film with some interesting imagery, but it lacks the intelligence and scares that make the original a classic.

The Ring series centered on a cursed video tape. The new film smartly updates this idea to become a cursed video clip on the web. However the suspense of the concept of watching the VHS and waiting to die is nullified by the fact that the cursed clip claims it’s victims immediately upon watching, making the death look like a suicide. Rather than the creepy montage that constituted the VHS tape, the video clip seals with the suicide on a popular internet artist, Kashiwada. Through convoluted details that I will fully admit I had trouble following, Kashiwada’s clip is part of a plan to resurrect Sadako, the creepy girl from the original films.

Soon we are introduced to Arkane, a school teacher with an unusual past of her own, and her boyfriend Takanori. Arkane’s students are falling victim to the curse, and before long the two are deeply entangled in Kashiwada’s plans, and must come face to face with the evil of Sadako herself.

If this all sounds a bit silly, that’s because it is. In many wise I was reminded of a later entry in the Elm Street series, with teens struggling to avoid video screens as opposed to sleep and dreams. As a solid entry to a succesful franchise, 3D fails miserably. However as a fun 3D horror flick, with some fun 3D gags, cool monsters, and a leave your brain at the door mentality, you could do a lot worse for a night’s entertainment than Sadako 3D.