Category Archives: Movies

Rogue One– A review

Let’s get this out of the way first–

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

So, I held off seeing Rogue One for two whole weeks for several reasons– I hate opening night crowds, I’ve spent the last two weeks helping support a family member who’s been in the hospital, and because, being the spoiler-whore I am, I knew it ended on what might possibly be a real downer, and I knew that I didn’t need any extra downers in my life at the moment.

At least regarding the last item I needn’t have worried.  Rogue One does end with all the good guys, including leads Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), dying in a terminal shootout/holocaust with the Empire on the planet Scarif, but it’s the sort of massacre that appeals to me, where the heroes have won although they give their lives in the attempt.  In this instance, they have secured the plans to the Death Star of Episode IV- A New Hope and transmitted them to the rebels, which means that the end of Rogue One is meant to segue directly into the opening of Episode IV, with perhaps the lapse of only a few minutes story time.

The film, in my quite biased opinion, does most everything pretty well.  It has a darker, grittier tone than most of the other Star Wars films; the Empire has the galaxy by the throat and is about to permanently tighten its grip.  The rebel Alliance is on the run, fractured and riven by divisions and conflicting counsels.  You’re not entirely sure who the good guys are; Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera is the paranoid leader of a splinter group too radical for the other rebels, and some Alliance members are willing do things in the name of the Rebellion that are morally dodgy, at best; Cassian, for example, summarily kills an informant in the first moments of the film to keep him out of Imperial hands.

The story bounces from world to world, shifting between Rebel and Imperial viewpoints, as the rebels get wind of the Death Star and desperately try to find clues as to its weaknesses.  Rook, defecting, delivers a message from Jyn’s father, Galen Erso, an engineer the Empire has forced to work on the Death Star, who has built a vulnerability into its structure.  In the end, Jyn and Cassian lead a desperate group of volunteers to the planet Scarif, where the plans for the Death Star are kept.  There ensues one hellacious ground and space battle, as the Rebel fleet joins in and Jyn, Cassian and the droid K2SO try to get the plans.  In the end, the plans are secured and transmitted to the rebels just before the Death Star nukes the Empire’s own base in a vain attempt to keep the information safe.

All the flim’s performances are good, but it’s some of the supporting characters who are the best.  Jyn and Cassian are not quite as engaging or sympathetic as we might want; on the other hand, you find yourself rooting pretty hard for the blind Force monk Chirrut Îmwe (Donny Yen) and his buddy Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang); the defecting Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) is someone we watch become a hero in his own right as he overcomes his fear.  The reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO, voiced by Alan Tudyk, is fun, light-years away from the obsequious C3PO, and has his own hero moment toward the end of the film.

All-in-all, the film captures the desperate struggle of the rebels against the overwhelming power of the Empire.  ‘Rag-tag’ is pretty apt for these guys, who only agree on a united course of action when it is forced on them.  The battles are solid action pieces, and the power of the Death Star, even when only employed on low power against individual targets on planet surfaces, is jaw-dropping.

There are problems.  The connection the end of the film makes with the beginning of A New Hope is less than perfect in terms of continuity.  In Episode IV  when Leia confronts Vader for the first time she pretends that her ship is on a diplomatic mission; Rogue One’s ending makes that pretense unsustainable (or even nonsensical), as her ship is shown detaching from the crippled rebel flagship and fleeing, as Vader watches.  Episode IV’s screen-crawl states the rebels have won their first victory against the Empire; if the battle over Scarif is a rebel victory it sure looks Pyrrhic;  all of the ground forces were lost, and what looked to be a good portion of the space fleet– not a good way to start a civil war.

And then there are the CGI images for the Grand Moff Tarkin and Princess Leia.  Personally I think I was able to suspend my disbelief enough that they didn’t throw me, but they were odd, particularly Leia’s; for the brief moment we see her face, she kinda looks like an anime Kewpie Doll.  It’s strange how the images turned out, especially as a lot of effort was expended to get them right, particularly Tarkin’s (Peter Cushing).

On the whole, though, the film works, and works well.  This may be the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back.  Certainly it leaves the prequels and The Force Awakens in the dust.  This is the first of a projected set of “anthology” films about different characters and situations in the extended cinematic Star Wars universe that are not part of the main trilogies.  As this expansion proceeds, we are liable to get both good and bad films .  Rogue One, thankfully, starts the anthology off right.

 

 

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Carrie Fisher, 1956 – 2016

leia-armed
© Lucasfilm Ltd.

This just sucks.

I’m with Anna….

John Scalzi said it best.

She and I were not far apart in age, and I am feeling my mortality now.  The great thing about Carrie, though, was how much she accomplished while she was here.  We should all do half as much.

RIP, Carrie.

Two films looming huge on my horizon, I mean, HUGE!….

Oh, boy, oh, boy, oh, boy—

I mean, holy frack, just this little peek left me alternately giggling and gibbering with delight.  If all else fails, I have at least one reason to live until May next year.

On a completely different note–

This movie wasn’t even on my radar until I spotted its trailer on IMDB.  Oh, my God, what a grim looking tale, perhaps worse, on a personal scale,than the imagined alternate future in Days of Future Past.  Here’s the premise from Wikipedia

Set in 2024, Logan and Professor Charles Xavier must cope with the loss of the X-Men at the hands of a corporation led by Nathaniel Essex. With Logan’s healing abilities slowly fading and Xavier’s Alzheimer’s hampering his memory, Logan must defeat Essex with the help of a young girl named Laura Kinney, a female clone of Wolverine.

There could be some weeping involved here.  Just saying.  Oh, and whoever put this trailer to Johnny Cash’s Hurt— genius.

According to the Wikipedia article this should be Hugh Jackman’s last outing as Wolverine, not surprising as he’s been playing the character for about fifteen years.  Not sure anybody can take over after Jackman, but then I said the same thing about the Joker after Heath Ledger, and then Jared Leto came along.

All the same, it looks as if Marvel/Disney is ringing down the curtain on this incarnation of the X-Men, and Wolverine.  An era is passing.  I have no idea what comes after this, particularly as there are so many different alternate versions of the team in the comics, and, of course, Disney has shown it is not bound by previously established canon with the new Star Wars movies.  However, at the very least, they have my attention.

 

Five awesome movie scenes

My personal taste in film runs largely, although not exclusively, to the epic and the heroic, with largely dollops of the tragic and the sort of romance in which true loves die happy because they’re together. After I see films like Les Miserables they generally have to carry me out on a stretcher (it’s not just the film, of course– the stage production does the same thing to me, and I’ve seen it live three times. My daughter finds it soo embarrassing that her father has to bring a full box of kleenex with him to the theater).

Individual movie scenes that kill me with epicness have certain common attributes– a desperate struggle against long odds, someone you want to see succeed (or at least survive) and the ticking clock of looming disaster. Usually for maximum effect you need some really effective music. For extra points, throw in children in jeopardy.

Here’s five scenes from five very different films I find really riveting. NOTE: inevitably each of these scenes involve spoilers. Be warned.

1. From the 2009 J.J. Abrams reboot of Star Trek, the opening scene in which James Kirk’s father sacrifices himself to save his wife and soon-to-be-born son–

This is a wonderfully effective scene, scoring high because it’s basically a father defending his family and sacrificing himself to save them.  Does me in every time.

2. From Captain America: The First Avenger, here is the climactic scene where Cap (Chris Evans) has to intentionally crash the Hydra flying wing into the Arctic ice-cap to save New York City, while talking on the radio with his true love, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell).

Cap must not only sacrifice his own life in this scene, but also his chance for happiness with Peggy, which brings a poignancy to the interchange between them, and which has continued to resonant through the subsequent Captain America and Avenger films.

3. From the 1993 film Gettysburg, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s downhill bayonet charge at Little Round Top, which by itself just might have saved the Union–

Whether Chamberlain actually saved the Union is a matter of debate, but he knew his position was vital (the utter left flank of the Union Army), and he and his men held the position with incredible courage and endurance.

4. From the 1964 film Zulu, the famous ‘Men of Harlech’ scene–

Unfortunately, unlike Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s charge at Little Round Top, this scene never happened, at least as far the singing is concerned.  But the film captures the spirit of the true story of a tiny force who held off an overwhelming enemy through grit and good tactics.

5. From Return of the Jedi— a fan edit/compilation of the climactic confrontation between Luke and Darth Vader, with the Emperor egging them on. Most particularly, watch the section from 3:17 to 3:53 and listen to the soundtrack .  Those thirty-six seconds have more tragic drama in them than many movies have in their entire running time.

The interesting aspect of this scene is that Luke is trying to save not only Anakin Skywalker from the dark side, but also his sister, and, ultimately, himself– and, in the end, he does it by not fighting.  A nice twist on the classic climactic confrontation between the hero and the villain.

Each of these scenes contain attributes I hope my own writing at least occasionally captures.  I like stories and films in which something genuine is at stake, and the protagonists have to give of themselves to protect or rescue it.  In one way or another, I’m not sure why you would make a movie that did not have this sort of tension at its core, but they get made (e.g., in my biased opinion, American Hustle).  But I try not to dwell on such creations– there are plenty of films out there that spark my imagination and touch my heart.  I focus on them.

Later.

 

Three upcoming movies that have my attention

Now that we’re past the hysteria and hoopla around Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I thought I would share some thoughts on three upcoming movies that have grabbed my attention.  In no particular order–

Suicide Squad

Okay, I am at least interested–

Harley Quinn and Deadshot and the Joker (in what may be an even more freakish interpretation, by Jared Leto, than Heath Ledger’s) all in one film– and with Batman (Ben Affleck), too.  It looks like a full house of crazies.

Of course, it is entirely possible that for me Bohemian Rhapsody and Freddie Mercury are affecting my emotional reaction to this trailer.  You could put Bohemian Rhapsody on a video of a dripping faucet and I’d watch it.

Interestingly, the Comic-con trailer for this same movie has a completely different feel, taking a much more serious and dramatic– maybe even tragic– tone.  The producers might want to figure out their marketing approach to this product.  Remember what happened to John Carter.  Just saying.

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

If this film maintains the serious tone of Man of Steel, it will hit the ground– or the screen– with an excellent head-start, as far as I’m concerned.  That approach was one of the best things about Man of Steel, lifting me up and over some irritating flaws in the story logic.  I’ve never been a big fan of the Justice League, but the trio of Wonder Woman, Batman and Superman is intrinsically interesting.  I will be interested in seeing how the film handles the initial conflict between Superman and Batman (rather a traditional element in their respective origin stories) and how their friendship then grows to form the League’s foundation.  And, I have to admit, Wonder Woman’s reveal in this trailer is pretty fun.

Captain America: Civil War

Of these three movies, this is the one I am the most jazzed about.  I have become a serious fan of Captain America as portrayed by Chris Evans in Marvel’s Captain America and Avengers movies.  The whole series of interconnected films that comprise the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been a creative stroke of genius, in my biased opinion, the brainchild of fans in positions of power, such as Kevin Feige (and now DC is playing serious catch-up with Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad).  It is a great storytelling gimmick and should pay dividends for Marvel and Disney for years to come, even if the quality of the individual films varies (Age of Ultron, for example).

I was never a great fan of Captain America in the comics (for years I was obsessed with the X-Men), but Chris Evans’ portrayal of Cap as a decent regular guy who acquires extraordinary powers and then must cope with being displaced in time is one of the best and most consistent character arcs in the whole MCU.  As long as Evans plays the role I will be watching with interest.

On the flip-side, there are upcoming movies that are not particularly on my must-see list–

X-Men: Apocalypse– Despite my deep and long-lasting affection for the X-Men, I’ve found the last several movies disappointing, despite the presence of great actors like Jennifer Lawrence.  After Days of Future Past apparently rebooted the series I have some hope, but I’m going to approach Apocalypse with caution.

Deadpool– hmm…no.  Not a fan, despite the presence of certain X-Men.  Sorry. (Oh, and the trailer’s kinda gory, fyi).

Warcraft– really uncertain about this one, and rather severely disappointed by the look of the trailer.  The live action and the CGI characters do not look as if they were matched up very well. I’ve been waiting for a World of Warcraft movie, and now that it’s here it looks…kinda lame, actually.  Dang.

Gods of Egypt– please.  Overwrought CGI and some sort of battle of the gods that looks like a cheap video-game. No, thank you.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows– oh, hell no.

 

 

 

 

“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!!
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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.