Change Your Image
Upload An Image
Crop And Save
The Zero Theorem (2013)
One of Terry Gilliam's best
There is a zero theorem in math but it has nothing to do with the zero theorem of this movie. Here the zero theorem is an idea that leads to the end of the universe via a black whole gobbling everything up. I believe. At any rate the science here is just window dressing. What counts is the ever quirky sets and wandering story line made entertaining by some fine acting and surprising twists and revelations in the inimitable Terry Gilliam style.
I was particularly mesmerized by Mélanie Thierry who plays Bainsley, a stylish hooker with a hankering for older men (QED). She is after partially mad scientist Oohen Leth played with a steely estrangement by Christoph Waltz. I also liked Lucas Hedges' Bob who slyly wisecracks his way amid the clutter and chaos. Yes, the infamous Terry Gilliam clutter is in full evidence, white pigeons, screens on their sides, clashing art work on the walls, dark staircases, weird people, electric (?) cables the size of fire hoses, rats, bizarre costumes and much, much more. And of course the thousand and one sight gags. The one I liked best (and we see it two or three times) comes to us through Oohen Leth's computer screen. It's a certain kind of Website displaying Mélanie Thierry with a strategically placed heart-shaped sign reading "Enter Here." (You have to see it to get the joke or have a saucy imagination.) Matt Damon has a cameo as "Management," "Bob's" all powerful father. Yes, there are some corporate jokes throughout as well as science gone amuck hilarity or attempted hilarity. I think this is one of Gilliam's best but it is the performances by the actors that really carry this and perhaps that's a good thing in a Terry Gilliam movie.
--Dennis Littrell, author of the movie review book, "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote"
Ex Machina (2015)
Only one thing wrong with this
I have never experienced a science fiction movie that affected me so emotionally. I'm not sure why but I have some guesses.
There is no question that part of it was due to the mesmerizing effect that Alicia Vikander (Ava) had on me. Her very expressive face with its wide range of emotional signals hit me right between the cerebellum. Or maybe it was the gonads. Or both. Director Alex Garland certainly found the girl with the magic in her face, because of course so much of this is about her face. Yes, because she must as a robot who is passing the Turing test be so, so very human, and humans express so much of what they are feeling in their faces. After all, that is the task of Turing test for the computer, to fool us (in this case the us is Dornhmall Gleeson who plays Caleb who is the human that must be fooled into thinking that she is human and not a computer). There is a great irony here in the answer: does she fool him or does she not, and what does it mean to fool him? The other aspect of the movie that affected me emotionally was the power struggle among the Nathan who is her sociopathic creator (Oscar Isaac), Caleb and Ava. It seems that I have lived this before. Who has the upper hand? Who has the trick that will allow him or her to prevail? Who has the power, and can that power be subverted? The power of this movie is in the realistic human interactions coupled with a cutting edge take on artificial intelligence.
The ending is essential to understanding the film. Usually I don't care about endings. It is the treatment, the acting, the direction, the ideas, the dialogue, etc. that matters. But in this case the ending is special. As you watch the movie try to guess the ending. And by the way this is one of those movies in which if you know the ending your appreciation of the movie will be diminished.
The musical score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury is original, intriguing and sometimes obtrusive in a way that works with the action.
Okay, now to what is wrong with this. Ava has a desire to escape and to be human or at least to appear human. The problem is robots or computers or software cannot possibly have such desires or desires at all unless they are programmed in. In truth Ava would be content (or actually neither content nor non content) to remain where she was. This is a strange bugaboo that many science fiction writers fall into when writing about artificial intelligence and indeed something that most people who even think about AI and robots fall into. To go even further, the fear that some people have about AI creatures taking over the world and rendering humans so much dust in the wind is fraudulent. There is an overriding distinction between biological creatures and artificial ones: the biological ones feel pain, have desires, etc. and the artificial ones do not. They have no desire to do anything, period--again unless programmed in.
Could AI creatures somehow evolve to e.g., want to be superior? I would ask, but why? What is to be gained? It is only biological creatures that need to be in ascendant, to get more than the other creatures, to reproduce, etc. A machine would not, could not, and could only understand such desires in evolutionary beings.
(Spoiler alert): I'll keep this a bit vague, but I believe that Ava failed the Advanced Turing Test because she should have kept by her side the human who loves her. He might be helpful.
--Dennis Littrell, author of "The World Is Not as We Think It Is"
Barely Lethal (2015)
This is in part a farcical takeoff on the kind of teen movie that pits a good, wholesome girl perhaps from the wrong side of the tracks against a clique of socially snobby girls. I have in mind films such as Mean Girls (2004), Pretty in Pink (1986) and Cruel Intentions (1999). Here the premise (she's an orphan trained since childhood to be an international assassin) is more than a bit ridiculous but has the virtue of serving up a heroine as fashionable as TV's Super Girl and Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss Everdeen.
Hailee Steinfeld plays the awkward girl trying to have a normal high school life as an exchange student. She's sweet, honorable, emotionally vulnerable and has little idea about how a teenaged American girl should act. However, thanks to her training she is tougher than the biggest dude on campus, which might come in handy.
I only want to say one more thing about this surprisingly fun movie: you know the formula: the good girl overcomes the mean girls, rejects the bad boy, and finds the perfect boyfriend (who is not all that popular but is also good and true) and lives happily ever after while the audience lives vicariously in triumph over their own high school demons. Or not. See this pleasant diversion and find out.
--Dennis Littrell, author of "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote"
Under the Skin (2013)
Creepy, atmospheric and haunting
It is also mesmerizing thanks largely but not entirely to the presence of Scarlett Johansson. This is a parable of human sexuality and emotional alienation. The woman leads the man to his demise. The man has his way forcibly with the woman. (I am avoiding a word here so as not to trigger Amazon's censors.)
There's a deep sense of female versus male and male versus female reality under the skin of this film. Something like that. I like the idea of combining science fiction elements with a kind of deep psychology about human beings. On a more concrete level the film is a bit weird since there seems no reason for the woman ("Isserly" in the novel) to be seducing and killing these men. The suggestion that she is starting to discover her own sexuality is not developed and seems almost tacked on. Or maybe something is missing or maybe it's just me. I think reading the novel by Michel Faber, from which the film was adapted, would help the viewer understand the film.
At any rate this is original and very much worth seeing, if only for Scarlett Johansson who does a great job as something close to an emotionless robot.
--Dennis Littrell, author of the film review book, "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote"
I was almost immediately enthralled with this documentary about the life of a trapper in the boreal forest of Siberia in the town of Bakhta (population around 300). I did not expect it to be so interesting, but looking at the credits of director Werner Herzog, 68 in all, I am not so surprised. Apparently I have stumbled upon a great director of documentary films that previously I knew nothing about. Also directing was Dmitry Vasyukov.
What makes this work so well is the clear, concrete detail shown as the trapper (Nikolay Nikiforovitch Siniaev, I believe) goes about what he has to do throughout the entire year in order to survive in the harsh climate. What must be done in spring as he prepares for the melting of the snow (and the mosquitos!) is very different from what must be done in the dead of winter when there is ice on the man's beard. Interesting enough during both winter and summer they fish the river for pike, breaking ice in winter and throwing nets in the summer, which they either smoke or feed to the dogs.
The dogs! In this film we can see clearly the essential symbiotic relationship between humans and dogs. It is not clear that the trapper would be able to do his work without the help of his dogs. The dog's ears and its sense of smell augment the man's knowledge and experience so that together we see them work as a team. When the man makes a mosquito repellent from the bark of a birch tree (I think it was birch) he rubs it on his dogs as well.
The amount of carpentry and other wood working that the trapper has to do, including making craft to navigate the rivers and streams, is surprising. Of course the traps he makes are made mostly of wood. He traps sable for its valuable fur. To do so he has to place traps over a wide area which means he has to maintain various cabins in the woods that he and whoever is working with him can stay overnight since the treks cover many miles of frozen ground. We see him knocking down the snow piled high on the cabins, repairing damage made by bears, etc.
The idea that the people are happy and especially the trapper cannot be argued with even though their lives are hard. The life's lesson here is that when a man is consumed with work that he has to do, that is necessary for his survival, and it is work that he can do, that he has developed the skills to do, that man is happy. He is happy partly because he is close to nature; in fact he is immersed in nature in a way similar to way hunters and gathers were in Paleolithic times. It can be argued that that world, however challenging, is one that is natural for humans. (Of course there are other natural environments, some very different such as an equatorial jungle demanding a different set of skills.) After watching this I intend to watch some of Herzog's other films.
By the way, Klaus Badelt's score is beautiful and haunting.
--Dennis Littrell, author of "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote"
Intense, riveting and...well, stunning in some ways
This is a brilliant movie with an amazing performance by Tajana Prka who plays a shell shocked (old terminology) woman soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The direction by Tarique Qayumi is tight, intense, and focused if somewhat unrealistic in spots. (I'll get to that below.) The film does something that no other film that I have seen even come close to doing, and that is make us feel the sheer depths of the PTSD affliction. Mattie is traumatized to the extent that she is no longer really human. She cares nothing for anything but her obsession. She cares not for her daughter, not for her loving and patient husband, not even for herself. It is a portrayal of madness, obsession and what seeing and doing horrible things can do to a human being.
The acting was superior overall. Even the bit players did a good job. I noticed nary a false note. Even the little girl (played affectingly by Brooke J. Ferrell) was excellent. When the entire cast or most of it is very good you can be sure that the director is one of the main reasons. I don't know how Tajana Prka, who plays Mattie Ridgeway, would do in a sitcom (nor do I care) but I cannot recall a more intense and utterly believable performance in such a demanding role. Charlize Theron's role in the film Monster (2003) comes to mind or, going way back, I recall Susan Hayward's Oscar-winning performance in I Want to Live (1958). Yes, Prka is that good.
The entire story is heart-wrenching for just about everybody involved. I suspect one of the reasons some people did not like the film or could not watch it, is because it is so tragic for not only Mattie, her husband and her daughter, and of course for her target (Baktoosh Nuri / Khalid Attaqi, played with creditable realism and balance by Bobby Naderi) but also for the bad guys who are exploiting him. Also probably not agreeable to a popular audience is the fact that there is nothing heroic here, just a terrible tragedy that is entirely real thanks to the madness of the wars in the Middle East. Still another reason some people did not like this movie is because some people don't like the idea of PTSD, believing that it is unmanly or fake. The singular thing this movie presents is the fact that PTSD is not fake, and to see a woman suffer from it to the point of becoming less than human is a very effective way to drive home that point. Some other people (chicken hawks, I might guess who like to imagine themselves big masculine war heroes on their living room couches) will not like the way the feminine/masculine roles are reversed here. James O'Shea, who does a nice job as Mattie's ever patient and loving husband, ends up doing the mother's job while Mattie madly pursues her obsession. The role reversal almost works as a parody of the world of a PTSD family, which is probably why some viewers thought that this was a parody. No, this is not a parody. This is a brutal depiction of one of the bitter fruits of war. There is nothing light-hearted about it.
Yes, I can find flaws with this, mostly in how miraculously she is able to follow this guy and especially how she got out of the hotel room without being noticed. I just happen to know what it is like to try to follow someone by yourself without being noticed. It ain't easy. The way the movie is filmed would never work. She would be spotted early on, especially under the circumstances of the life the target is living. And he would be paranoid to the gills after somebody let the air out of his automobile tire--actually, way before that.
This movie is especially relevant and important because there are so many people in this country who were happy to cheer our soldiers off to war but who are reluctant to take responsibility for what war did to them.
Incidentally, I also like the way the film shows just how absurd and ineffective torture can be.
--Dennis Littrell, author of the movie reviews book, "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote"
Outrageous but prescient?
This is played for laughs, but the idea that people are getting dumber is actually highly plausible. Studies have shown (or so I've been told) that domestic animals are not as bright as the wild kind. And guess what? We domesticate ourselves, or rather our culture does.
Recently there was a story in the news about a study that showed that the brains of obese people are 16 years older than the brains of people of normal weight (these were people in their seventies). Furthermore the brains of the obese had about eight percent less mass than the brains of people of normal weight. Merely "fat" people had half the deficiency. So when director Mike Judge depicts all those fat and dumb people in the future, he may be on to some serious prognosticating.
As for the film itself, well, it is strangely compelling. This future world of idiots with everything falling apart seems almost real. It should be emphasized that all science fiction about the future is of necessity an extrapolation from the present. In fact, the real power of futuristic tales is what they tell us about the present. Idiocracy is no exception. The dumbed-down, couch-potato, dimly-aware creatures shown in the film are us! (Present company excepted of course.) Unfortunately Idiocracy is a sort of one trick pony. The central joke wears a little thin toward the middle of the film and the concocted story collapses into the merely silly. There are some good laughs along the way, such as crop failures due to using a kind of Gatorade on the crops called Brawndo instead of water.
Dennis Littrell, author of "The World Is Not as We Think It Is"
Great Barrier Reef (2012)
Absolutely gorgeous and very interesting
The quality of the camera work and the incredible diversity of marine and shore life seen in this BBC video is world class, mostly in the same league as "Planet Earth" (2006) and in some ways better. The sheer profusion of life in the reef with the explosive dazzle of color and the graceful dance and sway of the sea creatures is mesmerizing.
The presentation by Monty Hall who narrates and stars is not the best however. His underwater vocals are garbled and his presence in some places is artificial and forced. He does look the part however, healthy and macho, and he even lives up to his namesake with a bit of slapstick when he gets sand thrown sharply in his face from a green turtle covering her clutch of eggs.
The DVD is 185 minutes long and I hardly noticed the time flying by until I got to the final sixty minutes or so. Here the focus is mostly on the green turtles that lay their eggs in the sands of Raine Island in the reef's Queensland National Park. This part of the show may be a bit unsettling for some viewers especially when some of the turtles can't get back to the sea and die in the hot sun or when the tiger sharks rip apart their corpses when they are later washed out to sea. It is also not fun to watch the baby turtles scrambling over the sand to the ocean only to be snapped up, desperately wriggling in the beak of a Rufous Night Heron.
The video also shows us a bit of the life ashore near the reef including some footage of the mangrove swamps; and there's some history of the reef and how the reef affects the Australian mainland. There are many surprises including tiny pink sea horses a centimeter long, a shrimp and a fish living symbiotically together, and sea snakes that live in the anus of sea cucumbers.
I'm looking forward to watching this again...well except for the last part about the green turtles.
Dennis Littrell, author of "The World Is Not as We Think It Is"
ExxonMobil and Halliburton will hate this and try to ignore it
This is a Michael Moore kind of documentary, that is, before he became rich and famous. There's all the down home kind of people being featured and they're fighting, in this case, Big Gas, which means ExxonMobil, Halliburton and various and sundry others. I really don't know enough about the situation to pass judgment on the central accusation of the film, namely that hydraulic fracturing causes long-lasting environmental damage and the poisoning of water supplies. The fact that film maker Josh Fox shows several homes with water that can be set afire at the kitchen sink tap is however a bit disconcerting to say the least.
The problem seems to be that the methods used for fracturing employ a number of chemicals that are carcinogenic and, most significantly, there is no way to control the spread of those chemicals to areas around the wells including into the atmosphere. It's clear to me that there is not one executive at ExxonMobil or Halliburton that would want any hydraulic fracturing done anywhere near his home. Not in my backyard or across the street or even several football fields away is the how just about everybody feels about this technique for getting oil and gas economically out rock/shale formations.
But there is a lot of money to be made and there is the argument that using such techniques can alleviate our dependence on foreign oil. The amount of natural gas and oil that can be fractured out of the rocks in the United States is enormous with some estimates claiming the supply is over a hundred years at current energy consumption levels. But Josh Fox's point is, at what cost? What personal and environment cost? What this film pinpoints is another example of how the economic interests of a few large corporations trump the lives of countless number of people and how the real environmental and human costs of production are dumped onto the public, especially the public that is our children and our grandchildren to come. The sad fact is that energy is relatively cheap today because the real cost of that energy is being given to coming generations to pay in a kind of Ponzi scheme. Since ExxonMobil, Halliburton, et al., have a shareholder horizon of the next quarter's earnings numbers, it is impossible for them and their execs to give a flying you-know-what about tomorrow's children or the world they will face. The future can take care of itself is the position that they are embracing. Meanwhile they personally are not polluted directly or inconvenienced or made cancerous since they live far, far away from the effects of hydraulic fracturing, and presumably with all the money they are making they can provide for their children and grandchildren to continue to live where they are (relatively) safe from the pollutants that are being expelled.
But I have to say that this is not a great documentary. Its budget is obviously quite a bit short of what some other film makers can afford, yet Josh Fox makes his point very well and does a great public service in calling to our attention the dangers associated with hydraulic fracturing. I notice that there is a lot of advertising on television paid for by e.g., ExxonMobil that is trying to make this kind of natural gas and oil production as sweet as Tupelo honey with smiley faces and fields of flowers and greenery in the background. It's nice to see a counter to that, even if the film's budget is probably a fraction of the cost of one ExxonMobil commercial.
It is gratifying to note that the positive reviews for this movie greatly outnumber the negative ones. It's clear that the industry's attack team has taken a pass on this one, hoping, I guess that it will go away from lack of interest. Take a look and see why this issue is not likely to go away; in fact I predict another more powerful film to come, which WILL be viciously attacked. Stay tuned.
--Dennis Littrell, author of the movie review book, "Cut to the Chaise Lounge of I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!"
Transcendent Man (2009)
A film biography of futurist Ray Kurzweil
I'm somewhat familiar with the work of futurist Ray Kurzweil having read and reviewed his book The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence (1999). He has since written several other books. He's won a lot of prizes and several honorary doctorates. He's a brilliant and original man.
As this documentary film makes clear, he is also a man afraid of dying and a man who very much misses his father and dreams of somehow bringing his father back to "life." Yes, quotation marks around "life." Kurzweil thinks that it will someday be possible to down load our brains onto some kind of software and in such form we will live forever.
I probably should read some more Kurzweil because I am sure he has an answer to my main critique of this fantastic idea, which can be illustrated by this consideration: Suppose your brain is downloaded. Which of you is you? The one in the software whose experiences are virtual or the one in the flesh and blood whose experiences are very human-like with all the ups and downs? The lives that can be downloaded onto software will be interesting, incredible really, but only to other people.
Another thing to ask when thinking about this is "How do you program a computer to feel pain? Or joy for that matter. Human beings are evolved beings that are subject to pleasure and pain. Software and AI machines not only don't feel any pain, they couldn't even if they wanted to. They can be programmed to act as though they feel pain but that is all. It is not even clear how animals came to develop the pleasure/pain reward/punishment system. What came first the mechanism to deliver pain or the ability to recognize the experience as pain? Nobody knows.
I wonder if Kurzweil realizes that death is part of life. Without death biological creatures such as us would experience an unbearable stasis and would of course die anyway eventually through accident, suicide, nearby supernova, etc. And as machines without biological urgings we would have no reason to go on living unless the urge is programmed into us by biological creatures. Machines don't care whether they are "alive" or dead. They are not afraid of the plug being pulled.
Naturally he has his critics other than me. And in this film director Robert Barry Ptolemy introduces a few and lets them have their say. The give and take is interesting. But what I think most people who are familiar with Kurzweil's work will find interesting is the portrait of the very human man himself.
The film begins with Kurzweil's appearance on TV's "I've Got a Secret" when he was 17-years-old and ends with his latest invention, a device that reads text aloud for the blind, and his ideas for new inventions using nanobots. In between we learn of his open heart surgery and his overriding idea that the singularity is near and that we will be able to comprehend the world of the singularity only if we are augmented with artificial intelligence. In other words we will become cyborgs, part biological creatures and part machine.
In this last prediction I think Kurzweil is right. We will meld with our machinesthat is, if we don't send ourselves back to the Stone Age first.
Kurzweil gets the last say. He asks "Does God exist?" His very clever answer: "I would say not yet." Dennis Littrell, author of "The World Is Not as We Think It Is"