Category Archives: Movies

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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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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Retire This Trope

The other night on Hulu I watched some of the movie Deep Impact. If you haven’t heard of this Earth versus Comet movie it is because it was utterly buried at the box office by that stupidly insulting example of Michael bay’s work, Armageddon. Beside show casing Elijah Wood before The Lord of The Rings, this film was a serious attempt to convey a story about a comet on a collision and the difficulty in diverting it.

Overall this film scores well in its science. It has some concept of the distances and energies involved. In fact the ship dispatched to divert the comet is powered by an Orion drive, something we had considered building; a ship that flies on a series of atomic explosions.

The movie did engage in one of the oldest trope in SF movies, the astronaut who gets separated from the craft and flies off into cold limitless space.

People, this is not the problem Hollywood would have you think it is.

Everything in space is about velocity. Velocity determines the size and period of your orbits. Go fast enough around the Earth and you are in orbit around the planet. Go faster and you may leave the planet but then you are orbiting the sun. Go a hell of a lot faster and you leave the sun’s influence and now you’re orbiting the center of the galaxy.

If you are working over the side on a spaceship lose you grip you may float away, but your velocity did not change all that much. You are still in the same orbit as the ship you left. Yeah it is out of reach but guess what you can move. With just a tiny burp of it orbital thrusters, not its main engines, and they can come and get you. The same is true if that ship is on its way to the moon, or Mars, or even the outer solar system. The difference between your new velocity and your old one, which was the same as the ships, is going to be insignificant compared to the ship’s ability to change its velocity.

But you know, I am starting to get an idea for a story…

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Mad Max: Fury Road – Black and Chrome

For Valentine’s Day y sweetie-wife gifted me with the deluxe Blu-ray for Mad Max: Fury Road which included not only tons of bonus material, which I adore, but the directors version of the film in glorious Black and White. I have spent the last few nights watching the movie in its ‘Black and Chrome’ edition.

(I saw the film in the theaters and one on Blu-ray in color so I didn’t feel too bad breaking it into thirds to watch it after my evening’s work was done.)

Much like Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Mad Max: Fury Road is a film that I like and appreciate more with repeated viewings. The story movies at a breakneck pace, throwing character development and backstory in amid the action. I watched it this time with subtitles turn on and followed the story a little closer without losing dialog to accents or the massive noise of the extended chases. Specifically I understood the through-line arc for the character Lux a little better this go around.

The film plays beautifully in black and white. Stripped of color the stark unforgiving landscape is particularly powerful and the characters seem harder and more raw.

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and I couldn’t hazard to guess which version may end up my default screening, B&W or color.

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It Means What you Think, but that is not what was Meant

At one of the panels this past weekend the classic SF/Horror film The Invasion of the Body Snatchers was mentioned. Naturally when the film came up people started discussing it’s message and meaning.

Of Course it is an allegory for Communism and the soul crushing power of the totalitarian state.

Of Course it is an allegory for McCarthyism and crushing power of political terror forcing everyone into the same march.

Of Course it is an allegory for Social Conventions and the crushing power of culture, particularly that of mid-20th century America to crushing people into conformity.

Which of these is correct?

Why all of them, of course. A piece of art means to you what it means. That is not to say that was its intended meaning. Various interviews have revealed the actors, director, and writers, harbored not direct allegory. Some going so far as to say they merely intended to craft a good thriller. (check that box) Do not confuse the message you take away with the artist’s intent.

A perfect example of this is the recent on-line war between John Carpenter and the Alt-Right over the meaning of his film They Live. As I mentioned in passing when I recently discussed that film here, it could be read in an anti-Semitic manner. Now if you know anything of Mr. Carpenter you know that the intended message was on attacking Yuppies, Capitalism, and Consumerism. However those of the Alt0Right saw a different theme, one that is easy to see if that us what you *want* to see.

And there is the great truth of art, everyone brings their own life experiences and filters the process through them. What you see as a clear symbol is to someone else just a jar of baby food.

When you talk about tv shows and movies and what they really meant, be wary of putting your meaning into someone else’s mouth.

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Sunday Night Movie Sadako vs. Kayako

While this is billed as my Sunday Night Movie, I started it Sunday evening but finished it Monday. After the energy expended at Condor 2017 I simply pooped out and couldn’t watch it all in one go, particularly since it is subtitled and required a greater mental focus.

I first learn of this film last year when a friend and I drove up to Los Angeles for an after evening at Universal Studios, taking in their Halloween Horror Night, and then scooting over to Hollywood for a late screening of 1979s Dawn of the Dead in 3D. (Verily that was cool.) While my companion took care of his pre-show bathroom break and concessions the trailer for this film played.

If you do not recognize the names these are the ghosts or spirits from The Ring franchise (Sadako) and The Grudge (Ju-On) (Kayako). So as you can see it is not just American that is interested in bad guys fights such as Freddy vs Jason.

Overall this was better than the aforementioned Freddy vs Jason. The cast is comprised of fairly likeable and relatable characters competently acted. The film’s action is contemporarily set and so they had to dance around a few issues since Sadako does her bad magic via a VHS tape. Also for the sake of compression, I assume, they reduced her kill curse from seven days to two.

(If you don’t recall The Ring or Ringu the Japanese original version, if you watch the tape then your phone rings and a voice tells you ‘seven days’ and when that time has passed you die. Ju-On was centered on a house where a spirit of vengeance visited violence and death on all who lived there, for this film that has been compressed to simply entering the haunted home.)

The production values are decent and there are plenty of both in your face jump scares and atmospheric scenes that rely on tension for their effect. I was particularly fascinated by an exorcism scene. It was quite interesting watching one that was non-western and not driven my a monotheistic religion.

Of course the main event for a film of this type is the throw down between the two powerful spirits. (Though at one point both are referred to as ‘ghouls’ and I wonder what the original language translated as.) On that score the big confrontation is rather spare and short but better that than overly drawn out and tiresome.

In terms of tone it borrows more from Ringu than Ju-On. It has a conventional western narrative structure rather than the sequence of incidents that Ju-On utilized. In the final resolution it leaned more in the direct of Ju-On.

I enjoyed my viewing but not enough to see a need to purchase a copy.

Sadako vs Kayako is currently streaming on Shudder.

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Movie Review: Logan

Logan is reportedly the final outing for Hugh Jackman as Logan/Wolverine and Patrick Stewart as Charles Xavier and it is fitting conclusion for the association of these two talented actors with their icon characters.

This movie is not one for the children. It is rated ‘R’ for language and violence. In the source material Wolverine is a violent character and the illustrations usually hint of the terrible carnage wreaked by his claws. For this final film the carnage is explicit. Limbs are severed and decapitations abound. However the film is not an exploitative exploration of how much gore can fit onto an IMAX screen. In fact compared to most zombie movies post Dawn of the Dead the blood and dismemberment is positively restrained.

The themes are friends, family, and the dichotomy between what life has made us into and what we choose to be. It is set in the future of the X-Men/Mutants franchise (Which is not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Different studios, different film rights involved.) and for the most part the gifted mutants have vanished from the world. Logan and Charles live in hiding, the days of heroism now a thing unspoken. A mysterious aliment has weakened Logan who now makes his living as an upscale Uber-style driver. Into this reclusive life comes Laura, a laconic young girl, troubled, hunted, and with a secret. Suddenly thrust into danger and trying to refuse call to heroism Logan is forced to confront his and Charles’ past and the ghosts of their actions.

This film hardly belongs in the category of ‘superhero’ movies. It is a rich character drama drawing its power from compelling characters, a tight, taut script and terrific acting. It is no surprise that veterans such as Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, and Richard E. Grant imbue their performances with heart and nuance but throughout the film I was stunned by Dafne Keen as Laura.

Dafne tackles a part that many adult and experienced actors would find difficult. Using only her eyes she conveys a range of emotions many thespians are unable to achieve. I was reminded of the work of Natalie Portman in Leon: The Professional. I hope that Ms. Keen’s career is a full, varied, and satisfying as Ms. Portman’s.

From a writer’s perspective There are a few minor flaws in the Logan. Elements of Wolverine’s mysterious illness left me with problems and some of the ‘Chekov’s Gun’ establishment was too obvious for my tastes, but these and other minor missteps are unlikely to bother people who are not regularly engaged in story construction.

This is a movie worth seeing. If you enjoy your violence loud, and in your face, then see it in IMAX, if you are sensitive to modern movies and their volume levels wait for home video as the mix is full of thumping bass, but the movie is fully worth it.

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