December 22, 2014
I’m delaying seeing the third Hobbit installment until next weekend, when I can gather my usual posse of friends together for an outing. In the meantime, have two other movie reviews.
Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb
I really do like this series of movies, because they have a lot of heart and they’re great for history geeks. In this one, the gang goes to the British Museum. So, drool. Except, I’ve actually been the British Museum, and the British Museum does not have dinosaurs. Anyway, on the other hand, they got the Elgin Marbles room exactly right, and those things coming to life were just creepy, which I was not expecting. So yes, this was nice, simple and straightforward.
And utterly, completely heartbreaking when we get to the part where Ben Stiller’s character has to say goodbye to Robin William’s Teddy Roosevelt, and I’m sitting there watching and knowing it really is goodbye and just crying my eyes out. Too much sad.
This is ostensibly a ghost story — a small town cook can see ghosts and takes it upon himself to avenge murdered spirits, and prevent their killers from doing more harm. So actually, really, it’s a stealth superhero movie, and taken from that point of view, I really liked it. I also liked it because in other versions I’ve seen of this basic story, a big chunk of the conflict comes from people not believing the guy’s power, thinking he’s crazy, etc. etc. But here, he has a cadre of friends who completely back him up. The police chief in town believes him and covers for him. He has friends throughout the movie, which becomes more about teamwork than a lone wolf, and as I’ve discussed before, that kind of story is appealing to me more and more. This flick has a ton of heart, even with a sad ending, and Anton Yelchin (new Chekov!) is just splendid as Odd. Makes me want to read the book, and I’ve never read a Dean Koontz book.
And I’ve also now seen both The Muppet Christmas Carol and White Christmas, which are my two holiday must-see movies.
December 12, 2014
We’ve talked about this before: Sneakers, a great cyberpunk film or the greatest? I’ve been interested in and thinking about heist plots, and decided to analyze the plot of this to try to pick apart just what makes it tick. Let’s go!
We meet two hacker characters who will soon become our protagonist and antagonist. What’s established here: They start in the same place, but Cosmo is the kind of guy who will pull a sleight-of-hand trick on his friend to make things more convenient for himself. This will be important later. The whole movie is about reality, perception, and deception.
The Introduction: This is part of every heist movie. This is the normal job that our characters pull, that introduces everyone, their quirks, their personalities, etc. This film does a great job of making everyone distinct and interesting: the Blind Hacker, the ex-CIA Guy, the Conspiracy Nut, the Kid (oh, my dear River…), and the Boss.
The Inciting Incident: The group gets hired, and it’s an offer they can’t refuse because the clients know who Marty is — a fugitive. The stakes are suddenly big, more than just a paycheck.
They do the job. There are lots of clues, a few red herrings, some comedy, lots of competency. Basically, continuing the tone that was established with the introduction.
Note: The crew’s motivation in this act is money, and to clear Marty’s name. But mostly money. We learn each character’s heart’s desire, when they talk about how they’re going to spend the money. This too is important later.
End of Act One: The celebration at the end of the job, and the discovery that the job was maybe not what they thought it was. The stakes suddenly become huge, and motivations change: Now, Marty just wants to get rid of the box. The plot blows up and becomes something different than it was before.
We now have a villain. Our heroes have been played, and they must figure out by whom.
The tone changes: allies are murdered, our hero is kidnapped, and there is a revelation: Cosmo is still alive. The stakes become very huge indeed, as Cosmo specifically reveals Marty’s identity to the Federal database, the very thing Marty was trying to avoid. This is Cosmo’s revenge, and the low point of the second act.
Second half of second act: Marty has no choice but to go on the offensive. His first goal is to protect himself and his people. After contacting the NSA, he learns that the only way he can do this is by retrieving the box. So that’s the new plan. Again, the goal has changed.The movie’s third heist/job proceeds, with the highest stakes yet.
The third act begins with Liz’s capture, and Cosmo’s discovery that Marty has stolen the box back. Once again Marty has to reassess the situation and what his goals really are: the safety of Liz and the rest of the crew. Not money or freedom, but their lives.
The real pleasure of this story is that solutions to each problem spring from the personalities of the players. By this point, each member of Marty’s crew is already in place in make the rescue happen, by the events that have happened leading up to this moment. No shuffling is needed; they’re all right there, and we know they’re capable of what they do by everything that’s come before. This is extremely satisfying.
Marty retrieves the box by playing a sleight-of-hand on Cosmo, just like at the start. And Marty is confirmed to be someone who not only ended up in a very different place from where they both started — he is a better person, because he never once threatens to kill his former friend. For all his fugitive status, Marty really is a good guy, and Cosmo really is the villain.
This is where Abbott of the NSA shows up and agrees to supply them all with their hearts’ desires. The beautiful thing about this scene is that all the goals of all three acts, and the aspirations of all the characters, converge here. They retrieved the box and delivered it to the NSA, just like they originally planned in Act One. They’re able to guarantee their safety and amnesty for the crap they found themselves wrapped up in, just as they planned in Act Two. And they saved their skins. Even though they don’t get the money, they get everything they had planned on spending that money on. Their goals changed with each act, but they still managed to accomplish them all. They totally win.
This is really quite a simple plot, for all red herrings and complex heist sequences. Really, it’s a back-and-forth negotiation between three players: Marty and Crew, Cosmo and Henchmen, and the NSA. (Marty at first thinks he’s dealing with the NSA when he’s really dealing with the Henchmen. Then, he has to deal with the NSA in earnest. Marty’s motivation bounces back and forth between those two entities, Cosmo and the NSA.)
Things I noticed this time around
With the possibly exception of Marty, the characters aren’t doing this to save the world. They are motivated by money and by saving their skins. The movie fools you into thinking the characters aren’t quite so self serving because they’re all so likeable and charming. But no, they’re all totally self serving.
I didn’t think it had been all that long since I’d seen the movie, but this time around some of the outdated tech stood out more than it had before: they’re splicing magnetic tape to fake sound clips and that sort of thing. Hacking still needs hard lines. Fortunately, we watch for the engaging characters, not the tech.
Alas, some aspects of the film don’t hold up to close scrutiny. Namely, Liz. She’s kind of useless. There are two failure points in the third heist, and they’re both things that Liz does, glitches that are specifically hers — leaving her purse out for the target to discover her real name, and mentioning computer dating in front of Cosmo. It’s almost like the movie doesn’t want any of the guys to seem incompetent after it’s spent an hour and a half showing just how cool they are. The thing is, Mary McDonnell is so freaking charming that we don’t notice that Liz is basically there to make things go wrong so that the protagonists can look even better by solving the problems she causes. This…annoys me, that they gave this role in the plot over to the token female character. And she doesn’t even ask for anything from Abbott at the end. Grrr.
At the end, when Marty tells Abbott that the only thing the box is really good for is spying on Americans? Yeah, that scene kinda plays differently in a post-Snowden world. Erp.
November 24, 2014
Big Hero 6
This was fun and straightforward. The best part for me was having a movie where all the kids (a diverse group of kids!) are scientists, interested in science, and being interested in science is shown as a good thing that can solve problems and do cool stuff. Between this and Interstellar, maybe we’ve turned a corner on the “science=bad” in movies thing.
Other things: It was a smooth blending of anime aesthetics and western superhero tropes, and I can’t help but think this is totally on purpose, given the city’s name is San Fransokyo. Also — very, very cool villain. Awfully scary. The plot: predictable. I understand why people like this a whole lot, but I wasn’t engaged, not like I expected to be on a film like this.
Another observation, and this is just an observation not a dig — this felt young to me. Like a middle grade book as opposed to YA. The target age I’m guessing is 10-12. I’ve gotten used to animated movies that aim older, or at least work on multiple levels, so this had a different feel. Although as a friend pointed out, the lack of shoehorned romance (part of what made this feel young) was really nice.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay 1
Loved it. My favorite scene is when Haymitch asks for people to think of times Katniss inspired them and Effie is the only one who says anything. Effie’s just great. And then I had a bit of a gut punch seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman. Sigh.
Anyway, this is the first time I feel like splitting the book into two movies was justified. There’s a complete story here, and I have every confidence they’re going to stick the landing in the next film. I love the books, I love the movies, and here’s why: It’s a character study, one designed to take down the trope of the uber-competent action hero. It’s a picture of heroism tempered by a post-Vietnam understanding of post-traumatic stress. Katniss is absolutely an uber-competent action hero. But she doesn’t have any of the trappings normally associated with that character type. She isn’t in charge — she’s never in charge. She’s reactive, she’s a tool, she’s constantly being manipulated and she knows it, but there’s not much she can do about it. She isn’t going to get a reward. She isn’t going to win romance or acclaim, or even safety. She never smiles because her victories aren’t celebrations. She’s deeply, deeply broken, and that’s the point. I’ve never seen a character quite like Katniss. Except maybe in Robin McKinley’s books, and that may be why I’m liking this story so much.
As we left the theater, my friend who has not read the books announced that he hates President Coin and thinks she’s an awful person. I just laughed. He’s going to love the next movie.
November 10, 2014
I rewrote the whole thing in my head so it’s okay now. And with the following handy formula, you can too!
Remove 95% of the dialog — 100% of Michael Caine reciting Dylan Thomas.
Remove 85% of the character interactions — 95% of Space Madness Matt Damon.
Remove 99% of the two women characters being weepy and irrational.
Replace the bombastic soundtrack with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or something. I mean, the movie borrowed a bunch of other of its best stuff from 2001, why not have a classical soundtrack?
And, that’s about it, really.
As you might guess, the movie’s greatest weakness is its cheap-ass melodrama. And its length. Some of those scenes just didn’t know when to quit. Oh, and I called the plot just as the second act rolled up — but that wouldn’t have been a problem if we hadn’t had people yelling at each other about love through the rest of it.
The thing is, and the thing that makes the rest of this so frustrating, is that what the movie did well it did very, tremendously well. Tidal Wave Planet is my new favorite thing. (Neil deGrasse Tyson says Tidal Wave Planet is plausible. Phil Plait doesn’t agree. Isn’t speculation/extrapolation wonderful?) Saturnscapes — brilliant. The ship imagery, the astronomy, the fascinating visualization of some far-out concepts — great, great stuff. This was full of real speculation about what wormhole exploration and colonization might be like. It plopped a black hole in the middle of it all and asked, Huh, what would that be like? And worked hard to visually demonstrate what that might be like. Just beautiful.
But once again, the filmmakers didn’t have faith that material about space exploration and saving humanity is enough on its own to carry the movie. So they added people yelling at each other about love. Through stretches of the movie I got the feeling I was reading one of those big mind-blowing novels that form the bedrock of science fiction — stuff like Cyteen or Dune. But I was never able to shut off my brain and fall into the world. The emotional side of the story was just too forced.
There were a number of rather egregious plot flubs (ship needs a booster rocket to leave Earth but is able to leave a planet with 130% of Earth’s gravity with its own shipboard engines?) but I’m only going to talk about the one we cleared up on the drive home. This conversation really happened.
FREIND: Don’t the Chinese have a space program? Where are the Chinese during all this?
ME: Maybe everybody in China died after the okra crop failed. OKRA! And you realize, given it took a few hours to drive to Norad their farm was probably in eastern Colorado. Does okra even grow in eastern Colorado? What is it with the okra? Oh no, the okra crop failed, we’re really in trouble now!
FRIEND: Think about it: that’s how bad things have gotten, that the only crops left are okra and corn. I’d get in a fucking spaceship and leave too.
ME: You have a point.
In conclusion, it was really lovely seeing John Lithgow in a new movie. Love that guy.
November 3, 2014
This limited release flick piqued my attention because it’s Michael Keaton as an actor trying to make a comeback after making it big playing a costumed superhero twenty years before. This is so cheeky I am all astonishment. This is the kind of concept you come up with when you’re drunk at a convention, that never actually gets made, but here it is.
In a nutshell: I really enjoyed it. My friends did too. It’s artsy and bit precious in that regard, but it turned some corners I didn’t expect it to turn, and the cinematography — including the way the whole thing is made to look as if it’s one long, giant, hour and a half continuing shot — is excellent. Great acting. And it was awfully funny. Really, this isn’t an art film or a meta film or a superhero film so much as it’s a theater disaster film, a backstage drama as Keaton’s character attempts to mount his own Broadway play.
Michael Keaton is not playing himself, I’m fairly certain (even given several pointed lines, like the one about his character opening the door for the current massive popularity of the superhero genre). Instead, he’s playing a character like someone might imagine Michael Keaton to be like twenty years after his turn as Batman. It’s a thought experiment, because while the character isn’t really Keaton, a big chunk of the movie’s meaning would be lost if he had been played by anyone else.
I think what the movie is really doing is setting up a couple of dichotomies — Hollywood blockbusters, especially as they’ve been completely monopolized by comic-book superheroes in recent years v. “serious” theater. Hollywood celebrity v. “real” artists/actors. It sets up the dichotomies, and then blurs them. They’re really a Venn diagram with a bunch of overlapping circles. (There’s another great line implying that all the great actors of this generation whom Thomson might bring on are busy donning capes and being superheroes. This irony frustrates him.) I’m trying to find a way of explaining it — the movie discusses and criticizes the age-old debate about commercialism v. art without actually drawing conclusions or making judgements about either side, which is a neat trick. Thomson decides that his years as Birdman were actually great but he was so angst ridden he didn’t enjoy them like he should have. He’s trying to do art, but the powerful theater critic won’t take him seriously — not for who he is or what he’s doing, but for what he represents, and there’s nothing Thomson can do about that.
But the plot — yeah, it’s a theater disaster story, and that turns out to be a pretty good frame to hang all this on. I liked it.
UPDATE: So only after posting did I realize that two of the other main characters are played by Ed Norton, who did a turn as the Hulk, and Emma Stone, who was Gwen Stacy in the latest Spider-Man movies. Norton, who did exactly one turn as a superhero, plays the brilliant but totally assholeish actor co-starring in Thomson’s play, while Stone plays Thomson’s recovering addict daughter. Again, I can’t think that any of this casting is accidental.
October 10, 2014
This is Terry Gilliam’s latest. Gilliam is his own genre, and a new film from him is always cause for celebration. This is probably not one of his best, but it is fascinating, with some incredible performances from some of my favorite actors. (“Wait, who is that guy?” I asked. “That’s Matt Damon.” “WHAT?! WAAAAAAAH!” He’s so great!) Visually, like all Gilliam films, this thing is splendid. But I could have wished for an ending that more resembled an ending and not the petering out that it was.
What really fascinates me about this movie is that it’s cyberpunk. Maybe one of the better cyberpunk movies there’s ever been. Through the first half, I rather suspected it was cyberpunk — but then there’s that Matrix reference smack in the middle, that totally cracked me up, and yeah, this is cyberpunk, full stop. A great chunk of the movie is about how much of life is mediated by technology, and how abstract and sometimes baffling that technology can seem. There’s a party where everyone is dancing and smiling and having a great time, and holding a glowing tablet. Everything from dates to therapy sessions happen via computer, and main character Qohen’s job as some kind of mathematician/programmer is pretty much incomprehensible, except that it looks very much like a video game. Everything looks like a video game, and everyone’s being watched. Qohen definitely doesn’t feel a part of it all — but he also doesn’t ever really want to leave his claustrophobic world. This is cyberpunk without the adventure/messianic tropes that usually show up in cyberpunk, and I think that’s cool.
September 22, 2014
Autumn is here. After coming home from a rainy Ireland to a rainy Colorado, I despaired that I had missed the end of summer entirely. But no, I got a good week or so of wearing shorts and sandals and sitting outside to read and stuff. And now the weather is turning.
As I mentioned last week, I’m working on five or so different things simultaneously — research, critiquing, writing, etc. What this means is I feel like I’m not getting anything done. But it also means I’m going to finish up most of these things at the same time. Then I will likely be at my wits end and flap my arms around like a mad thing.
I caught a couple of movies, or at least part of a couple of movies this weekend:
Another Earth: this is an art-house science fiction/slipstreamy thing. A very intriguing concept: one day, another Earth, seemingly identical, appears in the sky. It has some really beautiful shots associated with this phenomenon, and touched on at least some of the implications. But the story itself was so angsty and contrived I couldn’t take it very seriously. (Like, when he said his wife was pregnant when the accident happened, I laughed out loud, which I’m pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to do, but it was so clearly the movie saying to us, “Hey, you thought it was bad before? Well it turns out it was even worse than you thought! Ha! Wallow in misery!” And no, I don’t think I will.)
Neptune’s Daughter: This is an old one, and I finally found where my line is. You know — you’re watching old movies and they’re chock full of really uncomfortable racism and sexism and the like, but you keep watching ’cause it’s old and interesting and classic and has some great acting and it’s important from a cultural standpoint? (Like, I totally put up with the harassing baby in Gold Diggers of 1933?) Well, I know now that it can indeed get bad enough that I have to stop, and this movie did it. The really terrible racist stereotypes, and the really ditzy man-chasing sister in a
comedy “comedy” routine with Red Skelton pushed me around the corner and I had to turn it off. Which is too bad, because this is an Esther Williams film — the woman who made an entire career out of being a swimming actress — and it also featured a young Ricardo Mantalban as a hot Argentinian polo player. So yeah, I wanted to see it, but I just couldn’t.
Also, a question: when did shaky cam and incomprehensible action scenes in big FX movies become a thing? Is there one movie that really started the trend? Transformers maybe? Because I caught part of the original Stargate movie this weekend, and I was kind of surprised and impressed at how clean it was — action-wise, it had quite 1980’s sensibility, which made it pleasant to watch but also made it seem a little older than it really is. (It’s 1994, which yeah, it might have more of an 80’s sensibility I guess.) It just got me thinking about when sensory overload became the way to do adventure movies, and I can’t pin it down.