A.J. Hakari's sporadically-updated musings on the wide world of movies

Month: May, 2013

“Summer Wars” (2009)

"Summer Wars" poster


Meeting your girlfriend’s family for the first time can be nerve-wracking for any young man. It’s even more tricky when you’re not really a couple, and it’s scarier still when the end of humanity is peeking around the corner. But facing certain annihilation is par for the course as far as much of anime is concerned, so with only having to impress a troupe of eccentrics in the meantime, the young hero of Summer Wars is on easy street. Still, that doesn’t mean the lad isn’t in for the fight of his life, and with the most light-hearted of media properties getting the gritty treatment in misguided bids for “legitimacy,” it’s nice to see Summer Wars think epic while maintaining its sunny disposition and homespun philosophy.

In the kingdom of the nerds, Kenji (voice of Ryunosuke Kamiki) is an alpha male. With sharper skills at deciphering math equations than with chatting up ladies, the high-schooler spends most of his free time logged into OZ, a massive online social hub that’s been incorporated into virtually every aspect of society. Nevertheless, Kenji is dragged kicking and screaming into getting some sun when Natsuki (voice of Nanami Sakuraba), the most popular girl on campus, recruits him to pose as her boyfriend at a family get-together. But if having to lie to a couple dozen wacky relatives wasn’t enough of a strain, Kenji soon finds himself plunged right into a global crisis. Secretly brewed up by the military, a hyper-intelligent security program has gone rogue and invaded OZ, throwing nearly the whole world into chaos and pinning the blame on Kenji. But when the program’s attacks turn personal and threaten Natsuki’s clan, the whole crazy bunch is called upon to help save not only themselves but mankind as we know it, too.

Summer Wars answers that burning question of, “How would it look if The Matrix were run by those weirdos from Meet the Robinsons?” Alright, so the movie doesn’t reach heights that madcap, but the restraint it shows when things do get peculiar is actually one of its greatest strengths. While various bold and wacky personalities are strewn about both OZ and the real world, Summer Wars keeps them in line and never lets itself grow too frantic or overwhelming. For all of its eye-catching visuals and ruminations on the consequences of society using computers as a crutch too often, it’s, at heart, a simple story that values family bonds and spending quality time with your loved ones. But it’s also hip to how vital technology has become in modern times, so for every satirical observation the film makes, it deals out a fun scene in which Natsuki’s relatives band together and kick some digitized rear ends.

This duality, of a grounded reality co-existing with a boundless fantasy land, is reflected well in the way Summer Wars presents these two worlds. Offline, the flick takes place at a serene and secluded country estate, surrounded by picturesque flora and fauna with a modest but undoubtedly gorgeous layout. On the flipside, OZ is crammed with perpetually swirling avatars of all shapes and sizes, constantly buzzing with activity against a solid white backdrop. Summer Wars is adept at capturing both beauty and bigness, looking just as fantastic when it’s focused on little kids playing outside as when a colossal computer demon is traipsing around cyberspace. Sadly, our protagonists aren’t as robust in texture; Natsuki and Kenji are fine but terribly generic, their relationship getting the short end of the stick in favor of heaping care and attention upon the supporting cast.

Summer Wars is something of a frivolous film that lives in the moment and crumbles quickly if you chew it long enough. Still, it is great fun while it lasts, speeding through a ton of information, exposition, and characters without leaving the audience wondering which end is up. There’s a lot going on in Summer Wars, but it’s not only easy to keep track of, you’ll have a grand time doing it.

“The Hypnotic Eye” (1960)

"The Hypnotic Eye" poster


Contrary to the better part of two decades I’ve spent bitching about movies online, I’m a forgiving guy. I don’t let nitpicks overwhelm my judgment, I usually ignore plot holes, and I rarely refuse to watch something based on its genre. There’s a lot that I look past in the name of suspending my disbelief, but I still have my limits — which, after seeing 1960’s The Hypnotic Eye, are confirmed to include hypnotism. Of all the devices films have employed to create tension over the ages, this has been one of the flimsiest, making it virtually impossible to take anything else the flick in question has to show seriously. The Hypnotic Eye‘s plot isn’t exempt from the snickers it solicits either, and were its acting and violent outbursts the slightest bit memorable, it might not have missed out on being a corny cult classic, too.

A most strange epidemic has broken out amongst the big city’s hottie population. Several young women have mutilated themselves, but not only have they been guzzling lye and setting their hair on fire, they have no recollection whatsoever of what drove them to do so. Detective Dave Kennedy (Joe Patridge) is utterly baffled, until he sees the possible culprit in action for himself. After attending a show performed by renowned mesmerist Desmond (Jacques Bergerac), a fetching friend of Dave’s who volunteered during the act harms herself, convincing him that the lothario is somehow responsible. But how can Dave save others from suffering a similar fate — including his own sweetheart (Marcia Henderson) — and prove Desmond’s involvement when the victims don’t even recall being hypnotized at all?

The Hypnotic Eye‘s promotion was built around “Hypnomagic,” a gimmick that rather naively expected the audience to play along with its not-so-subliminal suggestions. If this were a William Castle joint, we could’ve gotten a giant eyeball installed in every theater out of the deal, but ordering us to use our imaginations is as cheap and non-immersive as audience-participation tactics get. You simply don’t care enough about the dopey story to buy into The Hypnotic Eye‘s hokum. The film itself isn’t deadly serious, but that doesn’t stop it from trying in vain to pass off hypnosis as a scientific breakthrough worth building a crummy thriller around. Once you get past the conceit that most of its characters immediately take Desmond’s ability to command the wills of men at face value, all that’s left is a transparent potboiler that so swiftly spills the beans on what’s going on, calling it a “mystery” is a massive misnomer.

Alright, so The Hypnotic Eye can’t keep a secret, and when it does try to throw the audience a climactic curveball, the resulting twist feels confusing and inexplicable. But hey, this is a horror show at heart, so surely there’s some gruesome entertainment value to be had, right? Well, being a ’60s genre flick that wasn’t made by Herschell Gordon Lewis (whose The Wizard of Gore owes a little bit to this one), The Hypnotic Eye is awfully tame, with a few scarred or bandaged faces serving as the scant heart-pounding sights we get. The performances don’t trip your trigger much either, what with Patridge’s boxy cop sounding fifty shades of bland, Henderson playing a prototypical damsel, and Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman‘s Allison Hayes flashing a perpetual stink eye as Desmond’s assistant. Bergerac is a smooth-talker, but his Desmond is hardly diabolical enough to hold so many under his sway.

With its inclusion of the most grim and surreal elements that horror had seen since the ’30s, The Hypnotic Eye was, if nothing else, a good indicator of where contemporaries like Psycho would soon guide the waning genre. But at best, it’s a pinky toe dipped in the pool, for the film as a whole is too lamely-executed to make a legit impression or pass the time with ironic yuks. On the great B-movie highway, The Hypnotic Eye is a detour few have taken before and even less will find worth traveling down in the future.

“The Swarm” (1978)

"The Swarm" poster


For an idea of who Irwin Allen was, imagine if Roland Emmerich actually made good movies. Yeah, Independence Day, and Stargate has its fans, but the man has nothing on Allen, who racked up a prolific career in sci-fi television even before producing his ’70s disaster movie classics. The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno — Allen blew crap up magnificently and managed to cast half of Hollywood every time he did it. But not even he could ignore the colossal thud that rattled theaters everywhere when 1978’s The Swarm crashed and burned. With ten times the cost of The Giant Spider Invasion and none of the entertainment value, this bugs-on-the-loose thriller is as big, bloated, and boring as spectacle cinema can get.

At an underground military base in Texas, the unthinkable has happened. A mysterious, lethal force has wiped out nearly the entire staff of highly-trained soldiers and scientists. What would be responsible for this massacre? Bombs? Chemical warfare? Zombies? The culprit, as it turns out, is none other than the bane of Nicolas Cage’s existence — bees. That is, a mutant strain of those African killer bees you heard all about as a kid, having come together in one enormous swarm. Luckily, entemologist Brad Crane (Michael Caine) is on the case, having anticipated an invasion by the pests for some time and assembling a crack squad of specialists to handle them. But time is precious, for not only are the bee attacks seemingly random and increasingly deadly, Crane must deal with a skeptical general (Richard Widmark) in order to save Houston from turning into a massive hive.

With Jaws, Steven Spielberg famously used production delays to his advantage. With his shark on the fritz, Spielberg could instead focus on building up its presence and connecting with the characters, which made the beast’s eventual on-screen debut all the more effective. The Swarm tries going by the same logic, but whether we’re looking at the badly-composed effects or actors hilariously flailing in terror, we’re left rolling our eyes — in laughter or boredom, take your pick. Spoken of in the film as some cataclysmic scourge, the bees simply aren’t an intimidating threat, and this is coming from a guy who’ll flip out like a southern society matron if one of them flies into his car. Be it the transparently phony way they’ve been inserted into many shots by post-production or the inherent goofiness of their attacks (which include — and I’m dead serious — blowing up a nuclear power plant), the buggers just ain’t scary, no matter how often they’re shown laying waste to kids and old people with equally extreme prejudice.

And what of the human element, you ask? The Swarm‘s bajillions of bees are the main event, but how do our two-legged stars fare? Well, as always, Allen has assembled a dynamite cast, whose ranks lay claim to faces like Caine, Widmark, Katharine Ross, Slim Pickens, Fred MacMurray, Henry freaking Fonda, and boatloads of others. But I’ll be damned if the strain on their mugs isn’t from fear of a bee assault as much as from wondering if they’ll cash their paychecks before the bank closes. Some of the actors suck it up and soldier on just fine; Caine delivers most of his lines with a straight face, and Pickens has a genuinely moving scene as a father grieving over his pilot son’s death. But the general disinterest spread amongst the players — whose roles are too compartmentalized into subplots to care about any of them — does nothing to help sell the apocalyptic danger they’re supposed to be suffering. If Olivia de Havilland doesn’t give a shit about whether or not she’s taken out by a winged death cloud, what hope of becoming invested do we have?

The Swarm bides its two and a half hours (plus change) hurling every celebrity or silly stunt it can at the viewer; the only thing it forgot to pack was actual suspense. This is one ’70s bomb that really does live up to its bad reputation, a stillborn behemoth in which unintentional laughs only carry you so far and where its own performers reflect our impatience right back at us. Some of its era’s disaster flicks can coast on cheesy thrills alone, but The Swarm is all stench and zero flavor.