Friday, December 19, 2014

Interstellar, Dark Shadows, and others


I’m a father who loves his children.  I’m a pilot who spends an enormous amount of time on the road.  I still own the copy of ­Black Holes and Warped Spacetime I ordered from the Science Fiction Book Club in 1982.  Interstellar could not have been more calibrated to my sensibilities if it had been coded to my DNA.

Here’s the setup: Earth is fast becoming uninhabitable.  In the first act, scientist Michael Caine tells hero Matthew McConaghey that his children will be the last generation to live to old age.  The solution?  A journey to another solar system, via wormhole, to find a habitable planet.

That’s a great setup for any number of films.  You could go thriller, horror, hamhanded political screed, religious allegory – you name it.  Interstellar blends aspects of exploration adventure and introspective head trip to create a film that evokes Kubrick’s 2001 while maintaining a sense of desperate tension.  All that, and it provides the best exploration of time dilation in popular science fiction since Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War.  There’s even a snappy android played by Sesame Street’s Mister Noodle.

Really, what more could you ask for?

Dark Shadows

Dark Shadows has all the elements of a solid horror-comedy: a classic vampire, a vampy villain, ghosts, and werewolves.  However, it never quite comes together.  Its hero is a genuine monster, making it hard to root for him.  Its villain has clear motivations that make no sense, its plot is muddled, and its climax says “to heck with it” and departs even from the rules of its own fantasy world.

And on and on and on.

One gets the feeling that some producer decided to exploit his or her rights to a nominally familiar horror franchise, called Tim Burton, and handed him a sack of cash.  Burton did his thing, complete with a real live Corpse Bride, but the movie spent too much time in production and not enough time in the word processor.

Ah, well.

My Fair Lady

My Fair Lady combines a fairly risible story (once you think about it) with one catchy production number after another.

I like catchy production numbers.  I’m still humming “Ascot Opening Day.”  I’ll watch this any time it comes on.

The World’s End

The World’s End is lovely.  While hampered by a rocky first act, the picture gets to swinging once the world actually begins to end.  It’s funny, it’s heartfelt, and it’s a winner.

Much Ado About Nothing

Meh.  There ain’t no Beatrice and Benedick like Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh’s Beatrice and Benedick.

The Heroic Trio

Oh, what an abomination.  Stupidly plotted, poorly choreographed, badly shot, and amateurishly dubbed, The Heroic Trio is a sad waste of the talents of Maggie Cheung, Michelle Yeoh, and Anita Mui.  Give it a pass.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Mrs. Miniver

Mrs. Miniver is a propaganda film, pure and simple.  Its prologue reads, “This story of an average English middle-class family begins with the summer of 1939; when the sun shone down on a happy, careless people, who worked and played, reared their children and tended their gardens in that happy, easy-going England that was so soon to be fighting desperately for her way of life and for life itself.”  Its epilogue:  “AMERICA NEEDS YOUR MONEY BUY DEFENSE BONDS AND STAMPS EVERY PAY DAY.”  (Source: IMDb)  

The film (directed by William Wyler) introduces us to The Minivers, the aforementioned average middle class family.  It tells us that they’re an average middle-class family, but it lies.  They’re well above average.  In fact, I’d call them rich.  They live in a beautiful home and have servants.  Their oldest son is away at Oxford, and he woos the granddaughter of the local noblewoman.  Mr. Miniver owns a yacht, Mrs. Miniver splashes out on ridiculously expensive hats, and the couple drives a car that’d cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $75,000 today.

Over the course of the film, we see the Minivers overcome adversity, do their duty, spread joy, and generally be happy.  When the Blitz wreaks havoc on their cozy village, we in the audience are supposed to feel compelled to buy war bonds to –what?  Help these nice rich people keep being nice and rich?  To preserve an ideal of an England that never was?

I’m not quite sure, but here’s the kicker: it works.  I liked the Minivers.  As played by Greer Garson, Mrs. Miniver is a saint – and a pretty one, to boot.  Mr. Miniver does his part at Dunkirk and helps to bring the boys home.  Young Oxford Miniver, despite his intellectual pretensions, grows into a fine fellow and just the man for the noblewoman’s practical and intelligent granddaughter.  I laughed.  I cried.  I noticed a subplot brazenly plagiarized by ‘Downtown Abbey’ decades later.

So, yes, Mrs. Miniver is a propaganda film.  That’s not the point.  The point is, it’s a good propaganda film.  Now, where can I go to buy some bonds?

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

I am the target demographic for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.  I still have a 35-year-old copy of the source novel that has followed me from move to move.  I loved the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and I bought the extended editions of all three of those films on DVD.  Heck, I even loved the generally unappreciated first ‘Hobbit’ film, An Unexpected Journey.

Desolation of Smaug is different.  I fell asleep during the climax.

By the time the film got our titular hobbit to the treasure-laden lair of the dragon Smaug, it had taken so many detours that I’d lost interest.  A love triangle featuring two elves and a dwarf?  That idea never should have escaped the world of slash fiction.  A tedious backstory about a heroic ferryman and his family’s legacy of dragonfighting?  Meh.  Gandalf and Radagast investigating the possible appearance of the villain from The Lord of the Rings?  At least it wasn’t trade negotiations. 

And on and on and on and on.  The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug felt so bloated and meandering that it failed to generate any propulsive energy.  I began the film caring about our Hobbit’s quest to find Smaug’s mountain, but by the time the last MacGuffin showed up (some kind of glowing gem that the dwarves want), I’d lost interest and felt the need to rest my eyes.

All this means that The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, failed in its core mission: entertaining its audience.  I didn’t actively hate it, but I grew so bored I don’t even know whether I’ll queue up its final sequel, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.  It’ll take one heck of a critical reception to make me change my mind.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

After Life

After Life is unlike any movie I’d ever seen before.  Watching it suffused me with happiness, and I’m taking a lesson from it.

The film, by Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda, is set in a way station between this life and the next.  The souls of the newly-dead file in to a reception area, give their names, and take seats in a waiting room.  When called, a friendly and efficient counselor tells them they’ll be staying at the way station (which looks an awful lot like a college dormitory the production company rented) for five days.  They’ll have three days to review their lives and choose one memory they’d like to carry into the next world.  On the fourth day, the staff will recreate that memory and film it.  On the fifth, the souls will see their films and depart, off to spend the rest of eternity in moments of their choosing.  The staff, it seems, gets one day off and one day to prep for the next batch.

The counsellors are kind and patient.  One helps a teenager dig more deeply after the latter goes with a trip to Disneyland, presumably the first thing that popped into her mind.  Another helps a man who argues that life is pain and best forgotten.  This is a narrative film, so there is a plot, but the plot seems beside the point.

The point, I think, is to inspire viewers to browse their own memories as they ask themselves which one they’d take with them.  The effect: roughly ninety minutes of reviewing one’s personal highlight reel.  While watching this film, I found myself beginning at my earliest memories and reliving those moments in which I felt the most loved, or in love, or triumphant, or elated, or joyous, or content.  Whenever I thought I’d settled on an answer, another memory would crowd in to take its place.
This was a powerful experience. 

I tend not to dwell on the past.  When I see old friends, I steer the conversation away from reminiscence.  When people refer to some shared experience from long ago, I often smile and nod, having forgotten the moment to which they’re referring.  I didn’t have a particularly traumatic childhood.  I’m just more interested in what’s happening right now.

This film, however, taught me that my past is a rich trove of memories, one worthy of attention and reflection.  It reminded me how very fortunate I am to love and be loved, to be an adventurer, to have achieved some modicum of professional success and fulfillment.

This film taught me to look back and choose what matters.  And if the end came right now, the choice would be clear.  My most cherished memory may seem mundane, but it’s precious to me: hanging out on the couch with my wife and children, doing nothing in particular, living in love.

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.