Mr. Holmes

July 27, 2015

In a nutshell:  The great Sherlock Holmes finally learns the value of love and relationships before it’s too late.

That sounds like a super sappy cheesy story, and in some ways it is, but because it’s also a British historical so it ends up being grounded and poignant and in some ways very difficult.  This is a rough movie to watch if you have anyone in your life who is aging, and suffering for it.

That gets me to thinking about what must be the very intentional casting of Ian McKellen as Sherlock Holmes.  A beloved actor playing this beloved character at the end of his life — even if you don’t have a loved one going through that, it’s still really difficult watching McKellen be so old and broken — especially since we get the flashback of Holmes’ last case, with the old but vibrant wizardly McKellen we’re all used to.  And in the very next scene he’s an ancient man scrawling names on the cuff of his sleeve because that’s the only way he can remember who he’s talking to.  I don’t think this would have the same impact with a more obscure actor.

This kind of movie is an acting showcase — McKellen, Laura Linney as his house keeper, and Milo Parker as her son, another one of those utterly precocious British boy actors who all look just a little bit alike. (Seriously, I kept thinking, is this Freddie Highmore’s younger brother?  Asa Butterfield’s?  Neither, it turns out!)  They’re all great.  Watch this to appreciate good actors at work, if nothing else.

For all the tears, this is ultimately an uplifting story by the end of it.  Maybe not a brilliant movie, but a nice one.

The Tor/Forge blog has posted the first chapter of KITTY SAVES THE WORLD.  The countdown to release goes on!  We’re getting closer…

So, Turner Classic Movies was showing George Burns and Gracie Allen movies last night.  I watched some, because I had never watched Burns and Allen.  I grew up with wry old George Burns, the wizened wise man with the cigar.  I knew about Burns and Allen, and whenever there was some kind of retrospective of George there’d be a bit about the first half of his career — and usually only still pictures of him and his wife and show biz partner.  Maybe a clip from the TV show, a one-liner from a comedy routine.

So nobody actually told me Gracie Allen was a phenomenally hysterical comic genius.  Oh my goodness you guys.

There she is, the only comic in a room full of straight men, cheerfully handing them all golf balls out of her purse because Reasons.  It’s not really her jokes that are funny — it’s how she plays the dumb chick with so much glee. (“I heard of vice but I never knew they had a president for it!”)  Her character is constantly, enthusiastically oblivious, but you realize pretty quickly it’s her world, and everyone else has just stumbled into it, much to their horror.

I can also see the lineage of oblivious women comic personae, from her to Lucille Ball to Carol Burnett to Gilda Radner to Sarah Silverman, whose bit in The Aristocrats is gut-busting, best one in the bunch, in large part because she plays it with this wide-eyed innocence, like how Gracie Allen moves through her films.

Burns in these old movies is an angry, edgy Burns that I hardly recognize.  Burns with Gracie was different than Burns without her, and I start crying when I think of how hard it must have been for him to go on for thirty years alone.

Also, they danced:

 

Ant-Man

July 20, 2015

There seems to be this crowd of online commentators who are eagerly waiting for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to go bust.  They gleefully look at an offering like Ant-Man and declare:  this is a stupid, obscure character that can’t possibly anchor a good movie and therefore this is the one that’s going to topple the empire. (Never mind that at this point the MCU has earned room for a couple of duds before it’s declared moribund.)  This baffles me, because these are exactly the same complaints the naysayers had about Iron Man, Thor, and even Captain AmericaGuardians of the Galaxy will flop because talking raccoon.  These concepts are obscure, weird, geeky, and mainstream audiences won’t go for it.

You’d think the naysayers would have learned to shut the hell up by now.  Because they’ve been wrong every single time.

Ant-Man is great.  I had so much fun.  SO MUCH FUN. (And that’s really the key to these movies, isn’t it?  They’re so much fun, and that’s what so-called mainstream audiences ping to.)  I will also state for the record that I’m completely incapable of commenting on MCU movies as independent entities.  It’s impossible for me to consider them as stand-alone cinematic endeavors in their own right.  Nor do I think I should have to.  Not when…

**SPOILER**

…the opening scene has Peggy Carter and Howard Stark in 1989, in the newly built SHIELD headquarters, dealing with a furious Hank Pym, and I ACTUALLY STARTED CRYING because I just love Peggy so much and it’s always so good to see her, and the movie has already won me over in literally ten seconds of film without introducing any story or even the main character.

**END SPOILERS**  (Actually, there are probably a lot of spoilers below as well.)

The way I’m now thinking of it:  The MCU is my favorite show, but it only has two episodes a year (and the Peggy Carter We-Love-Carrie-And-Want-Her-to-be-Happy Holiday Special).  Ant-Man is a stand-alone story, but it’s so interconnected — deeply, and yet appropriately, and seamlessly — with the other movies that it feels like a chapter in a larger story.  And yes, stay through the entire credits because there’s even story in the last bit of easter egg.  (Why do we have to still tell people this?  Why do people still leave the theater early?)

So yeah.  I’m not really talking about Ant-Man as a movie.  I’m talking about it as the latest episode of my favorite show.  And it’s a good episode.

If I were going to talk about it as a cinematic endeavor:  I think the superhero action in this is great.  It’s really original.  I kept thinking about how I’ve never really seen action like this before — and it’s not just the weird and whimsical use of ants everywhere.  (Seriously, if you have an ant phobia DO NOT go see this movie.)  It’s that the action is based on clever movement rather than brute force.  In Cap and Thor and Iron Man battles, concrete gets smashed, people fly across rooms, everything is so heavy.  Here, Scott is growing and shrinking in a flash, he’s dodging, he’s all over the place — we can’t really follow it, but we’re not really supposed to because we can’t actually see him!  But we do see his opponent fall over.  It’s just so different and interesting.

Two more things and then I’ll shut up.  I got a little annoyed at Scott’s three racial stereotype sidekicks, who were saved from being outright cliches by their hardcore competence.  I love competence.  And Luis — Luis was actually just amazing.  My friends and I decided we really want to go to a wine tasting with him.

And the other thing I can’t finish without commenting on:  Wasp.  Wasp Wasp Wasp.  WASP.  Wasp.  WE HAVE THE WASP.  OMFG.  The flashback of Janet Van Dyne in action, even though it was far too brief, made me so ridiculously happy.  And then it turns out we have two Wasps.  And that’s fantastic.

Now, what is the MCU going to do with its two Wasps?  Your move, Marvel.

 

This is a movie about how GMO’s are bad and how terrible things happen when women neglect the children they’re meant to be looking after.

I finally decided that the filmmakers knew exactly how silly this all was and meant for it to be a comedy when, after the last battle, Chris Pratt’s character and his favorite velociraptor give each other respectful nods across the plaza before the ‘raptor turns and trots off into the jungle.  This is that kind of movie.

All that being said, I WANT THAT FRAKKING DINO PETTING ZOO AND I WANT IT RIGHT FRAKKING NOW.

**cuddles baby brontosaurus with all possible cuddles**

 

Guys, I’m SO BEHIND on movie watching.  I want to see Jurassic World but I’m not going to get to it in a timely manner.  I’ll confess, the only reason I want to see it is for Chris Pratt and his posse of trained velociraptors.  But you know what?  That’s enough.

This past weekend was my first weekend at home in a month, and I’m having trouble fitting everything in.  I still haven’t seen Avengers: Age of Ultron a second time, and I really want to.  But I did finally see Mad Max: Fury Road again — mostly because I’ve been asked to write a formal review of it, so it was actually work.  Haha, right.  Things I noticed this time:

  • All the names.  After the first viewing, I had to look up the names on IMDB because I didn’t catch any of them, but they really do all get used in the movie.  I’m visual, and often need to see things written down before I “get” them.  This is why I don’t do audio books.
  • You know the blue swamp land with the stilt people, and they’re listening to the creepy crows cawing over and over again, louder and louder?  Those aren’t the birds making those sounds.
  • Who is the main character of the movie, Max or Furiosa?  Well.  Whenever a gun goes off close to Max’s ear, there’s a high-pitched whine in the soundtrack.  Whenever there’s an explosion near Max, the soundtrack goes muffled for a couple of seconds.  The story may be about Furiosa, but Max is absolutely the viewpoint character.  It’s quite a literary detail and I love it.

Being home meant I could finally finish binge watching Daredevil.  Great, great stuff.  It gets even better in later episodes.  Ep. 8, Fisk’s backstory?  One of the best hours of dramatic TV I’ve seen in a long time.  And I want to do a bit of a rant comparing this to Game of Thrones, because Daredevil has as many shocking deaths and as much violence as Game of Thrones — but why is Daredevil more effective than this last season of GoT?  Well, Daredevil doesn’t include any sexual violence.  It also gives its characters time to mourn and reflect.  The deaths aren’t there just to shock the audience — the characters react to them as well.  We can mourn with them.  I have more thoughts, but that’s just off the top of my head.

And one last observation:  So I watched the trailer for the new Fantastic Four again, where they get their powers through interdimensional travel rather than space travel, and I couldn’t help but think that that’s EXACTLY LIKE “The Four” in Planetary.  Which means I don’t think I’m going to be able to watch this movie without laughing.  So yeah, gonna pass I think.

But I’ll probably end up seeing Batman v. Superman for the academic exercise, even though my expectations are very, very low.

At least we still have Ant Man to look forward to.

 

Tomorrowland

June 12, 2015

I finally got out to see this one, after my three weeks of travel.  I made an effort because I’m worried it’s not going to be around much longer.  So, what’s the verdict?

The short review:  Holy cow, it really is “The Gernsback Continuum” as an action movie!

Let’s get the technical stuff out of the way:  It’s too long, the story takes too long to get going, the action scenes drag, and it divides its plot arc between two different main characters, which doesn’t entirely work.  But I do love that we have a tough, smart girl main character in Casey.  Also, and this just kind of struck me as weird, the movie is entirely devoid of mothers and mother figures.  We briefly glimpse Casey’s mother in an old home video. Then she just vanishes.  Young Frank has a dad but not a mom, and apparently no one even noticed when he hied off to Tomorrowland, effectively vanishing in the real world.  Am I the only one bothered by this?

Now for the philosophy.  The film’s philosophy is ambitious, rather heavy handed, and can be summed up with two quotes and a bunch of jet pack imagery.

First, we have Frank at the start of the movie:  “When I was a kid, the future was different.”  There’s this narrative that goes something like this:  if we had built moon bases in 1973, we’d all have jet packs now and everything would be perfect.  This is an annoying and even dangerous narrative that leads to a kind of cargo cult thinking about space exploration:  if we can just build moon bases/go to Mars, then we’ll all get jet packs and everything will be perfect.  These advocates are the same people who’ve been moaning about the death of NASA since the end of the shuttle program, despite the fact that NASA has more hardware in space doing more awesome science than ever before.  This narrative is rife with nostalgia and ignores all the social and scientific progress that really has been made over the last four decades (including advances in bioengineering that will likely be required if we ever do expect to have permanent settlements in space).

The film is firmly anchored in this nostalgia.  Casey’s big project at the start is sabotaging the dismantling of a launch pad at nearby Cape Canaveral.  As if having a launch pad in place with nothing to launch out of it will somehow save the dream of space travel.  Did I mention cargo cult thinking?

But then we have Casey’s quote:  “This place isn’t about hope.  It’s the opposite of hope.”  Aha, I thought.  Bingo.  An acknowledgement that the Cold War dynamic that drove the early space program was much more likely to lead to the destroyed Mad Max dystopian future than the jet pack future of the ’64 Worlds Fair.  We didn’t miss out on a Gernsback future.  We got exactly the future the 60’s and 70’s set up for us.

I think the movie is trying to have it both ways — indulging in the nostalgia while attempting to acknowledge that the nostalgia is problematic.  It doesn’t quite work — it straddles the philosophies the same way it tries to straddle two different character arcs.  When really, the whole movie should have focused on Casey.  At least the message is ultimately hopeful:  we really can change the fate of the world if we decide to.

And then the villain throws down this long speech about how dystopian post-apocalyptic fiction is destroying the world.  That was kind of hilarious.  As if the fiction drove the world instead of the world inspiring the fiction.

Bonus moment:  The movie is just about worth it for this ten minute stretch in the middle that was pure unbridled steampunk awesomeness.  But it did sort of feel like it belonged in a different movie.

action and story

June 5, 2015

I keep saying how the action of Mad Max: Fury Road is great because it’s supported by story.  Here’s the counter example, of what happens when action isn’t supported by story.

The Day After Tomorrow was a deservedly forgettable movie, despite its fantastic scenes of destruction and classic disaster movie aesthetic.  The story was kind of maudlin.  The climatologist’s son is stuck in New York City, which is about to be caught in this sudden apocalyptic ultra cold snap that is going to plunge half the world in viciously cold temperatures.  He and his friends have found shelter in the Public Library, where, if I recall correctly, they’re burning a Gutenberg bible for warmth because apparently they already used up all the National Geographics? I dunno.  Anyway, the Girlfriend has injured her leg and is experiencing instant gangrene, so the guy decides to rush out for antibiotics, because he thinks he has just enough time before the snap hits.  And because this cargo ship which likely has an infirmary has washed up on 5th Avenue because Reasons. So he makes it out the ship and is foraging for antibiotics.

Suddenly wolves attack.

To be fair, the movie set this up by earlier showing a bunch of animals escaping Central Park Zoo.  But when this happened in the movie I think I laughed, because they’re bad CGI wolves (too large, for one) behaving in ways that actual wolves don’t behave, for the sake of some exciting action sequence and increased tension.  Except it doesn’t work because it’s random, out of left field, and makes no sense.  It must have sounded great when viewed in isolation:  wolf attack in the cold!  It’ll be like Jack London!  But I didn’t feel any increased tension.  I was already focused on the tension of getting the medicine and beating the cold snap.  And now wolves?  Why?  It actually sapped tension from the initial plot beat rather than increasing it.

Contrast this to the bit of action in Fury Road that I believe was featured in trailers because it’s so spectacular:  a Warboy spray paints his mouth chrome, screams “Witness Me!” and dives head first onto porcupine car with a pair of explosive spears, and the whole thing explodes in a ball of fire, and his Warboy friends all cheer in appreciation.

When people are talking about how great the action is in Fury Road, this is the sort of thing they’re talking about.  And the plain surface meaning is clear.  We are supposed to think, “Holy shit these Warboys are really messed up.”  And we do.

But this scene is also so important to the story because it demonstrates the Warboy theology: that they embrace death, that they seek out spectacular deaths and try to one up each other because they believe it will ensure their entrance to their Automobile Valhalla.  Because of this scene, we understand why Nux is so despondent when he keeps failing to enact his own “Witness me!” death tableau.  Without a bit of explanation, we understand.

This is a really simple story. In fact, whenever I start to talk about it I feel like this is so damned obvious I shouldn’t have to explain it at all.  It’s so simple and elegant it’s obvious.  Or should be.

 

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