The Black Hole

April 21, 2020

I have finally seen The Black Hole for the first time in probably 25 years. No, make that 35 years. I don’t know, it’s been awhile, which is kind of weird for such an iconic, formative movie. Don’t laugh, you know it’s true — there’s a whole generation of us who saw this while we were in single digit ages who still freak out at the sight of the robot Maxamilian and the sound of his spinny blades. Not to mention the medically zombified crew (that was the scene that got me, when Kate is in the zombie-making machine and the full horror of what happened on that ship becomes clear). And then there’s that ending. Is that hell? Where did they go? What the heck happened?

So, how was it? Did it hold up? Was the childhood trauma inflicted by this justified or laughable?

It totally holds up. Totally justified.

I mean, the film is very dated in some ways. The costumes, the acting styles, the stiff blocking and slow pacing are all very 1970’s. The film is trying to be cutting-edge, clearly influenced by both 2001 and Star Wars, and frankly a film influenced by both those things is never really going to totally work. Just ask Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which also came out in 1979, oddly enough. But something interesting is going on here anyway.

The horror setup? The creeping dread? The actual story? Still sharp, still great. In fact, I kind of sort of want a remake of this with modern sensibilities — but then I realize that already happened with Event Horizon, except that film jettisoned the creeping dread for a straight-up slasher aesthetic and I completely hated it. Anyway, that’s a rant for another time.

The science fiction? “A” for effort, even if it comes off a little vague sometimes. There’s serious discussion about the sentience and agency of artificial life. The robot characters are all great. I was utterly charmed by Kate’s telepathy with robot Vincent, which is such a 1970’s SF detail but I’m okay with that. And I think this might be the first mention of an Einstein-Rosen bridge in an SF movie?

Also, big spaceship. The Cygnus is fantastic. In fact, long time readers of this blog will remember when I dived the wreck of the Spiegel Grove off Key Largo, I was vividly reminded of The Black Hole. At the time I thought it was generic space station imagery, and that drifting alongside the wreck was a fascinating and disorienting stand-in for being weightless.

Turns out, that scene in the film where they’re approaching the Cygnus? Where they’re cruising along and the ship gets larger and larger, and the scaffolding comes into view, and the scale of the thing becomes immense? That’s a lot like the actual experience of descending the line and approaching the Spiegel Grove. That wasn’t a generic association — my hindbrain remembered that scene in the film.  So cool.

 

Emma (2020)

March 9, 2020

This was great. I’m not sure I’ve ever laughed and cried this much in a Jane Austen adaptation. Still not my favorite story. It’s kind of difficult, in fact. Here, Austen makes her heroine the kind of character she normally mocks. Rich, vain, mockable. Emma does some really deplorable things because she thinks she’s right and ought to be excused her faults because she’s just so pretty and rich. And then. . .she learns, and we need to sympathize with her progress. But it’s hard. As the audience, we’re in the same place as her friends — we want to like her but she makes it hard.

On the ride home I did a compare and contrast with the Emma film from a decade or so ago, and while that film is nice, this one is passionate. It’s like this film turned the amplitude waaaaaay up. The highs are much higher, the lows are much lower — the picnic scene with Miss Bates in this one is brutal. The colors are much brighter, the costumes more flamboyant. The curls so much more curlier. Everything is stylized and choreographed, from a twitch of a finger to a stray glance. It’s a visually engaging film.

The film did so many interesting things. First off, servants are everywhere. Upper-class Regency culture was powered by household servants, but most adaptations put them in the background, almost as part of the set. Here, they get in the way. They walk across the foreground. There are lots of scenes of characters being dressed and undressed by servants. Their movements are choreographed. You can’t ignore them. Also, food. Lots of scenes focused on weird-ass Regency food. But there’s also the dancing, lots of great clothes and music, and the English countryside. All the things I want from an Austen film.

Star Anya Taylor-Joy is fascinating. The film spends so much time on her elfin face, her very large expressive eyes. Of course everything whirls around her.

Much like Shakespeare adaptations, I want my Austen adaptations to do something. To try something. To put a new gown on a familiar shape. To twist the knife a little. This one does.

 

even more Robin Hood

February 19, 2020

A smattering of Hoods:

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves

I finally watched this for the first time in probably 20+ years. I have vivid memories of this thing — it was huge when it came out. Huge. I think it was Costner’s first movie after Dances with Wolves and so got a lot of attention. Partly because it was such a weird thing to follow a critically acclaimed epic. I remember absolutely adoring this film. It came out the year I graduated high school and was on constant rotation in the TV room at the dorm my first year of college. It hit a lot of my teenage fantasy nerd buttons at a time when not a lot did.

Spoiler alert:  It does not hold up.

I think I knew this, which is why it’s taken me so long to watch it again. But it doesn’t hold up in some really interesting ways. Mostly, it’s so very 1980’s. We did not realize in 1991 how much the 80’s would not stand the test of time. Bless our hearts.

The weirdest thing about it, though, is how much it borrowed from Robin of Sherwood. Like, anything remotely interesting in Prince of Thieves? Robin of Sherwood did it first. Saracen character from the Middle East? Weird Satanic witchcraft craziness going on? A comic-relief sadistic black leather clad Sheriff of Nottingham? The Sheriff calls in fur-wearing Celtic mercenaries instead of fur-wearing Welsh mercenaries, but here we are.

This is so weird. I know nothing about the two writers credited here. But I have questions.

And now, bullet points.

  • It’s very dated, and not just because of all the mullets. The costumes are. . .kind of incomprehensible? They’re these 80’s ragamuffin punk things, patchwork cloaks and way too much studded leather. They would have been at home in a Mad Max movie or in any of those elf punk urban fantasy novels.
  • It’s a perfect example of how a movie can strive for diversity out of good intentions and. . .do it wrong. Because yes, it’s wonderful that there’s a black character and that the movie at least thought about making an effort at diversity. But then it hits every single stereotype regarding modern assumptions about medieval Islam. Azeem is 100% stereotype, despite Morgan Freeman’s wry portrayal.  (I don’t think Robin of Sherwood falls into this trap with Nasir. Nasir is exotic, he’s mysterious, but he’s also his own person and we don’t get a checklist of stereotypes.)
  • Is it weird that this is a white savior story when everybody he’s saving is also white? Rich guy savior then.
  • The Bayeux Tapestry in the opening credits really really bugged me because it portrays events that happened 130 years before the movie takes place, but nothing screams High Middle Ages like the Bayeux Tapestry so I guess I can’t argue. This is what comes of mainlining all this research.
  • Bryan Adams “Everything I Do.” The last of the great 80’s movie ballads?
  • Baby Christian Slater. Oh man, I forgot he was in this. And now I’m thinking about Mr. Robot as another version of Robin Hood. Must ponder.
  • Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is so pretty.

Robin Hood (1991)

Did you know there was another Robin Hood movie in 1991? This one starred Patrick Bergin and Uma Therman and was buried in straight-to-video because of the aforementioned Costner version taking up all the oxygen in the room. Well folks, it’s available on Hulu right now and I finally saw it. It’s not bad, I have to say. It’s more traditional, it leans into a lot of the classic Pyle tropes. The staff battle with Little John is fantastic in this one. (“And what do you do?” “I follow him around and bury the people who call him names.”) It also leans real hard into some of the historical tropes (or at least the Hollywood versions of them). Like, everything is covered in dirt. (“He must be the king, he hasn’t got shit all over him.” (that quote isn’t from this movie, just FYI.))

But… this one also isn’t great. It just doesn’t have the charisma and I just kind of didn’t care about the characters? Like, the film tries real real hard to give Marian more to do than look pretty…but it really didn’t sell it and I wasn’t buying. And it couldn’t really avoid the cheese, like when they’re standing there at the end and saying “Normans and Saxons must work together to make England the best country ever and someday England will take over the world!” Like that’s a little on the nose.

But, since I’m becoming a completist, at least I can finally say I’ve seen this one.

Robin Hood (TV, 2006)

Robin Hood, with Gen Y hotties. Only made it one episode. The women are just wearing so much eyeliner I couldn’t take it.

And here are two thoughts about what makes good Robin Hood stories

First, I think the best Robin Hood stories include the Sheriff’s archery contest. I’m starting to think this is actually a requirement:  there must some big formal test of archery. It seems like you ought to be able to tell a Robin Hood story without it — it’s just a plot point, right? But it turns out, all the best Robin Hood stories have the archery contest, and the worst don’t. Prince of Thieves does not have the archery contest. The other 1991 film has a version of the contest that I see quite often — Robin shoots to prove himself to the pre-existing outlaws. And it’s quite nicely done. Seriously, when that film goes full traditional, it’s better than when it doesn’t. Which suggests to me that radical re-imaginings are maybe not always what people are looking for.

Second, Robin Hood stories can’t be totally Robin-centric. Which is to say, the members of his band of outlaws must be just as interesting as he is. The story must have scenes in which they interact with each other, that do not include Robin. We the reader/viewer must believe that the Merry Men/People are competent enough to rescue Robin when he gets in trouble. In Prince of Thieves, Robin is constantly rescuing others and never needs rescuing himself.  Same with the other film, and with a lot of the more recent versions. Turns out, that’s unsatisfying and undermines the idea of a band of outlaws working together against corruption. It undermines the idea that Robin is their equal. I think Robin Hood stories must be about a group of people. A found family. Many of the film versions especially end up being vehicles for the star actor and so fail on this point.

I still have a few more “modern” (i.e. the last 40 years or so) versions of Robin Hood to get through to continue testing my hypothesis. But I believe this is a worthy project and so will continue.

*rides off into the forest*

 

 

Okay, so much to say.

I’m a little pissed off this film got so little promotion — I never saw a trailer for it and thought it was coming out this summer. But I saw it, and I’m conflicted. It’s important to have a big action supervillain film with a woman director and woman writer and woman star and all about grrrl power and multiple scenes of just, like, all women kicking ass and looking out for each other. I loved that. A lot of folks are really, really loving this and the empowerment it espouses, so I hate to punch holes in it. But.

I think there’s 75% of a good movie here. The rest … never have I wanted to re-edit a movie as badly as I want to re-edit this one. And all the re-editing is in the first half. In the first half, it’s trying to do this edgy non-linear thing like Deadpool or Tarantino, and I don’t think it works.  It just ends up repeating itself, stalling out, restarting, and destroying all the tension it ought to be building up to propel us into the second half, which is full of straightforward action and plotting and works great. Seriously, the action scenes are great, the characters are fine, Margot Robbie is clearly having a good time. I would re-edit the entire thing to just give the story a straight through-line with relentless pacing, where the only breaks are Harley pausing to deliver an instant and accurate psychoanalysis of other characters, because those bits are awesome.

Also, kill the voice over. Voice over not needed. It’s explaining things that are clear from just watching the film.

(Yes, yes, I totally get that Harley is crazy and the non-linear cut and the voice over are meant to portray her chaotic thought process and lack of focus and so on. But as I said, I don’t think it works. There are other p.o.v.’s in the film that jolt us out of that framework, so it ends up not being consistent and it frustrated me. Harley’s chaos comes out in plenty of other ways.)

And kill the prologue. This is another one of those times where there’s a long-ass prologue explaining the entire backstory, and then in the middle of the movie the main character stops to explain the backstory again. Repetitive, unnecessary. In fact, it’s actually really hilarious when Harley stops to explain her origin story, the entire plot of Suicide Squad, and everything that happens in the prologue, in twenty seconds of deadpan dialogue. Just do that and cut the prologue because the prologue is boring. I swear to you by all that is holy, no one is going to see this movie who doesn’t already know at least a little something about Harley Quinn. It’s like starting a Batman movie with the Waynes beings shot and the pearls scattering across the pavement. Enough already.

Start the movie with her blowing up the chemical plant. That’s the first scene. Booyah.  This is such a common problem with new writer manuscripts — start the story on page six, the story starts on page six, you think you need all that set up but you really really don’t, start with something actually interesting. It’s so incredibly frustrating when big-budget movies fall into that exact trap.

So, to summarize, I feel like I’m an outlier on this one. I’ve never been a huge fan of Harley Quinn as a character, and I’m wondering if that’s a prerequisite for really wholeheartedly loving this movie, which I didn’t, mostly because it made so many new-writer mistakes with pacing and storytelling.

But I will say I’m really glad this exists, and for the people who do love it — YES. Make this movie yours.

 

I loved it.  (No spoilers here.)

There’s a moment in this film that encapsulates all of Star Wars. This small, quiet, beautiful moment that manages to draw in, like, everything. The more I think about it the more I love it.

This is not to say it’s a perfect movie. The pacing in the first half is relentless and disorienting. I was watching and thinking, This needs to slow down and give us a moment to breathe or the whole thing is going to be a mess. Funnily enough, about five minutes later the movie slowed down and gave us a moment to breathe and the rest of it opened up. There’s a ton of handwavium going on. If you go into this movie looking for things to pick apart, you’ll find them.

But I loved it. It’s full of hugging and heroes and epic duels and big moments and all the things I love about Star Wars. I got my Poe and Finn on a ridiculous caper story. Lots of Rey and Kylo. I got way more of General Leia than I had any right to expect.

And story…  Here’s a bit of analysis.

I know I said I was never going to talk about the prequel trilogy again. Episodes I, II, III. But I am, because I’m struck by something in them now:  the lack of spirituality. Episodes IV – IX are full of spirituality, the Force as a mystical thing that transcends people, that is always present, that just is. It binds the universe together, it doesn’t just belong to the Jedi, it requires calm and introspection and a personal connection to the universe. In Episodes I-III the Force is almost mechanical. There’s a blood test. The Jedi aren’t mystical shamans — they’re a bureaucracy.

And this may be one of the points of the entire saga. The Jedi of the Old Republic are like the medieval Catholic church, formal and political and bureaucratic. Because of this, their rigidity, they lack the awareness that anything is wrong and the flexibility to do anything about it. And they don’t know how to deal with Anakin. They’ve actually lost a ton of power. (I still think that part of the story is badly told, but the story is there.)

The rest of the saga may be about restoring a spiritual aspect to the Jedi. The idea of individual connection. A more shamanistic Jedi practice.

The prequels kept talking about “balance” in the Force. This film brings that idea back, with the idea that maybe “balance” wasn’t what those rigid practitioners of the Jedi order thought it was.

There’s a lot to think about — if you want to think about it.  Since thinking about this stuff is also one of the things I love about the Star Wars universe, I am happy.

 

It’s Star Wars season!

December 19, 2019

Have to admit, I might miss having a new Star Wars movie to celebrate each December. Then again, when my mother asked if I was looking forward to the new movie, my answer was of course “yes,” but also…exhaustion. I’m really tired of the hype and expectation and online collective freak-out that accompanies these things. I just want to watch the movie.

I’ve got tickets for tomorrow.

In preparation, I watched The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi this week. I love Rey’s story. The Jedi arc in The Last Jedi in particular is so fraught, and so pointed. I just love it.

“We are what they grow beyond,” Yoda tells Luke. The whole saga is about generational conflict, and how generations fail each other — particularly older generations who didn’t quite build the world they set out to and who didn’t successfully mentor those who came after them. And how maybe doing those two things is actually impossible. Because kids are their own people. They have their own arcs, and they don’t exist to complete someone else’s.

So yes, I’m very interested to see how this new movie adds to that story, if it adds to that story. On the other hand, The Last Jedi offers an ending of sorts of its own. There’s closure there, if you need it.

 

Frozen 2

December 16, 2019

So I cried through like the whole third act, mostly because the ice kelpie was so beautiful my heart just ached.  (Google tells me he is not a kelpie, but a Nokk, a Scandinavian water spirit that sounds a lot like a keplie, but then there is a lot of overlap with these things.)

I really loved Elsa with actual superpowers, and then she gets her own Fortress of Solitude. With an actual Campbellian Hero’s Journey descent to the underworld and rebirth. Like, we’re not even trying to hide it.

And then weirdly also like Annihilation, with passing through this wall of glowing mist and being trapped with weird transformative creatures?

I don’t know, the whole thing was fine, just what it says on the tin, but it sure packed a lot in there.

 

Knives Out

December 2, 2019

I think what I like most about this, and part of why this film is getting such universal raves, is that it’s a throwback. It’s a really classic, traditional murder mystery. It’s a pre-CSI, ridiculous forensic technology dependent mystery. It’s an Agatha Christie, Midsomer Murders mystery with big personalities and family drama and a personable investigator from outside who arrives to comment on it all. Anyone can see the clues and piece together what happened just by looking, by listening. If you’re clever enough. I hesitate to call this “Hipster American Poirot.” But, well, there it is.

Much like we’ve been starved for uplifting superhero movies, I wonder if audiences have been starved for this.

The other reason the film’s getting raves is that there’s a lot more going on. There’s also a layer of very pointed social commentary about immigration and privilege and what kind of behavior people are willing to tolerate as long as their own status isn’t threatened. Daniel Craig’s detective, southern gentleman Benoit Blanc (Tell me he isn’t an American riff on Poirot. Go on.) is almost ridiculous (Poirot meets Columbo, just about — this film knows what it’s doing). But also like Poirot he picks the straightforward young woman amidst all the chaos to be his ally. Marta, the nurse who’s been taking care of Harlan Thrombey, whose mysterious death drives the plot, is the daughter of immigrants. She’s an outsider, too. And it’s her choices that matter in this.

The cast is phenomenal. That’s the main reason I went to see this. But what holds the movie up is the classic mystery structure, which comforts us that the truth is knowable and justice is possible.

 

snowpocalypse!

November 25, 2019

We’re due to get 18″ of snow overnight, so the area is in full-on snowpocalypse mode. Combine this with the usual Thanksgiving prep madness, and shopping for basics is kind of a no-go. Seriously, I almost had to duke it out with a woman for the last cans of kidney-health formula prescription dog food. Then she said she has a Great Dane and I’m all, here, have it all, Lily just needs, you know, a can or two.

So, I think Lily and I are set. We’ll see.

Meanwhile, here’s the long version of my very angry review of Ad Astra for Lightspeed. I really only get this angry when a film thinks it’s smart, and is so proud of how smart it is, when in fact it is dumber than a sack of bricks.

Rapid space baboons. Really.

 

Harriet

November 18, 2019

If America had saints, Harriet Tubman would be one of the foremost among them.

The film Harriet reminded me of a storybook I had about her when I was little, which means I think her story was probably where I first learned about slavery. That book is also where I learned about the North Star, moss on the trees, the Underground Railroad, all of it. It’s primarily a story about heroism and courage, so it took a little more time, and the work of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and so on, to get the full horrific story of slavery. But my first education came from Tubman’s story of resistance. And why haven’t there been more movies and TV shows about her? I mean really.

The film is pretty good. It’s uneven, I think. Some of that may be that it’s not quite the film I wanted — but it hints at a movie I really would have liked to see. Mostly, this is serious literary biopic, with all that that entails. And this is where I think it’s maybe a little bit cliche. All the scenes you expect, the heartfelt serious character moments, the standard 19th century serious historical score. This part of the film drags a bit.

But then there’s an action montage of Tubman’s activities with the Underground Railroad, with Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” playing over it. This segment is incredible, high energy, engaging, inspiring. I found myself wishing the film had done more of this, using modern music as a backdrop, going for a more impressionistic feel. Going for action and tension and immediacy. The story mostly focuses on Harriet, her emotions, her visions, her connections with her family, which were all important of course. But what if the movie as a whole had been framed as action/adventure rather than literary biopic?

I wanted the film to be more political. There’s a scene where Frederick Douglass is standing in the room. Like, that is clearly Frederick Douglass! But there’s no dialog from him, no interaction. He’s practically set dressing. I wanted more with the Underground Railroad. Harriet’s Civil War activities — she was a spy and personally led an expedition across enemy lines to free slaves — got all of about three minutes at the end of the film when really, that could have been its own movie. Those bits of engagement, where Harriet is out kicking ass like some action hero — because she freaking was one! — were the best, and I wanted more of that.

I’m glad I saw the film. But now I want a 20 episode TV show about Harriet during the war.

My historical re-enactment friends all agree the costumes were very good. Like, they got the fabric and drape right? And that’s hard to do.