Youtube Film Club: Total Reality (1997)

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David Bradley must have decided shortly after making “Total Reality” that the movie business wasn’t for him. After taking over the “American Ninja” franchise and doing a pretty good job of it, he’d turned from MARTIAL ARTS GUY into a decent, charismatic leading man who could also kick ass. Then, after a few movies in 1997, that was it. When there’s “actors” like Jalal Merhi and Ron Marchini who made w-a-y more movies than they should have, it’s a shame when a good actor makes too few.

Although perhaps he saw the finished product of this confusingly plotted movie and thought gardening was a more satisfying career. John Bridges (Michael Mendelson) has written a self-help book, which advocates selfishness to get ahead, and as you might have guessed, he’s a bit of a dick, as we see his ex-wife Cathy (Ely Pouget) storm into his rather sparsely attended book launch to demand the return of money he stole from their joint account. But we’re then whisked 200 years into the future! Humanity spread throughout the galaxy pretty quickly, but with the pretty evil-sounding Bridgist political party / philosophy dominant. There’s a rebel force and a war waged which kills billions of people, and we join the action as the Bridgists are about to storm the last remaining rebel ship. Bradley is Lieutenant Antony Rand, leading the Bridgist commandos.

 

Now, right about here, ten minutes into the movie, is where everything goes off the rails. I don’t think it’s always necessary, but when you’re making a cheapo sci-fi action movie, it’s often handy to have clearly defined heroes and villains, at least early on. It gives you an “in” to the movie, allows you to get acclimated before the twists and turns of the plot really kick in. “Total Reality” on the other hand, gives you something different – the Rebel leader, Commander Tunis (Thomas Kretschmann, who’d go on to a decent career, including “Avengers: Age Of Ultron”), shoots the assistant who suggests surrender to save the families on board; then Rand secures the ship, only to have his Bridgist superiors destroy it from a distance with their super-lasers. Rand shoots his superior officer and is sent to military prison; Tunis and his second-in-command escape on a small craft and go back in time to 1998.  By the way, the rebel ship is the USS Haldeman, no doubt a reference to the author of sci-fi classic “The Forever War”, which I wish this movie had borrowed more from him than a name.

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I could spend an entire review unpacking the plot holes and confusion in just this one tiny bit of movie, because it’s pretty special. The sole “good guy” is happily on the side of the evil Bridgists to this moment, and both sides seem like absolute scum. Then, thinking just a tiny bit deeper, if both sides have time travel technology, why haven’t they used it before this, the last possible moment of the war? Why did Tunis need to kill his assistant and potentially all the people hiding in the hold he blasted his time-travel ship out of? Why did Rand learn the truth about the Bridgists so early in the movie, leaving no big reveal for later?

 

From Rand’s new home on Ganymede Space-Prison, the movie then becomes a sort of reverse “Terminator”, crossed with “The Dirty Dozen”. Rand and three other inmates are given implants that will explode in 40 hours, and sent back in time themselves to capture the two rebels, alive or dead. One might think they’d at least give the four the most basic of preparation for life in the late 20th century, but no! Sure is lucky one of them can drive, otherwise this would be a movie about four people in body armour and rifles trying to hitch a ride. There’s also a smidge of “Back To The Future 2” as one of the convicts takes back a disc with every stock price movement for the last two hundred years on it.

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The Fearsome Foursome are tracking the chips implanted in the rebel leaders’ necks, because every Bridgist has one implanted. Never mind that the war has been raging for decades and chances are the two rebels would have been born outside the Bridgist sphere of influence! Just go with it! They find Cathy pretty much by accident as she’s gone to her former home to get some stuff, and the two rebels turn up too, looking for Bridges themselves. Thanks to this meeting, we get perhaps the primary stylistic choice of this movie – NO-ONE CAN SHOOT FOR SHIT. People stood in the same room as each other, with big powerful guns, are appalling aims, even worse when you consider they’re all trained soldiers. This carries on throughout, to the point when you’re actually surprised when someone fails to navigate the mostly harmless hail of bullets.

 

The thing about David Bradley is he’s a fantastic screen martial artist, so if you hire him for your movie you’d expect there to be some decent fights. Of course, if you’re the producers of “Total Reality” then you’dabsolyutnaya-realnost-scene-2 have him in no fights at all, apart from him punching one guy in the face. I’d understand that if it were a crash-bang-wallop action movie, with stuff happening all the time, but it’s really not. As well as all the comparisons above, it’s got a lot of “The Dead Zone” to it, just with being from the future substituting for being psychic, and also has a whole undeveloped plotline which reminds you of the episode of the Simpsons where Kang and Kodos replace Bill Clinton and Bob Dole on the election trail. Whoops, spoilers!

 

If you’ve got a clash of ideologies, like Bridgism vs. whatever the rebels stand for, then you really need at least one description of what those ideologies are. This movie goes out of its way to not tell you, to leave you in the dark about what exactly everyone is fighting for, and while we know Bridgism is bad we’ve got absolutely no idea what the rebels would replace it with. Their plan is, what we see of it anyway, confusing, and given that Rand should really be on their side from the very beginning, sort of pointless. To top all this off, it gives us a bizarre anti-climax of an ending, with the movie’s fourth banana the one to get the big dramatic closing speech, which isn’t actually all that dramatic at all. And what the hell was with the mysterious FBI agents? They clearly knew more than they were letting on, but why? And how?

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They must have filmed at 4:30 am on the streets and in an abandoned mall, because aside from the main cast there is literally no-one in this movie. I’d love it if it were a conscious choice, but I bet the filmmakers just didn’t want to pay any extras (the big book launch that will apparently change the universe is attended by maybe 10 people, for example).

 

I wanted to like this – time travel, sci-fi, David Bradley, director Philip Roth (who also did ISCFC favourite “Digital Man” and now produces SyFy Channel-esque movies) – there’s plenty of good elements for the B-movie lover. But it’s all so empty. Why not take out one of the meaningless talking scenes (or heavily trim the coda) and have a character explain their motivation with some clarity? “Oh, that’s why that guy shot his friend and then risked all the people on his ship to go back in time!”

 

Rating: thumbs down

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Serena And The Ratts (2012)

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We watch a lot of low-budget garbage here at the ISCFC. We’ve seen every trick in the book – water treatment plants doubling as everything from a military nerve centre to the deck of a ship; every CGI monster looking identical; the apocalypse happening while a normal busy city street can be seen 20 yards away. So when you find a film like “Serena And The Ratts” which has a budget which probably couldn’t buy you a day’s catering on your average Hollywood effort, and has you still thinking about it the next day, then that’s something pretty unique.

We are huge Evalena Marie fans too. She was amazing in the SyFy Channel original movie “Dark Haul”, and once again is the best thing about the movie. She’s Serena, an assassin working for “Boss” (Jonathan Thomson, also great), brought in and trained “Nikita”-style. A group called the Ratts (Rebels Against Time Travel) is attempting to assassinate all the scientists involved in this apparently newly invented science; at the same time one of those scientists has hired a hitman to go back in time and kill Hitler. YES! Anyway, Serena and her partner Leonard are tasked with stopping the killer, and it’s the conversation they have that is an early indicator of the movie’s quality. They discuss killing Hitler and whether his death would make things better; or if social forces are more important than individuals, the Nazis would still rise and their new boss could be even better.

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Giving us the backstory in a non-linear fashion, as well as not really giving us any clues to which bit we’re watching, encourages you to actually pay attention, by no means a given in the world of the micro-budget. Learning more about Serena’s (and Boss’s) story subtly makes you view things you learned before in a new light – no roadmap with this movie – but as if to make sure your brain doesn’t give up from the complexity, there’s a sweet training montage about halfway through too. I do love a montage! There is the idea that time travel alters things we haven’t seen, too, as if the movie is a take 2, or take 10, of some previous movie, where the person with the machine can make sure events play out in a certain way. I think the movie uses the time travel conceit on the very fabric of the movie itself, is the point I’m clumsily trying to get across.

I think it’s fantastic that the filmmakers used their low budget as a plus and didn’t try to just fill it with very cheap special effects. The movie takes place in shabby apartments and weirdly fake-looking offices and dirty back streets and disused factories; not only did they find good places to film, but the camerawork is superb, with a great overall visual, some interesting angles and good use of (presumably budget-saving) extreme closeups.

I’m still trying to puzzle some of the movie out, which is in itself a good thing. But, if I had to offer any criticism at all, is that they’ve tried to do too much. It’s the best possible reason to come up short, I suppose – but there’s a lot of nuance in the script, and when you’re relying on non-professional actors to dish out meaty monologues, there’s going to be problems. Plus, there’s a fight near the end where the result we get seems unlikely, based on the skill levels of the people involved. You can tell I liked it, I’m trying to avoid spoilers!

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I think it succeeds a huge amount more than it fails, though. It’s an extraordinarily ambitious film with a really confident director and a star who is so good and able to elevate where others perhaps can’t, that she could be knocking it out of the park on much bigger projects. What’s wrong with you, Hollywood casting people?

Rating: thumbs up

 

GIVE THESE PEOPLE YOUR MONEY – 2012 was when it was released and did the festival circuit, but it’s only been available to buy for a few months. Read about the production here  and support genuinely inventive low-budget filmmaking and give these people some of your cash here.

Looper (2012)

It’s the year 2044. Time travel has yet to be invented but, evidently, it soon will. Joe Simmons (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a Looper, a mob assassin with a particularly niche speciality in despatching targets, already bound and hooded, sent from thirty years hence. In 2074, nano-technology has rendered body disposal nigh-impossible, leading crime syndicates to use a highly illegal one-way time machine that escorts their victims backward to an untraceable destruction. Complications arise when Joe is overpowered by one of his targets. To compound the problem, the target is his older self (Bruce Willis). With both versions of Joe on the run from the mob, and each-other, who will  or should — be the one left standing?

Despite there being nothing in our understanding of science that outright denies time travel as a possibility, narrative fiction always sacrifices some logic at its altar. Even films that adopt a hermetic ‘closed-loop’ approach (12 Monkeys, Los Cronocrímenes) still leave themselves vulnerable to bootstrap paradoxes. As with the majority of stories, the best approach is to establish your parameters early, as coherently as you can, and don’t break your own rules unless you have a good enough reason. Looper succeeds in spades, partly as the characters have such clearly identifiable motivations and aren’t simply arbiters of contrived metaphysics. Similar to the thematically-fraternal Inception, these mercenary attitudes help anchor the audience among the compelling absurdity. For example, a couple of scenes may handwave the brain-frying chrono-mechanics as too complex, or unimportant to the task at hand. It avoids any sense of smug fourth-walling, as the characters have either an emotional imperative or decidedly bigger fish to fry.

Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Joe Simmons

Looper acts for the most part as a pulpy future-noir (simpatico with Gordon-Levitt’s somewhat theatrical make-up effects), where its mid-21st century backdrop wheezes at the strain of contemporary mammon. Obsolete, ugly vehicles are augmented by belated technology, while a bloated population of destitutes contrast the loopers’ perennial party and mischief. It’s a future chillingly recogniseable in its mundanity, without tipping over into Children of Men-style outright despair. None of this dystopia is dwelt on thoroughly in the film, serving more as casual signifiers of our characters’ ethical bankruptcy. Young Joe  our resolute protagonist, despite the one-on-one marketing  is a bastard, and not merely a pretend bastard one sometimes finds in these sort of movies. You know the type; he probably drinks coffee from a styrofoam cup, gets slapped by ‘hussies’, then shoots a bunch of people who were ‘bad’ anyway. Young Joe is a cold-blooded, avaricious junkie, but likeable in his upwardly-mobile aspiration. The film does an excellent job of balancing sympathy between him and the more repentant Old Joe, causing audience allegiance to vacillate. However, largely to its credit, the film never quite embraces this simple ‘Him vs Him’ trajectory, choosing instead to give flesh to its mythology, without overcomplicating the already pretty complex. It’s a swerve that will alienate those who would prefer a more sinewy approach to the material than the psychodrama it becomes. Particularly as that subtle transition leads to a slightly sagging mid-section,  notable only in contrast to the high watermark of its surroundings.

The great strength of Looper is in its commitment to genre filmmaking without using it to justify bad storytelling or production. A tremendous litany of popular influences spring to mind during the runtime, yet it effortlessly manages to recontextualise these notes to a unique whole. There’s no pseudo-Kubrickian yearning beyond its grasp, or petulant wallowing in sci-fi ghettoisation. The script is smart, the performances are sharp (child actor Pierce Gagnon is uncannily good, to the point where his performance seems like an elaborate visual effect), and it looks fantastic for a thirty million dollar picture. Even without the attractive premise, it’s a stylistic breath of fresh air from someone with a small nudge from karma  destined for big Hollywood-shaped things. Director Rian Johnson is best known for the similarly genre-savvy Brick, also starring Gordon-Levitt, which memorably adapted noir sensibilities to a high school setting. Looper is much larger in scope, but uses its modest budget to a liberating benefit. One stand-out sequence is so astonishingly macabre that tonally it’s almost too upsetting to fit with the rest of the film, but far too good for the cutting room floor.

Emily Blunt as Sara

Much hay can be  made of the fact the time-travel machinations appear less and less intuitive upon subsequent mulling, in spite of the attention to detail that is woven. But that particular hay only makes for a comfy pedant. The real fact is that Looper sticks to its premise and, most importantly, doesn’t taunt the viewer with reductive trickery (in contrast, a recent Doctor Who episode involved our hero strictly adhering to the whim of a dimestore novel, written in the future and transported to the past, under fear of paradox). Unbefitting such a hokey title and premise, there’s a pleasingly mature social commentary, not just in terms of haves and have-nots or fate-related gubbins. Both overt and implicit, it’s about recursion. For all our attempts at reinvention, we still leave ourselves vulnerable to the same old mistakes. Violence begets violence, and more harm than good can come from the imposition of a well-meaning man with a gun. The latter moral is not easy to pull off within an action story, but Looper, as with much of its high-conception, is well-judged enough to pull it off.

Looper on IMDB
Buy Looper [DVD]