Friday, November 14, 2014

Ender's Game

Ender’s Game tanked in its theatrical release.  I’m not sure why.

The film, about a boy at a space-military academy for exceptional children, has engaging characters, an interesting story, and beautiful special effects.  What went wrong?

Perhaps it was the subject matter: children forced to fight both an alien menace and one another.  In a world in which we teach our children to stop bullying by reporting incidents to the nearest authority figure, Ender’s Game posits that the best way to stop a bully is to knock him down, then kick him in the ribs until his bones crack.

Perhaps it was the premise: adults manipulating children into becoming merciless, unstoppable, alien-killing prodigies.  It’s one thing to wield a magic wand against Ralph Fiennes.  It’s quite another to commit genocide.

Perhaps it was the subtext of that premise: adults are not to be trusted.  Since adults form critical consensi and make purchasing decisions, perhaps Ender’s Game antagonized the wrong demographic.

Whatever the reasons, all I can say is that Ender’s Game worked for me.  I cared about its hero, I enjoyed its action set-pieces, and I even got my socks folded.

Perhaps it’ll fare better on video.

Friday, November 07, 2014


If Thor: The Dark World is a film to watch while folding socks, Gravity is one that rewards the viewer’s full attention.  Gravity is beautiful, awe inspiring, and captivating.  It’s the kind of movie that’ll make you spring for the biggest, best 3-D TV you can afford, then hope for an IMAX revival run.

The film begins in orbit, with first-time astronaut Sandra Bullock trying to fix a malfunctioning circuit board outside the Hubble Space Telescope; while salty spacewalker George Clooney enjoys the moment.  As the trailers indicate, this routine mission comes to a catastrophic end when remnants of a destroyed Russian satellite collide with the Telescope and the astronauts’ space shuttle.
So begins a tense, exhilarating survival tale.  One is hard-pressed to imagine a more unforgiving environment than space, but these characters are smart, capable, resourceful professionals.  What a pleasure to watch a film not about screaming morons, but about adults dealing with stresses that push them to their breaking points.

I don’t want to say more about the story for fear of giving away plot points, so I’ll write that director Alfonso Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (working, of course, with a huge team) have created the most beautiful film I’ve seen since Aronofsky’s The Fountain.  In addition to the virtuoso opening sequence, Gravity offers moments (such as that featured in the photo) of remarkable beauty coupled with thematic resonance.  This is wonderful stuff, the very epitome of mainstream filmmaking.

In other words, Gravity is a masterpiece.  I only wish I’d seen it in IMAX 3D.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Thor: The Dark World

I didn’t care for Thor (see my review).  It was a movie about people I didn’t care about fighting for stakes that didn’t matter.

I’m pleased to report that Thor: The Dark World fixes its predecessor’s faults.  This time around, the titular Thor is an interesting guy fighting a threatening villain over something worthy of the effort.  Both hero Chris Hemsworth and nemesis Tom Hiddleston have found their groove.  Villain of the Week Christopher Eccleston seems a credible threat to the universe in general and Earth in particular.  Even previously misused Natalie Portman comes across as competent and capable, as opposed to just another Pauline.  The action sequences pop, the jokes land, and everything hangs together.

I admit, I watched most of Thor: The Dark World while troubleshooting a technical issue with one of my gadgets, but that’s ok.  This is light action entertainment, perfectly fine to play in the background while folding socks or debugging code.  Let’s just forget the first outing even existed.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014


Shame brings to mind Leaving Las Vegas.  They’re both about addiction, and neither are about redemption.  They’re both about addicts who have lost all inhibition, all control over their addictions.  They’re about people who’ve burrowed into their addictions, feeding their needs far past satiety, past loathing.  They wrap themselves in shame.  They are their addictions.

With Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, it’s alcohol.  With Michel Fassbender in Shame, it’s orgasm.  And while these addictions are terrible and destructive, they aren’t, ipso facto, particularly compelling.  Humanity is compelling.  In Leaving Las Vegas, humanity comes in the guise of Elisabeth Shue as a prostitute who recognizes the man inside the addiction.  In Shame, it’s Carey Mulligan as a sister so damaged she forces the man to look beyond his.

Cage, of course, won an Academy Award for Leaving Las Vegas.  Fassbender deserved one for Shame, delivering a performance breathtaking in its fearlessness and competence.  His character begins the film a slave to his compulsions, yet he seems to have found some kind of a workable life balance.  When Mulligan’s character enters the scene, however, he’s forced to see himself.  His dawning realization, his reaction to that realization, and his subsequent evolution (or lack thereof) is absolutely magnificent to behold.

My tastes in film run toward the upbeat low- to middlebrow.  A movie like Shame, like Leaving Las Vegas, generally isn’t my thing.  But sometimes, a film is so good, so well made, so compelling, that it defies those tastes and becomes something I recommend to all my friends.  Leaving Las Vegas is such a film.  So is Shame.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Silver Linings Playbook

Oh, good God.  An hour and a half spent with people who yell at one another as a form of communication.  If I wanted that, I’d go home for Christmas.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Hunter

In The Hunter, Willem Dafoe plays a world-class game hunter who has accepted a contract to kill the world’s last surviving Tasmanian tiger.  He’s a quiet man in a quiet setting.  He walks the Tasmanian wilderness, sets traps, and tries to pick up the trail of a lonely, elusive creature.  Things get complicated because this is, after all, narrative film.  However, one gets the sense that the plot is secondary.  The film recalls the pacing and tone of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, and it is a film very much more about the pacing than the destination.

The pacing is .. deliberate.  We don't get to know Dafoe's hunter with an intro and a quip.  Rather, we get know him as he (re?)discovers an aspect of himself slowly, carefully.  There are few actors who can pull this off, and Dafoe is one of them.  However, The Hunter moves so slowly, so carefully, that I found it difficult to remain engaged.  The Hunter is a film for someone ready to meditate.  I, however, saw it on a computer in an airport lounge while keeping an eye on the "Delayed Departures" board.  I may be the target audience for this film, but I was not the target headspace.

So, see The Hunter if you love Dafoe.  See it if you love Australia.  But skip it if you have something else on your mind.  The Hunter is for meditation, not distraction.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Django Unchained

Django Unchained is a revenge fantasy set in the pre-Civil War American South. It doesn't have any vampires.

It heroes are Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz, neither of whom slay vampires. Its villains include Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Johnson, and Bruce Dern, none of whom are vampires. Its Designated Damsel is Kerry Washington, who does not kill a slaveholding vampire with a silver crucifix shot from a Spencer 1860 carbine.

In short, Django Unchained is a slavery revenge fantasy that is not Abraham Lincoln:Vampire Hunter. This is too bad. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a great movie, while Django Unchained is merely good. While AHVH is fun and creative and downright wicked in its portrayal of the Slaveholding South as an undead empire and Jefferson Davis as its knowing stooge, Django goes the more obvious route of painting its villains simply as venal, stupid, cruel, or some combination of the three.

The result? A perfectly serviceable revenge fantasy populated with world-class actors, aided by Quentin Tarantino's dialogue and unique eye, and made with every bit of goodwill all hands could muster. I chuckled. I grooved. I was entertained. But it was no AbrahamLincoln: Vampire Hunter.