Category Archives: Movies

Saturday Celebrations

So today is my official Birthday and while my sweetie-wife and I will be celebrating quietly together, yesterday was a larger and noisier day.

My desire for a birthday part was fairly simple I wanted friends, I wanted pizza, and I wanted movies. I got all three

The Pizzas came from Costco, they make a decent pizza at a really good price. My friends showed up at noon and we engaged in a triple feature of genre films.

First up was 1932’s Island of Lost Souls, the first and in my opinion still the best, adaptation of H.G. Well’s The Island of Dr. Moreau. A pre-code movie the filmmakers to the plot into area not only not mentioned in the text but actively despised by the author, bestiality. Despite this there is no doubt the thought put into this movie is top notch and Charles Laughton’s performance is the heart of the production.

Forbidden Planet played next. There is little I can so about the much discussed movie. Inspired by The Tempest it is a serious, big budget, and glossy mid-50’s science-fiction film that actually tries to get its science correct. Heavy on the exposition and hopelessly trapped by the social conventions of it’s period this is still a worthy film.

We finished up with fun and cheestastic Flash Gordon (1980.) Staring Sam J. Jones and providing evidence that there is simply is no line that cannot be delivered with utter conviction by Max Von Sydow, Flash Gordon is thrilling, fun, and an utterly insane romp.

After the films we played card and board games and instead of cake I had some fantastic apple pie.

All in all yesterday was a great day and I look forward to many more years of such celebrations.

 

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Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Middle films are difficult beasts. When you are part of a larger franchise, particularly with the experiment in printing money called the Marvel Cinematic Universe, pulling off a satisfying film that takes place during an unresolved arc can be challenging. It is a challenge that many fell George Lucas failed at with The Empire Strikes Back but that Peter Jackson succeeded with in making The Two Towers. James Gunn has succeeded with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

Since the Guardians are going to be playing a major role in the upcoming Avengers: Infinity Wars the sequel to their own hit movie was sort of trapped running in place, unable to invest in major changes of the sort Marvel’s did with Captain America: Civil War. Gunn’s solution to this problem is a terrific one; Focus On Character.

The heart and theme to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is family; the family that we can’t choose and the family that chooses us. Major unresolved threads from the first film, principally the identity and nature of Peter Quill’s father sort as the engine moving the narrative along, but every character is explored through the lens of family. It is a testament to the writing that when reveals are exposed we can see that Nebula’s hatred for her sister Gamora is not entirely unfounded.

Another aspect of the scrip that displays true craftsmanship is the proper implementation of Chekov’s Gun. This is not a reference to the Enterprise’s humorous nationalistic navigator but the esteemed Russian playwright who famously advised that of there is a gun on the mantle in the first act it must be fired by the last. There are plenty of writers who competently place those guns on the mantel, fired them diligently, and then drop them to the side, forgotten. The best writers not only put the gun there, but use it again and again through the story, drawing a tight weave of elements making it so that the gun is not there simply for that one shot, but is a legitimate part of the world’s texture. Elements in Guardians are established, play their part, and then return to play further parts, driving the narrative forward with a relentless sense of inevitability that heightens the resolutions.

This film would be fun to watch on its own, but as a further exploration of these quirky characters and their tangled relationships, it’s a sheer joy. I fully endorse anyone going out and seeing it.

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Movie Review: Colossal

This morning I finally found the time to drive into Hillcrest to one of our local Landmark theaters and catch the Anne Hathaway Kaiju flick Colossal. Now those are words you really should not have expected to go together. In addition to being a giant monster movie, Colossal is also a comedy and a dramatic take on addiction and poisonous relationships.

Very fitting for this film the word Kaiju is actually Japanese for ‘strange beast’ and the story is a wonderfully weird and strange beast.

Ann Hathaway plays Gloria, a woman whose life due to alcoholism is spinning out of control. She loses her home, her relationship, and has lost job. Without resources or money she returns to her childhood home where she reconnects with a childhood friend Oscar played by Jason Sudeikis and continues her self-destructive drinking and behavior.. Things take a strange turn when an enormous monster appears in Soul South Korea. Gloria possesses an unexplained connection to the monster, one that in the end brings to a head all her unresolved issues.

Written and Directed by Nacho Vigalondo Colossal is an example of something I mentioned in an earlier essay, a movie with a message that is not a message movie. Vigalondo, like Joss Whedon, understand that comedy is best frontloaded, but one serious stakes are raised, the light-hearted approach gives way to drama, character, and real consequences.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching this film, it has very nicely written characters that are well realized by the cast. Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis are terrific, particularly Sudeikis who manages a twist that feel organic without creating a sense of falsehood. The story moves along at a good pace but without sacrificing the essential moments that develop and reveal character. The resolution is organic and emotionally satisfying. Colossal has gotten a limited ‘art house’ release so it may not be showing in your area but if you can see it do so.

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Stealth Science-Fiction Films

It’s pretty easy to know an SF movie when you see one. Most are pretty upfront about the genre that they are intending to occupy, but a few films are secretly living a science-fiction life.

Most often you’ll find these movies an stories sold as some sort of action genre. Spy movies, and not just James Bonds films, are particularly ripe with this. The classic cold war movie Ice Station Zebra turns entirely on the technological triumph is a new lens and a new film that makes the picture in the wayward spy satellite so valuable to both the USSR and the USA. Another example, one that spawned a whole sub-genre was The Hunt for Red October. The ‘caterpillar’ drive was a product of imagination, pure science-fiction, yet that film is rarely cataloged with the rest of the genre but rather gets called a ‘techno-thriller.’

My personal favorite of the stealth SF movies is . (I am of course speaking of the original and not the mindless idiotic remake.) Spoilers follow for the film but considering it is more than 50 years old if you really wanted to see it unspoiled you have had your chance.

In the movie Raymond Shaw, a rather brisk and unlikeable character, wins a Medal of Honor for his actions under fire during the Korean War. His mother, a strident anti-communist married to a rising star of a senator, tries to use Raymond’s service to help her husband climb to the vice-presidency as this is an election year. However it turns out that Raymond has been brain washed by the communists and is in fact a perfect assassin who operates without any recollection of his actions. This is all part of a larger plot that threatens the very foundations of our republic. I have left out a few of the really big twists and reveals because this is a hell of a movie and if you have not seen it, you should.

That bit of brainwashing is pure fiction, that level of conditioning is beyond any actual psychological theory or practice, thus this story is clearly SF. The advance in science/technology s critical to the plot and if removed the story cannot stand.

If you poke around in the corners of film you can find all sorts of stealth SF hiding for you like treasures.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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