Posts Tagged ‘mind-screw’

The Usual Suspects (1995)

“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

In a world of shadowy morality, something has gone very wrong in a heist on San Pedro Bay. Of all the questions raised, the one the cops most want answered is: “Who is Keyser Soze?”

The Usual Suspects is a neo-noir thriller directed by Bryan Singer. It stars Stephen Baldwin, Benicio Del Toro, Gabriel Byrne, Kevin Spacey, and Kevin Pollak.

Something has gone very wrong in San Pedro Bay, leaving a cargo ship ablaze and only two known survivors. FBI Agent Jack Baer and U. S. Customs special agent Dave Kujan arrive to investigate, and one of the survivors, a hospitalized Hungarian criminal, mentions that someone named Keyser Soze, whose reputation paints him as a legendary boogeyman, was in the harbor killing people. He saw him, though, and can describe him. Meanwhile the other survivor, a palsied con man named Verbal Kint, has his own story to tell, in exchange for near-total immunity. He paints a convoluted series of events leading to the explosion in the harbor, including how his crew was assembled to perpetuate a robbery targeting corrupt LAPD officers, and how they were subsequently hired for another job by the mysterious Mr. Kobayashi, on the behalf of the even more mysterious Keyser Soze. Things start going wrong, as things tend to do in these stories, but not everything is as it seems in Kint’s story, forcing Kujal to try to parse out facts from fiction in order to get to the bottom of what actually happened in San Pedro Bay.

This is not a movie that you can just turn on and zone out in front of. There are twists and turns, betrayals and double-crosses, and you may find yourself wanting to make a flowchart to keep track of all the players and events, only to have your initial theories trashed by later events. There are ultimately three versions of events: two are presented by Kint, and the third is what actually happened. This complicated Rashomon plays with your head as you are forced to not accept the narrator’s account as absolute fact, but rather try to parse out the story yourself – and then the ending hauls off and kicks you in the nuts with the conclusion that you probably still got it wrong the first time. This gives the movie a lot of rewatchability: you watch it the first time at face value, and then you watch it again knowing a lot of things that only come out during the conclusion, and you pick up even more subtle cues and clues with each successive rewatching.

The cast is fun to watch as well. The core group are scoundrels and scumbags, a loose gang of antiheroes out to screw someone over. The two agents are left scrambling in the wake of the massacre, forced to rely on a known con man for the only available account of things. Of the lot, Verbal Kint is glib and helpful and seems willing to aid the authorities – but how far can he be trusted? Everyone has their own motivations and means for reaching their goals, all working at cross-purposes until you’re not even sure who to root for. I won’t spoil anything for those who have yet to watch it, though, except to say that the ending is a HUGE twist, and those who have seen it shouldn’t forewarn people who haven’t. (I had The Sixth Sense ruined that way. Meh.)

If you like your thrillers twisty, your villains terrifying, and your heroes ambiguous, I highly recommend The Usual Suspects. The Rashomon-style storytelling will leave you guessing until the very end.

Ghost in the Shell (1995)

In a future of simulated experiences and hackable memories, what is reality? In a world where cybernetic implants and bodies are commonplace, what is humanity? In a city where robots and artificial intelligences exist alongside humans, what makes a soul?

Ghost in the Shell is an anime film directed by Mamoru Oshii and adapted from the manga of the same name by Kazunori Ito. Widely lauded as the first taste of adult anime for many Western viewers, it features the voices of Atsuko Tanaka, Akio Otsuka, and Iemasa Kayumi.

Major Motoko Kusanagi is a cyborg assigned as squad leader of Public Security Section 9, a division of the Japanese National Public Safety Commission. Because her body is fully synthetic, she can’t be sure that she still possesses a true soul, referred to as a “ghost”. She has been assigned to investigate a series of “ghost hacks” perpetrated by a hacker known only as “The Puppetmaster”, in essence altering and rewriting memories of humans that are then used as tools to carry out other ghost hacks. Things start to get weird(er) when a, unauthorized female cyborg body is suddenly assembled at Megatech. The cyborg escapes the factory, only to be creamed captured by Section 9, who studies it to try to figure out why it was built. They make a strange discovery as they analyze the cyborg: despite being completely synthetic, and therefore having absolutely no organic brain tissue, the cyborg body possesses evidence that it has a ghost. Kusanagi, for existential reasons outlined above, wants to contact this ghost, but it appears that a lot of people want to get hold of this entity for their own purposes, particularly since it appears that it is connected to the Puppetmaster and a mysterious Project 2501…

When some people think of anime, they imagine giant robot battle, pubescent superheroines in sailor suits fighting giant monsters, improbably powerful ninjas and martial artists, or tentacle rape of any of the above. While these are valid themes found in some anime works, Ghost in the Shell contains none of them. Instead, it is a beautiful, serious, occasionally talky but often philosophical sci fi drama exploring such concepts as humanity and life over a backdrop of virtual reality and computer hacking. As one of the first fusions of traditional cel animation and CGI graphics, Ghost in the Shell boasts beautiful scenery, smooth animation, an distinct character designs in a genre where corner cutting might otherwise lead to cookie-cutter characters distinguished only by clothing or hair color. The characters, though definitely drawn in the anime style, don’t feel as stylized as some characters I’ve seen, and their expressions are subtle. Scenes where Major Kusanagi goes into action are well-rendered and smooth, and although there is some nudity in this film, it is tastefully invoked, and never used sexually.

While the plot is complex, it had to be condensed a lot from the source manga for length reasons, trimming out pretty much all the subplots except for the Puppetmaster story. Although I haven’t read the manga, it doesn’t seem that this distillation really hurt the movie much. The philosophy and Buddhist topics and imagery provide the necessary depth to keep this from becoming Transhumanist Philosophy for Dummies, and the idea that neural implants are so commonplace that a skilled hacker can just dip in and mess with your memories is plausible (and frightening) in the world that Oshii has created. Combine this with the idea of life developing in the other direction – that a being that was synthetic from the start can develop a soul – and you’ve got a neat little exploration of what it is to be human, seen through the respective eyes of Kusanagi and Project 2501.

For many current anime fans, Ghost in the Shell was one of their first samples of what can be a complex and beautiful genre. While the plot can be complex, it also hints at a greater world beyond it, the world explored in greater detail in the manga. I highly recommend this for anime newbies and fans alike.

The Butterfly Effect (2004)

If you could go back and change any event in your past, would you? Can you imagine the consequences of doing so? What if your every effort to make things better only makes things worse? What if fate is just a sadistic bastard?

The Butterfly Effect is a drama-sci fi film co-directed and co written by Eric Bess and J. Mackye Gruber. It stars Ashton Kutcher, Melora Walters, Amy Smart, and Elden Hensen, andthe Director’s Cut sports one of the most depressing endings I’ve ever seen in a movie that wasn’t about the Holocaust.

Evan Treborn has long suffered stress-related blackouts during traumatic events in his childhood and adolescence. In an effort to get a handle on what is going on during the missing periods, he has kept a series of journals over the years from the age of seven to the present day. By age 20, it has been seven years since his last blackout, but he discovers that he can use these journals to mentally travel back in time to these traumatic events, thereby causing the blackouts in the first place, and in doing so he tries to alter his own past for the better. However, each time he tries to change things, he causes an unintended ripple effect to the present with unintended and unpleasant consequences for everyone involved.

So. Ashton Kutcher. Ashton “Dude, Where’s My Car?” Kutcher, in a dark drama about a guy’s messed-up past and progressively more mess-up present. Yeah. Fortunately, Kutcher does drama well, which can cause a bit of whiplash considering he was in three comedies immediately before this and went on to host Punk’d, but hey. Not many comedic actors can pull that off. I consider this movie to be the evil counterpart to Frequency from four years earlier, considering how much fate seems to enjoy kicking Evan in the balls every single time he tries to improve things. The overall plot is well-crafted, though, with only a few question marks left in the end that resolve themselves cleverly with some though. However, the way it steers him to his final depressing decision smacks of borderline sadism, as his intentions are perfectly selfless and there is no indication that Evan “deserves” his fate.

On the positive side, it is refreshing to see a time travel movie that doesn’t invariably work out for the better. Nearly every time travel movie I’d seen up till The Butterfly Effects release offered a happy ending as a consequence of playing with the timeline, even if the initial effects were nearly disastrous (like Marty McFly nearly writing himself out of the timeline in Back to the Future). This movie is well-written and well-acted, with none of the goofiness that might have completely ruined the effect. However, the ending is so far down in the shadows of Depression Land that I almost needed to watch Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure to cheer myself up.

If you want a time travel movie with plently of mind screw and darker consequences for timeline manipulation, I suggest renting The Butterfly Effect, but keep some antidepressants or a comedy handy for afterwards.

12 Monkeys (1995)

James Cole is almost sure he isn’t crazy. He might not be able to reconcile his memories and visions with his current surroundings, but he is almost sure he’s not crazy. The trouble is, if he is crazy, everything will be fine. If he’s not, 5 billion people are going to die, very soon.

12 Monkeys is a sci fi film directed by Terry Gilliam, inspired by the short film La jetée by Chris Marker. It stars Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt, Jon Seda, David Morse, and Christopher Plummer.

James Cole is a convict living in a future where humanity has been ravaged and forced underground by a deadly virus, believed to have been released by an extremist group called the Army of the Twelve Monkeys. In order to earn a pardon, Cole is sent on a number of missions back through time in order to gather information of the virus and the Army of the Twelve Monkeys and if possible, to gather a pure sample of the virus so a cure may be engineered. However, his explanations about the virus and the grim future it causes are dismissed as the deranged ramblings of a schizophrenic, and he is sent to a mental institution. It soon appears that other “crazy” people might also be temporally displaced individuals like Cole himself on similar missions, and Cole desperately recruits his own psychiatrist, Dr. Kathryn Railly, for help in saving a future he is starting to believe might not exist…

Ah, Terry Gilliam. One of the founding members of the Monty Python troupe, Gilliam has gone on to direct some of the trippier movies in the spec fiction genre. Like Tim Burton, Gilliam’s movies tend to have a dark fairytale vibe to them, and 12 Monkeys is no exception. Messing with the viewer through the eyes of its protagonist, this movie explores themes like insane prophet vs. harbinger from the future, and whether the viewer can fully trust the POV character’s own observations, or if, as many of the 1996 characters believe, they are just delusions. The post-virus future is disorienting and trippy itself, to the point that it is logical for Cole to start believing it is only the product of an insane mind.

Of course, the film would fall flat without the superb acting of its principal cast. Bruce Willis (who worked for free just to get the chance to work with Gilliam) switches genres again, from action to drama, in effect playing an anti-badass here. Yes, he kicks ass when pressed, but most of the time he doubts himself, doubts his perceived mission, doubts his own perceptions of reality. Madeleine Stowe as Dr. Railly acts as his grounding force, trying to link him with the present even as she finds evidence that he might not be delusional, first fearing him but then wanting to help him find some sort of closure, either in fulfilling his mission or simply finding a place to be. Blurring the line between sanity and insanity is the inclusion of Brad Pitt as Jeffrey Goines (whose twitchy mannerisms were induced by simply taking away his cigarettes during filming), a genuinely(?) crazy character liked to the Army of the Twelve Monkeys whose own ramblings mirror Cole’s desperate attempts to warn the people about their impending near-extinction.

If you’re looking for a movie that messes with your head, you want to see Bruce Willis playing against type, or you’re just a fan of Terry Gilliam, check out this movie. It’s a delightful little Inception-lite puzzle that will hold your interest as you watch everything come full-circle.

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)

H. P. Lovecraft knew a long time ago that there was a fate worse than death. However, this was not, as many believe, insanity. In the world envisioned by Lovecraft, everyone must remain slightly deluded in order to protect themselves from the more horrifying truths of the universe, and from truly comprehending our own place in it. Therefore, in Lovecraft’s universe the only fate worse than death is stark raving sanity.

John Trent is just looking for a few answers. He is about to find them… whether he wants to or not.

In the Mouth of Madness in a horror film directed by John Carpenter and written by Michael de Luca. The third film in what Carpenter calls his Apocalypse Trilogy (following The Thing and Prince of Darkness), this movie stars Sam Neill, Julie Carmen, Jürgen Prochnow, David Warner, Frances Bay, John Glover, and Bernie Casey.

Insurance investigator John Trent is very good at his job, winnowing out the truth behind would-be insurance scams. When hideously-popular horror writer Stephen King Sutter Cane comes up missing, with his latest book still pending, Trent thinks finding the reclusive author will be a snap – a publicity stunt meant to drive up demand for the expected book. These books are already wildly popular, but can cause sanity-shredding effects in readers who might not have all their marbles to start. Trent doesn’t believe the hype, but when he starts reading Cane’s books to find out what all the hoo-ha is about he starts to suffer vivid nightmares of monsters and deformed humanoids. He also finds that the cover art of Cane’s paperbacks contain strange red-lined shapes that when lined up properly, form a map of the state of New Hampshire, pointing to a town that only exists in Cane’s novels – Hobb’s End.

Sensing a possible lead, Trent goes looking for this town with Linda Styles, Cane’s editor, sent along to assist Trent. Unexpectedly, he does find Hobb’s End – populated by the fictional characters and storylines from Cane’s books. However, little does he know that his terror is only beginning, as he discovers that Hobb’s End lies far outside the comfortable reality he knows…

Throughout the 80’s, John Carpenter became known for some really kickass horror movies, and In the Mouth of Madness is no exception. Starting off as a mystery, in the style of many of Lovecraft’s short stories (and if you know Lovecraft’s stuff, you already have a fair idea how Trent’s journey will end), the story soon starts down a very dark tunnel that will have you wondering how “real” Trent’s world is, and for that matter whether Hobb’s End is more or less “real” than the “real world”. Numerous authors have since played with recursive reality in this way, like Danielewski’s House of Leaves, but this is really damn hard to pull off in visual media. I am happy to say the Carpenter nailed it, with the budget and resources of an 80’s horror movie. There is no CGI, and truthfully you don’t see many monsters (and what monsters are on screen are dimly perceived at best). However, it is still clear that Hobb’s End infects those who live and visit there, until the veil of sanity is finally clawed away from Trent’s eyes, showing him the true nature of things.

This is one of two movies I’ve seen where Sam Neill’s character goes batshit crazy, and he does “insane” well. He doesn’t overact it, not even at that moment where you realize… yup, his cheese has officially slid off his cracker. Trent and Cane are the only two characters that get any sort of fleshing out – but that’s the point. The whole premise relies on taking writing conventions and batting them all over the floor like a cat with a toy mouse. The people in Hobb’s End are simultaneously fictional and real, in ways that cheerfully stretch the fabric of this movie’s universe, until something has to give. And if that isn’t mindbending enough, several characters even discuss their own fictionality, especially when they do weird things because “that’s how he (Cane) wrote me”. Of course, by the end the fourth wall is gleefully shredded, and… well, there’s a reason why this is the third movie in the Apocalypse Trilogy.

If you like a good, trippy horror movie that messes with your perceptions of “real” and “fictional”, check this movie out. John Carpenter ably pays homage to Lovecraft’s work in ways that few directors have been able to do before or since. And remember: Reality is only what we tell each other it is.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

In 1968, Stanley Kubrick directed a little sci fi film that remains one of, if not the hardest science fiction film ever. Based largely on “The Sentinel” by Arthur C. Clarke (whose day job was in astrophysics), 2001: A Space Odyssey deals with topics such as the evolution of man, technology, artificial intelligence, and the possibilities of extraterrestrial life, though a lot of theatergoers of the day generally just snuck into theaters to drop acid during the last act. Today, critics consider 2001 to be one of the greatest films ever made, even though they can’t agree on what the hell it all means.

The film is divided into four sections, each labelled with a title card. “The Dawn of Man” centers around a troupe of ape-men who, after being defeated and driven away from a prized watering hole by a rival troupe, encounter a mysterious black monolith that kick-starts their evolution, allowing them to discover tools and weapons, allowing them to drive off their recent conquerors and become hunters. This segues into “TMA-1”, set on a space station where Dr Haywood Floyd arrives for a layover on his trip to Clavius Base on the Moon. Rumors abound of “odd events” on Clavius, leading to speculation about an epidemic, but Floyd declines to answer any questions. At Clavius, Floyd heads a meeting of base personnel, stressing the importance of the secrecy surrounding the real mission: investigationg a recently discovered artifact that appeared to have been deliberately buried four million years ago – another black monolith. The visitors investigate the monolith and attempt to take a picture of it, only to discover that it doesn’t appreciate flash photography. Eighteen months later, we get to the “Jupiter Mission” segment, probably the section that most people know about. Aboard the American spaceship Discover One we meet two astronauts and scientists, Drs. Frank Poole and David Bowman, along with three other scientists in cryogenic hibernation (to be thawed out upon arrival at Jupiter), and the ship’s computer, HAL 9000. In a televised interview, HAL makes it clear that the 9000 series is foolproof, completely incapable of error. However, when HAL reports a malfunction in a device that turns out to be just fine, Bowman and Poole grow concerned, especially when HAL insists that he could not possibly in error. The two humans adjourn to a pod to discuss possible remedies if HAL has indeed slipped a disk where HAL can’t hear them, but HAL reads their lips and decides to take matters into his own hands, killing Poole when he goes out to replace the “faulty” unit. Bowman goes out to rescue him, only for HAL to terminate the life functions of the remaining three crew while he’s out, and refusing to let him back in with Poole’s body, stating that the decision to deactivate him is jeopardizing this mission. Bowman deactivates him anyway, in one of the spookiest segments in the whole movie, and only then discovers a prerecorded message informing him of the real purpose of the mission: the Moon monolith was completely inert, save for a signal being beamed at Jupiter. Yay. The fourth section, “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite”, is the stoner bait I mentioned earlier. Bowman travels into yet another monolith found in orbit around Jupiter, and after that I don’t know what the hell is going on, though everybody has a theory.

This movie will probably turn off most sci fi fans. It’s slow, with minimal dialogue, and not a whole lot is explained to the audience, particularly in the fourth segment, which is symbolic to the point of surrealism. The film and novel were written in collaboration between Kubrick and Clarke, and if you want backstory and explanation, I highly recommend checking out the novel. The third section is the strongest, plotwise, and easily stands alone as a decently tense short thriller, with the infinitely calm voice of Douglas Raines as HAL setting the standards for psychotic AIs thereafter. The rest, though, seem more like thematically related vignettes rather than parts of an overarching storyline (especially since part one starts a couple million years before the others), but it works together, art-wise, progressing to what is less a climax and more an art major’s orgasm.

The acting is subtle and understated. This movie is more about philosophy than action, about concepts than action sequences. In particular, Bowman’s outward calmness in the face of the discovery that the AI that controls the entire ship might be going berserk is easily matched in real-life astronauts (“Houston, we’ve had a problem,” anyone?). Because astronauts are badass, that’s why. Additionally, the effects are very well-done for 1968. With only one minor flub (the crew of a lunar shuttle pours coffee from a pitcher into an open mug – something that would have disastrous consequences in zero-G), the antigravity and artificial gravity effects are well-done and realistic by even modern science, and the models and sets possess an impressive level of detail (including a funny moment where an astronaut who apparently has to pee is stopped in his tracks by the novel-length instructions for using a space toilet), because Kubrick has historically been a bit of a nut about that.

In conclusion, if you want an action-packed sci-fi-film, definitely walk away. If you want a movie where everything is explained to you, look elsewhere. But if you want a beautifully detailed, subtle narrative about human evolution’s past and potential future, try out this classic, and just sit back and relax.

Cube (1997)

You wake up to the sensation of metal pressing against your cheek. You have a slight headache, and you can’t remember what happened last night.


You open your eyes to find yourself in a 14-foot cube crafted of cold metal, lit with blue lighting. There is a door in the center of each face. You see a pamphlet lying on the floor nearby.

>read pamphlet

Cube is a Canadian psychological thriller movie directed by Vincenzo Natali, presenting a Kafka-esque situation: seven strangers separately find themselves trapped in a cubical device made of thousands upon thousands of identical rooms, some of which are rigged with deathtraps. It stars David Hewlett, Andrew Miller, Nicole de Boer, and Nick Guadagni. Despite its minimalist plot and simple premise, Cube was a successful product of the Canadian Film Centre’s First Feature Project and achieved minor critical success upon its initial release.

I first saw this movie on the Sci Fi Channel one afternoon, and while I expected the channels usual fare of bad acting, stupid plot, and shitty special effects, Cube was actually a damn good little movie. Its cast was primarily obscure unknowns, through Stargate SG-1 fans will recognize David Hewlitt as a proto-Rodney McKay. (He gets the crap beat out of him. Twice. You’re welcome.) The plot is presented only in its broadest strokes, and while the outside is referred to, it is never shown except as fathomless darkness between the rooms and the outer shell, or as white light when the exit is found. Later installments in the film series do little to clear anything up, and instead the storyline raises more questions than it resolves. Instead, as the movie progresses and their situation starts to look hopeless, the inevitable happens: one of the prisoners snaps out. If you’ve seen any of the Saw films, you will expect this to happen. The acting is decent, given the distinct lack of details they have to work with, though I have some minor issue with Holloway’s non-profanity of “Cats! Holy, holy cats!” Not because I was offended, but because it was a damn goofy way to avoid swearing.

Now for an issue that would be minor were it not a plot point. Leaven, one of the two resident math experts, must figure out whether the room coordinate numbers are prime, indicating “safe” rooms. Some of the numbers are obvious non-primes, like two numbers ending in 5 and 2 – very simple. Also, figuring out powers of primes is apparently not as “astronomical” as Leaven claims, though probably only the bigger math nerds would have known the methods of figuring out three-digit primes or the powers thereof without a calculator on hand. Fortunately, this doesn’t detract too much from the movie.

Cube is an obscure little treasure from Canada that will probably please fans of Kafka-esque plots or sci-fi thrillers. Keep an eye out for this one in your local video store.