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November 1, 2019

Filed under: movies»commentary»horror

Wake me up when Shocktober ends

When I was a kid in Lexington, Kentucky, I remember that grocery stores would have a little video rental section at the front of the store, just a few shelves stocked with VHS tapes. I used to be fascinated by the horror movies: when my parents were checking out, I would often walk over and look at the box art, which had its own special, lurid appeal. It was the age of golden plasticky, rubbery practical effects. I could have stared at the cover for Ghoulies for hours, wondering what the movie inside was like.

This year, for the first time, I decided to celebrate Shocktober: watching a horror movie for every day in the month before Halloween. In particular, I tried to watch a lot of the movies my 7-year-old self would have wanted to see. It turns out that these were not generally very good! My full list is below, with the standouts in bold.

  1. Children of the Corn
  2. Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)
  3. Green Room
  4. We Have Always Lived In The Castle
  5. Ma
  6. The Conjuring
  7. Pumpkinhead
  8. Halloween 2
  9. Hellraiser
  10. Black Christmas
  11. Insidious
  12. Doom: Annihilation
  13. Candyman
  14. Little Evil
  15. Cam
  16. Chopping Mall
  17. House (1986)
  18. Creep (2014)
  19. The Perfection
  20. They Wait
  21. My Bloody Valentine (1981)
  22. Ginger Snaps
  23. The Gate
  24. Prophecy
  25. Halloween 3
  26. In the Tall Grass
  27. Head Count
  28. 1922
  29. Emelie
  30. Train to Busan
  31. The Babysitter
  32. The Ring

One thing that becomes obvious very quickly is how inconsistent the horror genre is: not only is it extremely prone to fashion, but also to drought. The mid-to-late 80s had a lot of real stinkers — either "comedy" horror like House, nonsense slashers like My Bloody Valentine, or just mistakes (Children of the Corn, which is amateurish on almost every level). I suspect this parallels a lot of the CG goofball period of the late 2000s (Darkness Falls Hollow Man, They).

On the other hand, there are some real classics in there. Black Christmas predates Halloween by four years, and not only probably inspired it but is also a much better movie: more interesting characters, better sense of place, and a wild Pelham 123-style investigation. Candyman and Hellraiser are both fascinating, complicated movies packed with indelible imagery. And Halloween 3 manages to feel like a companion piece to They Live, trading all connection to the mainline series for a bizarre riff on media paranoia.

Somewhere in the middle is Chopping Mall, a movie that's somehow so terrible, so perfectly 1986, that it becomes compulsively watchable. Its effects are bad, the characters are thinly drawn and largely there for gratuitous nudity, and its marketing materials wildly overpromise what it will deliver. It's perfect, I love it, and I name it the official movie of Shocktober 2019.

March 7, 2019

Filed under: movies»commentary»scifi

Stop trying to hit me

At the end of this month, in keeping with the horrifying march of time, The Matrix turns 20 years old. It's hard to overstate how mind-blowing it was for me, a high-schooler at the time, when the Wachowski sisters' now-classic marched into theaters: combining entirely new effects techniques with Hong Kong wire-work martial arts, it's still a stylish and mesmerizing tour de force.

The sequels... are not. Indeed, little of the Wachowski's post-Matrix output has been great, although there's certainly a die-hard contingent that argues for Speed Racer and Sense8. But in rewatching them this month, I've been struck by the ways that Reloaded and Revolutions almost feel like the work of entirely different filmmakers, ones who have thrown away one of their most powerful storytelling tools. By that, I mean the fight scenes.

The Matrix has a few set-piece fight scenes, and they're not all golden. The lobby gunfight, for example, doesn't hold up nearly as well on rewatch. But at their best, the movie's action segments deftly thread a needle between "cool to watch" and "actively communicating plot." Take, for example, the opening chase between Trinity, some hapless cops, and a pair of agents:

In a few minutes, we learn that A) Trinity is unbelievably dangerous, and B) however competent she is, she's utterly terrified by the agents. We also start to see hints of their character: one side engaged in agile, skilled hit-and-run tactics, while the authorities bully through on raw power. And we get the sense that while there are powers at work here, it's not the domain of magic spells. Instead, Trinity's escape bends the laws of time and space — in a real way, to be able to manipulate the Matrix is to be able to control the camera itself.

But speaking of rules that are can be bent or broken, we soon get to the famous dojo training sequence:

I love the over-the-top kung fu poses that start each exchange, since they're such a neat little way of expressing Neo's distinct emotional progress through the scene: nervousness, overconfidence, determination, fear, self-doubt, and finally awareness. Fishburne absolutely sells his lines ("You think that's air you're breathing now...?"), but the dialog itself is almost superfluous.

The trash-as-tumbleweed is a nice touch to start the last big brawl of the movie, as is the Terminator-esque destruction of Smith's sunglasses. But pay close attention to the specific choreography here: Smith's movements are, again, all power and no technique. During the fight, he hardly even blocks, and there aren't any fancy flips or kicks. But halfway through, after the first big knock-down, Neo starts to use the agent's own attack routines against him, while adding his own improvisations and style at the end of each sequence. One of these characters is dynamic and flexible, and one of them is... well, a machine. We're starting to see the way that the ending will unfold, right here.

What do all these fight scenes have in common? Why are they so good? Well, in part, they're about creating a readable narrative for each character in the shot, driving their action based on the emotional needs of a few distinct participants. Yuen Woo Ping is a master at this — it's practically the defining feature of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, on which he did fight direction a year later and in which almost every scene combines character and action almost seamlessly. Tom Breihan compares it to the role that song-and-dance numbers play in a musical in his History of Violence series, and he's absolutely right. Even without subtitles or knowledge of Mandarin, this scene is beautifully eloquent:

By contrast, three years later, The Matrix Reloaded made its centerpiece the so-called "burly brawl," in which a hundred Agent Smiths swarm Neo in an empty lot:

The tech wasn't there for the fight the Wachowskis wanted to show — digital Keanu is plasticky and weirdly out-of-proportion, while Hugo Weaving's dopplegangers only get a couple of expressions — but even if they had modern, Marvel-era rendering, this still wouldn't be a satisfying scene. With so many ambiguous opponents, we're unable to learn anything about Neo or Smith here. There's no mental growth or relationship between two people — just more disposable mooks to get punched. "More" is not a character beat. But for this movie and for Revolutions, the Wachowskis seemed to be convinced that it was.

At the end of the day, none of that makes the first movie any less impressive. It's just a shame that for all the work that went into imitating bullet time or tinting things green, almost nobody ripped off the low-tech narrative choices that The Matrix made. Yuen Woo Ping went back to Hong Kong, and Hollywood pivoted to The Fast and the Furious a few years later.

But not to end on a completely down note, there is one person who I think actually got it, and that's Keanu Reeves himself. The John Wick movies certainly have glimmers of it, even if the fashion has swung from wuxia to MMA. And Reeves' directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi is practically an homage to the physicality of the movie that made him an action star. If there is, in fact, a plan to reboot The Matrix as a new franchise, I legitimately think they should put Neo himself in the director's chair. It might be the best way to capture that magic one more time.

February 13, 2019

Filed under: movies»commentary»scifi

Sunshine

Sunshine wasn't particularly loved when it was released in 2007, despite a packed cast and direction by Danny Boyle. In the years since, it has somehow stubbornly avoided cult status — before its time, maybe, or just too odd, as it swings wildly between hard sci-fi, psychological drama, survival horror, and eventually straight-up slasher flick by way of Apocalypse Now. But it's intensely watchable and, I would argue, underappreciated, especially in comparison to writer Alex Garland's follow-up attempts on the same themes.

"Our sun is dying," Cillian Murphy mutters at the start of the film, and the tone remains pretty grim from there. The spaceship Icarus II is sent on a desparate trip to restart the sun by tossing a giant cubic nuclear bomb into it — a desparate quest, made all the more desparate by the fact that nobody on the mission seems particularly stable or well-suited to the job. Boyle sketches out each crew member quickly but adeptly, giving each one a well-defined (if sometimes precious) persona, like the neurotic psychologist, the hot-tempered engineer, or the botanist who cares more for her oxygen-producing plants than the people onboard (or, viewers suspect, the mission itself). NASA would never put these people in a small space for more than a day, but they're a marvel of small-scale human conflict almost from the very start.

That approach to character is emblematic of Sunshine's construction, which is really less of a plot and more of a set of simple machines rigged in opposition to each other. An early miscalculation in the position of the ship's sun shield leads to a series of cascading crises, each of which provides both physical challenge as well as ratcheting tension among the crew from dwindling resources. Yet there's only one real plot twist in the whole thing: the murderous captain Pinbeck of Icarus I, driven mad by his own journey toward the sun. Everything else is established clearly and methodically, with ample recall and signposting — it's the rare science fiction movie that doesn't cheat. Even Pinbeck's slasher-esque rampage shows up in clues for savvy viewers, who can clock a missing scalpel and scattered bloody handprints on rewatch.

Similar to an obvious inspiration (and personal favorite), Alien, one of the film's greatest special effects is the cast. Boyle gets a lot of mileage out of Cillian Murphy's After Effects-blue eyes, but you can't go wrong with Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh, Benedict Wong, and Rose Byrne. Still, for my money, Cliff Curtis is the film's MVP: as the doctor/psychologist Searle, he's both bomb-thrower and mediator in equal measures. His obsession with the sun leaves him visibly burned, like a Dorian Gray painting of the crew's mental health. And yet, unlike Pinbeck (who he clearly parallels), Curtis manages to keep his perspective straight and a wry sense of humor — he may love the light, but he's not blinded by it.

So why isn't Sunshine canonized, especially in a climate-change world where "our sun is dying" passes for optimism? Why is it considered a misfire, when Garland's flawed Annihilation was seen as a cult hit in the making? It's still not clear to me. Maybe it just got lost in the shuffle: 2007 was a good year for movies, including There Will Be Blood for the serious film aficianados and The Bourne Ultimatum or Death Proof for surprisingly well-crafted genre fans. Or maybe it's also just too close to its nearest relatives: too easy to write off as "Event Horizon without the schlocky fun" or "Solaris, but for stupid people." Either way, it feels overdue for reconsideration.

August 11, 2014

Filed under: movies»commentary»superhero

12 Percent of a Plan

I would love to have been in the meeting where someone pitched Guardians of the Galaxy. "We're going to take all the good will you've built up through the Marvel comic movie franchise, and then spend it on a space movie with characters that nobody really knows, one of whom is a heavily-armed raccoon." And then even weirder, it worked: Guardians is pretty good. Maybe it tells when it should show a little too often, but it never stopped me from enjoying myself. It's got a great soundtrack, good writing, well-done special effects, and most importantly, a really watchable cast.

Of course, this has been the case with most of the Marvel movies. I mean, let's be honest about, say, the Thor franchise, which have been a fun pair of movies considering that they're composed almost entirely of gibberish: Norse gods with British accents (who are actually aliens) fighting against elves and ice trolls (who are also aliens)! The whole thing is completely incoherent, but nobody cares because of the casting: everybody onscreen is good-looking, compulsively charming, and clearly having fun with a very silly premise.

But there's one thing that's been bugging me about the Marvel flicks, including Guardians, which is their endings. Namely, that they've all got the same one: the bad guys summon/control/take over a huge flying object, which immediately crashes headlong into a city.

  • The Avengers: Aliens crash giant worms into New York City.
  • Thor: The Dark World: Elves crash giant spaceship into England.
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Nazis crash giant aircraft into the Potomac.
  • Guardians of the Galaxy: Lee Pace crashes giant accordian into alien planet.

Explosions follow, while the heroes rush to tackle the portal/controller/big bad at the wheel. Lots of buildings fall over in the process, and people run through the streets while looking up and behind them (oddly enough, hardly anyone ever trips). Lance Mannion refers to it as the "obligatory ad for the video game," and while that's harsh it's not inaccurate, because it does feel a little bit (between the overused CGI and the framing) like watching someone else play God of War. A lot of money went into it, and someone's clearly having a good time, but it's not necessarily you.

And to be clear, Marvel's not the only company writing screenplays this way. Star Trek: Into Darkness, for example, was a movie that committed every sin in the screenwriting book (and then added a few) but arguably the worst part was the meaningless and cruel spaceship crash at its climax. Over at Fox, X-Men: Days of Future Past has Magneto tossing an airborne baseball stadium at the White House. Huge flying objects are the new glass jail cell.

The problem with these pyrotechnics isn't just that they're repetitive and tasteless (although they are both), it's that they're ineffective: by destroying a huge chunk of a city, the writers are aiming for huge cinematic stakes, but by portraying it from a wide-angle lens (and, in PG-rated films, refusing to show any of the resulting bodies and carnage) there's no sense of drama. It's just computer-generated buildings falling over in the distance: who cares?

For a movie like Guardians, which has no real point other than to be a fun space adventure, it's bad enough that there's a good fifteen minutes of watching architecture instead of the characters that are the real draw. But it's more acutely frustrating for something like The Winter Soldier, which spends its first 90 minutes referencing the modern surveillance state, which is a tricky, subtle political problem. And nothing says "tricky" and "subtle" like sending three flying aircraft carriers through a building in Washington, DC.

Maybe that's expecting a bit much from a huge media property with a multi-year cinema domination plan. Marvel wants to put people into seats twice a year, and if that means making the same movie over and over again, that's fine. It's certainly never stopped anyone else (see also: Transformers and Harry Potter). If they're not even sure they can make a movie starring a woman, the chances they'll mess with the formular are pretty slim.

But look at it this way: now you know when you can take a bathroom break without missing anything. I figure you can stay away until the end of the credits, at which point you'll learn which comic-book movie will drop a giant metal object on Paris next year. If we're all very lucky, it'll be Squirrel Girl's turn eventually.

December 19, 2013

Filed under: movies»television»elementary

The Watson Problem

The difficulty in making a Sherlock Holmes adaption for American television is that we've already got three or four of them. Hyper-observant detectives are a dime a dozen, from The Mentalist to Monk. Arguably, Psych is just Holmes and his deductive skills with an added dose of arrested development (and I say that as someone who enjoys Psych at its fluffiest). Dule Hill's Gus even serves as a Watson, but reduced to a pharmeceutical rep instead of a doctor to match his detective friend's lack of ambition. The BBC's Sherlock owes Psych a debt for the visual style illustrating the deductive process, although I doubt they'd ever admit it.

I don't envy the people who decided, after the British version aired to wide acclaim, to make another Sherlock Holmes show. That's some tough competition. But I've been watching the first season of Elementary, and I have to say I'm enjoying it. The cast is growing on me, I like the lack of romantic angst, and the infrequent references to the original stories (inasmuch as I can catch them, not being a die-hard fan) are often worth a chuckle.

The biggest problem that Elementary faces is Watson — specifically, figuring out what she's supposed to bring to the team. As played by Lucy Liu, Joan Watson is an ex-surgeon who initially serves as Sherlock's live-in addiction counselor. With the terms of that job running out, partway through the first season, Sherlock offers her a position being groomed as a detective-in-training: someone who can take on his methods and become an equal part of the sleuthing consultancy.

Unfortunately, this is where the show's writers seem to have run out of steam. They know where they want this Watson to end up, and they've told us about it repeatedly, but they don't know how to get her there. She's not shown doing much studying, as such, and Holmes mentions that she doesn't read his research. As a result, Liu's Watson ends up either solving minor b-plot mysteries, dropping medical clues, or providing a convenient anchor toward which Sherlock can toss exposition. It's possible she's learning by osmosis, but this hardly provides a reason why we should care about her character arc.

It's interesting to see how the BBC Sherlock has taken a different tack with its version of the character. The British Watson, played by Martin Freeman, leans heavily on the actor's likeability and finely-tuned air of irritation to create a companion who partners with Sherlock for the adrenaline rush of it. Freeman's Watson is muscle and heart: he humanizes Sherlock and provides support. Ultimately, the relationship between the pair on the BBC show is one of friends. They enjoy going on adventures together. They have a similar restlessness. But Sherlock doesn't need Watson to solve crimes. When the show begins, he's doing relatively fine without him, although Watson's blogging certainly helps build Sherlock's reputation as a detective.

Joan Watson, on the other hand, is interested in being Sherlock — or, at least, being a consulting detective armed with his deductive methods. And in contrast to the Cumberbatch version, Jonny Lee Miller's Holmes is not nearly as self-sufficient. He's abrasive without being charming, dependent on his father for income, and recovering from a drug problem that destroyed his ability to work. Lance Mannion has commented that this weakens Holmes, but I'm not sure that I agree. Given that the original Holmes was a bit of a Mary Sue (a great observer, master of disguise, amateur boxer and stick-fighter, chemist, polyglot, and former spy) I don't miss seeing a version of the character that's less omni-capable.

Elementary wisely forgoes flashy zoom cuts to "show" how Sherlock examines a scene. They don't seem to have developed much of a substitute, unfortunately, so too often the show falls back on simply having characters explain the mystery to us. But I think this is in part because the mysteries are honestly second priority to where Elementary actually wants to focus: on the relationship between Holmes and Watson, with two possibilities for its ultimate outcome. On the one hand, it's hinted that this version of the great detective is really the result of two people working together — that Holmes and Watson together are the equivalent of the BBC Sherlock. Alternately, we're watching the origin story for a second Sherlock embodied in Joan Watson: one that can avoid the mistakes of drug abuse and arrogance, and benefit from her richer life experience as a surgeon.

The danger in speculating about a TV show this way, I've found, is the tendency to write about the show you wish you were watching, not the one that's actually onscreen. It's an easy mistake to make. I remember being mystified by John Rogers' glowing commentary on Jericho, which does not at all resemble the mediocre show that aired under that name, until I realized that really we weren't watching the same program — that the version Rogers was watching was being filtered through all the cool stuff he could have done with its premise.

And so it may be with Elementary. I'm only three-quarters through the first season, and even I will admit that it's uneven at best. It's possible I'm just a sucker for training montages. But the idea that Watson is not just a point of view character or a sounding post, but just the latest heir to a legacy of nigh-uncanny sleuthing... I have to admit, that's like catnip to me. I've got high hopes for it in the second season, and I'd put up with a lot of flexibility around the source material to watch it happen.

August 15, 2013

Filed under: movies»television

Summer Streaming

It's been a beautiful summer, even by Seattle standards, and Belle and I have gotten at least some good out of it. We've been camping, traveling, and lately we even broke out the grill. Take that, state-wide burn ban!

Indoors, of course, a lot of the broadcast TV we watch takes the summer off. We've been picking up a few shows via Netflix and Amazon instead. I'm not quite ready to write off our TiVo yet, but I'm impressed with the choices we've had.

Orange is the New Black

Surprisingly good. Shockingly good, even. There's none of the lazy writing and faux-transgressiveness that marked Jenji Kohan's previous show, Weeds. It's got a rich cast of characters without feeling contrived, it's funny without going broad, and it's comfortable mining a deep vein of dark humor from its setting. There have been a few comparisons between this and The Wire. Orange is the New Black isn't quite that good--what is?--but it's not an inapt pairing. Like its predecessor, Orange features a diverse cast filled with actors of color. Both shows also lack marquee names (but feature stellar performances from little-known actors). And of course, the subject material in both cases is fascinating in and of itself.

Beyond the confines of the show, it's interesting to see Netflix so clearly taking a page from HBO's book. Lots of networks have halo shows--it's only thanks to Mad Men that I can differentiate between AMC and A&E--but it was really HBO that realized shows were "stickier" than movies. And unlike HBO, Netflix doesn't force you to haggle with your local cable overlords. If they can put out more material at this quality level, their constant battles over licensing big film titles for streaming look a lot less troubling. I could definitely see keeping a Netflix subscription just for a couple of shows like this.

Alphas

A show that never really found an audience on the SciFi channel, Alphas folded after a couple of seasons, and Amazon snagged it as one of their early exclusives. It's not groundbreaking television: the special effects are decidedly bargain-basement, the writers can't decide if they want to steal from Heroes or X-Men, and the direction ranges from competent to not terrible. It's a good summer show, though, with a more thoughtful core than either of its inspirations would lead you to believe.

Alphas has three things going for it. The first is David Strathairn, an actor who is way too good to be doing a superhero show on basic cable. The second is a genuine rapport between the actors, who really sell the workplace chemistry--especially between Gary, the autistic electro-telepath and Bill, the temperamental bruiser. Finally, Alphas does manage a single clever twist on its formula: the idea that its superpowers are basically neuroses, for which most of the cast are in therapy (if nothing else, this is a wry joke at the expense of the Xavier Academy for Gifted Youth). I'm not sure it ever really embraces that fully--there hasn't been a single hero-on-a-couch scene that I remember--but it does make me feel better about my own psychological tics.

The Fall

The Fall doesn't try to hide its villain: you'll know whodunnit by the end of the first episode. Instead, it serves as a kind of character study for its chilly detective, Stella Gibson, played by Gillian Anderson. In many ways it reminds me of the BBC's prototypical female detective drama, Prime Suspect: Gibson spends as much time fighting a sexist bureaucracy as she does hunting the actual murderer.

When it's good, The Fall is very good, but it takes its time getting there. It's odd that, for a season that's only six episodes long, so much of it feels like padding. But I think part of that comes down to the delivery method. Streaming (and DVD, as well) makes it easy to burn through a show in a matter of hours. That's great for hook-driven puzzlers like Fringe or monster-of-the-week shows like Doctor Who, but it might not work so well for atmosphere-driven dramas.

It makes me wonder if we'll see a change in how people write narratives as streaming TV-on-demand becomes more common. Some people consider the non-Netflix Arrested Development to be designed for obsessive DVD rewatching. Is streaming different? More social? More portable?

June 27, 2013

Filed under: movies»reviews»scifi

Magic Missile

I'm not entirely sure why you would make films based on a franchise that you never liked. I'm on record as believing that the first JJ Abrams Star Trek flick was a reasonable popcorn flick but it didn't share anything with the original product except some character names. That's not true for the second movie. Into Darkness (to use its weird, not-really-a-subtitle subtitle) isn't just bad Trek, it's loathesome filmmaking.

The low-hanging fruit is that the plot doesn't even try to make sense for more than five minutes at a time, but since the original series was hardly airtight, I have a number of other bones to pick, including:

  • The Enterprise is not a submarine.
  • In a franchise known for its progressivism, it's painful to see all of the women reduced to either needy girlfriends or passive sex objects.
  • Along the same lines, I like Benedict Cumberbatch just fine (actually, I think most of the actors do a decent job), but he is surely one of the whitest people on earth and should not be playing Khan Noonien Singh.
  • The Enterprise is not a submarine.
  • Scotty's Magical Transporter and Plot Hole Device can now send people all the way across to the Klingon empire, but our heroes still get in a ship to follow him because there wouldn't be a chance for a pointless shootout otherwise.
  • Star Fleet dress uniforms that bear an uncanny resemblance to Death Star formalware.
  • Warp speed is now basically Rainbow Road, complete with starships spinning out into space with skidding sounds when they get hit with a blue shell magical laser beam.

Sure, much of this probably seems like nitpicks and nerd rage. I've watched a lot of Star Trek, probably more than most people, and so there are a lot of things that to me are instinctively not right but aren't necessarily invalid. I think it's a shame to lose those parts of the Trek canon (and I tend to think that Abrams' alterations are worse than the material he's replacing), but I'm hardly objective. Lance believes that he's just trolling us, and I'm not sure that's wrong.

I find the movie's general incoherence to be frustrating. But that's not what actually makes me angry.

At the end of Star Trek Into Grim Serious Incoherence, Khan crashes his spaceship into San Francisco. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people are killed, but that's okay because they're not the protagonists and presumably their psychological issues were less attractive. This is, to put it lightly, not really what Gene Roddenberry had in mind when he pitched "wagon train in space" to some bored Desilu executives.

Speaking personally, I'm getting a little sick of the whole "it's been a decade since 9/11, so let's crash a flying vehicle into a city and call it emotional resonance" thing that every hack director with a render farm has been on lately. Abrams is doing it, apparently the new Superman movie does it, The Avengers did it. It's a cheap, transparent ploy to make otherwise airy summer entertainment seem important, so that critics can write that your otherwise incoherent summer tentpole flick has "real-world allusions" in it. Blowing up a planet in the first reboot movie wasn't enough, I guess.

Nowhere is that more true than in Star Trek No Subtitles Just Darkness. Khan doesn't really have a good reason to crash his ship into a major city. It doesn't particularly help him achieve his goals. He just does it because, as with every other reason that anyone does anything in a JJ Abrams movie, it's part of the story checklist they wrote before actually getting to outmoded concerns like "dialogue" or "motivation" or "character." City destroyed: tragedy achieved. On to the next setpiece!

Reboot or not, there are some things that a Star Trek movie shouldn't do, and mass murder is one of them. I'm under no illusions about the ideological purity of Star Trek, especially under Paramount's management, but I like to think that Roddenberry's vision should mean something regardless. As it is, there must be a little whirlwind somewhere around the ionosphere where his ashes are spinning. If JJ Abrams wants to participate in a little cinematic disaster porn, he's welcome to do so, but I wish he'd restrict it to some other, less established franchise. It's probably just as well that he's moving on to Star Wars: this kind of bankrupt cheesiness will fit right in there.

January 20, 2010

Filed under: movies»television»bbc

Star Quality

I've been watching more than my fair share of BBC shows on DVD lately--Extras, Torchwood, and Life on Mars in particular. These range in quality from brilliant, decent enough if you ignore the first season, and thoroughly enjoyable, respectively. The 2000s were clearly a good decade for television on both sides of the Atlantic. That said, there's one crucial difference between the best shows in the US and the UK, as far as I can tell. The kinds of people who get starring roles in British television are markedly different from the people who star in American shows: they look like real people.

Watch, for example, Ashley Jensen's brilliant work as dim-witted actress Maggie Jacobs on Extras. Jensen's deft touch keeps Maggie from being the kind of stock "village idiot" sitcom character that the show itself lampoons, and adds a particular sting to the awkward humor. It's the kind of role that very few people could pull off with such charm, and really should have led to a wealth of future lead roles for Jensen. Maybe on British TV it will, but here it got her a bit part on Ugly Betty, perhaps because she's neither outrageously thin or glamour-model pretty.

Or compare the casts of the UK and US versions of The Office. The remake features a lot more variety in casting than most American television (and kudos for that), but the leads have still been assigned to thin, conventionally-attractive people. John Krasinski is a great, funny actor, but it's still hard sometimes not to see him as a bizarro-world Martin Freeman, and just as difficult to picture someone who looks like John Krasinski being stuck in a dead-end paper company job. Slate's Seth Stevenson gets to the heart of this when reviewing the remake of Life on Mars, noting that the cast in general is better-looking and better-known than the original--and that the new casting completely undermines the show's interpersonal dynamic. Even within genres, this holds true: there's not a single person on the entire cast of Torchwood who's as sexy as the least-attractive Galactica crew member, and while the latter is a better show, it's still kind of hard to understand how the ragtag fleet maintains such flawless fitness and perfect skin on a diet of algae and moonshine.

Why the difference? Is it that the larger pool of American talent makes it easier to find people who are both talented and blandly good-looking? Is it some kind of institutional mandate brought on by publicly-funded media? Ultimately, who cares? Diverse casting isn't a magic bullet, and there are still plenty of BBC programs I find unwatchable (confession: The IT Crowd bores the crap out of me). But there are certainly a lot of cases where it makes a show better (including many American shows: The Office, The Wire, and 30 Rock come to mind), and it's got to be healthier for the viewing audience.

January 9, 2010

Filed under: movies»commentary»scifi

Wool and Water

'I can't believe that!' said Alice.

'Can't you?' the Queen said in a pitying tone. 'Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.'

Alice laughed. 'There's no use trying,' she said `one can't believe impossible things.'

'I daresay you haven't had much practice,' said the Queen. 'When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.'"

--Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll

Everything you've heard about Avatar is true. As a visual experience, it's lush and seamless. At the same time, the dialog is ludicrous, the plot is flimsy, and the message is sledgehammer blunt. It shamelessly fetishizes native cultures while perpetuating the lame White Man Saves Brown Blue People From Themselves plot. And for a director known for his strong female leads (Sarah Connor, Ripley, Lindsey Brigman), it largely relegates its women to background or supporting roles only. And long--oh, is it long. They could have chopped it in half, easily, and while it would have still been awful, they would at least significantly lower the audience's risk of deep vein thrombosis.

But these have all been discussed by countless people elsewhere (here's a good take). What struck me about Avatar, while watching a particularly leaden chunk of monologue, was the realization: not only did someone write this, they then paid someone else to deliver the lines, then threw further cash at a crew of animators to painstakingly render it--in 3D, no less. That's Avatar in a nutshell: vast, unfathomable amounts of money deployed in the service of incredible mediocrity.

The general viewpoint, by those who enjoyed the movie anyway, seems to be that these elaborate visuals compensate for the flaws in the writing, editing, and direction. Disagreeing with this makes me feel like something of a Grinch, since words like "wonder" tend to get thrown around when discussing its landscapes and weird alien horses, and I do hate being accused of a lack of wonder. We're supposed to applaud the extensive craft that went into Cameron's project, according to this view.

But from my perspective, we're a bit like the White Queen these days, in a state of constant suspended disbelief. We're surrounded by amazing images. During my lifetime, I've seen the state of the art go from the NES to the PS3, from stop-motion to Up. A few years ago they made Fred Astaire dance with a vaccuum cleaner in a commercial, an act which at the time was an arresting (if necromantic) idea, and is now pretty much unremarkable. My phone can superimpose directions to the nearest Waffle House on the view in front of me, for heaven's sakes. I see six impossible things before breakfast. Games or movies or whatever, it ought to take a bit more than a well-rendered forest scene to impress us, or pull us in emotionally.

So instead of applauding, I think about the stories that could have been told with this kind of technology if it were given to more playful or inventive directors--Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Chris Nolan, or Guillermo del Toro, for example. It's hard not to feel a profound sense of waste, because these are directors that have accomplished what Cameron is supposed to have done: show us something that we've never seen before. Even the Wachowskis (and there's something I thought I'd never say again): think about what a mind-blowing experience The Matrix was the first time you saw it. Now there was a movie that used novel, elaborate special effects to actively mess with your sense of reality, as well as to tell a story that--if not completely original--at least aspired to more than surface depth.

But then, maybe that's the problem. Set out to tell an interesting story that requires some new effects, and you get The Matrix or Dark City. Aim to blow people's minds solely through the power of your budget, and you get The Matrix Reloaded--or Avatar.

August 31, 2009

Filed under: movies»reviews»scifi

District 9

Shorter District 9:

Sure, we could have done something thought-provoking with our premise, but it was that or the giant robot shootout. The choice was clear.

Nobody doubts director Neill Blomkamp's technical chops, or his gift for visually juxtaposing science fiction elements (robot policemen, aliens, mecha) over footage of his native South Africa. It is, however, unclear that he knows what it actually means when he does so. District 9 betrays a lack of insight--but just as much, a lack of interest--in the implications of his special effects.

Arturo R. Garcia raises several valid questions at Racialicious, in the brilliantly-titled post Shrimpin' Ain't Easy:

Why is [head alien] Christopher so much smarter than his fellow refugees? How could he be the only one trying to find a way out, or to know/care enough to clothe himself in a 'human' manner? And, if humans and Prawn are able to understand each other by the time the 'footage' is released, why did the documentarians - because that's how the first half of this film is framed - exclude interviews with any of the aliens in favor of black South Africans telling us how threatened they feel, and white South Africans denigrating the species as a whole?

And fellow commentator Nicole Stamp is more blunt about the film's use of stereotypes:

Why can't the Nigerians just be people with logical motives like money and weapons? Why do they have to go out of their way to be ooga-booga savages? The film would still have held up without the narrative elements of cannibalism and interspecies sex. Why do the blacks have to be sexual degenerates who will eat filth and violate the oldest human taboo by committing cannibalism? The only reason I see is to shoehorn some cheap visceral thrills into the movie. It's lazy, sensationalist writing, and it diminishes the potential for intelligent, nuanced allegory. And it doesn't even make sense.

The portrayal of the gangsters bothered me for another reason. As I was sitting in the theater, when one of the "documentary" interviews comments on the Nigerian crime syndicates, a chuckle went around the audience. The implication was pretty clear: for Americans, Nigeria means spammers and criminals. Three cheers for international stereotyping!

But ultimately, I found District 9's problems to be rooted less in racism and more in a reluctance to engage. Despite being set in South Africa, it's not really an apartheid movie. Despite dealing conspicuously with refugees from outer space, it's not a post-war movie. Nor is it a first-contact movie, or a film about immigration and cross-cultural boundaries. Its goals are modest: to be an action movie, and a showcase for an admittedly impressive set of special effects.

To some extent, this might be preferable to higher ambitions but less success. Executed badly, movies in many of these subgenres are lucky to be hackneyed, if they're not even more offensive than what they decry. From that perspective, it's tempting to absolve Blomkamp for his film's toothlessness--although I think no-one can realistically argue that we live in a post-racist society, it's also hard to say that we need to be told, once again, that apartheid was a bad idea.

Then again, to give him that pass is to treat science fiction simply as a way to rehash simple object lessons from history--a failing often embodied by Star Trek's well-meaning aliens-as-minority trope, which is rarely flattering to anyone involved. In the last few years, we've seen some great sci-fi that uses artistic license to examine political questions (both new and old) from interesting directions: BSG, Torchwood, Pan's Labrynth, Children of Men, The Dark Knight--although they range widely in subtlety, intelligence, and complexity, these movies are undeniably engaged.

District 9 is not. While social redemption might be asking too much, the film is notable in that it hardly ever, in the first half-hour or so--and never after that--bothers to draw a comparison between its South African setting and the alien segregation that theoretically drives its alien-buddy-cop plotline. Nor does it consider the other parallels--colonialism, technological exploitation, literal class warfare--that might be drawn. In fact, by the end of the movie, the status quo has been largely upheld. The resulting experience feels like a bit of a let-down. Given such a compelling setup, you want to say, this is the best you could do?

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