Modern Times (1936)

Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) vs. Feeding Machine in Modern Times

Charlie Chaplin, having complete creative control over his films – being writer, director, composer, and actor in almost all his works – is undoubtedly the center in which all his films revolve around. He is the focus and he is the star. In only one instance was there a co-star who was able to match Chaplin’s on-screen presence, and that would be Jackie Coogan in 1921’s The Kid. However, I would argue that there is also one instance as well wherein a co-star was able to surpass his on-screen presence. This would be Paulette Goddard in Modern Times.

In the role of the gamin, Goddard’s youthful exuberance and fierce (almost savage) characteristic makes all the difference. She has such timeless beauty and a strong, captivating screen presence that the film never loses a step when the focus is shifted away from the tramp and on to her. Together, Chaplin’s tramp and Goddard’s gamin are magnetic – almost like Bonnie & Clyde as they run away hustling for food from one place to another.

The charm, charisma and chemistry of the pair however, only serve to enhance what is already a film of great substance. Modern Times, more than any other picture Chaplin has done in the past, concerns itself with significantly more political and philosophical themes as it delves into man’s relationship with technology. This is even made more poignant set within the context of The Great Depression as it gives Chaplin much material to illustrate man’s struggle to adapt. In one scene, Chaplin depicts the power that machines have over men when the tramp suffers a nervous breakdown as part of a factory assembly line. The tramp frantically tries to keep up with the speed of technology; but to no avail, and is sucked into the machine – a wonderfully intricate piece of production design – both literally and figuratively.

Throughout this – Chaplin’s final silent movie, and what some would say as the last film of the silent era – only certain bits of dialogue are spoken. Curiously, they are only heard when coming from some form of technology such as a radio or a monitor. Again, Chaplin’s commentary not only on the increasing reliance of people on technology, but maybe also a reflection of his sentiments on how cinema was then moving away from silent films and on to “talkies,” making the film work as a refection on change and transition in more ways than one.

In spite of all these different layers that can be found in Modern Times, Chaplin never loses sight of the fact that the film is first and foremost a comedy. He mixes in the hearty laughs with the witty social commentary, displaying his ability to create biting satire within his slapstick approach. Granted, the film is not perfect as it features some stale jokes (the one with the minister’s wife in the prison comes to mind) and it doesn’t quite reach the highs that some of his other films are able to achieve. However, Modern Times benefits from being consistently engaging, and it achieves this by being effective on so many layers unlike any other Chaplin film before it. Whether it be due to the humor, or the social commentary, his patented comic twists in the narrative, or simply because of the electric screen presence of its two leads, Modern Times proves through every scene that it is worthy to be hailed as one of Chaplin’s greatest achievements.

Rating: A (excellent)

City Lights (1931)

Charlie Chaplin and Virginia Cherrill in City Lights

I don’t know what I wanted from City Lights. What I do know is that I was awed by what was considered as Chaplin’s relatively “lesser” earlier works (The Kid, The Gold Rush, The Circus) and that I most definitely am a sucker for romantic comedies. So upon revisiting the film in the context of it being one of Chaplin’s masterpieces and it being hailed by some as the greatest romantic comedy of all time, I was expecting something significantly affecting. Unfortunately, although there are still a lot of legitimate flashes of brilliance throughout the film, I can’t help but feel shortchanged after watching.

For a film that is consistently touted – along with Modern Times – as Chaplin’s best work and among the best films ever made, City Lights sure opens pretty weak. Instead of the kind of witty physical comedy that the world has come to expect from the filmmaker, the film dishes out a bunch of perfunctory slapstick gags as we’re introduced to the tramp once again. Yet even then, it’s easy to see that the the genius is still definitely there. In the scene, for example, where the tramp meets the girl for the first time; in only two minutes, with barely the use of any words, Chaplin is able to convey so much: That the tramp is initially cold towards the girl, that the girl is blind, that the tramp discovers she is blind and warms up to her instantly, and finally that she has mistaken him for a wealthy gentleman. That is the kind of concise intertwining of comedy, plot movement, character development, and sentimentality that I’ve come to expect from Chaplin at his best. Unfortunately though, it’s not something that carries on throughout the film.

The film progresses at an odd pace, with some supporting bits (with the tramp & the drunken gentleman) feeling like they run on for too long and the main narrative only popping up in parts. What aggravates this the most though is that a lot of the jokes simply fall flat. The huge rock being dropped on the tramp’s foot, the bottle of alcohol spilling on the tramp’s crotch, the lady sitting on a lit cigar, and the tramp swapping out the foreman’s cheese for a bar of soap are all just the worst offenders of a common theme that runs throughout the film: That the comedy, quite bluntly put, is cheap (especially for Chaplin’s standards). The really good gags are few and far between, with the best laughs in the film coming towards the end in a sequence where the tramp tries to earn some money for the blind girl by fighting in an amateur boxing match.

Where the film triumphantly succeeds is in the romance. It may not be consistently heartwarming, and does take a while to get going (primarily because of the odd pacing in the middle), but it alone makes the film somehow earn its reputation. The scene where the tramp brings the girl to her picturesque little home is so subtly beautiful and charming; and by the time he makes it his mission to earn money for the girl’s rent and to cure her blindness, one can’t help but be moved by the selflessness of the poor fellow. In typical Chaplin fashion, through a weird turn of events, he does eventually get the girl the money. Unfortunately, he also lands himself in jail while doing so. And what this sets up is nothing but one of the finest and most emotionally striking endings in all of cinema.

Severely lacking in laughs, but overflowing with heart, City Lights just begs me to reiterate what I mentioned in my review of The Circus – that maybe Chaplin was even more versed in the subtleties of human emotion more than the comedy that he is known for. Upon watching it for a second time, I think I have to put myself in the minority that would not consider film as one of his better releases; but hey, at least it leaves us with that magnificent ending.

Rating: B (good)

The Circus (1928)

Charlie Chaplin and Merna Kennedy in The Circus

Chaplin’s The Circus – arguably the least known and lauded of his “tramp” features – is a film that  succinctly captures the ephemeral quality of life: How one can fall in love and how that love can be smitten away from you in a blink of an eye; how in one moment you’re penniless and running from the law, then in another minute you’re a celebrity, then shortly after you’re obsolete, and finally you’re back from where you came from. The Circus is driven and revolves around this topsy-turvy nature; and as such, is also Chaplin’s most realistic film as it captures life’s most exhilarating triumphs and most heartbreaking falls from grace.

It’s a roller-coaster ride of a narrative; and being set in a circus, features some of the more physical gags from Chaplin. It also features some insights into the comedic process as the the tramp tries to incorporate his “accidental comedy” into the circus troupe’s more meticulously planned routines. The uniqueness of the film’s setting allows for some of Chaplin’s most magical moments, the most enchanting of which comes early on in the film as the poor tramp runs into a hall of mirrors to elude the chasing cops. The camera remains fixed on a multitude of reflections as the tramp and the cop run around chasing and running from reflections of each other in a brilliantly choreographed sequence. To say that it’s the best gag in the film and one of the best scenes that Chaplin has put together would not be an exaggeration.

Yet at the heart of it all, the way Chaplin’s character progresses in the film’s romantic subplot proves yet again that he is as much a sentimentalist as the comedian for which he is known for. In the film’s “meet cute,” the tramp chances upong a young female performer enjoying the breakfast that he’s been cooking for himself and chases her off. Upon realizing that she’s the ringmaster’s daughter and has been denied her meal, he develops a fondness for her and secretly hands her his meal anyway. The fondness soon develops into a romance; but once a dashing tightrope walker joins the circus, the romance turns into jealousy. Through all of the character’s ups and downs, Chaplin still manages to deliver the laughs and let shine the kind of truths that will make you nod and smile in acknowledgement. His ability to capture all of these changes in tone so poignantly in such a short amount of time can lead one to argue that maybe Chaplin was even more versed in the subtleties of human emotion more than the comedy that he had built his legacy on.

In the film’s final act, realizing that the happiness of the girl lies with the tightrope walker, the tramp devices a plan to resolve everyone’s problems as the circus caravan prepares to leave town. Everyone’s problems except his own that is, and the final scene sees the tramp left alone in the middle of a field where the circus used to be. So in the end, The Circus is ultimately a film that shows Chaplin maturing as a person as well as a filmmaker. It shows him having gained wisdom about the realities of life and the knowledge that not all romances need to end with a happy ending. That sometimes, the most truthfully effective stories are the ones that reflect life’s sad realities. It shows him expanding his technical prowess, reaching deeper into his repertoire of camera magic, and learning to deal with the nuances in juggling multiple themes yet still producing a cohesive whole. I went into watching the film expecting to surmise why The Circus has ended up as Chaplin’s least revered tramp film, and now that I’ve seen it though, I ask myself “…why?” indeed.

Rating: A (excellent)

The Gold Rush (1925)

Charlie Chaplin as The Tramp looking on at the merriment in the dancehall

Just like most of Chaplin’s stories, The Gold Rush is a deeply humanistic film. It tackles the lengths men will go through to achieve their dreams and how much we are able to persevere and hope in the face of adversity. At the center of it all is the little tramp – the classic underdog of Chaplin’s most heartfelt narratives. In this picture, the tramp takes on the role of a lone prospector searching for gold. He ventures out into the Klondike where he eventually ends up stranded in a cabin with an escaped convict named Black Larsen and a burly fellow prospector named Big Jim.

For much of the film’s first act, it’s difficult to miss the many gags that has made The Gold Rush so enduring and influential. In one scene, Larsen and Jim fight over a shotgun; and while they struggle, so does the tramp as he frantically avoids being on the receiving end of the barrel. In another scene, in desperate need of sustenance, the tramp dines nonchalantly on a boiled shoe while Jim looks at his half of the shoe hesitantly. In yet another, Jim gets delirious from hunger and hallucinates as the tramp transforms into a giant chicken before his very eyes.

It’s one familiar gag after another, and the familiarity stems from these jokes being borrowed on over and over by comedies for the past 89 years. Watch the film in full and one will undoubtedly see scenes appropriated for The Looney Tunes, The Muppets, The Simpsons, and surely many other films and shows. Yet even though it features such a familiar set of skits; the jokes are still able to produce the heartiest of laughters. And the most remarkable thing about The Gold Rush is that the impeccable comic timing and charm make these gags even much more effective than the acts that copied from it.

Later on the film shifts in tone from adventure to romance. It still doesn’t let up on laughs; but instead of coupling it with daring and exuberant thrills, Chaplin effortlessly weaves hopeless romance and melancholy in its place. My one and only issue with the film is in the way the romance was resolved. Georgia’s quite a bitch, really. I mean, the only reason she crossed paths with Chaplin’s tramp is because she picked out the most unfortunate looking fellow in the dancehall to spite her suitor. It never felt like she actually cared for the tramp, and even played him for a fool when she discovered that she was in love with him. All the while the tramp was acting like her knight in shining armor in his starry-eyed romantic idealism, which makes the viewer empathize with the protagonist so much more. In one of the films best scenes – the dinner roll dance – all of these emotions come together as for that solitary minute, Chaplin captures the charming comedy of his picture, the hopeful optimism of his protagonist, and the sad realities of life. Which is why I was so disappointed at the ending where a string of contrivances eventually brings Georgia and the (now wealthy) tramp together. It just didn’t seem right for the film and she didn’t seem right for him.

So I’m not so much a fan of the romance; but still, The Gold Rush endures as one of Chaplin’s most consistently funny comedies, which features a wealth of iconic gags and classic cinematic moments. It’s a film where he juggles and hits more notes than usual: It’s an adventure, it’s a romance, it’s a comedy, and yet another proof of Chaplin’s timeless wit at capturing the many faces of the human spirit.

Rating: A (excellent)

The Kid (1921)

Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan in The Kid

There is an anecdote about a meeting between Albert Einstein and Charlie Chaplin in which Einstein commends the comedian by saying, “What I most admire about your art is your universality. You don’t say a word, yet the world understands you.”

To which Chaplin answered, “It is true, but your glory is even greater. The whole world admires you even though they don’t understand a word of what you say.”

What Einstein says is true, and how Chaplin reacts exemplifies his knack for sharp, truthful comedy. Throughthrough his nameless characters, Chaplin is able to let his viewers relate with the most universal themes in life: Love, loss, happiness, and sadness, while at the same time delivering among the most timeless comedy in cinema history. We laugh, we cry, and we empathize. The Kid is a film that is driven purely on heart – the source of our deepest feelings of joy and sorrow – and the reason why the film endures almost a century later.

The film begins with Edna Purviance as a single mother without the means to raise her newborn child. In desperation, she decides to leave the infant inside a car owned by a wealthy family. After she leaves, two thieves appear and steal the vehicle with the newborn inside. When they discover the baby crying in the backseat, they dump it somewhere in the slums where it is then chanced upon by a carefree tramp (as played by Chaplin, in his iconic character’s first feature film appearance). After a comedy of errors trying to get rid of the child, the tramp eventually accepts his fate and takes in the newborn as his own, seemingly undaunted by his hilarious inadequacies as a parent.

The story that follows largely involves the exploits of this unlikely duo five years later, and is most of the films’ source of comedy. Due to the film’s simple plot, the gags play out somewhat as a vignette of comedic skits surrounding the tandem of the tramp and the kid.  It features the surrogate father and son hustling through the city streets trying to make a not-so-honest living, then them roughing it up in the middle of the rural neighborhood, and also making ends meet in their small but cozy apartment space. What shines through the clever and witty humor is their odd partnership as equals, which sees the kid loving and caring for the tramp as much as the tramp does for the kid.  And similarly, Jackie Coogan serves as a most capable co-star, not at all playing second fiddle to Chaplin, but instead sharing the limelight in what is one of the best child performances of all-time.

The only thing that seems to stifle the momentum that the film builds throughout Chaplin’s exploration of this father-son relationship is when the mother comes back into the picture. While I realize the importance of this character, if there’s anything to be said against the story, it most likely has to do with the mundanity of the mother who seems to function mostly as a device to move the narrative forward through odd contrivances and coincidences. I guess such is life though with its quirky twists of fate; but I was far less interested in anything involving Purivance than Chaplin and Coogan, so I would still consider her a weak link.

Other smaller issues creep up towards the ending such as maybe that dream sequence seemed out of place (it felt more like a device to showcase some cool camera tricks than anything else) or that the ending of the film felt a little too abrupt. In the end though, Chaplin’s ability to deftly balance slapstick and melodrama in a neat package wins over anything that could said about The Kid. Here is a film that knows exactly what it’s set out to do: It opens with the following words: “A picture with a smile – and perhaps, a tear” – and that is exactly what we get.

Rating: B+ (great)

Event Horizon (1997)

Scary empty astronaut suits are scary.

Years before Paul W.S. Anderson was eventually tasked to direct an Alien movie, he already exhibited an admiration for the franchise by way of his own Alien wannabe, 1997’s Event Horizon. It’s horror set in space, but instead of an extra-terrestrial creature wrecking havoc onboard a human spacecraft, the spacecraft itself is the antagonist. Being an early directorial effort, this is a film where Anderson still wears his influences on his sleeve, and actually does well by doing so. When he eventually injects his own style into the picture though is where it begins to fail. 

In the film, Captain Miller (Laurence Fishburne) and his crew are pulled back into active duty from a well-deserved vacation. The mission is to answer a distress signal received from the Event Horizon – a starship that has been declared missing for years. They take Dr. William Weir (Sam Neill) onboard as the resident expert and he explains to them what the Event Horizon was meant to do: To use gravitational power and bridge two points in space-time, making travel from any two locations instantaneous. He reveals that he is the creator of this technology and they are tasked to bring him to it. 

For much of the first hour, Anderson’s film looks and feels like a homage to Alien: The dirty white furnishings contrast with the steely gray interiors, the noise from the engines purr as the ship trudges through space, the utilization of dramatic noirish lighting as the sun’s light peeks into the spacecraft, the use of muted and narrow color palettes that Anderson would similarly use in Death Race, and the creation of impressively detailed set design required to bring the futuristic space setting to life. There are even moments that evoke influences from Kubrick, particularly in one sequence where Anderson shows us the eerie empty shots of Miller’s ship. So for a while there, it seemed as though Event Horizon had the potential of turning into a true sci-fi or horror classic. 

However, the story progresses like a descent into the mouth of madness. Soon after spotting the Event Horizon and docking on it, the crew starts to sense something wrong about the ship. Aside from the ominous eerie atmosphere, there’s also the matter of getting life scan readings on their gadgets where there’s only a stench of death, not to mention portals that appear out of nowhere to engulf unwelcome explorers, haunting hallucinations surrounding their deepest desires and feers, the splatter of blood and guts on the wall, and really just the general very obvious sense of danger that surrounds the damn ship. 

What begins as a picture with a sense of restraint in pushing forward elements of horror, mystery, and suspense eventually devolves into a sadistic and hellish gorefest. At one point early into the film, Anderson lingers on a shot of four empty astronaut suits with bare helmets looking like blank faces and it’s both unnerving and foreboding in the subtlest of ways. Later on, the scares come courtesy of images of a body hanged face down by hooks on the skin of its back with guts opened up and its innards spilled on the floor. It’s a Jekyll-to-Hyde transformation that sees the film at one point looking like it could be the bastard child of Alien and The Shining, and then an hour later it transforms into Hellraiser meets Mortal Kombat. 

Truth be told, I’m not the slightest fan of horror films. It might even be the genre of film I dislike the most, so whatever I say here, your milage may vary. In fact, Event Horizon seems to be relatively the most respected in Paul W.S. Anderson’s much-maligned filmography. Laurence Fishburn and Sam Neill are also by far the most respectable of actors to top-bill any Anderson movie. Fishburn in particular brings a sense of reputability and dignity in his performance even as all hell breaks loose in the film. So in a lot of ways, I can see how other people – especially genre fans – can enjoy this film much more than I did. It’s just that while I liked the direction where Event Horizon was headed for the first half or so of the film, I feel that how it devolved into utter chaos was unfortunate. 

Rating: C+ (average)

The Three Musketeers (2011)

Logan Lerman as d'Artagnan

For years, Paul W.S. Anderson has been making a name for himself by creating his own brand of tacky sci-fi and silly action films. Those are what he does best, can make work, and suit his style perfectly. The Three Musketeers seemed so far off from that that I had no idea how he could make it work – at least on the level that his best films have worked for him. It sounded like an inevitable train-wreck on paper. It seemed like an effort by Anderson to improve his reputation and legitimize his status as a filmmaker by trying to step out of his comfort zone. Especially when you see the cast and spot names like Christoph Waltz and Mads Mikkelsen, it begins to feel like a determined effort to make a “serious” picture.

For those not familiar with the classic Alexandre Dumas novel, The Three Musketeers is a story set in 17th century France. It revolves around a confident, strapping young lad named d’Artagnan who travels to Paris with dreams of becoming one of the King’s Musketeers. It’s there where he ends up meeting the Athos, Porthos & Aramis – the Three Musketeers – and a swashbuckling story follows, filled with themes of friendship, loyalty, treachery, secrets, lies, romance, greed, plus a generous serving of fun and adventure. It’s a period piece, and one that didn’t seem to ever be on the same trajectory as Paul W.S. Anderson’s directorial career.

If Anderson had gone the typical route and created a straightforward adaption of the film, it could have been incredibly boring. What I didn’t anticipate is that Anderson had a craftier plan in mind. Instead of adapting to the needs of the story, he instead adapted the story to suit his needs. He didn’t step out of his comfort zone – he brought the novel into it. The result at the very least is not something that’s artistically bankrupt.

Anderson’s treatment is a watered-down version of the original story, but it still keeps the key elements of the narrative intact. The characters, time, place and central plot are the same, but instead of Louis XIII’s France as we know it, Anderson has infused the world with a steampunk atmosphere, filling it with gigantic blimps as menacing warships, various mechanized gadgets and industrial weaponry. Even visual flair of the film adheres to its ambiance with the fun, vibrant colors and adventurous patterns scattered all over the place. Every aspect of the film that could be designed was done so ornately and with care. Everything has been peppered with such lavish and regal embellishments that if had been nominated for an Oscar for any of its costumes, production design or hair and make-up, I would be behind the nomination 100%.

Visually, it’s a refreshing take on the story, but make no mistake about it, this is still quite a ridiculous film. Milady de Winter (Milla Jovovich) is in one scene running down a corridor dodging bullets ala-Matrix; and then in one of Anderson’s best scenes, she’s taking down guards left and right wearing a corset en route to stealing the queen’s jewels. Planchet and Louis XIII are reduced to a crass whipping boy and  a bumbling, whiny teen respectably, both for nothing else but cheap laughs. And while Mikkelsen, Waltz, plus the titular trio of Matthew Macfadyen, Ray Stevenson and Luke Evans try their best to raise the credibility of this adaptation, Logan Lerman is almost single-handedly able to spoil their efforts as one of the most laughably annoying miscasts of our time.

So while I’d want to argue that The Three Musketeers elevates Anderson’s style with the quality of its source material, the reality is that Anderson actually brings the quality of the story down to his level. He takes a multi-layered narrative and strips it down to its bare essentials and chooses to focus on making it fun, entertaining and look pretty instead. Maybe he’s realized that he simply does not have the skills to make the themes and messages of a good story shine through or maybe he simply doesn’t care to do so; but in any case, The Three Musketeers is fun, entertaining and looks pretty indeed.

Rating: C+ (average)

AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004)

the predators

Alien vs Predator begins with a recruitment montage, just like the way that heist films do when they’re putting together a crew to execute a robbery. But in this film, the group that’s being put together is meant for a mission to Antarctica, where wealthy tycoon Charles Weyland has discovered an archeological find and is out to uncover it to make his stamp on history. The resulting group includes around a dozen people comprised of scientists, archeological experts, engineers, mercenaries, and Weyland himself.

Almost halfway into the film things start to go awry; and then shortly after that, I catch myself wondering: Why are they all… dying already? It’s no exaggeration when I say that someone was dying every 2-3 minutes. From the time the shit hits the fan, bodies were falling everywhere. Even characters that one would have thought might hang around a little longer ended up being cannon fodder. There was whatshisname who kept on showing pictures of his kids and I felt like they’d keep him alive until the climax to maintain the viewer’s sympathy. No, he died quickly. Then there were whatstheirnames who seemed like they had sparks between them and a romance was brewing. No, they died quickly too. At around the 1-hour mark, there were only two people left, then shortly after that, just a sole survivor.

Then I figured that the film is, of course, called Alien vs Predator, so they were just setting the stage for the titular battle. But even then, in the original Alien, The crew of the Nostromo ended up being such remarkable characters. Ripley in particular became one of the most iconic figures in sci-fi history. In the original Predator, not only Arnie, but also Dillon, Mac, and even Jesse “The Body” Ventura were such memorable parts of the story. They were the elements in those films that made you care about the conflict and be afraid of the danger. In AVP though, I could barely remember half of the crew after the film had ended. What’s worse is that I haven’t the slightest idea about any of their characters and personalities outside of the several most featured ones. Years from now, none of them will stick in my memory.

So in the absence of anyone to root for, AVP ends up being dull. In fact, it has very little going for it, if it even has any. There is nothing frightening or thrilling, the visual effects, sets and creature design are notable, but not particularly impressive. All that this film shows is that its producers knew elementary mathematics. The Alien film and its sequels made bajillions of dollars at the box office. The Predator film and its sequels also made bajillions of dollars at the box office. Put them together and what do you get? Two bajillions of dollars of course! And that’s the story of the film right there: Never mind the perfunctory plot. Never mind the cardboard cutout characters. Let’s just take these two incredibly recognizable sci-fi film franchises, beef it up with a fair amount of serviceable effects, then let the people come in droves… and they did. AVP: Alien vs Predator made quite a lot of bajillions of dollars in the box-office as well.

Rating: D (bad)

Soldier (1998)

Kurt Russell in Soldier

In most strategic video games, a player usually chooses beforehand whether to play against a human or an AI (artificial intelligence). When playing an AI, there’s also the matter of how difficult the AI should be. At its highest difficulty, an AI is designed to be faster, stronger and more efficient than any human. In Soldier, infants are selected at birth and trained to be war machines that are similarly faster, stronger and more efficient than any standard military recruit. They’re not robots, but they might as well be. They are brainwashed – or programmed, if you will – to become the most efficient killers possible. Todd (Kurt Russell) is one of these soldiers and the best in his squad. However, when a younger and better breed of super-soldiers is introduced, Todd’s squad is rendered obsolete. After being beat by one of the young blood, Todd finds himself thrown out to a remote waste disposal planet called Arcadia.

On Arcadia, Todd discovers a small and peaceful human society. Through them, he starts to feel emotions and reconnect with his humanity. When the squad of super-soldiers land on Arcadia and attack the colony, it’s Todd who defends them – not only defeating the younger soldier who beat him earlier, but also its entire squad, including their commander. So how is it that Todd gets manhandled earlier in the film and then is able to wipeout the entire opposing squad later on? The answer lies in the video game analogy I cited earlier. 

Even though an AI is superior on paper than any human, a lot of high level gamers will still be able to beat an AI easily at its highest difficulty. In most cases, they can even beat several at the same time. This is because AI’s don’t have the capacity for genuine human thinking, and that makes all the difference. AI’s are caught up in a web of routines and pre-defined conditions. While the speed of their processing power makes them more efficient than a human, it also makes them more predictable, and this predictability can be exploited. Humans on the other hand have the ability to adapt and feel, which makes their actions infinitely more varied and unpredictable, and this is what enables Todd – having gotten in touch, even partly, with his humanity – to save the Arcadian colony from being destroyed.

The surprising thing about Soldier is that it’s a film that has a lot to say. It wrestles with the question of what it means to be human and what the price of progress and perfection can be, which is incredibly relevant in today’s increasingly chaotic and fast-paced world. The unfortunate thing about it though is while David Peoples (writer of Blade Runner, Unforgiven & Twelve Monkeys) tries to convey a noble message through his story, the director is not one well-equipped to treat the material justly. When one sees close-ups of a woman’s nipples poking through her garments, an unbearably cheesy song backing an even cheesier amateurish montage, a rubber snake bought from a toy store meant to be a menacing threat, and a colonel urinating out of his trousers in terror – then you know that Paul W.S. Anderson has more juvenile and superficial goals in mind. There is also the forgivable issue of a $60-million sci-fi picture looking like it had a $6-million budget, but when an actor meant to be stone-faced and deliver a mere 104 words throughout the whole film turns in a better acting performance than half of the cast, then there’s just no saving that.

In the hands of a more competent filmmaker, Soldier could have been good. With a better cast, it could have been great. But as it is, the crudeness of the film robs the material of its power while the tacky and campy direction drowns out the message and prevents it from coming through loud and clear.

Rating: C (poor)

Death Race (2008)

someone about to die in Death Race

Shortly into the film, one will notice that Death Race oddly looks like a laundry list of its actors most popular roles. Jason Statham plays The Transporter, Joan Allen plays Pamela Landy and Tyrese Gibson reprises his role from The Fast and the Furious. Thankfully, Ian McShane gives the viewer a character to look forward to, with his gravelly voice and authoritative aura. But everyone else plays some sort of caricaturish cardboard cut-out role whose only purpose is to increase the body count throughout the film. The only thing that could have made the typecasting more ridiculous is if Robin Shou had pulled out some kung-fu moves while he was at it.

The film stars Statham as Jensen Ames, a man framed for the murder of his wife, subsequently incarcerated and eventually forced into being a driver for the top form of entertainment in the film’s dystopian world: The Death Race. The mastermind of the race and top beneficiary of its profits is Hennessey (Allen), the warden of the prison. And in a twist telegraphed long before it’s actually revealed, we learn that Hennessey is actually the brains behind Jensen being framed. The purpose being so that she could use him to assume the role of recently-deceased Frankenstein – the most popular racer in the game.

It isn’t difficult to surmise that Death Race is a film created by a director with no ounce of subtlety or nuance in his body, which is perfect because this is a film perfectly suited for the video game generation. The race itself looks exactly like a video game with its combination of cars, guns, competition and various gameplay mechanics. There is even a montage where the different drivers are introduced and it plays out similar to a racing game selection screen. There are copious amounts of blood, gore, crass humour and bad punch lines masquerading as badass punch lines. And to top it all off, the film also has the depth of character and plot development that one would find in most popular modern shooting games… which is not much.

Yet, for all of Death Race‘s shortcomings, Paul W.S. Anderson is not at all a bad director. Unlike Michael Bay, who always has everything turned up to 11, Anderson still has a setting that goes down a few notches. The pacing in this film is not perfect, but it’s not a mind-numbing attack on all the senses either. The best thing about it is that even though Anderson is a terrible writer who never goes beyond an elementary treatment of his screenplay, he knows how to put together a visually cohesive film.

Everything about the look of Death Race – from the sets to the props and the costumes – all serve to enhance the film’s dark, cold, steely and worn-out industrial aesthetic. Even the muted colour tones (contrast this to the vibrant palette in his 2011 film Three Musketeers) also conform to the film’s overall atmosphere. He knows how to work the camera and there are a lot of visually engaging shots that play with light and shadow and silhouettes. Anderson also shows the capability to come up with interesting camera angles and well-framed images; but most intriguingly, his fast-paced editing, quick cuts and shaky camera work play out like a poor man’s Paul Greengrass. It’s a more indulgent technique that results in a superficial grittiness compared to the raw and visceral work of Greengrass, but nonetheless works excellently for Anderson’s style.

Death Race is not nearly as bad as the reputation of its director suggests. In fact, I enjoyed it, was entertained and am now looking for a potential marathon topic where I could squeeze in the original it was based on. The film is cheesy, campy and comes from the same school of filmmaking as Michael Bay, but unlike Bay, Anderson shows skill and restraint. This film is still best experienced if you leave your brain at the door, but if for some reason you want to bring it in, rest assured the experience will not leave you feeling like your brain was mashed and eviscerated once you step out.

Rating: C+ (average)