New in Theaters: ‘Transcendence’

transcendence-poster1Remember in the 1982 version of Disney’s Tron, where Jeff Bridges get zapped by a computer’s scanning device and somehow magically translated into bits of data that are reassembled inside the hard drive as a living, functioning being? Cool, but didn’t exactly make sense. The new Johnny Depp artificial-intelligence thriller Transcendence is kind of like that, only without any of those cool light cycles.

Transcendence opens everywhere on Friday. My review is at Film Journal International:

“They say there’s power in Boston,” intones Paul Bettany at the start of the disappointing Transcendence, the camera panning over scenes of post-technological devastation: street lights dead, keyboards being used for doorstops. The film soon jumps back to five years earlier, setting up its conflict between hubristic technophiles and neo-Luddites which the film tries to structure a coherent story out of. But as idea-popping as that fight has the potential to be, it’s hard not to wish that the film had stayed with that opening scene, in a world struggling to adapt to more primitive times. At the very least, it would have been something we hadn’t seen before…

Here’s the trailer:

New in Theaters: ‘Under the Skin’

For his last two films, Sexy Beast and Birth, Jonathan Glazer dealt with the aliens that walk amongst us, whether it was divorced-from-reality gangsters or creepy children. In Under the Skin, though, he finally gets around to telling a story about an honest-to-God alien—in the form of Scarlett Johansson.

undertheskin-posterUnder the Skin opens in limited release on Friday. My review is at Film Journal International:

There is a searching, watching passivity in Scarlett Johansson’s work that’s enlivened her greatest roles, particularly Lost in Translation. That quality isn’t just an added benefit of Jonathan Glazer’s newest and certainly oddest film, it’s the very sinew that strains (not always successfully) to hold this spacious, spiky concoction together. As the nameless alien who spends the film roaming the streets of Glasgow in a white van looking for men to take home, Johansson is a thing apart. She drives with a floating precision, as though somebody else were actually handling the car. Her conversations might trail off in a cloud of nebulousness, but her eyes remain pinned on the man right in front of her. She is a hunter, after all…

You can see the trailer here:

New in Theaters: ‘Jodorowsky’s Dune’

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Back in the 1970s, when midnight movies were still a potent cultural phenomenon, Alejandro Jodorowsky was the king of them. In 1974, after blowing the minds of cult cinephiles with El Topo and The Holy Mountain, Jodorowsky took on another project: adapting Frank Herbert’s Dune. Eventually he gave up.

The documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune is opening in limited release tomorrow. My review is at Film Journal International:

As Jodorowsky—84 and still impeccably spry, with the follow-me eyes of either a prophet or very happy madman—tells it from his sun-filled Parisian apartment, he immediately put together his team of creative “warriors.” The visual unit reads like a dream team of 1970s science-fiction visionaries: French comic-book wizard Moebius (Heavy Metal), writer Dan O’Bannon (Dark Star), dark-sex-gothic fantasist H.R. Giger, and spaceship-specializing pulp-novel cover artist Chris Foss. He also claims to have roped in Pink Floyd for the soundtrack and a cast that would have included Mick Jagger, Orson Welles, and his fellow trickster surrealist Salvador Dali …Their director was convinced that this wasn’t going to be just another sci-fi epic; it was going to change the course of human history itself…

The trailer is here, dig it:

Writer’s Corner: Word Virus

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Language is a virus from outer space.

—William S. Burroughs

Burroughs, who would have turned 100 yesterday, liked to repeat this quote and variations on its theme in his speaking and writing. Like with much else that he put out there, it’s not meant to be taken with complete seriousness, but he certainly believed in the metaphor of words and ideas as a virus that can spread with disease-like rapdity.

embassytownAlong those lines, check out China Mieville’s science-fiction novel Embassytown, in which (among other oddities) he invents an alien race which is actually sickened by words and the transmission thereof. I wrote about the book for The Millions.

New in Theaters: ‘Her’

'Her': Loving what's not there

Joaquin Phoenix in ‘Her’: Loving what’s not there

her-posterEveryone always says that they just love this phone or that gadget. So it makes sense that Spike Jonze’s visionary but powerfully naive new sci-fi rom-com Her would take that romantic displacement to its ultimate conclusion by having a guy (Joaquin Phoenix) fall in love with his new operating  system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson).

Her opens this week. My review is at Film Racket:

In the future, computers will be not only our friends and lovers, they’ll also help us discover our better selves. That seems to be the message of Spike Jonze’s partially genius, often infuriating yuppie sci-fi fantasy about love and meaning in the post-smartphone era. It’s a film that spends so much effort perfecting the sun-dappled look seen in digital-tech commercials, and squinting to see how technology will operate a few years hence, that it doesn’t have much energy left over for its humans. Jonze seems more truly engaged by Samantha, who is the most well-rounded character in the film. Notably, she’s not human…

'Her': Happiness is an advanced operating system

‘Her’: Happiness is an advanced operating system

Here’s the trailer, soundtrack by Arcade Fire:

New in Theaters: ‘The Last Days on Mars’

'The Last Days on Mars': Anybody out there?

‘The Last Days on Mars’: Anybody out there?

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Ruairi Robinson pitched his sci-fi horrorshow The Last Days on Mars as “United 93 in space.” That’s a pretty gutsy presentation, not to mention almost entirely miscalculated.

The Last Days on Mars is opening this week in (highly) limited release. My full review is at Film Journal International:

Outer space is the new haunted house. There was a time when films about first contact involved actual contact—sure, everybody might end up running in terror from the laser beams, but there was at least some attempt at communication. Failing outright conflict, filmmakers wanted to show mankind coming to grips with some unfathomable extraterrestrial phenomenon (2001 to Mission to Mars). But more recently, from Prometheus to Europa Report, humanity ventures to distant planets only to end up kibble for varied alien nasties. That dulling trend continues in Ruairi Robinson’s imagination-challenged astronauts-meet-zombies flick The Last Days on Mars

You can watch the trailer here:

New in Theaters: ‘Elysium’

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Los Angeles shows its 22nd century age in ‘Elysium’.

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There’s a stark and revolutionary allegory about privilege, capitalism, immigration, and even access to healthcare inside Neill Blomkamp’s new dystopian sci-fi actioner Elysium. Though it gets a little lost around the time Matt Damon gets a metal exo-skeleton riveted to him (two words: bone saw), this is still heady stuff for an escapist summer thriller.

My review ran in PopMatters; here’s part:

The year is 2154 and everybody still living on earth is having a miserable time. The Los Angeles where paroled car thief Max (Matt Damon) ekes out a living as a robot-making factory worker looks like a congested favela. Instead of the dark alleyways and cloud-piercing skyscrapers of many dystopic noirs, this city is familiar to anybody who’s spent time in chaotic megacities like Lagos, Cairo or Mexico City, where Blomkamp shot much of his film. The onetime infrastructure is decimated, with overwhelmed social services, no civic government to speak of, randomly authoritarian robot-police, and a relentlessly hand-to-mouth existence. It’s ripe for revolt…

Check out the trailer here:

New on DVD: ‘Oblivion’

Tom Cruise contemplates 'Oblivion'.

Tom Cruise contemplates ‘Oblivion’.

oblivion-dvdJust one of this year’s post-apocalyptic mega-budget sci-fi projects, Oblivion is a somewhat ambitious piece of work that doesn’t ultimately know what to do with itself. In part, that could result from the ever-amped presence of Tom Cruise, who doesn’t ever seem able to tamp down the Maverick long enough to register any true doubt in his own abilities to save the world. Again.

Oblivion hits Blu-ray and DVD today. My review is at Short Ends & Leader; here’s part:

Oblivion starts as some blissed-out spread in a post-apocalyptic edition ofArchitecture Digest before moving into Big Revelation science fiction. Tom Cruise plays Jack, a happy-go-lucky tech who’s one of two humans left on the Earth’s surface in the year 2077. Jack and his partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough, lithe and ghostly) live in a gorgeously sleek pod of a place elevated hundreds of feet off the blasted landscape. It’s like one of those moderne postwar glass bungalows in the hills overlooking Los Angeles, only it floats above the clouds and is packed with all manner of gadgetry that would make an Apple fetishist’s heart beat dangerously fast…

Here’s the trailer:

 

New on DVD: ‘Cloud Atlas’

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cloudatlas-dvdDavid Mitchell’s 2004 novel Cloud Atlas is one of those books that has been long assumed to be unfilmmable. But then the Wachowskis jumped into it, bringing on board Run Lola Run‘s Tom Tykwer for additional directing help. The result is a nearly three-hour karmic sci-fi epic that just keeps hitting crescendo after crescendo and made for one of 2012′s most memorable, if under-seen, epics.

Cloud Atlas is available today on Blu-ray and DVD. My full review is available at PopMattershere’s part of it:

Eager to entertain and suffused with nervous energy, Cloud Atlas spans many continents and about half a millennia of human history. As faithful to David Mitchell’s novel as any $100 million enterprise could be, it’s the most daring, thrilling, satisfying, swiftly churning engine of big screen adventure to come along in some time. It even works in a halfway decent Soylent Green joke, which one would imagine wasn’t possible anymore. And oh yes, Hugh Grant plays a bloodthirsty cannibal…

You can watch the extended trailer here:

 

New in Theaters: ‘Upstream Color’

Amy Seimetz and Shane Carruth try to figure out whose memories are whose in 'Upstream Color'

Amy Seimetz and Shane Carruth try to figure out whose memories are whose in ‘Upstream Color’

upstream-color-posterAlmost a decade ago, Shane Carruth made a tight little puzzler of a science-fiction film called Primer about engineers who accidentally create a time machine; the results make Inception look as easy to decipher as a Michael Bay film.

For his second film, a just-as-puzzling but wider-ranging psychological experiment going under the name Upstream Color, he broadened his scope and palette, throwing a love story into the midst of a mesmerizing thriller about a bizarre kidnap plot. The result is obfuscating, but in a gorgeous and possibly life-illuminating way.

Upstream Color just opened in limited release; it should be sneaking into smarter cinemas around the country over the next couple of months. Expect it to show up on a lot of most-loved and most-hated lists at the year’s end.

My full review is at Film Journal International.

You can watch the trailer here; it’s a beautiful thing to behold.