Category Archives: Uncategorized

Why So Good?

On Facebook I saw a user post the question; What Made Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan so good? Rather than answer in the comments I decided to take that up as an essay.

There are many reasons why The Wrath of Khan is such a good film, and most of them can be found in the script.

The characters acted as they should have from the series. It’s known that the dry, colorless script for Star Trek: The Motion Picture flattened the life out of their characters, shattering their relationships, and setting them in pursuit of opposing goals. Spock using Kirk and emergency to seek his own enlightenment? That’s hardly the Spock we knew. While lots of good drama can be crafted from close characters in opposition, breaking the fundamental friendship of these characters does little to endear fans. Khan returned us to the characters and relationships we knew and missed.

The story flowed logically from the actions of the characters. Once Reliant stumbled across the survivors of the Botany Bay the rest of the events flowed naturally from those characters and their viewpoints. Pull out a character and the story falls apart. What I am saying is that there was indeed a real story and not simply a plot.

The limited budget meant that the filmmakers were forced to think about story over spectacle. It can be a curse to have unlimited or nearly unlimited special effects budgets. Instead of thinking about character beats and moments, it is easy to get seduced into bigger and more elaborate stunts and special effects.

The film never lost the people in the plot. A few years ago at a Science-Fiction convention I had the chance to confirm with the director Nicholas Meyer, what I think is one of Khan’s most brilliant bits of editing. Watch that film closely, every single time a weapon, phaser or photon torpedo, strikes a vessel the very next shot is people getting hurt and killed. Every single time. This pummels you with the inescapable knowledge that this grand battle between starships is always about the people aboard and the costs that they pay.

This film has no bloat. It hits the ground running and does not let up. And yet in that fast action/adventure pace it always finds time to breathe and reveal character.

Truly this is a masterwork of filmmaking.

Share

Sunday Night Movie: The Towering Inferno

Yeah, this has been an entry in the Sunday Night Movie feature before but it is one of my favorite disaster movies.

It is not a secret that I am a fan of the disaster movie genre that blossomed in the 1970s and in many ways The Towering Inferno is the pinnacle of that style of movie. It has a massive budget, being the first film that required two studios, Twentieth Century Fox and Warner Brothers, for its production The movie boasts an impressive slate of stars, another hallmark of the disaster movies, and this one included two of the biggest at the time Paul Newman and Steve McQueen along with a host of fine stars and actors in support. Special effects and spectacle are also presented in abundance throughout the feature. It is important to remember that was before the era of digital images and motion control photography, three years before the ground-shattering event that is Star Wars. Every flame in the frame is real, every full-body burn is a live stunt performer, and the tower itself is an impressive bit of model photography.

The plot of The Towering Inferno is quite simple and straightforward. It is the dedication night of the newest world’s tallest building. Situated in San Francisco the building dominates the skyline as it reaches for the stars. Due to cut corners one of the buildings contractors has substituted inferior wiring in place of those specified by the architect, leading to a short, numerous system failures, and of course a fire that quickly gets out of control. There is a massive party being held at the towers top and now more than 300 people are in danger of burning alive in the world tallest building.

What surprises me each time I re-watch this movie is how devoid of cynicism it is, particularly for a mid 70s film. There are two political characters, the mayor of San Francisco and a Senator. Both of these characters act in noble and heroic fashions, presenting none of self-centered cowardice we would expect in a current screenplay. They are not the exception, firemen and chiefs, security guards and corporate executives, architects and con-men all act as heroes, putting themselves in danger for the sake of their fellow human beings. The only exception to this is the contract who cut corners, Played by Richard Chamberlin this character displays absolutely no redeeming qualities. It is an utter mystery how his wife, daughter of the builder, ever fell in love with such a low character. He is nothing more than a walking cliché, one that would today pass as wisdom.

This film is long, two hours and forty-four minutes, and mind you this is before the end credits bloated. For The Towering Inferno end credits run just over 4 minutes. It took me two nights to watch the entire film and I don’t regret a single moment.

Share

Message Movies and Movies with a Message

I read an interesting piece yesterday about the changing nature of film criticism. The crux of the article was that once upon a time films that presented a clearly denoted social or political message were ‘lesser’ films and often savaged as such by the professional critics while now films devoid of such intent are the ones savaged as empty, pointless fare.

The message movie has been with us for more than one hundred years with the massive in scope and its repulsive message mother of these being ‘Birth of a Nation.‘ (quickly followed by the message-movie as apology ‘Tolerance.’)

I would stipulate that there is a profound difference between a ‘message movie’ and a movie with a message. A message movie is one where the lecture overpowers the story and swamps any entertainment value it may offer. The platonic ideal of this sort of filmmaking is the ‘after-school special.’ Message movies are inherently moralistic, take themselves overly seriously, and stand upon soapboxes to waggle their metaphorical fingers in the audiences’ faces. Is it any wonder that they are often money losers and have gotten a bad critical rep?

A Movie with A Message is a different animal. It is a film where the story comes first and the message comes second. 1954’s Godzilla (Gojira) is a wonderful example of this. Godzilla is first and foremost a monster movie, one that was so wildly entertaining its budget and technological limitations became such strengths that it spawned a new genre of movie. But under that excitement of a giant monster wading ashore in post-war Japan there is a powerful message about the threat and dangers of nuclear power. A short time later America would release Them! with a similar message buried under a mystery of giant ants that stretched from the Arizona deserts to the maze of sewers under Los Angeles.

One of the best rejections I have received came from a short story that was a sequel to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The editor commented that in addition to the action and the horror the story was about something. This pleased because I think that all stories are strengthened by themes, as long as the theme does not transform into an ‘After School Special.’

Science-Fiction when it is done well it a fertile field for this sort of subversive story telling. It’s much easier to hide you commentary among the purple skinned aliens than among contemporary characters.

That said there is also a place for the blatantly pointed story with a message. The recent, an terribly terrific, horror film ‘Get Out,‘ is not subtle in its message, but never does it sacrifice story and experience for a lecture. As an artists of any kind, never be afraid to putting down what you believe. You should embrace such impulses, for your voice, your viewpoint is the only thing that truly sets you apart for the other practitioners of your craft. For story tellers, remember story comes first, but meaning is not an accessory it is a feature.

Share

Movie Review: Don’t Breathe

So, Friday night I offered a friend of my a choice in which movie I’d load up into the blu-ray player; 2016’s Ghostbusters or a thriller/Horror Film Don’t Breathe. he selected the thriller

We regretted it.

The set-up is simple and right from it’s premise Don’t Breathe is a deeply flawed project. Three cardboard cut-put teenage characters engage in burglary for their chase. Money is he punk-kid character, without any redeeming qualities, Rocky is the girl trapped in a bad life searching for a way out, and Alex is the ‘decent’ kid doing this because he has a deep crush on Rocky. Alex uses his access to his father information at a security service to locate their targets. Nothing about these characters is unique or compelling, and more importantly nothing about them is engaging enough to overcome the fact they break into people’s house and rob them. They are thieves. If your characters are going to be thieves, they had better be interesting.

Things get going when they up their game from burglary to home invasion. The trio are tipped about an old blind man who scored a big settlement after a young woman killed his daughter in an auto accident. For reasons never explained – because they don’t exist – our trio knows that the blind old man keeps his big settlement in cash in his home and not in a bank or T-notes, or anything else that would actually make sense. Luckily for them the old man also is a subscriber to the right home security service so Alex isn’t utterly useless.

The three go and break in, displaying a level of smarts and idiocy that can only be plot driven, and get trapped in the house. The Old Man is blind but not helpless and it becomes a fight for their lives. In an effort to make the three more sympathetic the Old Man is revealed to have some pretty nasty secrets but that just transforms the plot into bad people doing bad things to other bad people.

Nothing about this movie is original or interesting. The plot details pile upon each other, breaking all sense of believability.

Truly we would have been better off with Ghostbusters 2016.

Share

Frank Herbert Was Wrong

Fear is not the mind killer. Fear can sharpen our wits, heighten our perceptions, and induce much needed caution into a dangerous environment. Fear is a tool sharpened by billions of years of evolution, one that should not be lightly tossed aside. Panic, handmaiden to fear, is useless and counter-productive, but this essay is not about panic but the true mind killer.

Despair is the mind killer.

Where despair takes root initiative dies. The thoughts grow sluggish and foresight sees nothing but doom when the mind is wrapped in despair. Unlike fear that make you hyper-aware of the things and consequences, Despair robs you of perception and tell lies of the future. Despair will have you lay down your arms and surrender when the battle has not yet been joined. Taken with cynicism masquerading as wisdom despair is defeat preordained.

Reject despair, even when odds of hopeless and you see no path out, fight on, you can not know the future and life is full of strange and unpredictable twists.

Share

Critique: Passengers (2016)

This is not a movie review but a critique where I give you my opinion on specific elements of the film and story. In this case I will be discussing what did not work for me and why. Unlike a review spoilers will abound and if you want to remain unspoiled stop reading now.

Synopsis:

Passengers is an SF movie about an extravagantly luxurious colony ship en route from Earth to the colony of Homeworld II. The ship travels at about half the speed of light and the journey is expected to take over a hundred years. because of this the crew and passengers are in cold sleep, the lives suspended between life and death for all but the final four months of the trip. The ship encounters that tired trope of SF movies, a meteor storm and in damaged. Cascading failures results in a passenger, Jim Preston, being awakened from cold sleep. He discovers there are more than 90 years until they reach Homeworld II and there is no way for him to return to hibernation. Jim will spend his life alone on the ship, never reaching the new world. After little more than a year, his will breaks and he awakens another passenger, Aurora Lane, a beautiful writer and lies to her telling her that her cold sleep pod malfunctioned as his did. They get to know each other, they fall into a romantic/sexual relationship, and then of course the lie is exposed. Of course she reacts angrily and they live separate lives, time-sharing the android bartender for company. A third person awakens, a ship’s crew member. He discovers some of the information about the nature of the ships damage and malfunctions, passes to them the access to the secured areas and then dies from his faulty awakening. Together Jim and Aurora discover the precise damage and what is required to fix the ship. Jim is nearly killed but Aurora saves him. Jim discovers that with the Crew Chief’s access he can put Aurora back into hibernation using the ship’s ONLY autodoc. She refuses and stays with him. Ninety years later he crew awakens to discover the ship changed and the record Aurora left behind as both have died of old age.

 

This film has a number of glaring problems and failures in execution. Unlike the movie I watched the night before, Get Out, Passengers becomes worse the more I consider it. Of course let’s get the monstrous sin out of the way first; Jim waking Aurora is an evil act. Perhaps you can understand his motivations, driven to near madness by isolation is a powerful thing, but understanding and excusing are two radically different things. Jim kidnapped Aurora from her life and forced her to live his. He did this to satisfy his needs and his desires. Some have called her eventual reaction to him ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ and I can’t argue with that. I am sure the writers think of it as love, but it’s hard to buy that when she has no choice and no options.

Next up on the great fail parade is the nature of the two characters. Jim is going to Homeworld II because he is a mechanic and no one Earth fixes anything anymore. He is going to fulfill his professional need to build things, and there he will help build a new world, a new society. Aurora is also going to fulfill a professional need. She is searching for the story that will allow her to outshine her father a great and award winning writer as well. He plans were to go, spend a year there and return, half slept through more than two hundred years for the chance at this great tale.

On the surface these characters seem to be treated very much alike, but they are not. With Aurora we get little video messages from her friends she has kept spelling out that what she really needs is not a great jump professionally, but someone to fill the hole in her heart. To be a complete person she must find love, but Jim has no such lacking or hole in his heart. Going there to build is enough. This is a classic bit of bad writing when approaching female characters. Their needs are too often about finding emotional completeness, and they find that in a man.

Another failure in executing her character is that Aurora has no agency in her storyline. I don’t mean that Jim forces her into the situation, but after she is awake and supposedly a full character she has no decision points, no action of hers material advances her story or her plot line. Her only meaningful decisions are about Jim and accepting him back or not. Everything about who she is gets reduced to her call on him. It’s crap writing for any character and especially for female characters.

The crew Chief is nothing more that Chief Exposition. he is awakened to grant access to Jim and Aurora, explain the situation, and then die getting his ‘mentor’ archetype out of the way for the third act. It’s lazy, blatant, and boring.

There are also the plot holes in the story.

There are no faculties for putting someone into hibernation/cold sleep aboard the ship, but there is a crew to run her at the destination. Did they not need a crew to launcher her? They only need it to bring her into orbit? Also there are no provisions for the crew to awaken during malfunctions? No regular awakenings to inspect the ship for function and damage? This is a terribly designed mission and I would not step aboard for that flight.

Passengers is a failed film that looks good and competently acted, but at its heart it is stupid and immoral.

Share

Movie Review: Get Out

It has taken me a little longer to see this film than I had planned. There’s nothing about this film that I did not like and that did not work. Get Out is Jordan Peele’s freshman outing as a feature film director but you would not know that from the quality of the product.

Horror movies are a difficult beast to pull off well. There are tons of low budget horror films released each year, some to theatrical release and many directly to home video and streaming. What most horror films have in common as a weakness is an over reliance gore and explicit violence intended to shock an audience. Of course that very over reliance dulls any effect of gore and explicit violence, repetition turns the shocking into the mundane. Peele, as writer and director, understands the nature of horror far better than many who have toiled in the field for decades. Horror is a mood, is a sense of wrongness that creates unease. I have once heard horror defines as a knock on the door at midnight and when you open the door, there’s a clown.

Get Out is about a likable young man, Chris Washington, going away with his girlfriend Rose for a weekend at her family home. Going to meet the parents is always stressful, but this trip is more so because Chris is African-American, Rose is white and she has not warned her parents of Chris’ ethnicity. When They arrives Chris is aware that not only is he isolated in a sea of Connecticut Caucasians but the few other African-Americans in the small town act decided odd and suspiciously servile.

This movie has been favorably compared to the 70’s classic The Stepford Wives, and that is not an bad point of reference, though the plots of the two stories are distinctly different. Get Out does not rely upon ‘body counts’ to drawn the viewer into tension or to raise the stakes. The film is smart and expects its audience to be smart as well. there are details and elements that seems merely odd on the first viewing but later maker perfect sense and without the story stopping to explain them to you. This film is powered by mood and for me really getting into the terror of being alone and the other. The cast are uniformly great at their roles but I have to give a particular shout out to Betty Gabriel who takes a smile and a look and delivers gigabytes of information and terror.

This is a terribly good movie and one that should not be missed.

Share

Sunday Night Movie: The Remains of the Day

While the vast majority of the movies I watch on Sunday nights are genre films of one variety or another not everything I watch falls into those fields of Sf, Fantasy, or Horror. The Remains of the Day is one of my favorite films and it is a movie of nothing but quiet dialog. Based on the award winning novel of the same name by Kauzo Ishiguro the story centers on James Stevens the butler of Darlington Hall and it concerns Stevens relationships with his employer Lord Darlington, Steven’s father, and the Hall Housekeep Sara Kenton. This is a story about service, devotion, and repressed emotions.

Stevens is played to perfection by Anthony Hopkins, it is hard to imagine another actor who would be able to convey such volumes of information while his character says nothing about how he truly feels. Steven is a man so driven by his concept of duty he never questions to the actions of his employer, even as Lord Darlington toys dangerously with Fascism during the run up to World War II. Nor is Stevens able to able reveal his deep feeling and affections to Miss Kenton, played by Hopkin’s equal Emma Thompson. This is a love story without first names. There is no rom-com misunderstandings, but instead this is about people trapped by their nature and their culture.

In addition to the already fine actors mentioned the boasts an impressive casting list; Christopher Reeve as an American politician, James Fox as idealistically naive Lord Darlington, Hugh Grant as his godson who has a bit better vision just what is going on, and two future cast members of HBO’s smash hit Game of Thrones, including a much younger Lena Heady is a small part.

From the moment I watched this in the theater this has been a moving film for me, one where I have tremendous empathy for Mr. Stevens and is doomed inability to express himself.

You only live your life once, make sure it is your own.

 

Share

Writing Advice you may be Missing

Anyone who reads my postings knows that I love film. Movie have been a part of my life as long as I can literally remember. The advent of home media, first VHS/Betamax, then DVD and Blu-rays has been heaven for the cinephile in me but it has also become a boon to my writing.

A common piece bonus material included in DVS and Blu-ray’s is the commentary track. Here writers, directors, producers, and actors will record a liver running commentary as they watch the film. Sometimes these are funny and filled with behind the antics, or peeks into how the magic of movies works. Those sort of commentary track are fun and I enjoy them, but there are commentary track where the writers and directors will spend the two or so hours talking about the story. What made them want to tell it, what it means to them, and how that approached the challenges.

If you are a writer and you are not listening to these you should. Heavens knows everyone looks at writing and stories from a different point of view, but seeing those points of views can illuminate your own, expand your vistas for crafting a story. These are lectures from professionals and all you need to do is block out a couple of hours – or more in the case of Peter Jackson and his endless Lord or the Rings running times – and soak in the teachings.

Share

Movie Review: Kong; Skull Island

 

The other day I was speaking with friend who also enjoys movie about Jackson’s remake of King Kong and he commented that he enjoyed the film it got back to New York. Now if you agree with that sentiment then Kong: Skull Island likely right in your wheelhouse.

The movie has the usual first act set up of meeting the characters, providing just enough depth to satisfy the requirements of a major tent-pole action film, and getting the relationships into a rough geography.

With the housework behind them then next two-thirds of the movie is action on Skull Island. Meeting fantastic beasts, being chased by monsters, the thinnest of explanations for why we haven’t seen these giant kaiju monsters before, and then wrapping all up with a message of ecology and humility.

This movie is competently crafted without glaring idiotic errors but that landed the final product, in my opinion, just okay. It was fun and engaging on the surface but it lacked the grip to hold my unbroken attention and my mind wandered.

Now as with all things your mileage may vary and I want to repeat that this is not a bad movie. I am happy I saw it, and the spectacle is enough to justify the big screen viewing. The film does more work establishing the shared cinematic universe to come than it does in servicing its own story and that’s the biggest flaw.

There is a button that follows the end credits but if you want it unspoiled do not read the title card announcing that this film is a work of fiction. (I did read it *sigh*)

Overall a fun film for giant monster fans but I’d keep to the matinee price level.

Share