Category Archives: Movies

Revisiting Wonder Woman

The 2017 Superhero film Wonder Woman reached HBO and over the last two nights I have re-watched the movie. I did go out and see the movie in the theaters on its release and while the film did not wow me I did enjoy the experience, though not enough to go again or purchase the home video version. I thought it might be amusing to watch the film again and see if it still tracked to my initial reaction.

Overall the film is fun but flawed. I do not feel it was a waste of my relaxing hours to re-watch the movie but the overall effect has not changed for me.

The story is fairly basic, it is an original story dealing with the deep myth of Wonder Woman in D.C. Movie continuity. Set during the Great War, WWI for those who do not know by that title, Diana (Wonder Woman) leaves her sheltered paradise home to destroy the god of war Ares in hopes of freeing humanity his violent corruption and restoring all people to their noble versions of themselves. Along the way we are treated to truly entertaining ‘fish out of water’ sequences, a few stock characters as supports, and Diana’s love, Captain Steve Trevor. In the end Dian learns that she had not been in possession of the entire truth about humanity, war, or herself, and picks up the mantle of Wonder Woman, fighting for those who cannot fight for themselves.

The script is rather simple and does not bear close scrutiny, particularly in relation to the Great War itself and the historical record. False dram is attempted by making an excursion into enemy territory as a peace-threatening event while great artillery pieces are pounded both sides. The development of a new and terrifying gas weapon provides a third act ticking clock but the mechanics of that clock are quite silly. (Really who would ever load up a bombed with a timer so you cannot leave it on the ground? Weather, often unpredictable, could doom your base and your brilliant scientist simply because you were forced to delay takeoff.

Originally Wonder Woman was a WWII set story but I can understand why they moved the period to the First World War. That war, now a hundred years in the past, is less well know by popular audiences, giving the filmmakers greater freedom in story telling, without the racists overtones and the Holocaust the morality of the war is murkier than WWII, and finally if your plot is going to revolve about a super weapon that Ares inspires humanity to create in hopes of destroying itself, well in WWII there is only one candidate for that device and that would place Diana squarely against the United States, a situation that would be untenable from a storytelling and box office position.

What makes this film enjoyable to watch is the quite skilled direction of its action scenes, hat tip to Patty Jenkins for excellent visual story telling, and the performances from its two leads, Gal Gadot as Diane and Chris Pine as Steve Trevor. This film struck a powerful cord in audiences on its release and a sequel is already in the works. I do hope that Patty and Gal get a better screenplay so we can see them really shine in a manner I am fully confident that they can achieve.

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A Power Historical Drama: Conspiracy

Monday night, when I came home from my local writers group meeting, I developed a migraine and was unable to write or read. After taking my medication I pulled up HBO Now on my apple TV and browsed for something to watch while I waited for the pill to work.

I selected the 2001 HBO/BBC production Conspiracy. It is a movie I have seen twice before and being something familiar that would work well with my migraine and I could watch just enough until the headache subsided and I could retreat to bed.

I watched the entire film.

Conspiracy is about the 1942 Wannsee conference where Nazi General Heydrich calls, at Hitler verbal directive, a meeting of the top ministries and military divisions of the Nazi government to settle the ‘Jewish Question.’ It is the meeting where the murder of millions was decided. The meeting was held under conditions of extreme secrecy, each participant was given one copy of the meeting notes and instructed to destroy them after reviewing the record. (Luckily for history Foreign Minister liaison Martin Luther failed to destroy his and the record was captured after the war’s end. It is his copy that the film script is based upon.)

With an impressive cast including but not restricted to Kenneth Branagh, Stanley Tucci, and Colin Firth, the film is nearly a play. Set primarily in a single room, it is a large group of men talking, arguing, and giving vent to their hate. And yet with so little ‘action’ it is utterly captivating. The banality of their evil is a chilling reminder just how easily people slip between prejudice and murderous hate. How anti-Semitism comes in a sickening array of flavors, from the knuckle dragging brutes of the SS to brilliant legal minds warped by conspiratorial thinking and imaginary world spanning cabals.

The crux of the piece is of course how this meeting set the holocaust in motion, not by accident, not by lack of foresight, but by premeditated intent to murder millions.

It did not start here. It did not start with the hate, though plenty bathed in that hate and weaponized in their poisonous politics. No for Germany and its population it started with the scapegoating, the blaming, the lies and finger pointing to a marginalized population as the source of all of Germany’s troubles. It started with words.

Pay attention to the words hurled by others and those repeated by yourself, what starts as a political tactic can all too easily end on horror on unimaginable scales.

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Movie Review: The Shape of Water

I have been a fan, but not a devoted one, of Guillermo del Torro since I had the good fortune to catch Chronos during its theatrical run and from the first trailers The Shape of Water, is a movie I wanted to see.

Sadly I spent weeks in December and January sick with colds and flu, but this weekend I finally managed to make the time to go see the movie, properly in a theater.

The Shape of Water, clearly inspired by the classic Universal film The Creature from the Black Lagoon, takes place in a mythical USA, someplace between 1957 and 1961, when the country was locked in a spacer-ace and the cold war with the USSR. Elisa and Zelda work as janitorial staff in a secret government facility just outside of Baltimore when a new asset, the amphibian man is brought into the center. The new security officer, Strickland, is flat portrayal of 50’s white, heterosexual, patriarchy dominance and very much the villain and antagonist of the movie. Over the course of the story Elisa and others from marginalized communities, discover the humanity in that which is not human and the inhumanity in their own species.

The film is a fairly tale, one of del Torro’s favorite areas to work in, and the opening narration places within that genre as surely as if it had intoned, ‘One upon a time.’ The film is photographic beautifully, and the period is rendered in loving detail. The performances, over all, are sharp, layered, and nuanced. Strickland, for my tastes, is presented in a too one-dimensional manner and this weakens an otherwise strong script. I found it easier to accept a song and dance number deep within the movie than the broad, stereotypical villain. Still, it is a very enjoyable film, and one well worth seeing in a comfortable theater with good sound and image.

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Sunday Night Movie: Fantastic Voyage

I have an interesting relationship with the movie Fantastic Voyage. In the early 70’s shortly after I discovered reading SF, I read Isaac Asimov’s adaptation of the screenplay into a novel. (It also had an amusing essay by Asimov on why the science in the story was terrible but how he kept to the concepts anyway. A sort of ‘don’t blame me’ disclaimer for the terrible science.)

After reading the novel I really really wanted to see the movie. For young people today it is hard to emotionally understand just how frustrating that was at the time. There was no streaming services, no Internet, no home video market at all. The best one could do, if you had the equipment and the funds, was to order a 16mm copy of the movie and watch it on an honest to god film projector. That was not an option for me. All I could do was grab the weekly edition of TV guide and read it cover to cover hoping that some station would broadcast the film.

They never did.

It was literally decades before I managed to see the movie and the startling changed from script to novel still make the experience rough. Sunday Night scanning was available from HBO Now for streaming I stumbled across Fantastic Voyage and took the nostalgic plunge.

The story is an interesting one. A scientist, irreplaceable in his knowledge, had been spirited out from behind the Iron Curtain. (Kids, go ask your parents) Just before he reaches safety an assassination attempt leaving him comatose with an inoperable blood clot in his brain. Well, inoperable from the outside. Turns out that the government has been developing a process to shrink materials and personal down to the size of microbes. An experimental submarine is crewed with two doctors, an assistant, a naval officer to drive it, and a security man to make sure no enemy agents has slipped aboard, is shrunk down and injected into the scientist to cut away the clot from the inside.

There is a lot of interesting and nearly on target science in the movie, but there are great stretches of hand-waving as well. (Where does all that mass go? Never addressed at all.) That aside Fantastic Voyage is a decent flick with a fine cast. Of course things go wrong, not much drama if that didn’t happen, and of course these is an enemy agent aboard. The special effects are pretty impressive for 1966 and the opening credit scrawl may have inspired the opening of 1971’s The Andromeda Strain.

This is worth watching at least once and particularly if you have HBO Now and can just stream it.

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Content vs. Style in Film Noir

One of the enjoyable discussions at the recent Condor SF convention was about noir on television and naturally the topic shifted to film noir in general. An important aspect to any discussion about noir films is that the definition is applied to the classics retroactively. While the term was first coined in 1946 it wasn’t until the 1970s, well after the classic period of noir cinema, that the notion gained general acceptance. That means when the filmmakers were making movies like Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, or Asphalt Jungle they were not setting out to make film noir. This lack of an accepted definition means that one of the hotly contested areas of discussion is what is noir anyway?

Usually this breaks down into two major camps, those who advocate style and those of emphasize content.

The style adherents maintain that it is the general mood, elements, and cinematography that best defines film noir, with the most strict supports even advocating that it simply is not possible to have a true noir that is in color.

For those support the content arguments, of which I count myself, it is the story details and for me the nature of the characters that best define the genre. While the impressive and German Expressionism inspired photography of Double Indemnity is perfect for the mood of that film it is the appetite for money and sex and how that appetite destroys the characters that makes it a noir in my opinion. It is more than the use of sharp shadows and stark contrasts that make a property truly a noir.

In my opinion Polanski’s Chinatown is very much a noir as is L.A. Confidential, even though both are in color and make use of brilliant sunny Southern California settings to contrast the corruption and decay hiding under the surface. I would also count Blue Velvet as an example of the genre while the style remains very much Lynch’s own and not a homage to the classic noirs.

Perhaps, the best argument against a stylistic definition is with one of my favorite films, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. From the comedic minds of Carl Reiner and Steve Martin the movies is a farcical parody of the genre. Shot is black-and-white with all the deep shadows and sharp contrasts Dead Men apes the style perfectly. It has it because much of the film utilizes clips from classic noirs and with careful staging and editing presents these scenes as all taking place within their own movie. It is a project that could only be created by people who love this particular genre and it is fiercely funny.

But is it noir?

I would argue it is not, though it perfectly captures the style of a noir the content, parody and farce, place it far afield from those dark and cynical stories. So to me if you have a film that captures the style but cannot be considered a film noir then the definition must be more than style, it must include content.

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My Personal Film Festival

So, the end of the year period is the time frame where I tend to do a lot of overtime at my day-job. My habit is to take the extra funds generated by the OT, set them aside, and buy myself something nice with that loot. This year it will be replacing my 10-year-old flat screen television. I am looking at a Sony X900E in the 55″ size for my next television. I will be waiting until after the upcoming copyrighted sporting event to make that purchase, as it is not uncommon for TVs to go on sale at that time.

Once the new television is installed and ready to go for a few friends and family I will then host my Cold War Movie Marathon; three films about the cold war, produced during the cold war.

1) The Manchurian Candidate (1962). I selected this film, one of my personal favorites, to capture the essence of paranoia the infused the period. With terrific performances by Lawrence Harvey, Angela Lansbury, and Frank Sinatra it is a classic.

2) The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965) Based on the novel by John Le Carre this is the dark and realistic tale of an intelligence officer attempting one final field mission. This one I picked for its excellent sense of cynicism and the moral ambiguity of the both sides during the protracted contest. Starring Richard Burton this movie is pretty much the polar opposite of a James Bond movie.

3) Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) I will end the series with this classic dark comedy from film genius Stanley Kubrick. Inspired by the novel Red Alert, Kubrick started the production as a serious dramatic film, but quickly found that his preferred method of dealing with such terrible subject matter was to turn it into farce, had it remained a dramatic film I think it would have been remembered but not a classic. Strangelove by being a farce captures the absurdity of that nuclear standoff and the insanity of the period.

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Documentary Review: Five Came Back

I did not get any fiction writing completed last night. While I have finally gotten over my flu, and this year’s number is quite a little beast, early in the evening the migraine gnomes arrived with his less than anticipated gifts. Instead, after taking the required medications, I settled into to complete a documentary series that I had started while still recovering from my flu; Five Came Back.

A Netflix original and based on the book of the same name this series, three episode each just over an hour in length, examines the lives of five legendary and award winning directors before during and after their service in World War II. Each man served as a filmmaker and as with everyone else who saw service in that global and terrible conflict each was changed by their experience. The Five were John Houston, John Ford, William Wyler, George Stevens, and Frank Capra.

The films produced by these men range from instructional movies and cartoon, including the classic Private SNAFU which featured the earlier work of Ted Geisel better known as Dr. Seuss, through blatant propaganda, and touching revelations about the ravages of psychic wounds.

A movie I commented on here a few months ago, Know Your Enemy: Japan a racist piece of propaganda, I can happily report was never actually screen to our troops. It only made it to the front just three days after the surrender and MacArthur banned its presentation.

If you have an interest in film, history, and the Venn diagram where these two fascinating fields overlap I cannot this series enough.

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New Year’s Eve Movie

This posting is a few days late but I am still shaking off the effect of this year’s flu, which for many is particularly rough.

New Year’s Eve a local movie appreciation society Film Geeks San Diego hosted an invitation only screening of an undisclosed title. Getting an invitation was easy, all I needed to do was respond to the posting. I arrived at the Digital Gym, a fine micro-theater and school, gave the supplied password, and I was in. This sounds much more cloak and dagger than it was, but the air of what unknown film my friends Miguel and Beth had selected supplied a lot of fun. After three cartoons the title was announced to the twenty people invited to the private screening: Liquid Sky. I had heard of this film but had never seen it and that was perfectly fine by me. I love cinematic experimentation. We stopped the film just before midnight to ring in the New Year and then continued with the screening.

Liquid Sky is a movie about the lives of a small collection of aspiring models, actors, and fashion people living lives of hedonism, experimental music, and drugs an alien spacecraft lands in the milieu, manned by tiny unseen creatures that have come in search of opioids. A scientist from West Berlin follows the aliens into the neighborhood, studying the extraterrestrials and hoping to warn the residents of the dangers that are in. It would seem that the aliens have switched their habits from heroin to opioid like chemicals produced in the human brain. What unfolds is a story of sex, manipulation, assault, and eventually murder as the visitors harvest their ‘crop.’

Though it is a product of the early eighties Liquid Sky, in part due to is highly unusual and stylized make and androgynous characters possesses a strong Ziggy Stardust sensibility. Made on a small budget the film is devoid of the special effects so common to 1982 and for a story with as much sex and sexuality as it had is even restrained in it in on screen depictions. (Though be warned that there is an on screen rape scene presented, as it should be free of titillation.) Liquid Sky gained a cult following and lately there has been talk of a sequel.

Following the feature there were more material presented but I could feel my energies flagging and made the short drive home, all in all not a bad way to start off 2018. I know many people are hoping that 2018 will be a better year than 2017 to which I say, do not hope, make it a better year, the choices are up to us.

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Rebels and Mutineers

So this post will be about a bit in Star Wars: The Last Jedi that has upset some corners of fandom, that means there will be spoilers, light ones, and if you are not in the mood for spoilers, engaged your hyperdrives now.

 

Ok, you have been given fair warning.

 

Star Wars, all the films, are American stories, told by Americans and aimed, principally at Americans and Americans love rebels. Our national was born in rebellion and even when a segment of the country took up arms against the rightful government we tell the story as one of honor and duty, not slighting those who rebel against us. It is baked into our national psyche to root for the underdog, the person throwing themselves against impossible odds. This carries over in our science-fiction.

Think how often commodores and admirals of Starfleet are either idiots, morally compromised, or simply insane, and our heroes are forced to ignore orders, throw mutinies in order to do what needs to be done. Over and over again we are treated in our fiction to mayors, governors, presidents, and police captains that must be disobeyed and ignored. This is one of the most used and well-known tropes of fiction. (Hell, I use it myself in the military SF novel currently being shopped around.)

So, even setting aside the gender issues and those are no insignificant, in The Last Jedi when Poe Dameron defies Vice Admiral Holdo we are conditions by generations of story telling to side with Poe. He’s our known hero, we’ve adventured with him before in The Force Awakens, this Holdo is an unknown, a stranger, and a superior who disregards our Hero’s sound advice. Of course we are going to think that its Poe who is in the right, we’re going to pull for his mutinous actions and secret keeping, and we’re going to expect that Holdo will get her comeuppance.

Only, that isn’t what happens.

Holdo knows what she is doing and it is Poe who is off the reservation. Poe’s action threatens everyone and in the end his mutiny is just that, a mutiny while under fire from the enemy.

Now some have tried to push the blame back on Holdo because she did not share her plans with Poe, but that is wrong. Poe, a hotheaded pilot disciplined for ignoring orders, has no need to know her thoughts or plans. No superior military officer is obligated to explain themselves to their junior officers. (Only in the face of illegal orders does a junior officer have not only the right but also a duty to disobey.) Poe was not command staff nor was he part of the logistics to implement the plan. Given his record and his position Holdo is perfectly justified in telling Poe only what he needs to know. In the end Poe learns how wrong he is and that is part of the theme of the film. We learn from our mistakes and Poe’s mistake costs them dearly but know it was his mistake.

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