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Hello, Gabe here. I’m heading out of town for a little while and, in preparation, am trying to finish up any outstanding reviews as quickly as possible. A lot of stuff has been showing up in the mail a bit late as well. So, here are three capsule reviews of movies with nothing in common, besides their release dates. Enjoy!

November Capsule Reviews

Autómata


In a future where Earth's ecosystem verges on collapse, man-made robots roam the city to protect dwindling human life. When a robot overrides a key protocol put in place to protect human life, ROC Robotics insurance agent Jacq Vaucan (Antonio Banderas) is assigned to locate the source of the manipulation and eliminate the threat. What he discovers leads Vaucan, ROC Robotics, and the police into a battle with profound consequences for the future of humanity. (From Millennium Entertainment’s official synopsis)

Gabe Ibáñez’s Autómata is an often valiant attempt at recreating the uniquely gritty sci-fi atmospheres of modern classics, like Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men and Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 (and, possibly, Blomkamp’s earlier short films). Unfortunately, its high ambitions are consistently muddled in a mish-mash of overly-familiar genre tropes – the most frustratingly obvious influences are Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Alex Proyas’ action movie adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot – and a simple central mystery that is needlessly convoluted for the sake of a feature run-time. Ibáñez also directed a thriller called Hierro, but is better known for his work as an animator/visual effects tech on other Spanish films, notably Álex de la Iglesia’s Day of the Beast and Perdita Durango. His effects background probably helped him keep costs down on what is a very effects-heavy movie and ensures that the ‘money shots’ are up to the standards of Autómata’s big budget counterparts. At times, the film has a wonderfully haunting visual quality that pulls the audience in beyond the shortcomings of the screenplay (which was co-written by Ibáñez himself with Igor Legarreta and Javier Sánchez Donate). However, Ibáñez isn’t up to the task of the more emotionally driven sequences just yet. Mournful declarations and bleak platitudes are often inadvertently silly and the performances are continuously stiff. Once again, most of this goes back to the script, which is full of on-the-nose social declarations, characters talking about their feelings, instead of emoting them, and long blasts of stiff exposition. Still, it’s difficult to resist the sentimental pull of an adorable robot and this film features plenty of them.

Autómata was digitally shot (using an unspecified format) and is presented here in 1080p, 2.40:1 HD video. Ibáñez and cinematographer Alejandro Martinez appear to have found inspiration in the smoky cityscapes of Blade Runner and the stark, sun-baked outdoor environments of Blomkamp’s films. Contrast is dynamic and fine details are captured throughout wide shots and close-ups, but the entire film is also slathered in blooming, diffused white light. The harsh quality of these lighting schemes aren’t exactly conducive to consistently crisp image quality and, along with the foggy nighttime atmospheres, do lead to considerable digital noise. This is likely inherent in the footage. The occasionally blobby textures and banding effects between some of the gradations, however, do appear to be a compression issue. The bleached-out look minimizes colour vibrancy, leading to a whole bunch desaturated hues. Banding issues aside, these colours are well-represented, despite their delicate tonal qualities (some shots are practically black & white with spot colour, like Sin City). The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack is a bit compressed to my ears, but, once turned up to appropriate levels, the effect is extensively immersive. The bulk of the mix is mellow, creating a lively, but subtle ambient environment that keeps every channel busy without losing the dynamic range. A handful of action scenes, like a brief car chase and some shoot-outs, give the mix punch and directional momentum. Zacarias M. de la Riva’s score blends mournful and frightening symphonic melodies with moody electronic dissonance. The music fills out the stereo and surround channels when effects are diminished and gives the LFE a bit of extra oomph.

Extras include:
  • Making-of Featurette (4:50, HD) – A short EPK including cast & crew interviews
  • Trailers for other Millennium Entertainment releases


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November Capsule Reviews

Ragnarok


An archeologist is convinced the Oseberg Viking ship contains the answer to the mystery of Ragnarok, the end of days in Norse mythology. He mounts an expedition to "No Man's Land" between Norway and Russia, which holds a secret more terrifying than he could possibly imagine. (From Magnolia’s official synopsis)

Ragnarok (aka: Gåten Ragnarok, literal translation The Riddle of Ragnarok), is, at its base, a somewhat misguided, attempt at relocating the ‘magic’ (a relative term, of course) of ‘80s Spielberg’s brand cinema to a modern horror estate. The screenplay, by first time screenwriter John Kåre Raake, mashes-up elements from Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Goonies, then frames them with the storytelling flavour of Jurassic Park –or, perhaps more accurately, The Lost World and Jurassic Park III. The story is full of genre/type clichés (a widowed parent struggling to balance work and family while the scientific/historical community laughs at his discoveries) that drag down the early story and character beats (people make really stupid choices in the name of the plot over and over again). Once the ball gets rolling, Raake’s cool ideas – and a number of charming performances – are muddled as he refuses to commit to any one distinct tone. Director Mikkel Brænne Sandemose’s only other feature as director was the third part of the Cold Prey horror series and he brings too much of that horror mentality to his compositions. Because of this, the visual palette further confuses the already bewildering tone. Beautiful Norwegian vistas and swashbuckling, rousing, family-based adventure is tempered by equally bleak representations of environments that would be perfectly at home in a backwoods slasher movie – complete with inordinately long silences to build suspense. Technically speaking, Sandemose is adept enough (his set-pieces are great). His control only really fails him when it comes to overall editing (some scenes go on forever, while others are trimmed to flittering ribbons). Assuming audiences are prepared for a movie that is both too grim to qualify as strictly ‘kid-friendly’ and too tempered to qualify as horror, there’s still a giant monster snake to enjoy.

I can’t find any specs on Ragnarok, but, based on the eerily smooth gradations and controlled colour palette, it is clearly digitally shot. This 2.35:1, 1080p transfer meets the expectations of any number of recent digital HD features in terms of complex patterns, clean lines, and pillowy blends. Sandemose and cinematographer Daniel Voldheim shoot using a lot of soft and shallow focus, smearing backgrounds/extreme foregrounds into blurry swaths and leaving even the busy middleground details plush. It’s also a pretty dark film and the darker it gets, the stronger the contrast becomes and, with it, textures are tightened. Even outdoor daylight scenes are sort of smoky and overcast. The colours that escape the grey shadows and blooming backlights are quite vibrant. The warm hues have a consistent honeyed quality and the shadows are blue. Almost everything between is either green or brown, though some punchy brick reds escape the hyper-controlled colour black hole. The transfer does show signs of compression in some of the noisy images and relatively problematic banding effects throughout grey-to-black gradations. This Blu-ray offers the original Norwegian language option and an English dub, both in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. For this review, I only listened to the original track. The mix is pretty light and thin during dialogue heavy sequences. There’s not a lot of ambience whenever the story is centered in a grounded, human environment – even rain and wind tends to sit mostly in the front channel alongside the spoken words and incidental noises. However, once the movie gets into the forests around Finnmark, the directional effects brighten up, especially anything involving a creature or monster. Magnus Beite’s score is a lively, John Williams-like pastiche that sits a little too quietly beneath some of the chattiery sequences, but really bursts whenever action/adventure percussion is called for.

Extras include:
  • Ragnarok: The Visual Effects (4:30, HD) – A brief breakdown of the digital effects shots.
  • Trailer
  • Trailers for other Magnolia/Magnet releases


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November Capsule Reviews

The Giver


A young man named Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) lives in a seemingly ideal, if colorless, world of conformity and contentment. Yet, as he begins to spend time with The Giver (Jeff Bridges), who is the sole keeper of all the community’s memories, Jonas quickly begins to discover the dark and deadly truths of his community’s secret past. With this newfound power of knowledge, he realizes that the stakes are higher than imagined – a matter of life and death for himself and those he loves most. At extreme odds, Jonas knows that he must escape their world to protect them all – a challenge that no one has ever succeeded at before. (From Anchor Bay’s official synopsis)

Unlike the most films in the post- Hunger Games young-adult dystopian deluge, Lois Lowry’s The Giver has been bouncing around Hollywood for decades. Following its 1993 release and subsequent popularity (I’m told middle/high school teachers started using it as part of their curriculum), there were a couple of failed film adaptations, a failed stage production, a successfully completed and staged opera, and even a failed PC game (that was set to include a soundtrack from Ry Cooder, of all people). Though she borrowed concepts and themes from the pages of earlier pulp and sci-fi novels, the fact that Lowry brought these social allegories to a younger audience marks her book as one of the modern YA movement’s watershed moments (assuming this movie is an accurate portrayal – I haven’t ever read the book).

Walden Media finally got a film adaptation off the ground this year, directed by Phillip Noyce, working from an adaptation from first time screenwriter Michael Mitnick and Curb Your Enthusiasm writer/director Robert B. Weide. Noyce seems like an odd choice for a YA adaptation. He’s best known for his hand in trade-marking the look of ‘90s political thrillers, like Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, and he hasn’t worked in theatrical releases since Salt in 2010. Noyce displays his typically strong grasp of action, which helps ground the film’s more outrageous imagery. In deference to the events of the novel, the film starts in black & white with colour slowly leaking into the mix as Jonas gains more knowledge (a similar visual gimmick is used in Gary Ross’ Pleasantville). The film looks nice, but it is also brutally cut – right down to the bone of the story. Simple interactions are made visually confusing with heavy edits and needless pans and zooms that don’t cut together. The dialogue is constantly forced, partially for effect (the ‘drugged’ citizens purposefully speak in plain language), but the banalities are so fixed that they turn surreal and bury any genuine emotional response. There are fascinating, dark, and complex existential themes at play here – themes that could conceivably be more challenging than the more visceral social issues at play in the Hunger Games films. But these are sanitized for the sake of wider audience appeal and the concepts are wishy-washed out, sometimes so far that they become broad and silly.

The Giver was shot using Arri Alexa digital HD cameras and is presented here in 1080p, 2.40:1 video. As mentioned above, Noyce and cinematographer Ross Emery begin the film in cold and slick black & white. The soft highlights and deep black shadows in these scenes are supported by plush, mid-level gradations. The textures here are plenty complex, but the pliable contrast levels keep fine textures loose. As colour is introduced – in the form of both spot hues and overall image saturation – the details sharpen up a bit, especially in the brilliant full-colour images that appear in some of Jonas’ visions. Even when desaturated, the toned images are significantly brighter, leading to richer detail, sharper edges, and more complex details. The general look is clean with only minor compression blemishes, but some of the memories are purposefully wrought with digital noise/grain. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is quite loud without being consistently noisy. Much of the sound takes on a subjective tone that follows the same ‘awaken’ theme as the images. Before he begins gaining knowledge, Jonas’ world is quiet. Only incidental sounds make any impact. His visions are dynamic, full-5.1 blasts (the Vietnam War nightmare is every bit as intense as any action movie) and these eventually begin to bleed into the ‘waking world’ in the form of ambient natural sounds and more precise directional movements. Marco Beltrami’s symphonic soundtrack is ultra-sentimental, sometimes nauseatingly so, but it sounds warm and wistful when blended into the effects and dialogue.

Extras include:
  • Jeff Bridges Presents The Original Script Reading (39:50, SD) – Footage from a really early script reading that took place in the Bridges’ household, including Bud Cort and Lloyd Bridges.
  • Making The Giver: From Page to Screen (21:40, HD) – A relatively informative, made-for-TV EPK that traces the production all the way back to its earliest incarnation under Jeff Bridges’ production. The cast and crew interviews are fluffy, including excessive explanations of the plot and characters over behind-the-scenes discussion.
  • Jonas’ Harrowing Journey extended scene (9:20, HD)
  • Press Conference With Filmmakers & Cast (35:30, HD) – Blu-ray-exclusive footage from the film’s official press conference
  • ’Ordinary Human’ with OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder (2:40, HD)
  • Author Lois Lowry on The Giver (3:40, HD) – A brief message from the author
  • Study Guide – A series of direct links to clips, including notes on the themes/subjects/character/etc. of the scene


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Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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