Tag Archives: Time Travel

LIST CANDIDATE: IDAHO TRANSFER (1973)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Kelly Bohanon, Kevin Hearst, Caroline Hildebrand

PLOT: A group of time-traveling teens visit the near-future and discover that an apocalypse will wipe out most of humanity.

Still from Idaho Transfer (1973)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: On the surface, this isn’t a very weird movie, just a plain low-budget, but imaginative, SF time-travel-thriller. But upon a deeper viewing, I had to consider what a unique little piece it is. With nothing to point to for a signature weird scene, the film still has an unmatched atmosphere that’s tense and casual at the same time. It has far too much salt to be called ordinary.

COMMENTS: Idaho Transfer is just the kind of movie that hack TV Guide reviewers used to describe as “low-budget yarn,” but at the same time it uses its budget extremely resourcefully to drive an ambitious hard science fiction story. It just misses being the Primer of its day, which is pretty impressive given that the director’s primary motive in making it was apparently to get young women to take off their pants. The sets have the barren Idaho back-country for exteriors and some anonymous office building for interiors; add thrift-store props and lukewarm young actors and stir. Yet it all works amazingly! While the film is unmistakably a product of the 1970s, the sparse details give it a timeless quality. The understated production ends up feeling realistic, while the low budget makes for some quirky choices that add character. A dentist with a Frankenstein poster on the wall? Sure, he’s a fan, wanna make something of it?

With the training of a new time travel recruit making for handy exposition, we learn that the “present” for these young people is just before an unknown apocalyptic event that seems to wipe out all humans. These researchers time travel to just after the event to try to figure out what happens. They have to be young, because it turns out time travel kills you if you do it when you’re too old, and they also have to strip off the heavy items so their clothes don’t merge with their bodies. They’re doing this research “under the table,” as their government sponsors don’t know they have time travel on their hands; students prefer to keep it that way until they find out the answers of their own. Since this technology was halfway discovered by accident, it makes sense that the time travel machine is a poor one with quirks.

At the same time, the pauper production gives the story a bleak, but wistful, tone. Two of our adventurers give a hitchhiking couple a ride. When they describe themselves as “gypsies without a care in the world,” both time travelers cringe under the burden of their knowledge of the future. Later they have a conversation about the opportunity they had to kidnap this couple and bring them into the future as breeding stock. Hopping back and forth between present and future does take its toll on this ragtag project, as even one little accident can set off a chain of events where the young people are quickly in over their heads, making difficult decisions with little preparation. When the project gets shut down by its unwitting government sponsors, the adventurers have to grab what supplies they can and escape to the future, and now they have a camp in the middle of a godforsaken wasteland with sparse supplies and even less margin for error.

“Swiftian” is how a few reviews sum up the result. As more accidental discoveries pile up and more events unfold, there’s a stark question as to whether this fragile conclave of humanity can survive. On an exploration party, two of our heroes are amused to find an abandoned car with the keys inside, but when they also discover children’s toys in the back seat it hits them all over again what was lost, souring the mood. Moments like this chase the story as the grim reality of being the only surviving hope for humanity catches up to our band of explorers, until the dizzying ending. Surprisingly for its claustrophobic setting, it never stays still for very long and manages to raise some existential, grim, and even sardonic questions along the way. Whether or not humanity survives becomes a less important question than: should we?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Braden has developed a method of time travel physically possible only for youth: ‘Something to do with the kidneys,’ Isa explains. ‘It’s curtains for anyone much over twenty to try it.’ This Logan’s Run-esque twist is one of the stranger details (along with the necessity of removing one’s pants but not, apparently, shirt or underwear before traveling through time) in a stark, eccentric script by Thomas Matthiesen that Fonda milks for its maximum load of post-60s comedown dread.”–Evan Kindley, “Not Coming to a Theater Near You” (VHS)

Peter Fonda Idaho Transfer interview (spoilers):

366 UNDERGROUND: DESTINATION PLANET NEGRO (2013)

Destination: Planet Negro!

DIRECTED BY: Kevin Willmott

FEATURING: Kevin Willmott, Tosin Morohunfola, Danielle Cooper, Trai Byers

PLOT: In order to flee early-20th century racism and find a new home for African Americans, physicist Warrington Avery and a crack squad of Black adventurers attempt a trip to Mars, only to have their rocket ship sucked through a worm hole which transports them into the jarring reality of modern-day America.

Still from Destination Planet Negro (2013)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The “time-traveling fish-out-of-water” story is a cinematic trope with a long pedigree. That these time-travelers are Black luminaries from the 1930s is something a novelty, but Destination: Planet Negro plays by the rules in an expected, but not unpleasant, manner.

COMMENTS: Having another socially conscientious movie be next on my to-do list could be viewed as a punishment for me by those who may have taken issue with my diatribe about Arabian Nights. However, my dislike of that movie did not stem from its progressive agenda, but from its wanting for anything remotely approaching “entertainment.” It was no small relief that Kevin Willmott’s satirical piece, Destination: Planet Negro (DPN) proved to be quite amusing and watchable, in addition to proffering some salient observations about modern and historical race issues.

My lingering frustration put aside, let me dive into the movie at hand. DPN starts right off with a sense of place: crisp black and white film sets the tone, and after opening-credits over a cosmic montage, we jump to an assemblage of Black luminaries in 1939. These top African-Americans are gathered to discuss, as one describes it, “the Negro problem.” Not finding the United States welcoming, nor being keen on moving to Africa (too much poverty), Europe (risk of exotification), or the U.S.S.R. (these gents are no commies), Dr. Warrington Avery (Kevin Willmott) informs the august crowd that he has a plan to colonize the Red Planet for the Black Man. The skeptics are assuaged by none other than George Washington Carver. However, some of the attendees inform the local police, so Dr. Avery, his astronomer daughter Beneatha (Danielle Cooper), speed-demon Captain “Race” Johnson (Tosin Morohunfola), and a clumsy robot with a cracker personality are forced to take the trip on the fly.

At about the half-hour mark, the movie changes from black and white to color, as the space adventurers crash-land on a far off planet. The joke’s on them, though: it’s the same planet and same country, just 75 years later. And so DPN moves on from historical commentary to  contemporary commentary. A run-in with Hispanic laborers in the back of a van suggests to them that slavery exists here. Observing a young black man making a purchase at a convenience store convinces them he’s a slave: no eye contact, no words from the black man to the white cashier. DPN continues in this vein, ably expounding on the many similarities of treatment, though occasionally veering into the realm of the silly. In particular, the montage involving “Race” Johnson learning how to “walk like a Black guy” shouldn’t have been included, much less gone on for as long as it did.

All told, DPN is a fun diversion for those seeking some observations about race relations. It didn’t surprise me upon researching DPN that Kevin Willmott was the driving force behind 2004’s speculative “documentary” C.S.A.: the Confederate States of America. There, too, he used the powers of humor and satire to make his point, all the while maintaining an appreciably light touch. Willmott seems aware that hitting people over the head with a blunt cinematic object can be counter-productive when making one’s point. While some more pruning could have helped it better maintain its momentum (after the crash-landing scene, the movie itself nearly crashes), that criticism could be laid against most movies. In brief: not weird, but not bad.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…highly recommended, provided you’re in the mood for a campy, low-budget sci-fi whose cheesy special effects are more than offset by a profusion of insightful social statements.”–Kam Williams, Baret News Network (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: WORLD OF TOMORROW (2015)

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Julia Pott, Winona Mae

PLOT: The third generation clone of a little girl time travels to the present to deliver advice to the four-year old.

Still from World of Tomorrow (2015)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: We’ll cite Don Hertzfeld’s own words, speaking of his inspirations for “World of Tomorrow,” in the film’s favor: “..I’ve always been a big fan of pulpy science fiction, the optimistic yet somehow terrifying science fiction of the 40’s and 50’s, where logic took a back seat to some really giant, weird ideas.” This film was conceived in a weird mindset, but working against this psychedelic stick-figure snippet is—as is often the case with shorts—its length. It’s a stunning work on both the visual and emotional planes, but as good as “World of Tomorrow” is, is it weird and important enough to justify bumping a full-length film off the List to make place for it? If only Hertzfeld would make a proper, weird feature-length film, and end this dilemma for us…

COMMENTS: “Our viewscreens allow us to witness any event in history,” says the visitor from the future with some degree of pride, although she casually concedes that “our more recent history is often just comprised of images of other people watching viewscreens.” Such is the World of Tomorrow as imagined by stick-figure animator Don Hertzfeld. The film is scripted around the recorded utterances of Hertzfeld’s four year old niece Winona Mae, which were later adapted into a screenplay. The girl’s ebullient proclamations of wonder are met with calm acknowledgment by her own clone, who has traveled through time on the eve of the apocalypse to implant this very memory (and to extract another one). Young Emily (referred to as “Emily Prime”) can’t understand the significance of the momentous exchange, focusing on the surface of the vision, delighting her ability to change background colors with a word. For her part, the pontificating clone, who speaks in the emotionless tone of a British Siri, seems oblivious that her words of wisdom are going over the girl’s head. This leads to constant humorous exchanges between the two (“I have no idea what you’re talking about” deadpans the clone in response to some childish gibberish).

Hertzfeld’s characters deliver their mismatched, wistful dialogue against a backdrop of constantly shifting colors. The animator retains the derp-y stick figures that have become his trademark, but digs into digital animation to create futuristic ooh-la-la wonders. Clean, precise geometric figures constantly drift through the frame like technological clouds, with neon static discharges bursting across the screen. Space is a deep purple expanse, and the Earth, seen from the moon, is covered with a grid of girders. Human memories (the kind people of the future will watch for solace) are fuzzy and shown at skewed angles, with unbalanced color that makes a field of grass glow yellow. The eye candy alone more than justifies this trip into the future.

The tone is resigned and melancholy, but not despairing. “Tomorrow”‘s morose vision of the future encompasses depressed robot poetry and shooting star corpses among its many ironic wonders. But while the film embodies the postmodern pessimism that concludes that technology is making us gradually less connected and less human, “Tomorrow”‘s direct emotional impact comes from tapping into that well of nostalgia for the innocence of childhood. Forget the future; every adult feels like a deteriorating third-generation copy of themselves who feels “a deep longing for something you cannot quite remember.” Life is “a beautiful visit, and then we share the same fate as the rest of the human race: dying horribly.” Tomorrow is a mixed blessing, at best, but Emily Prime represents hope and solace.

“World of Tomorrow” is now available streaming on Netflix, or it can be rented directly on-demand.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… within the absurdity lurks a sense of longing for a connection, a soulsick-ness.“–Collin Souter, RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous)

WOODY ALLEN’S MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (2011)

For the last fifteen years, with the release of any new album,  at least a dozen or so music critics begin their review with: “It’s his best work since ‘Scary Monsters.'” They will repeat themselves with his upcoming “BlackStar,” in contrast to Bowie’s long-held aesthetic of avoiding repetition.

Pedestrian critics are as commonplace as pedestrian artists (in whatever medium) so it was unsurprising when a plethora of reviews for Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris (2011) opened with: “It’s his best film in years.”

Like Bowie, Allen has made an effort to avoid needless repetition, which is not the same as working through periods of purposeful repetition. Allen knows the difference because he is a great artist. Paradoxically, this 80-year-old filmmaker has been both experimental and given to nostalgia, a paradox evident throughout Midnight In Pairs, a time travel opus replete with famous character cameos: F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Allison Pill), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), (), (Adren de Van), Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo), Paul Gauguin (Oliver Rabourdin), Josephine Baker (Sonia Rolland), Cole Porter (Yves Heck), Henri Toulouse -Lautrec (Vincent Menjou Cortes), etc.

The late avant-garde composer Pierre Boulez (who died at age 90 on Wednesday) once said: “Nostalgia is poison.” While Allen would hardly be that pronounced, in Paris he takes the rueful approach that has been increasingly distinctive in the second half of his oeuvre. This does not mean Midnight in Paris is without charm. To the contrary, as its title indicates, the film is awash in tenets of romanticism—albeit clear-eyed romanticism—which is an authentic approach.

Still from Midnight in Paris (2011)Gil () is an unsatisfied Hollywood hack writer. His engagement to Inez (Rachel McAdams, scion of an elite, right-wing family) is equally ill at ease. While vacationing in Paris, Gil is teleported every night to the city’s past, cira 1920. Smartly, Allen doesn’t waste narrative time with a silly, pointless explanation of just how the time travel works (or how Gil returns to the present). Starstruck, Gil hobnobs with the Lost Generation of the Golden Age (Zelda Fitzgerald, as to be expected, commands most of the attention until Hemmingway starts pontificating) and even gets Stein to read his manuscript. In one of his midnight excursions, Gil meets and falls for Adriana (). She is a welcome contrast to the materialistic Inez, who is carrying on an affair with depressingly pretentious college heartthrob Paul (Michael Sheen). However, for Adriana, the golden age is not Paris in the 20s, but rather, the turn of the century’s Beautiful Era (Belle Époque), which they visit together, encountering the likes of Gauguin, Degas, and Toulouse -Lautrec. Idealization gives way to the minor insight that art is born of a time and place. It cannot be duplicated. Gil has his own art, which is equally unique. Of course, there is nothing revolutionary to be found in a valentine, but the film’s lucid melancholy gifts an odd, feel-good enchantment, lensed to poetic perfection by Darius Khondji.

Wilson, Cotillard, McAdams, and Carla Bruni (in an amusing cameo as a tourist guide for the Rodin Museum) are all ideally cast. Lea Seydoux (of 2013 Blue Is The Warmest Colo) is a sliver of warm joy as Gil’s potential new love.

Next week: Zelig (1983)

ALFRED EAKER VS THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: TERMINATOR GENISYS (2015)

A dumb, unoriginal movie made by dumb, unoriginal people. Terminator: Genisys (2015) has received well-earned negative critical reception and press. This latest from a franchise well past its tether is the summer blockbuster equivalent of nails meeting a chalkboard.

That its sheer awfulness was entirely predictable makes Terminator: Genisys even more disappointing. Worse, it is insulting on multiple levels. It reportedly did not perform as well as hoped for on opening weekend, and that is partly because it caters solely to the formula-craving fanboy audience it inherited. It seems to care not one bit for creating a new audience.

Ultimately, it offers nothing new, although there is a half-assed effort on the part of its hack writers (Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier) and director (Alan Taylor) to inject convoluted rehashes masquerading as new plot developments. This they do with the standby alternate timelines, which we have seen a lot recently in franchise reboots, such as J.J. Abrahms’ Star Trek (2009). The resume of the production team should have indicated, to anyone but an executive, that they simply were not up to this challenge. Predominantly, however, the blame must go to Paramount for ordering this unnecessary mishmash and handing it over to a pedestrian team. Studios might be financially savvy, but one is tempted to ask aloud if production executives actually go to movies, and whether they have anything better to produce with their money.

Humphrey Bogart once said: “The industry hurts itself by making so many lousy movies. It’s as if General Motors deliberately put out a bad car.” Terminator: Genisys is Paramount’s shamefully intentional lemon, counting solely on star Arnold Schwarzenegger and hoping the movie will just make itself.

It does not even succeed at that. The plot, for those who inexplicably care, features John Connor (Jason Clarke) who defeats Fascist machines that create a holocaust which wipes out most of humanity. In retaliation, the machines send a robotic terminator (Schwarzenegger) back to 1984 in an effort to kill John’s mother, Sarah (Emilia Clarke) to prevent John from being born. John gets hold of another time machine and sends his daddy, Kyle (Jai Courtney) back to 1984 as well, so he can save and impregnate Sarah. If that sounds overly familiar, just wait for alt timeline plot twists.

Still from Terminator: Genisys (2015)This time around, the 1984 version of Sarah is already an apocalyptic warrior, as opposed to the clueless, helpless waitress of the original. She keeps the company of an old, gray-haired terminator (Schwarzenegger), who protects her from the new terminator (a digital Schwarzenegger). A nearly seventy-year-old Schwarzenegger can hardly compete with a CGI Schwarzenegger. Old Schwarzenegger does get a clever/cute line: “I’m old, not obsolete.” The only thing more grating than macho attempts at clever/cute (think of Arnold’s cringe-inducing ‘thumbs-up’ finale of the hopelessly overrated Terminator 2: Judgment Day) is geriatric macho attempts at clever cute (think William Shatner in Star Trek: The Final Frontier).

Nor can Clarke and Courtney compete with the original Sarah and Kyle (Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn).  Oh, what to do if the actors are just as lacking in personality and originality as the director and writers? You throw in lotza “character revelations” and even more CGI car crashes with exploding terminators.

The theme behind Terminator: Genisys is one that has been used since Beethoven’s “Fidelio”: the rights of the individual supersede the collective, which is hypocritical given that the film was dictated to the principals by Paramount.

Although original Terminator director James Cameron was not involved with Terminator: Genisys, he has been canonized by Taylor and company, which the previous two franchise entries failed to do. Naturally, when young sycophants kiss a veteran’s ass and stroke his ego, said veteran is ready, willing, and able to stamp the film with his endorsement, which is precisely what Cameron did.

That might be fine for undemanding fans, but not for the rest of us. Reportedly, the terminators will be back for two more lemon sequels straight off the assembly line.

CAPSULE: PREDESTINATION (2014)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: The Spierig Brothers (Micheal Spierig, Peter Spierig)

FEATURING: Ethan Hawke, Sarah Snook

PLOT: While posing as a bartender on a mission to stop a mad bomber, a “Temporal Agent” who travels to the past to stop crimes before they happen meets a man who promises to tell him the strangest story he’s ever heard.

Still from Predestination (2014)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Predestination is a fine, twisty-plotted mindbender, but not really any weirder than Looper, Timecrimes, Primer, or other movies that depend entirely on time travel paradoxes for their uncanny effect.

COMMENTS: Predestination is one of those movies that is so dependent on its twists for its effect that it becomes hard to review. Certainly, I would like, if nothing else, to praise Sarah Snook’s star-making performance here; but it’s difficult to discuss what’s so impressive about it without giving away the secret (I will say she shows great range). Nominal protagonist Ethan Hawke is serviceable as the time-weary agent who’s been doing this way too long, but despite being top billed he is essentially the frame for Snook’s bizarrely tragic story. There is not much money here for spectacular visuals—they blow most of the FX budget on a single virtual reality simulator in the movie’s first thirty minutes—but not much is needed to tell the story correctly. Predestination also dances around some big ideas without really addressing them directly. There’s the title conundrum, and a testing of the limits of pragmatism—sure, most everyone agrees it’s ethical to kill one man now to save the lives of one hundred innocents later, but what about killing one guilty party and nine harmless civilians to save one hundred people later? Those ruminations aside, the pleasures here are almost entirely of the unraveling-the-tangled-plot-skeins variety, with Snook’s impressively sympathetic performance as a noteworthy bonus.

When you feel embargoed from discussing the plot at all for fear of mentioning spoilers, a movie becomes hard to discuss; although that very reluctance is also a good sign, since you are implying that there is some pleasure to be spoiled. I will make an observation that it is neat how the Spierig’s script keeps some elements from Robert Heinlein’s original 1958 short story (titled “All You Zombies”) to create an alternate version of the past (specifically, Heinlein imagined a 1960s world where women were barred from becoming astronauts, but allowed to go into space as state-sponsored courtesans!) If Temporal Agents were really running around changing the past, surely they’d be messing up little sociological tidbits like that by accident. More of those sorts of details would have helped kick the film up another notch and added to the feeling of disorientation. Still, Predestination is a solid time travel movie of impeccable lineage, one that is not too difficult to follow despite its complexity. What in another movie might appear to be a plot hole here seems like a rigorous exploration of an alternate understanding of causality. Well done.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Like all time-travel stories, this inevitably trips on its own causal illogic – but not before it’s offered you a taste of something genuinely rich and strange, and probably toxic.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “ jeandeaux” who argued that it “explores, in its own weird way, the ultimate concerns of human existence: meaning, loneliness, freedom, and mortality.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

LIST CANDIDATE: JE T’AIME, JE T’AIME (1968)

DIRECTED BY: Alain Resnais

FEATURING: Claude Rich, Olga Georges-Picot,

PLOT: When Claude Ridder fails at suicide, he is recruited by a group of scientists who wish to test their time machine; things go wrong and Claude gets stuck reliving scattered sections of his past over and over.

Still from Je T'aime Je T'aime (1968)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: With an unreliable narrative, hundreds of film cuts, and a dead-pan leading man, Resnais’ picture is a strange combination of pathos, editing wizardry, and, more unlikely, a fair amount of humor.

COMMENTS: Perhaps the oddest thing about Je T’aime, Je T’aime is that this movie, subtly, is rather hilarious. While some might shy away from such a strong word, I found the mounting irony and scenarios to be overwhelmingly amusing. I could not imagine a more twisted fate for an aspiring suicide victim than to be obliged to live through extended, repeated chunks of time that lead up to his failure and subsequent hospitalization. Added to the film’s black comedic tenor is the protagonist’s perpetually subdued tone of speech and action; he puts up a front of total emotional apathy for much of the time. This creates an effective contrast with the moments of emotional passion, the most moving of which is his muttering “je t’aime” in the embryonic cocoon of the time machine.

The science-fiction element is as subdued as the protagonist’s interactions with his surroundings. The scientists in this movie are all normal looking men, their mechanisms and labs (aside from the main device) are very low-key and functional looking. The time travel machine in question is an intriguing aesthetic choice: the pod-like nature, with the odd, organic-looking tubing that runs through it, creates a “sci-fi feel” that one cannot help but think influenced David Cronenberg. Once within the organic space, resting on a soft pink-hued chair-like space, the protagonist returns to an embryonic state (a nice touch, reflecting the nature of the time travel Resnais is invoking).

The way time travel operates in this movie is incredibly vague. It seems at first that perhaps we see things as the subject does, somehow detached from his past body. We witness occurrences again and again along with him. We begin to wonder, though, what exactly is going on, because it seems more that he is exploring things he remembers, than actually going back in time to witness them when they occurred. A further obfuscation is created when we see things in his “past” that obviously could never have been there: there is a man in a flooded phone-box, for example. Speaking personally, I have had flashes of hallucinations when going about my daily business, so if he is inside his memory, than these can perhaps make somewhat more sense.

But where is he, and why can’t he get back? And what does the repetition of all these slices add up to? These odd time phenomena warrant repeat viewings. Visiting this man as he lies on the organic surface within the time pod, it seems a more effective escape from life than was his attempted suicide.

When all is said and done, Resnais presents the viewer with an extraction, repetition, and reworking of mundane events in a man’s life that results in a very weird trip through the blasé experiences of this character; experiences that, when combined and re-combined, turn out to be what drives him to his suicide in the first place.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“By the time the nonsensical and aggravatingly surreal final stretch rolls around, Je t’aime je t’aime has definitively established itself as an art-house experiment that completely (and distressingly) squanders its promising setup.”–David Nusair, Reel Film

ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: X-MEN DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014)

For years, Trekkies have perpetrated the “odd-numbered curse” rumor that befell the original crew’s movies. According to this theory somehow, someway the odd numbered movies are mysteriously inferior to the even numbered entries. While there is a certain truth in that, it is not because of some silly curse, nor is it a mystery. Movies do not just magically “make themselves,” and the actors do not make it up as they go along. The common denominator in the even numbered Star Trek entries is Nicholas Meyer, who wrote and directed Star Trek II (1982) and Star Trek VI (1991) and co-wrote the script for Star Trek IV (1986). The strengths of Star Trek IV lie in the writing, particularly that which is clearly from the stylistic hand of Meyer. The film’s weaknesses lie in Leonard Nimoy’s pedestrian directing.

Still from X-men Days of Future Past (2014)When the third X-Men movie, The Last Stand (2006) was released, fans (and some critics) were shocked that it fell far short of the first two entries. Since Bryan Singer directed and co-wrote both X-Men (2000) and X-Men 2 (2003), and was not at all associated with The Last Stand, that third film’s lesser quality should not have been a surprise. Regardless, Singer has returned after an eleven year absence to direct and co-write Days of Future Past. With him, the franchise is vital entertainment again. Although not without flaws, X-Men: Days Of Future Past (2014) is as much imaginative dumb fun as Singer’s previous efforts. Its biggest misstep is that it is not a stand alone movie. It expects the audience to have seen all the previous X-Men movies, and after The Last Stand it should be counted as almost a miracle that any future movies were even made about mutant super-people. (Except, of course, we are talking about the 21st century American market; the same market that actually made a hit of live action Scooby Doo movies, the Transformers franchise, and the Fast and Furious franchise). It is probably helpful to have along a translator who speaks Marvel Comics if you are unfamiliar with all the characters’ histories—and there a lot of characters, too damned many for Singer to balance with the same level of deftness that Joss Whedon is adept at.

Like many Trek stories, this X-Men opus tackles a time travel plot, albeit an overly complicated one. Thankfully, it turns playful. There are plenty of allegories bandied about and historical parallels abound (think the Vietnam War and a Terminator-like apocalypse). An older Professor X (Trek veteran ) and Magneto ( ) meet their  younger selves ( and ), shades of Picard-meets-Kirk or Spock-meets-Spock-Prime. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) has to go back to 1973, which means waking up to the music of Roberta Flack and the discovery that Richard Nixon (Mark Comancho) was not only deep in Watergate, but also aiding and abetting Dr. Trask () in a robot plot (it always helps to have robots). References to the Kennedy assassination and the magic bullet are thrown in for good measure (which diverts us back to another unused Trek plot).

Singer occasionally gets waterlogged, probably from trying to appease fanboy expectations. Additionally, his return to pulp is excessively long in its last quarter. However, it is capped off with a winning finale, which feels like a teenage interpretation of “Twilight Of The Gods” (minus Wagner himself, of course).  Singer keeps the film flowing through pop references galore, which helps levitate all that on-sleeve, existential mutant angst. Even the much-missed Jim Croce provides good tonic, via his legendary “Time In A Bottle,” as does John Ottman’s assured score. Once past the confusing opening, X-Men: Days Of Future Past shifts gear into ambitious, melodramatic fun, and has a few surprises up its sleeve, at least to those of us who forgot our Marvel concordance. Now, if the producers are smart, they’ll keep Singer employed in this franchise (providing he can keep out of jail).

150. JOHN DIES AT THE END (2012)

“The name grabbed me instantly, but when I read the log line about a street drug called ‘soy sauce’ and a pair of mid-west slackers battling a silent otherworldly invasion, I was hooked. Since my youth I’ve had a rabid interest in the sci-fi, horror and fantasy genres.  Many of my previous films have explored the surreal and strange.  What I love about JOHN DIES AT THE END is that in addition to being hide-under-the-bed scary, it’s also laugh-out-loud funny.”–Don Coscarelli, director’s statement

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, , Fabianne Therese, , Glynn Turman,

PLOT: A college dropout named David Wong tells a story to a journalist at a Chinese restaurant while under the influence of a drug called “soy sauce.” He reveals that the sauce has given him and his friend John psychic powers that enable them to see inter-dimensional intruders who are bent on conquering our reality. He then relates the story of how, together with his one-handed girlfriend and her dog, he and John traveled to the alternate dimension to thwart the invasion.
Still from John Dies at the End (2012)

BACKGROUND:

  • John Dies at the End was adapted from a comic novel of the same name. The name of the story’s protagonist and the author are both “David Wong,” which is actually a pseudonym for Jason Pargin. “John Dies” began life as a short story posted on Pargin’s blog.
  • Don Coscarelli had been working on a sequel to his previous feature, Bubba Ho-Tep (2002), with , but funding fell through. Giamatti supported the idea of adapting John Dies at the End instead, and served as executive producer on the substitute project.
  • Coscarelli credits Amazon’s recommendation algorithm with suggesting the novel “John Dies to the End” to him.
  • The movie’s prologue is a modern zombie-based variation on an ancient philosophical paradox called “the ship of Theseus” (in the book, the prologue refers to an ending that is not explicitly present in the movie).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We can’t actually mention the movie’s most memorable image here, both thanks to the fact that it’s obscene, and that doing so would spoil what may be the movie’s best joke. Those who’ve seen the film already, however, will doubtlessly remember the door that “cannot be opened.”

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Jason Pargin wrote a sprawling comedy novel in part about two party-hearty college dropouts who take a mysterious drug nicknamed “soy sauce” that makes them clairvoyant, enabling them to perceive an invasion by demonic forces from another dimension. Don Coscarelli, the writer/director of Bubba Ho-Tep and the Phantasm series, took note of this literary property and decided to adapt it, chopping up the timeline and adding hallucinatory demonic visuals until the result plays out like a bad trip brought on by shooting up way too much of an experimental psychedelic drug.


Original trailer for John Dies at the End

COMMENTS: Here’s an unexpected spoiler for you: John doesn’t die at the end of John Dies at the End. At least, I don’t think he does. But it may Continue reading 150. JOHN DIES AT THE END (2012)