Category Archives: movie review

A review of ” The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2″

Just yesterday I reviewed Star Wars: The Force Awakens, so I thought it appropriate to review the other movie I saw last week, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2. Seeing these two very different movies within days of each other was an interesting experience, to say the least.

SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***

Unless you’ve been on a long interstellar journey, you have probably heard of The Hunger Games books and the movies based on them, starring Jennifer Lawrence. It is the story of Katniss Everdeen, forced to fight in the gladiatorial Hunger Games in a far-future, post-apocalyptic tyranny that encompasses what is now North America (‘Panem’). In the course of the four movies (based on three books) Katniss inadvertently becomes first a symbol, and then a leader, in a rebellion against the despotic Capitol.

The first movie, The Hunger Games, was excellent; the second movie, Catching Fire, was even better. The third movie, Mockingjay Part One, was good but something of a prologue, with the final payoff coming with Mockingjay Part Two. Essentially the two Mockingjay movies are the story of the rebellion against the Capitol and Katniss’ not-always-happy role in it. The rebels manage to overthrow the Capitol, but at great cost and suffering, and the end of the fighting is realistically ambiguous.

The movie resonated strongly with me, and frankly, I liked it a good deal more than I liked The Force Awakens. Partly this is because Mockingjay 2 seems especially pertinent to the real world we live in today– despite the futuristic setting, there are scenes that could have been pulled from Syria or Iraq or Libya today. Right now millions of people around the world are engaged in actual struggles, either non-violent or armed, against actual tyrannies. And, to be blunt, it resonates even more with what could be our own future in this country, if certain hateful and megalomaniacal individuals and groups gain actual political power. We live in scary times, and a movie that warns us against tyranny is particularly timely.

Another part of why this movie worked for me is Jennifer Lawrence. This young woman is interesting even when she’s in a film that I don’t particular enjoy (e.g. American Hustle), and I don’t think I’ve seen her turn in a bad performance yet. She brings some serious vulnerability and conviction to the role of Katniss, and if the previous three movies had not already welded us to her emotionally, Mockingjay Part Two would do it. Her pain at her losses in the war, including her sister Prim (you saw the spoiler warning, right?) is raw and brings home the cost of war, even war in a good cause. Someone has called Lawrence the next Meryl Streep, and I find it hard to dispute the suggestion.

The core of the movie’s action is Katniss’ attempt, against orders, to penetrate the Capitol in order to assassinate President Snow, the head of the despotism. This is part revenge and part an effort to kill the snake (and end the fighting) by cutting off its head. The fight to break through the traps the tyrant has put in her path is horrible, and the cost is high. Katniss finally tries to infiltrate Snow’s palace even as the Capitol’s resistance begins to crumble, which means that she sees up close the suffering of the Capitol’s residents at the hands of the rebels. It’s a powerful moment, as the Capitol’s children get caught in the cross-fire. Mockingjay Part Two is essentially an anti-war film, and the climactic scene of the fighting drives its point home hard.

The ending is not then presented to us with a neat and tidy bow– instead, the film touches on a question that plagues all revolutions– how do you ensure that you do not merely replace one tyranny with another? Katniss, given the task of executing President Snow, instead assassinates District 13’s President Coin (Julianne Moore), who, as it turns out, committed a gratuitous act of murder in the last battle in the Capitol and in the aftermath is positioning herself as the new Snow. In the book Katniss is put on trial for this– in the movie she is exiled back to the ruined District 12, her home. This is one of only one or two places where the movie left me with questions, but they are pretty minor and don’t affect my appreciation of the movie as a whole.

The very end of the movie, an epilogue years later, is bittersweet, hopeful and powerful. Its power is enhanced by the soundtrack by James Newton Howard, to which I will doubtless be listening for many years to come. It is just about the perfect conclusion to a movie about a struggle for freedom, love, and healing.

Highly recommended.

Movie Review- “12 Years a Slave”

It often happens that I only see important films long after their first release. Usually this is because of some economic constraint– being generally broke, I have to pick my movies carefully.

In the case of 12 Years A Slave, however, my delay was because I knew the story would hit me hard–

And I was right. This would be a hard movie to watch if you were Russian or Chinese or Bengali. It is harder to watch as an American; it is harder yet to watch as a white American; it is harder yet again to watch as a Southern white American; and it is even harder to watch the movie as a Southern white American who came out of a natal culture in which racism was an acceptable way of viewing the world. I grew up among people who, to put it bluntly, thought George Wallace in the 1960’s was simply doing God’s work.

It’s safe to say I bring a lot of baggage to this film.

***Mild spoilers below***

The film is based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in New York State, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. As the title indicates, it took him twelve years to regain his freedom, and during that time he gained an intimate understanding of the institution of slavery, as it played out in the lives of ordinary people, both white and black. In 1853 Northup was able to get a message out to his family and acquaintances in New York. He was liberated, and then wrote his memoir with the help of a white Northern editor.

The film is not 100% accurate to Northup’s memoir– a conversation or two are invented, and a few pieces of the story have been changed. On the whole, though, it is faithful to the spirit of the memoir, which is a hair-raising depiction of the dehumanizing horror of slavery, from the inside. There really hasn’t been a film like this before, on this subject. Roots and such-like treatments pale to near-invisibility by comparison.

The film itself is superbly put together, and well-deserved its three Oscars. The cast out-does itself– Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, Michael Fassbender as the erratic and cruel Edwin Epps, Benedict Cumberbatch as Northup’s first, comparatively humane master, and Lupita Nyong’o, now famous as Patsey. Cameo appearances abound, including Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti and Alfre Woodard. I don’t think there’s a false performance in the whole ensemble. The script, by John Ridley, captures the cadence and tone of the speech of the period, no mean feat.

For me, however, the power of the film is how it takes us into a world we can hardly imagine nowadays– the life of a slave in the antebellum South. Depictions of slavery in film have all-too-often been sugar-coated pieces of Confederate propaganda, and even when they were not, they have rarely penetrated to the depths of what American chattel slavery really meant.

12 Years A Slave, by contrast, does not blink. From the moment Northup wakes up in chains, after having been drugged and kidnapped, we are shoved into a universe in which normal human relationships are twisted out of all recognition by the supposition that some men are property and some are owners. In this world slaves are sometimes not even cattle– they are objects which may be destroyed at will. It’s a descent into some abattoir of human spirit and worth.

It feels, in fact, Orwellian, in that it seems to posit the same soul-crushing hopelessness, the same sense of being obliterated beneath an all-powerful authoritarianism. The movie goes to great lengths to prove this feeling is legitimate. The slave regime of the South before the Civil War was, quite simply, a system of tyranny, carefully designed (in a bitter irony, by people who thundered their love for liberty) to maintain control of the slave population, and to deny it any role other than that of un-recompensed laborer. It was illegal in most or all Southern states to teach a slave to read; slaves needed passes to move about beyond certain areas; and, for the most part, slaves had no appeal against cruel treatment. Aside from the law, there was the willingness of the white majority to engage in vicious vigilante reprisals against even rumored insurrection or disobedience. The movie shows all of this– whippings, rape, the inability of Northup to protect his friend Patsey from Epps’ violence, the slave patrol on the road casually executing runaways, the secrecy which the slaves were forced to adopt to protect themselves from Big Brother in the plantation house. Punishment and terror are routinely meted out to slaves as means of keeping them in line.

It also painfully outlines the extent to which slavery ensnared white as well as black. Even the relatively decent Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) cannot keep Northup safe, and must yield to the necessity of debt when dealing with his slaves. For other whites, the absolute nature of the power they have over slaves corrupts them, from Giamatti’s heartless slave-dealing to Epps’ rape of Patsey. Because of their corruption, the whites often live in delusion, blaming the slaves for their own failures, or even the vagaries of nature. Mary Epps blames Patsey for her husband’s ‘attentions’ to her, and visits cruelty on Patsey in retaliation. Epps feels at liberty to impose terror on a whim, and another white overseer retaliates against Northup when Northup shows himself to be smarter than the overseer.

There is, thankfully, little or no trace in the film of the Confederate lie that slaves were content with their lot. This is tyranny, plain and simple, of the same species as the Nazis or the Soviets, only with a different focus. And none of the slaves in that focus are signing up for extra helpings of servitude.

This was a hard film to watch, but I am immensely glad I did. It’s a powerful indictment of America’s original sin, which still reverberates in the racism that justified slavery and which still taints us as a nation. This is, sadly, about as American a film as you can find anywhere. And we need to own that history and that truth, so we can do better.

I highly recommend it.

“Edge of Tomorrow”- a review of pros and cons…or an old man’s picky rant….

When the Tom Cruise action vehicle Edge of Tomorrow opened last year, I was in no rush to see it. I’m not a big Tom Cruise fan, and word-of-mouth seemed to indicate the film wasn’t particularly well-executed. It subsequently did not perform very well at the box-office, and the film more-or-less dropped off my radar.

Fast-forward to this week. While browsing the DVD shelves of the public library I came across a copy of the movie. I thought what the heck, it worked for John Carter, and checked it out.

And I am glad I did, because that meant I didn’t have to pay for the movie.

Actually, that’s not wholly fair. The movie has some very good parts– quite a number, in fact. The problem seems to be that they are more than counter-balanced by things I consider net negatives. So much so, in fact, that I am dispensing with my normal review format and presenting my thoughts as pros and cons, which will allow me to praise the good bits and descant upon the bad.

But before we begin–

SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***

Pro: The premise is interesting– an alien race has invaded the Earth, overrunning most of Europe. The remaining nations of humanity band together to crush the aliens, inspired by an apparent initial victory. A major assault from England to France is planned. Unfortunately, the aliens have other plans.

Con: Tom Cruise’s character, Cage, an American officer who is basically just a PR front man. He is also an abject coward who literally tries to run away from battle. Perhaps this con is a little unfair, because it’s clear that we are meant to despise Cage, and so appreciate his redemption. Perhaps I would have bought it more readily if someone other than Cruise had played the role.

The assault goes badly, badly wrong. During the battle, Cage manages to kill a rare sort of alien. Bathed in the creature’s blood, he dies and finds himself returned to the previous day, fully aware of what has happened. He then loops through the same day, dying over and over again, as he slowly realizes he has to find a way to break the time-loop and beat the aliens.

Pro: Emily Blunt as Rita, a hardened soldier whose performance in the first human victory is held up as a major inspiration. She hides a secret, though– for a time she was also trapped in a time loop, like Cage. In the process she discovered that this is an ability the aliens possess, which they use to their advantage. Unless she and Cage can use that ability, now passed on to Cage, to figure out the hiding place of the Omega– the ruling hive mind of the invaders– and destroy it, the aliens will win. Blunt is one of the movie’s very brightest spots. She could have carried the film all by herself (hello, Hollywood, get a clue…).

Con: Tom Cruise. I mentioned this already, right?

Pro: You get to see Tom Cruise die over and over again.

Con: Unfortunately, you have to watch Emily Blunt die over and over again as well, which is a whole other basket of squirmy aliens.

Pro: Bill Paxton, as a loquacious master sergeant. Master Sergeant Farell is cheerfully poetic, in a blood-thirsty way. Paxton was obviously having a lot of fun with this role.

Con: Brits doing American accents. Why is it some, often very fine, British actors just can’t do ‘Murican? It puzzles the crap out of me, especially when they’re trying to do a Southern accent. Nails on a blackboard would be sweet by comparison.

Pro: I liked the powered exo-skeletons the soldiers are equipped with. They look very much like what I think a first-generation powered battle mechanism would look like.

Con: I hated the powered exo-skeletons the soldiers are equipped with, precisely because they resemble first-generation devices. It’s a story logic thingie– yeah, you can mounted an array of weapons on them, but they are slow and clunky (moving in them the soldiers look like they’ve just come down with a sudden misery in the bowels), and I would think that they would be more of a hindrance than an asset in an assault situation.

Con: Why in the name of heated Cheez Whiz are the Earthlings assaulting across what I presume are the beaches of France in the first place, as if it were 1944 all over again? Exactly where the enemy would have their strongest defenses (closest to the English advance bases)? Haven’t these people heard of “vertical envelopment” and “hitting them where they ain’t”?

I will now pause for a moment to dilate upon one of my pet peeves– the fact that too many people in Hollywood have no frigging clue how the military works. Everything from strategy down to nitpicking details like saluting and haircuts gets screwed up. For the love of Almighty God, even Vanessa Redgrave, who’s like the Mount Rushmore of British actors, absolutely flubbed her salute of Ralph Fiennes in Coriolanus. As for Edge of Tomorrow, was the director (Doug Liman) too scared of Tom Cruise to make him get a military haircut? Whatever the reason, Cruise’s shaggy thatch bugged me through the whole movie.

Okay, mini-rant over. Having said that–

Pro: the action in the assault, which we see over and over again as Cruise’s character relives it, is just as frantic and confused and horrible as a massive assault going wrong would be.

Con: the fact that we see nothing– I mean, nothing— from the aliens’ point-of-view. There is no communication between the besieged Earthlings and the invaders. We have no understanding of what the aliens are about or why they are doing what they are doing. Even Independence Day did a better job of that, with the telepathic interplay between the President and the alien prisoner (and, strange as it is, I enjoyed Independence Day more than I did Edge of Tomorrow, despite the former film’s horrifying and obvious cinematic flaws. Funny how that works…). The aliens in Edge of Tomorrow are just there as a monolithic threat. They are not characters in the story. For me, this is a net negative.

Pro: the production values of the movie are excellent, and, as far as it goes, Liman’s handling of the Groundhog Day/time loop plot device is pretty deft. Cage and Rita struggle with it and are forced to change directions a couple of times as they figure out the aliens and what has to be done.

Con: having said that, I kept expecting the revelation of an additional plot layer to the movie, perhaps a treasonous collaboration between Earthlings and aliens, perhaps something going on with the Earth forces commander, General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson). One or two plot points didn’t quite click, such as Brigham’s insistence on sending Cage, a useless PR man, into combat. It was almost as if Brigham had some darker purpose, some motive for getting rid of Cage, but no additional plot twist ever made sense of that action. I kept waiting for another shoe to drop, and it never did. Director’s cut…?

Con: the biggest one of all, the frustrating, story-negating ending. At the climax, when Rita has distracted the aliens at the cost of her own life, so that Cage can dive into the deep pool in the lower stories of the Louvre and blow up the Omega, if looks as if humanity has been saved by the sacrifice of both our heroes. But apparently, as Cage is drifting in the water, the last moments of his life flickering away, he is enveloped by the Omega’s blood/ichor/Super Sauce, and thereby time-looped back to a point in time before Brigham orders him into combat, but with the benefit that the aliens have still been wiped out by the death of Omega. Victory bells are ringing, humanity is saved, the suicidal assault doesn’t happen, and Rita can leave the military behind, go into acting and play Queen Victoria and the Baker’s Wife in Into the Woods, and all is right with the world.

Which really, really grates on me. The problem with this ending is that it is, effectively, a story in which nothing changes, or, to put it another way, in which there is no necessary sacrifice that brings about the resolution. At the very least I expected Cage or Rita to die heroically and stay dead, despite the time-loop, as the price to be paid for saving humanity. As it is, there is no net death or sacrifice, and the victory seems empty as a result. The only real change is that Cage is no longer a cowardly bean-bag, but for me that’s not enough to sustain an entire movie. To me the movie’s happy ending feels false and unearned. Almost by itself it kills the movie for me.

So, in sum, Edge of Tomorrow is a movie that does a lot of things right, but which left me dissatisfied. Now, it appears many critics disagree with me, so it is entirely possible that I am just too damn picky. Certainly, if a director’s cut ever comes out I would be willing to revisit the movie and take a fresh look at it.

Especially if they CGI in a proper haircut for Cruise….

Later.

Pixar’s “Inside Out”– a brief review….

This past weekend I saw Pixar’s Inside Out

**SOME MILD SPOILERS– NOT REALLY BAD AT ALL, BY MY STANDARDS**

Sometimes I see a film and it takes me some time to integrate what I have seen. Such is the case with Inside Out— there is a lot going here, and I needed a few days to figure it out. Snap judgments are not my strong suit.

Part of the problem is that this sort of allegorical adventure has never been quite my cup of tea– perhaps not surprising in someone who thinks Aliens is close to the acme of film-making. Inside Out reminds me a bit of Alice in Wonderland, another allegorical fantasy I have never really cottoned to.

That’s probably unfair, as Alice in Wonderland was probably not at all an influence on director Peter Docter. Inside Out has a lot in common with his previous work (Monsters, Inc., Up, etc.), in that it is inventive, funny and fast-paced (in fact, pay attention, because some important stuff goes by pretty quickly), with many little touches that bring the film to life (the Mind Workers are a hoot). But it also has the sort of emotional depth we saw most particularly in the silent prologue of Up— a wisdom about the ups-and-downs of life and how things don’t always work out the way you expect.

The central allegory of the movie is that five core emotions– Joy, Anger, Disgust, Fear, and Sadness, all personified in the movie by different characters– represent the controlling aspects of our mind and personality. The movie mostly occurs in the mind of 11-year-old Riley Anderson (although we get often hilarious glimpses inside the heads of other people along the way), who has just moved from Minnesota to San Francisco with her parents, and who is not happy about the change. The problem is that Joy, who has largely been the emotion in charge all of Riley’s life, doesn’t want to allow Sadness to play a role in this transition– and thereupon hangs the tale, as Riley’s emotions fall in to conflict, things become discombobulated, and Sadness and Joy are accidentally thrown out of “Headquarters” (Riley’s consciousness). They then have to undertake an epic journey through Riley’s personality and memories to get back to Headquarters. In the end, balance is restored as Riley’s emotions are reintegrated with deeper empathy and a restored sense of self– even though the emotions are puzzled by the big, red button on their new control console that reads “PUBERTY” (as obvious a set up for a sequel as Darth Vader’s escape at the end of A New Hope).

I will not spoil the movie more than that. I have a few quibbles about one or two pieces of business in the film, but they are just that, quibbles. Suffice to say that it is imaginative, funny and loaded with insights into how human beings are put together, how we grow and become fully realized individuals. Personally, I am looking forward to see it again, and soon. Recommended.

Jurassic World– Oh my GOD, didn’t these people see the first three films!?

I went to see Jurassic World today–

SPOILERS****SPOILERS****SPOILERS****SPOILERS****SPOILERS***

I held off seeing it the first week because I didn’t want to be crushed in the mob that broke the record for a first weekend opening, and because of a certain amount of caution based on what appeared to be mixed reviews. Reports that the action was well-handled in general, though, enticed me into the theater today.

The movie is explicitly a sequel to the original Jurassic Park series, and there are numerous references in the film to John Hammond and the first attempt at a dinosaur park. The original visitor center, or its ruins, play a prominent role in the action of the movie’s mid-section. Along with the references to the events of the previous movies, though, comes the looming shadow of the casualties of the previous attempts to wrangle dinos.

As in the previous films, the action takes place on a Central American island, Isla Nublar, which has to be Spanish for “Island of Niblets”. In typical movie fashion, the corporation that owns the park, InGen, is up to no good, using the high-tech park as a front for an evil genetic engineering project. The park’s chief operation officer, the job-obsessed Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), is unaware of this agenda as she prepares to debut a new, hybrid dinosaur called Indominus rex, a bid to keep park attendance and revenues high (note: no surprise, this is a very bad idea). She is too busy to greet her two nephews, Zach and Gray, who have been sent to the park while their parents work through a divorce. Unsurprisingly, when all hell breaks loose, Zach and Gray will be the MacGuffins in need of rescue.

Meanwhile, Owen (Chris Pratt), is working in another location of the island on a project involving four velociraptors, with whom he has established himself as their pack “alpha”. InGen honcho Hoskins reveals the project is aimed at weaponizing the velociraptors, an idea Owen resents.

Before he can do anything about it, though, Claire comes to him. She has concerns regarding the new hybrid’s enclosure and she wants his assessment of its safety. The two of them have history, but their differing styles (corporate button-down vs. motorcycle-riding dinosaur-whisperer) killed their first attempt to connect.

Owen goes to Indominus’ enclosure, but it appears that the hybrid has escaped. Owen and two park workers enter what they think is an empty enclosure, but it’s a ruse– the wily critter has tricked them within reach of its claws. Mayhem ensues– Owen survives (by employing a hasty but rather nifty bit of animal psychology), but Indominus escapes.

The rest of the movie is basically InGen’s increasingly desperate attempts to first contain, and then to kill, Indominus, which, in the typical manner of action movies, goes from bad to awful to disastrous to absolutely catastrophic. Everything the park officials and InGen do just makes the situation worse. The body count mounts, while shady InGen operatives remove embryos of other genetically modified critters from the park in order to keep their illicit weapons project alive (and probably set up the next movie).

I won’t spoil much more of the film, especially the twist in the final, epic battle with Indominus. In many ways it is basic action movie stuff, with a corporation as the villain (zeitgeist, anybody?), deploying surly flunkies who bump against the colors-outside-lines hero, and the love interest who learns to value the lives of her nephews over her job and re-connects with the hero. The other emotional turns in the film are pretty standard, as well, such as the parents’ divorce and the older brother not really paying attention to the dino-obsessed younger, until Indominus tries to chomp down on them, whereupon the two re-bond in the effort to avoid becoming lunch.

Having said that, in general the movie works pretty well. The action kept me engaged. For me the critical test of an action movie is whether I, at any point, start to disbelieve the action– if I start to say “wait a minute, that’s lame/overblown/unbelievable…”, then the flick, for me, is doomed. I am happy to report that I had no such moments– given the movie’s premises and setup, the action flowed pretty logically and believably from one disaster to the next. Once or twice I questioned why a character zigged instead of zagged, but the only aspect of the film that really challenged my suspension of disbelief was Claire’s ability to run cross-country in high heels.

It helps that Chris Pratt is basically believable as Owen– he seems comfortable in the role, a working guy who just happens to work with dinosaurs. Pratt is funny when it’s called for and does his hero thing without posturing. In the wake of Guardians of the Galaxy and now this film, he’s well on his way to joining a select band of brothers in my favorite movie actors clubhouse (and, yeah, I can see him in the fedora).

It also helps that Indominus was, for me, truly huge and menacing. When it bursts out of its enclosure, or the forest in pursuit of the brothers, the tiny, helpless primate in me wanted to climb a tree. This movie, like the first Jurassic Park, would not work without a sufficiently terrible lizard. Indominus fits the bill.

On the whole, I give the film three and a half frozen dino embryos– it doesn’t carry the impact of the first movie (and how many sequels do? Aside from Aliens, I mean), but it stands on its own as a pretty good action film, and heads-and-shoulders above the second and third Jurassic Park movies. Recommended.

Note: I don’t usual do back-to-back reviews of current movies, but I am already down to see Inside Out tomorrow, and if the reviews are any indication, I will probably have something to say about it. Stay tuned.

Films that inspire me– “When Worlds Collide”

There have been science-fiction and fantasy movies since the dawn of film, from Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon onward. Although the fact is poorly remembered nowadays, SF and fantasy were there at the start and grew up along with the medium of film itself.

It is safe so say, however, that there are distinct epochs in the history of SFF movies. The earliest films often blurred the lines between fantasy and science fiction, and were often as much about the exploration of the possibilities of film technology and tricks as they were about futuristic stories. Films from the Twenties and Thirties exhibited a strong tendency to mix sci-fi and horror. At the same time, the twenty years between 1920 and 1940 also saw serious works such as Metropolis and Things to Come.

The Second World War worked a sea-change in science-fiction film. Western society was confronted, as it never had been before, with the fact that it was now living in a science-fiction world, with ballistic missiles, radar and nuclear weapons as veritable realities, and with even more disturbing possibilities just over the horizon– cybernetics, World War III, and genetics. The Cold War, as it developed out of the breakdown of the expedient wartime alliance of the West and the Soviet Union, would obviously be fought as much, if not more, on the front-lines of science and technology as in the frozen mountains of Korea or the rice-paddies of Vietnam.

Of necessity, science-fiction films of the Fifties reflected this new understanding. Nowadays the decade is chiefly remembered for often not very well-made B-movies with aliens or radiation-spawned monsters standing in for the Soviets. This memory is justified, in large part– many of these movies were forgettable by any standard. Having said that, there were still a number of very effective films in the decade– Destination Moon, Forbidden Planet, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Them (a radioactive-monster film that actually worked), and others, films that overcame the limitations of the period’s special effects capabilities.

One of these was When Worlds Collide.

Spoilers****Spoilers****Spoilers****Spoilers****Spoilers****

Made in 1951 by Rudolph Maté and George Pal, the film is an adaptation of the novel by written by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer. Astronomers discover a wandering star, Bellus, is approaching the Solar System, and will collide with the Earth. A planet orbiting Bellus, Zyra, holds out the possibility of being habitable. The movie is the story of the struggle to build a rocket-ship to take a select group of survivors to Zyra, even as Bellus’ first close pass causes earthquakes and floods, and human society collapses in chaos. At the last moment, the ship is launched, just ahead of rioting left-behinds; the Earth is destroyed, and the ship makes a white-knuckle landing on Zyra, which proves to be habitable.

The movie works as a serious attempt to ask “what if the destruction of the world loomed, and we had only a short time to save some portion of humanity?” The film does a good job creating an atmosphere of sustained, furious effort toward a goal no one is sure they can reach. True to its pre-Sputnik period, the characters repeatedly tell each other that the flight to Zyra is theoretically possible, but a lingering doubt hovers over the project, creating a tension in the narrative that ratchets up the drama (a remake of the film nowadays, about which more below, would lose this tension, as we now have nearly sixty years of engineering art around the building of spacecraft). The workers on the project struggle to finish the spaceship and its launch ramp, even as Zyra’s first close pass causes tidal waves, earthquakes and massive destruction. The final twist of the dramatic knife is that only a limited number of the project workers can go on the ship (a contrast with the original novel)– a lottery is held to select those who will go on ship, and, at the last minute, many of the left behinds riot and attempt to take the ship, even as it is launched.

One of the best ‘special effects’ employed by the movie was the use of artwork by Chesley Bonestell, who also designed the rocket-ship. Having said that, the movie is not without flaws; the final destruction of the Earth is, cinematically, rather disappointing, and the initial chaos caused by the passage of Zyra is mostly conveyed by a lot of stock footage of models being destroyed. The final image of the surface of Zyra after the spaceship lands is also disappointing, appearing somewhat cartoonish in comparison to other artwork in the film; quite simply, the production ran out of money and had to employ one of Bonestell’s colored sketches rather than a finished painting.

In addition, many of the characters are rather stock. One exception is David Randall (Richard Derr), a devil-may-care horn-dog mercenary pilot who gets pulled into the project, a sort of Indiana Jones precursor. But the one really stand-out character is that of industrialist and all-around jerk Sidney Stanton (John Hoyt), who bankrolls the spaceship project to make sure he has a seat on the craft, despite being crippled and and a dead-weight in general. His comeuppance is one of the dramatic high-points of the film.

These complaints, however, hardly rise above the level of quibbles. The movie as a whole works like gangbusters, building a realistic sense of urgency, desperation and impending doom, as Bellus looms closer and closer. When Worlds Collide is one of the early crop of post-war sci-fi films, such as Destination Moon and The Day the Earth Stood Still, that took its subject seriously. It did not engage in camp, or insert cheap bits of horror. Later films in the decade would do both, and too many of those later films just did not match the solid story-telling of When Worlds Collide.

This film is the rare classic sci-fi film I would love to see remade. Indeed, I would love to write it, even though my screenwriting credits are negligible. Normally I am adamantly against remakes of movies that just basically worked in the first place (remaking The Day the Earth Stood Still was a crime), but this story begs to remade with modern special effects. That’s despite the fact that, as I’ve already mentioned, we would lose some dramatic tension simply because the question “is the spaceship going to work” would, more-or-less, already be answered. There is, however, more than enough drama in the struggle to build the space ark (or arks, more probably) and in the tension between the saved and the left-behinds to carry the story forward.

Unfortunately, although there have been periodic announcements of a remake in the works, nothing has come of them, and the project appears to be more-or-less permanently stuck in the limbo of development hell (talk about negative places…). I am not at all clued into the Hollywood grapevine, so the details of why this has not happened eludes me, but it’s a shame. If it were well-written (admittedly, always a concern), a new When Worlds Collide would rock very hard.

Someday, perhaps. Meanwhile, I think I should work on my screen-writing skills, just in case the call comes….

Later.

Avengers: Age of Ultron– a review– please don’t kill me….

Yesterday I finally got to see Avengers: Age of Ultron

INTENSE AND HAIRY SPOILERS HEREAFTER!! I MEAN IT!!
*******************************************************
I loved the first Avengers movie, even though I have never been a huge fan of the comic (always X-Men for me, with a dash of Spider-man and Fantastic Four). Joss Whedon did a superlative job pulling together the disparate and often damaged individuals of the first film and creating a credible origin story that welded them together into a team. In the process he gave everyone the screen time and the attention they needed to become grounded characters in our minds. And the action suited the character development, and vice versa. All-in-all, it was a very well-written, tightly plotted action piece.

I can’t quite say the same for Age of Ultron.

Not that the movie is bad— the action sequences are intense, some of the twists Joss gives the characters are interesting (Natasha and Bruce Banner? Really?), and James Spader’s Ultron is a delightfully charming nutcase of a villain. The movie is well-done, in general.

But…to this (admittedly) picky, jaundiced old fart, the story-line seemed a little contrived, and some elements a tad too pat. The rescue of civilian bystanders during the climatic battle felt too safe, almost something that could muster the approval of the old Comic Code. At one point Thor disappears to figure out a vision given him by the Scarlet Witch (Wanda Maximoff), leaving the rest of the team to handle a further confrontation with Ultron on their own, a departure that felt to me like dereliction of duty. And, true to his well-known penchant for sacrificing characters for the sake of drama, Joss chose someone– Pietro (Quicksilver)– to die, selflessly, saving Hawkeye and a generic child. Somehow, though, his death didn’t elicit a lot of emotion in me. It was sort of, ‘oh, so that’s who Joss chose to knock off, okay, moving on.’ It almost felt rote.

But it was the climatic bit of peril the Avengers have to overcome that really left me cold. Ultron, obsessed with creating an extinction event for humanity so as to clear the planet for the next thing in evolutionary advancement (AI machines, of course), rips free a large portion of an Eastern European town from the earth and lifts it to about 20,000 feet, intending to drive it back into the planet by means of anti-gravity engines so as to recreate the effect of the dinosaur-killing asteroid of 65 million years ago.

Um, yeah.

To my mind there are a couple of things wrong with this scenario– 1. it’s hopelessly contrived and over-complicated, and 2. it probably wouldn’t work. It’s over-complicated because there are probably a hundred easier ways to accomplish the desired end (the annihilation of humanity), and it feels very much as if this particular modus exstinctio was chosen for its cinematic value. It wouldn’t work because of basic physics. The dinosaur-killing asteroid was not only massive, it was moving at many miles per second when it hit the Earth. Kinetic energy is directly proportional to the mass of the object, but it is also directly proportional to the square of the velocity at which the object is moving. The anti-gravity engines would have had to accelerate the mass of the town at something like (in very round numbers) 100 gravities (a delta-v the movie in no way depicts) to achieve the same terminal velocity, because the town, in just falling from that height, is going to hit the Earth in about 35 seconds anyway.

In short, I didn’t buy it.

And you, dear reader, at this point are probably thinking, Jeez, lighten up, dude, it’s just a superhero movie.

Well, you’re right. My problem is that I have high standards for my superhero movies.

I ran into the same issue, in a much smaller way, with Guardians of the Galaxy, and talked about it in my review of that film, months ago. I’m weird in that I actually want the science-fiction aspect of comic-book or superhero films (or comic-books, for that matter) to make sense, and not transgress the boundaries of known science too much.

As you might guess, I am often disappointed.

Still, as unreasonable as this expectation may be, it’s mine, I own it, and being disappointed in it with Age of Ultron meant that I didn’t enjoy the movie as much as I wanted to. ‘Nuff said.

My own weirdo prejudices aside, I think it is fair to say that, in general, Age of Ultron suffered, quite simply, from being a sequel– a very good sequel, but still basically a follow-on work that borrows its energy from its predecessor. It proves that, in the end, even a genius (yes, I use that word) like Joss Whedon cannot escape certain imperatives of story-telling– among which is the necessity of each tale to stand on its own and to find its own sources of strength. It also proves that that sort of loss of energy can happen to anyone.

A cautionary tale for any story-teller.

Later.

RAAANNNTT! Fifty Shades of Grey and the degradation of traditional publishing

(Arooogah! Incoming Rant!)

My local newspaper has a review of Fifty Shades of Grey in this morning’s edition that just about sums it up.

Moira MacDonald is one the funnier, and more dependable, film critics around. If I had known nothing about the book from which the movie is derived, I would be well-advised by her review to flee to the hills. And even if I had missed her review, a quick perusal of Google results for the book would have brought this assessment to my eyes–

“I’ve never read anything so badly written that got published. It made Twilight look like War and Peace.” — Salman Rushdie

Oof. (“Torpedo amidships, Cap’n! She’s going doowwnn!”)

(Nothing off-color intended. Really).

It’s depressing to see this steaming pile of offal made into an actual film with an actual budget with actual actors (although, of course, Hollywood will do anything for a buck. No surprise there). The only thing more depressing is that the movie is based on a book that the publishing industry rushed to publish purely (there can be no other reason, least of all literary merit) because it had sold a ton of copies online. I am far from the first person to suggest that this one fact alone obliterates traditional publishing’s claim to be an arbiter of quality. Instead, it reveals trad publishing to be the soulless business it always has been.

Needless to say, I am not going to see the movie. I’ve got better things to spend the nine or ten or twelve bucks on. But inevitably I will be depressed for some time over the whole sorry business.

Of course, there’s always the chance that the Nostalgia Critic will review it. What a happy thought– maybe there’s hope yet….

Guardians of the Galaxy– kind of a review, but more of a confessional…..

As of yesterday, I have now seen Guardians of the Galaxy three times–

And I think I’ve finally figured out what’s wrong with the movie.

Okay, okay, put down the pitch-forks and the nooses– let me re-phrase.

In reality there’s nothing seriously wrong with the movie– it is actually, in my opinion, the best movie of the summer and possibly the year. It’s funny, and heartfelt, dramatic where it needs to be and irreverent in exactly the right places. The cast has chemistry out the wazoo. Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill/Starlord plays off Zoe Saldana’s Gamora perfectly, quarreling while building up a mutual attraction that feels genuine precisely because it never goes too far. Dave Bautista is great as Drax, and Bradley Cooper’s voicing of Rocket is excellent. The action keeps you going, although the final battle might be just a little too frantic. Certainly, three viewings have allowed me to catch more detail, including all the pop culture references.

The movie overall is just well-written, with plenty of character and dialogue that keeps you interested. You believe that this is a hodgepodge band of losers who find a new purpose with each other, and it makes you wish the next movie was in the can and coming soon. As a child of the Seventies, I appreciated the soundtrack of golden oldies, which are not only perfectly deployed in the film but reinforce the emotional core of Peter’s character.

And yet…

(mild spoilers from here on in)

Each time I’ve seen the film, I have caught myself feeling oddly dissatisfied at different points in the story. It took me a while to figure out what was bugging me, but in the end I got there.

This movie is based on a comic.

And at this point you’re probably saying, Oh, no duh– why am I reading this nimrod…?

Allow me to explain.

It has often been said that science-fiction does not really work in comic books. The confines of panels on a page somehow make it difficult to convey the vastness of space or the intricacies of technology. There are exceptions, but all too often “sci-fi” in comics has been more metaphorical than scientific.

It seems that some of this metaphorical approach leaked into Guardians. When the team/gang approaches the outlaw mining operation called Knowhere, it is described as the gargantuan head of a dead “Celestial being”. This is straight out of the comic, but to me it is on the same level as the giant space slug in The Empire Strikes Back— both throw me out of the narrative. My suspension of disbelief, at least for a moment, goes spung. Some other elements of Guardians do the same thing to me– for example, the shiny, colorful Xandar, which looks like one big mall. And, dammit, Yondo, the chief Ravager and oddball father-figure to Peter, has a piece of plastic down the middle of his head (alien Mohawk?), which probably worked far better in the comic than it does on-screen, where I found it really distracting. In general, with the exception of Rocket and Groot, the aliens in the film don’t give me much of a sense of being, well, alien. I found myself almost wishing for the Brood to show up.

To sum up, the fault lies not in the movie, but in my own damn pickiness. I have a prejudice for the gritty, and a preference for sci-fi that tries to create a workaday world that at least looks scientifically plausible. Guardians does that in some places, but falls down in others.

Science fiction is hard; movie science-fiction, I have concluded, is doubly so. Getting right the feel of the visuals of a future or alien universe is difficult. There are movies and TV shows that do this well– Alien/Aliens, Blade Runner, and Firefly (although, admittedly, all of these films and shows had various issues with plausibility). But all too often writers, directors and production design folk don’t make the effort to do it right, and instead they fall back on tropes that suggest alien-ness (plastic Mohawks) or futurity (Xandar Mall). There is just enough of this in Guardians to leave me with a sense of unease and disappointment, at least with the visuals.

I willingly admit that this carping is unfair, especially regarding a movie that didn’t set out to be Blade Runner in the first place. The film, in general, is really well-done– for example, for all my dislike of Yondo’s appearance, his character is great, and I loved Michael Rooker’s performance. My complaints do not destroy my enjoyment of the movie– but the little things that nag me about it leave me wanting just a little bit more of something– more grit, more plausibility, a universe that is a bit more gray and shadow, like the universe I live in. It keeps me from giving the movie a perfect 5 trolls (you have to see the movie), but more like 4.75.

In the end, as a review, everyone should take this with a grain of salt. I doubt very many people even noticed the issues I had with the picture. This basically comes down to a statement about my own personal taste in sci-fi, and an acknowledgment that I am a picky, grumpy, contrarian old fart who wants things his way and complains loudly when he doesn’t get it.

I will eventually, I expect, get over it. And then there’s Interstellar. 🙂

Later.

Movies that inspire me– “The Andromeda Strain”

The late Sixties were a boom-time for science-fiction. The New Wave was taking hold of the genre, with its emphasis on psychology, ecology and sociology and its de-emphasis of technology. In that respect sci-fi reflected its times– as at the end of World War II, people in the Sixties felt they were living in a science-fiction world, with moon landings, the first alarms over the Earth’s ecology, the looming threat of nuclear obliteration, and the first moments of what would become the information revolution, all coinciding with the social and sexual revolution in the culture. Inevitably, that turmoil and fear found expression in science-fiction.

Science-fiction movies reflected the times, as well, although sometimes the reflection was just damned odd. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) set a new standard in cinema, at least for effects (it was roundly panned and parodied for its pretentious and obscure story-line, however). Between its release and the opening of Star Wars in May, 1977, a significant number of science-fiction films were produced. The results were pretty mixed– some of these were classics (Soylent Green), others were disasters (Logan’s Run), and some were just off the wall (Zardoz).

Some of these films represented serious attempts at film treatments of science-fiction themes from the New Wave– Rollerball, for example, looked at the role of the individual in a corporate world that manipulated popular, violent entertainments to keep the masses distracted. Some films had ambitions in that direction but failed to realize them (Z.P.G.). And some just didn’t care (Trog).

Perhaps the greatest sci-fi movie of this period is The Andromeda Strain (1971)–

Michael Crichton’s novel The Andromeda Strain, published in 1969, took a different tack with the theme of alien invasion– not militaristic hordes, but a microscopic form of life. It was alien invasion as epidemic, and it was brilliant. The film was directed by Robert Wise (who apparently could direct anything— we’re talking about a guy who directed The Sound of Music, then turned around and made The Sand Pebbles), and captures the book admirably. Crichton’s novel was the first of his taut techno-thrillers, and that carries over into the movie.

It starts out with an air of ominous quiet– an Air Force team of two men has been sent by night to the tiny town of Piedmont, Arizona, to retrieve an errant American satellite. Something goes badly wrong– but the horror is conveyed only by the team’s radio transmissions and the reactions of the technicians in an operations center, listening to them. An aerial photo-reconnaissance shows bodies lying all over the town, and a secret team of scientists is activated to investigate the mystery.

This film combines action, mystery, and solid scientific insight in a package that never flags, even when the characters are discussing technical issues that could have, in lesser hands, killed the story dead. Wise somehow managed to make the very gear in the secret, super-scientific lab in which the scientists study the alien organism into characters in the story. He makes the scientists into real people rather than stereotypes, right down the foul-mouthed female scientist with a secret and the elderly biologist who is ready to chuck the whole academic thing and go live in Alaska. At the climatic moment, as a nuclear self-destruct counts down (a blast that will only feed the alien microbe, not destroy it) the whole facility seems to turn against the people struggling to survive inside it.

The film plays out, in part, as a semi-documentary, flashing forward to secret government hearings dissecting the mistakes and failures of the team and their laboratory during the crisis. The back and forth in time, however, does not kill the tension of the moment, as the scientists struggle to understand what they have on their hands. The dawning horror of what they’ve discovered is liberally mixed with scientific curiosity and awe.

Many critics did not like the pace of the film, thinking it moved too slowly. That criticism makes no sense to me. Personally, I think of The Andromeda Strain as a quintessential thriller, building tension while the mystery, and the terror, is revealed piece-by-piece. True scientific endeavor is an effort to understand mysteries, and for me there is something fascinating about a team of scientists struggling against the clock to figure out what is happening (perhaps it’s telling that I also liked 2011’s Contagion). If I am ever inspired to write a thriller, this film, as well as the book, would point the way for me.

Of course, Hollywood tried to remake the story, as a mini-series in 2008– and, just as predictably, they botched it, departing in significant ways from the original material. I do not recommend it. Just once, I would like to see Hollywood not mess with something that is perfectly all right as it is.

Of course, that will be about the same time pigs get wings….