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Film review: ‘Interstellar’ is stellar

Interstellar, Big Hero 6 score more than $50M in opening weekend

Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway star in Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” which has hints of many other sci-fi films but has a rather unique message of its own. (No, it is not a rehash of “2001”… And it is better than “Gravity.”)

First, the criticisms that widely are being thrown at Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar”: Real people don’t talk that way. The science often isn’t solid, to put it mildly. The plot twists are predictable.

I, for one, frequently pleasantly was surprised by the twists and turns and surprises that “Interstellar” presents us with, including even my not having known that a major star plays an important role in the film, which is filled with stars, both of the astronomical and the Hollywood type, and while I suppose that if you are an astronomer (and not many of us are), you will only be able to dissect the film against your knowledge base, in my eyes “Interstellar” delivers on the sense of awe of the vastness of the cosmos that we commoners see films like “Interstellar” for in the first place.

Sure, Matthew McConaughey has been overused a bit in the movies as of late, but he is a solid lead for “Interstellar,” and one could argue — and I do — that Anne Hathaway’s character actually is, in the end, the most important character in the film.

Tellingly, I think, the scene that I found the most poignant in “Interstellar” apparently is the scene, or at least one of the scenes, that Slate.com’s resident astronomy writer, who reviewed the film, hated the most. He writes:

In a conversation between [Matthew McConaughey’s character] and Anne Hathaway’s character about love, she says that love is an artifact of a higher dimension (what does that even mean?) and “transcends the limits of time and space,” as if it’s a physical force — an allusion to gravity, which, critically to the plot, does transcend dimensions, time, and space. The dialogue here was stilted to say the least, and it gets worse when [another] character talks about a parent’s love for his children, saying, “Our evolution has yet to transcend that simple barrier.” Who talks like that? The movie is riddled with attempts to be profound, but due in part to the clunky dialogue it just sounds silly.

Sure, there is some “clunky dialogue” in “Interstellar,” but it’s meant to be a grand, sweeping sci-fi epic, not a modern comedy whose dialogue never would stray from the vernacular. And the character who makes such a comment as “Our evolution has yet to transcend that simple barrier” obviously has some screws loose, so it’s not surprising, really, to hear him repeatedly speak that way.

Probably the biggest takeaway for me from “Interstellar” is the Mars vs. Venus worldview — and which of the two worldviews, at least in “Interstellar,” turns out to be the most critical to the continued survival of the human species. (I won’t elaborate on any of “Interstellar’s” plot points here, as no reviewer really could do such a summary justice, and as, in the end, “Interstellar” very much is about the effect of the whole, not the details of its parts.)

It’s interesting, I think, that just as McConaughey’s character rebuffs Hathaway’s soliloquy about love transcending the limits of space and time (a rebuff that, in the film’s plot, has some serious consequences and repercussions), so does Slate.com’s astronomy writer. Theirs is a worldview, the Martian worldview, that apparently is dyed in the wool.

It’s an important worldview (and don’t get me wrong; I read the aforementioned astronomy writer’s stuff all the time, and I like it, so I will continue to read it), but it’s only half of the story (at most).

Mars is nothing without Venus, and that, I think, is the central message of “Interstellar” that apparently only we Venusians, like only Anne Hathaway’s character (and the character of the daughter of Matthew McConaughey’s character) in “Insterstellar,” can see.

Even if my Mars-vs.-Venus analysis doesn’t do it for you, “Interstellar” is worth seeing for (again) the sense of awe that a good sci-fi film can instill in us earthbound folk, and I, for one, found its intricate, puzzle-like plot to be fascinating. I like the way that Nolan and his screenwriting brother fairly neatly tie up the loose ends, and I’m fine with “Interstellar” not having explained every little detail and phenomenon, because that not knowing — which is anathema to the Martian worldview — is the stuff on which we Venusians thrive.

My grade: A

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‘12 Years a Slave’ is a grueling antidote to the comparatively toothless ‘Lincoln’

Film review

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is “counseled” at knife point by cotton-plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) in director Steve McQueen’s grueling film “12 Years a Slave.”

I finally got around to watching “12 Years a Slave,” and while it perhaps has been a little over-hyped — I hate it when a good film is diminished because it can’t possibly be as great as so many claim that it is — it’s going to win a bunch of Oscars, and I consider it to be an antidote to Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” of which I noted at the time that it came out (a year ago) that “the evil of slavery itself is barely portrayed in ‘Lincoln’ … and blacks are only supporting (and mostly subservient) characters in ‘Lincoln,’ which gives the viewer … the unfortunate impression that perhaps the film is asserting that slavery was more of a burden for liberal whites than it was for the actual slaves.”

Indeed, in “12 Years a Slave” the “saviors” still are white men, but, given the fact that at the time white men held virtually all of the political power, what other “savior” could a black person have had at that time? The best that most black Americans, especially enslaved black Americans, could hope for at that time, it seems to me, was to have the fortune to have the mercy of white men who had power to make their lives less miserable.*

Indeed, in “12 Years a Slave” we see at least two grown black men run to their white-male protectors and embrace them as a child would embrace his parent. But, given the circumstances, one could hardly blame them.

I wrote of “Lincoln” that “The Southerners (and their sympathizers) in ‘Lincoln’ aren’t portrayed flatteringly, which probably will mean that the film won’t appeal to the ‘tea-party’ dipshits, since the slavery- and treason-loving Southerners depicted in ‘Lincoln’ are their true founding fathers.”

Ditto for “12 Years a Slave” (and Quentin Tarantino’s “Django,” too, of course).

Michael Fassbender and Paul Dano couldn’t have done a much better job of portraying what probably was the typical Southern white male of the era, and Brad Pitt, perhaps because he was one of the producers, got what to me is the plum role of the liberal, abolitionist Canadian whose action finally frees our hero.

Our hero, of course, is the real-life historical figure Solomon Northup, who in 1841 was a free man (well, “free” as in “not a slave,” “not someone’s property”) who was lured from his home in New York state to Washington, D.C., where he was promised well-paying work but instead was kidnapped and forced into slavery in Louisiana for a dozen years.

And the star of “12 Years a Slave” is Chiwetel Ejiofor, who no doubt will be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his harrowing portrayal of Solomon Northup.

The other star of “12 Years” is Lupita Nyong’o, who plays the slave Patsey, and who also very most likely will be nominated for an acting Oscar.

“12 Years a Slave,” based upon Northup’s autobiography of the same name and penned by American screenwriter John Ridley, is, first and foremost, the story of the slaves, and its portrayal of their trials and tribulations by comparison makes “Lincoln” look like it portrays slavery as a mere inconvenience to black Americans.

“12 Years,” among other things, portrays free blacks in the North being abducted and sold into slavery, slaves stripped nude and bathed for auction like livestock, a mother being separated permanently from her two children at auction, and the character of Patsey being serially raped by the cotton-plantation owner Edwin Epps (played by Fassbender) and, to add injury to injury, being hated by and thus violently attacked by the plantation owner’s wife (Sarah Paulson) because her husband is sexually predating upon her. We also witness one of our protagonists being quasi-lynched and the other one being brutally whipped.

“12 Years a Slave” does as probably a good job as a film could do to bring us into Solomon Northup’s world. You’re supposed to feel Northup’s struggle and large degree of helplessness, given how utterly disempowered he is. His spirit not only is violated repeatedly by the wrongs that are done to him, but also by the multitude of wrongs that he has to witness done to others, probably especially to Patsey.

“12 Years a Slave” is directed by Steve McQueen, a writer-director who, I surmise, because he is black and British, wasn’t overly worried about not offending white Americans in his portrayal of Southern slavery. (Of course, Quentin Tarantino wasn’t worried about that, either, with “Django,” but bad boy Tarantino can make just about any film that he wishes. Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” by contrast, suffers because the “upright” and apparently uptight Spielberg apparently didn’t want to offend white Americans too much.)

I wasn’t impressed with McQueen’s over-hyped 2011 “Shame,” which also starred Michael Fassbender, but after “12 Years,” which draws you into Solomon Northup’s grueling world so well that when he finally is reunited with his family you will, if you have any empathy at all, have tears in your eyes, I look forward to more projects by McQueen, and after having watched “12 Years” I’ll probably catch McQueen’s other project starring Fassbender, 2008’s “Hunger.”

My grade: A

*Indeed, we are told at the end of “12 Years a Slave,” as Wikipedia puts it:

Northup sued the slave traders in Washington, D.C., [who had kidnapped him and sold him into slavery], but [Northup] lost in the local court. District of Columbia law prohibited him, as a black man, from testifying against whites, and, without his testimony, he was unable to sue for civil damages. The two men were charged with the crime of kidnapping and remanded into custody on $5,000 bail, but without Northup’s testimony, a conviction could not be secured and [so] the men were released.

So, even in the North, which in Northup’s day was quite progressive compared to the South, Northup, as a “free” man, because he was a black man, did not have equal rights, and white men still could commit grievous crimes against black Americans with impunity.

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Greatness eludes ‘Elysium,’ but Blomkamp is getting better

Film review

This film image released by Columbia Pictures-Sony shows director Neill Blomkamp, left, and Matt Damon on the set of "Elysium." The film, opening nationwide on Aug. 9, is a rogue burst of originality _ a futuristic popcorn adventure loaded with contemporary themes of wealth discrepancy, immigration and health care. (AP Photo/Columbia Pictures, TriStar, Kimberly French)

Associated Press image

Writer and director Neill Blomkamp directs Matt Damon on a set of “Elysium,” Blomkamp’s second big entry into the sci-fi genre.

Like his “District 9,” writer and director Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium” is a worthwhile and entertaining but imperfect sci-fi venture in which Blomkamp takes the opportunity to inject social justice.

“Elysium” hits much closer to home here in the United States than “District 9,” which is set in Blomkamp’s native South Africa, did, however.

“Elysium” takes on at least four large American sociopolitical issues: immigration, class-based access to health care, the environmental degradation of planet Earth, and the phenomenon of the gated community, which is a euphemism for what actually are becoming privately militarized compounds as the filthy rich get richer and the rest of us get poorer and the rich want to keep the shit that they’ve stolen from us safe from us.

Set in the year 2154, in “Elysium” Matt Damon plays Max, a member of the poor working class in a future Los Angeles whose residents speak both English and Spanish. Most of Max’s companions, including his best friend Julio (played by Diego Luna) and his love interest Frey (played by Alice Braga), are Latino.

Like poor Mexicans attempt to get into the United States (although not nearly with the same frequency since the U.S. economy crashed and burned, like everything else did, under the watch of George W. Bush), poor and desperate Earthlings attempt, via spacecraft, to get into Elysium, the name of the gargantuan wheel-like space station that orbits Earth in space like the moon, and that like the moon, is visible on Earth. (The full backstory of the construction of Elysium is not given in “Elysium”; like the moon, it’s just taken as a given, which is OK, since we don’t really need the backstory anyway, since we already have a very good sense of how Elysium came to be.)

Protecting Elysium from the poor and desperate Earthlings who wish to reach it — the “illegals” — is the space-station plutocrats’ defense secretary, the sometimes-French-speaking Delacourt (an icy Jodie Foster) and legions of humanoid robots that keep the “illegals” (who even on Earth are deemed “illegals,” because they are not allowed admittance to Elysium) in line, mostly on Earth but also on Elysium should any of the “illegals” actually make it to Elysium.

Max, whose job is in a factory that manufactures the robots that keep the “illegals” in line, is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation while on the job — there is no OSHA in Blomkamp’s dystopian Los Angeles — and is given five days to live, and he finds out that Frey’s daughter has terminal leukemia.

The elites on Elysium have the automatized technology to cure a human being of any malady (as long as he or she is still alive, anyway), and Max’s underground associate Spider (Wagner Moura), who is a futuristic coyote, has a plan that could take Elysium down, and so the film takes off from there.

True, as others have noted, “Elysium” does go off the rails a bit, as it goes from a social-consciousness movie into a typical Hollywood action flick, but then, it more or less saves itself at the end, when it returns to its social-consciousness beginning.

Matt Damon carries “Elysium” well. He is a reliable workhorse of an actor. And as his own sociopolitical views lean strongly leftward, my guess is that he infused his performance with the sense that with Blomkamp he is furthering good causes (because, methinks, he is).

I found Jodie Foster’s performance, however, to be remarkably stilted and lifeless. I mean, she was nominated four times for the Best Actress Oscar and won twice. Foster’s character is supposed to be icy, I get that, but Foster nonetheless seems to have phoned it in. Some of this might be Blomkamp’s fault, however; as we get no backstory on or real development of Foster’s character, perhaps the two-dimensional portrayal is about the best that she could do.

And while Blomkamp apparently likes Sharlto Copley enough to have put the star of “District 9” in “Elysium” as well, Copley’s villainous Kruger, a mercenary who is on Delacourt’s payroll, is, as others have noted, over the top. Indeed, this villain, when compared to the other characters in the film, even that of Delacourt but perhaps especially that of Max, seems to have been cut and pasted from another film entirely… (Ditto for Kruger’s immediate associates, who also seem like refugees from a “Mad Max” movie.)

And like “District 9” does, “Elysium” suffers from some inconsistencies and some explanations that don’t make sense, as though Blomkamp hadn’t really thought all of it out.

The ubiquitous humanoid robots that keep the “illegals” in line on Earth suddenly go mostly or even entirely missing when the action moves from Earth to Elysium, and while our protagonists and antagonists battle it out on Elysium, I found myself asking myself, “Where the hell are all of the robots? They’re all over Earth, but they’re missing in action on Elysium?”

Apparently a “reboot” of Elysium’s “core” (its central computer) somehow is going to remove President Patel (Faran Tahir) — whom the right-wing, merciless Delacourt despises because she considers him to be too soft and too merciful toward the “illegals” (whose spacecraft she just wants to blow from the sky as they try to reach Elysium, without exception) — and, presumably, put Delacourt in the deposed Patel’s place.

How, exactly, the mere rebooting of a central computer would achieve that change of guard, Blomkamp doesn’t explain. Nor does he explain how the mere reprogramming of Elysium’s “core” to recognize all Earthlings as citizens of Elysium would magically mandate that all Earthlings automatically are to receive the level of medical care that the denizens of Elysium get.

I mean, it’s not like reprogramming a computer, no matter how powerful it is, is the same as reprogramming human beings. (That said, the craniums of the denizens of Elysium apparently are linked with implanted, wireless circuitry that at the least allows them to communicate hands free [Google and/or Apple is/are working on this right now, right?], and there is a character [a CEO whose corporation Max works for, played by William Fichtner] who, much like how R2-D2 held the plans to the Death Star, holds the plans to “reboot” Elysium inside of the small computer that is implanted in his head, where he has downloaded the plans, but, presumably, the over-privileged denizens of Elysium cannot be reprogrammed into believing that they actually had elected someone else as their president or that the destitute denizens of Earth suddenly now are their sociopolitical equals.)

Also, if we are to buy the central premise of “Elysium” — which is that the rich and the powerful tiny minority (the 1 percent, if you will) have fled the increasingly overpopulated, diseased and polluted Earth for their own mega-gated community in the sky, and that they have done this in order to protect and to preserve the limited, apparently scarce reserves of life-enhancing things for themselves — then how can we buy “Elysium’s” ending, which apparently portrays the 1 percent’s hoarded resources, or at least their hoarded medical-care resources, as being enough to serve at least the entire area of Los Angeles, but apparently even the entire Earth?

This does not compute…

Still, despite “Elysium’s” flaws, it’s a more than watchable film, it’s an improvement over “District 9” (and so Blomkamp seems to have a promising career ahead of him), and it’s great, of course, to see a mainstream film take a socialist-y stance on current hot topics such as immigration, access to medical care, environmentalism, and, of course, the ugly phenomenon of the gated community, which is but a manifestation of the insanely great class division that we see in the United States of America today.

I don’t expect American wingnuts to love this film, and that’s a great thing.

My grade: B+  

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‘World War Z’ needs braaains!

Film review

In this publicity photo released by Paramount Pictures, the infected scale the Israeli walls in "World War Z," from Paramount Pictures and Skydance Productions in association with Hemisphere Media Capital and GK Films. (AP Photo/Paramount Pictures, Jaap Buitendijk)

The Cool Catastrophes of 'World War Z'

This publicity image released by Paramount Pictures shows a scene from "World War Z." The zombies in “World War Z” move with Carl Lewis speed and a swarm-like mentality inspired in part by rabid dogs, furthering the eternal fan debate over whether the walking dead should actually run. (AP Photo/Paramount Pictures)

Zombies leap and pile atop each other like angry armies of ants in “World War Z,” produced by and starring Brad Pitt, but despite these impressive visual effects and a plot that has Pitt’s character jetting around the globe, “WWZ” overall is a fairly tepid entry into the zombie genre.

I walked into “World War Z” yesterday with one reviewer having stated that the film does nothing new with the zombie genre but with other reviewers (the majority of them) having stated that it’s an engaging, thrilling summer action movie.

Sadly, in a nutshell, my verdict is that “WWZ,” while watchable enough, does nothing significantly novel with the zombie genre.

I wanted to like “WWZ” more than I did. The zombie genre, done right, can be decent entertainment, and Brad Pitt usually doesn’t do shit. But “WWZ” won’t go down as one of Pitt’s best films or as one of the zombie genre’s best entries.

“WWZ” has some compelling special effects, such as its hordes of fast-moving zombies leaping and piling atop each other like angry armies of ants, but methinks that the proof that’s in the blood pudding is how the individual zombie is portrayed, and “WWZ’s” individual zombies aren’t very frightening, and “WWZ’s” lackluster zombie makeup effects break no new ground in the zombie genre.

Not that gore alone makes for a successful zombie movie, but perhaps one of “WWZ’s” chief errors, I suspect, is its producers’ decision to make a PG-13-rated instead of an R-rated zombie film. I mean, a G-rated zombie film would be considered something for kids, and so not very scary at all, so why would a PG-13-rated zombie flick be all that much scarier?

Indeed, far from being all that scary, most of “WWZ’s” individual zombies are (from what I can tell) unintentionally fairly funny. (My mate, who sat next to me, laughed throughout the movie, and laughed at scenes that very apparently weren’t intended to be comedic.) The tooth-chattering zombie, the zombie that Pitt’s character interacts with the most, I found to be creepy, but not scary, and zombies are supposed to be scary, especially in a movie that bills itself as a seriously scary zombie movie.

Further speaking of which, from what I can tell, the zombies in “WWZ” have no interest whatsoever in consuming human flesh — no, not even human braaains! — but have interest only in biting non-infected humans in order to spread the zombie virus. Perhaps that’s the best that you can do with a PG-13 rating, but yaaawn!

And while the whole concept of the zombie — a human being that is without a beating heart and thus without circulating blood and thus without any other functioning organs yet somehow nonetheless magically is animated — of course is entirely fantastical and not remotely scientific, it would be nice if “WWZ,” since it presents itself as interested in science and medicine, had strived for more medical and scientific accuracy in its portrayal of the viral-infection process.* (Spoiler alert: The material at the asterisk below is a mild spoiler.)

No virus, for instance, is capable of taking over the entire human body within a matter of seconds, and no virus can replicate without a living host, so of course a zombie, without even a beating heart, could not be a virus factory.

Didn’t early zombie movies just rely on voodoo or some other kind of magic or hocus-pocus as the explanation for zombification? When and why did viral infection become the new, unworkable rationale in the zombie genre?

OK, sure, I suppose, perhaps the fear of a Plague still lingers within the human psyche — large swaths of people have been offed in plagues during the past (and the plague of AIDS is still with us, and new plagues, such as bird and swine flus, have the power to scare us at least a bit today) — but even before “WWZ” we didn’t need another entry in the virally caused zombie genre.

And the “solution” that the heroes in “WWZ” find to deal with the zombies is less than credible and less than thrilling. (It’s so not thrilling that I won’t even bother to go into any detail about it; it would be a “spoiler” not even worth “spoiling.”)

With Brad Pitt’s involvement, you would have thought that “WWZ” would have turned out to be a smarter zombie movie. Instead, “WWZ” screams out for braaains!

That said, “WWZ,” regarded as typically mindless summer action-movie fare, is not entirely unwatchable. It’s just disappointing if you expected something more and something better.

I can forgive Pitt for this lapse — as long as he does not involve himself in a sequel.

My grade: B-

P.S. I found BBC America’s “In the Flesh” to be a fairly fresh take on the zombie genre, in case you are interested in feasting on such a fresher take — a take with brains (literally and figuratively).

*Indeed, the movie disappointingly kills off its most scientifically minded character quite early. Are we to take that symbolically as well — that without the scientist further in the movie there will be no further scientific orientation in the movie?

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Star Trek Into Spoilers

Film review

Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) interrogate the Osama-bin-Laden-like antagonist (Benedict Cumberbatch) of “Star Trek Into Darkness.”

I wanted to like “Star Trek Into Darkness” much more than I actually did. I even saw it in 3D at my local IMAX (I got a good discount, but still…).

This contains ample spoilers, so, if you are intent on seeing “Into Darkness” without any surprises/“surprises” being ruined for you, don’t read this now. Come back after you’ve seen it if you remember to do so. Otherwise, read on:

I won’t rehash the plot of “Into Darkness.” You can get the plot points anywhere else. I’ll just delve right into what works and doesn’t work.

I’m fine with the band of new actors who now play the characters from the original “Trek” series. I’m not a “Trekkie,” so this isn’t something like blasphemy to me.

That said, while Zachary Quinto’s Mr. Spock is good — although one might argue that it doesn’t take a great actor to play a character who, for the most part, is not allowed to display human emotions — Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk is a bit flat and reduces the character to maybe one notch above a frat boy. I don’t remember the original Captain Kirk (William Shatner’s, I mean, of course) being this testosterone driven.

Indeed, the macho persona that is built around Chris Pine’s Kirk is driven into the ground. We get it already: He’s reckless. He’s a maverick. He loves a bar fight and he loves him some pussy — and it doesn’t even have to be human pussy. Please, give me Captain Picard over this shit.

The banter and bickering back and forth about Spock’s logic and reason and discipline and restraint and adherence to the rules and Kirk’s impulsiveness and maverickiness and his compulsive rule-breaking gets very tiresome, as we’ve seen this schtick countless times before in the original television series and in the films. “Into Darkness” doesn’t improve upon it — it only regurgitates it.

Yes, rebooting a franchise runs the risk of just repeating all of it because the film industry these days is all out of fucking ideas.

That’s the idea that you get when you discover that the super-human bad guy in “Into Darkness” (played by Benedict Cumberbatch as well as the character can be played) actually is Khan, the same genetically-engineered bad-guy character from “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” Only you — or at least I — didn’t get this right off the bat, because the British-born Cumberbatch looks nothing like the Mexican-born Ricardo Montalban.

I’m fine with some of “Into Darkness'” use of references to earlier “Trek” episodes, such as the appearance of the tribble, which, sadly, I found to be more effective than the cameo of the ancient Leonard Nimoy, who, I’m thinking, might still appear in “Star Trek” films even after his death (Spock never dies, right?) — but I found important plot points of “Into Darkness” to be blatant rip-offs of earlier “Trek” films.

Kirk saving the ship even though to do this he must expose himself to a lethal level of radiation was ripped right out of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” only this time it is savior Kirk instead of savior Spock who is exposed to the lethal radiation, and therefore the touching scene in  “Star Trek II” where it’s a dying-of-radiation-exposure Spock inside of the Plexiglass enclosure and Kirk on the outside of it is just reversed in “Into Darkness.”

And Spock’s primal yelling of “Khaaaaaaan!” in “Into Darkness” is, of course, just a reversal of the moment in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” where it’s Kirk who’s doing the yelling.

I guess that this paean to “Star Trek II” was supposed to thrill “Trek” fans, but it made me just feel ripped off. It looked like incredibly lazy and uncreative screenwriting to me. I could have stayed home and watched “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” if I’d wanted to. I don’t see why the second installment of the “Star Trek” movie reboot had to take so much from the original movie franchise’s second installment.

Maybe there is hope for the third installment of the reboot, though. Recall that the third original “Star Trek” movie, subtitled “The Search for Spock,” was all about reviving the Mr. Spock who had died at the end of “Star Trek II.”

At the end of “Into Darkness,” Kirk is brought back to life after his death from radiation exposure in a quick-and-dirty, very apparently scientifically unsound manner (ditto for the revived tribble), and all is well, even though we, the audience, if we have two brain cells to rub together, feel ripped off by this all-too-easy, convenient wrapping of everything up in the film’s final moments — even if we can breathe a sigh of relief that the next “Star Trek” movie apparently won’t be subtitled “The Search for Kirk.”

Anyway, you have to earn a sappy ending, and “Into Darkness” just thrusts one onto us, like the creature in “Prometheus” homoerotically (but very sadomasochistically) thrusts its huge penis-like appendage down that humanoid’s throat at the end of that film.

Speaking of which, I’d had high hopes for last summer movie season’s “Prometheus,” too, which is why I saw it also in 3D at my local IMAX theater (only I got no discount that time…).

But what “Prometheus” and “Star Trek Into Darkness” have in common is that they both take source sci-fi material that once was very popular and successful and remix it, but not in a way that improves upon the source material; as I indicated above, they do it in a way that suggests that Hollywoodland is just all out of fucking ideas.

And both films put flashiness above originality and better-thought-out plot points, apparently believing that if the special effects are good enough, the audience won’t notice anything else, or at least will forgive anything else.

That said, as pure summer-movie entertainment (which, I believe, is meant to be fairly mindless by definition), “Into Darkness” is watchable, more so than “Prometheus,” because “Prometheus” (as I noted in my review of it last year) has so many inconsistencies in it that it had you leaving the theater pondering all of the shit that didn’t make sense.

“Star Trek” always has asked us to suspend our disbelief, so we are willing to be more forgiving for lapses of logic and reason in “Star Trek” fare than Mr. Spock might ever be, but there’s no fucking excuse for “Star Trek Into Darkness” to have ripped off “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (and even “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock”) so fucking much.

My grade: B-

P.S. I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the political points and comparisons to recent history that “Into Darkness” very apparently is trying to make.

Apparently “Into Darkness'” Khan is supposed to be something like an Osama bin Laden — you know, Bad-Guy Terrorist No. 1 — and Khan’s destruction of a Starfleet military installation that is disguised as a peaceful archive apparently is supposed to be like the destruction of the World Trade Center.

So we have Kirk — your typical testosterone-fueled white guy — wanting to go after Khan and snuffing him, and you have Mr. Spock arguing that no, the law — and fairness and justice — require that Khan be captured alive and put on trial.

Khan is captured alive — although only because he allows himself to be — but after Kirk’s short-lived death that Khan at least indirectly is responsible for, a now-enraged-over-Kirk’s-death Spock goes after Khan with even more intensity and rage than Kirk initially had intended to go after Khan.

So what’s the message here? Are we to gather from Spock’s actions that it’s OK — indeed, that it’s probably preferable — to kill the “bad guy” out of a sense of outrage and revenge rather than to capture him and put him on trial? (I use quotation marks because at least in “Into Darkness” we learn that Khan has his own reasons for his “terrorist” actions, regardless of what we think of his actions and/or his reasoning behind them — much as with the case of Osama bin Laden.)

Are we to take from “Into Darkness” that Spock’s initial call for restraint is always, or at least usually, bullshit? That immediate militant retaliation is always, or at least usually, the best solution?

If so, what kind of message is this to pump out into the popular culture of a nation that, in no small part because of its popular culture, eschews intellectualism and restraint and prefers reckless violent retaliation (even if it’s “retaliation” against the wrong fucking party or nation) as it already fucking is?

And if you think that my comparison of “Star Trek Into Darkness” to current-day events and politics is a stretch, then why does director J.J. Abrams, at the end of the film, dedicate it to post-9/11 veterans?

Do Abrams and his three screenwriters view those who fought in Vietraq as heroes or as dupes? Or as duped heroes? I mean, since Iraq had had absofuckinglutely nothing to do with 9/11 or with Osama bin Laden, what can we say of those veterans? What can we say of veterans who were so incredibly misused, who essentially were used as stormtroopers for Dick Cheney’s Halliburton and for other subsidiaries of BushCheneyCorp (including, of course, Big Oil), whose intent was to gain no-bid federal government contracts for their war profiteering and, of course, to steal Iraq’s oil for the oil mega-corporations’ profits? Who are the good guys again?

I left “Star Trek Into Darkness” with the unpleasant feeling that perhaps J.J. Abrams meant it to be a statement of the moral superiority of the United States of America over other nations — a virtual recruiting ad for the U.S. military, even.

I mean, fuck, “Into Darkness” opens with officers of the Enterprise saving a planet of “savages” that don’t look different enough from the “savages” that the white man once “saved” here on Earth (these “Star Trek” “savages” even chuck spears at our so-called heroes, for fuck’s sake).

True, the character of the corrupt Admiral Marcus (played by former RoboCop Peter Weller) in “Into Darkness” demonstrates that not all of those in Starfleet are morally superior and advanced — indeed, the character of Admiral Marcus seems to be a stand-in for someone like Dick Cheney — but still, it seems to me, the take-home message from “Into Darkness” is that whatever the always-well-meaning U.S. military fucks up pales in comparison to all that it gets right, and “Star Trek Into Darkness” keeps alive the myth of the studly white man as the perma-hero to the extent that I have an idea for the title of the next “Star Trek” film: “Star Trek: The White Man’s Burden.”

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‘Alien’ meets ‘Tree of Life’ in Ridley Scott’s ‘Prometheus’

Film review

Earthlings from the ship Prometheus visit the ship of humanoid aliens in Ridley Scott’s epic “Prometheus,” in which Scott unfortunately bit off far more than he actually could chew. 

Warning: Contains spoilers (if you really could call them that…).

I’m pretty sure that my companion and I weren’t supposed to laugh at the final visual of Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus,” but we did, and that very apparently unintended laughter from the audience member, I think, underscores what’s wrong with the film.

Before I saw “Prometheus” yesterday — in 3-D at an IMAX, the biggest and loudest way to see it, at least here in Sacramento — I had read another reviewer compare “Prometheus” to Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” and while at that time I couldn’t see how that comparison could be apt, I see it now.

I wrote of “The Tree of Life” at the time of its release:

I get the impression with “The Tree of Life” that the 67-year-old Malick [he now is 68] had two films inside of him trying to claw their way out of his chest cavity like identical twin aliens a la “Alien,” but that he was concerned that if he didn’t put them into one film, he might not live long enough to get both films made, so he put both of the films into a blender.

Again, either of these two films probably would have been or at least could have been great, Malick’s ode to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001” (and to “Jurassic Park”) or Malick’s very personal (perhaps too personal) recap of his own childhood as an American baby boomer having grown up in Texas.

I also noted of “The Tree of Life” that “the story of the humans in ‘The Tree of Life’ probably would have made a much better stand-alone film, stripped of the ‘2001’-like surrealism of cosmic vomiting and universal diarrhea, in which creation often rather violently explodes all over the place.”

It’s kind of weird, in retrospect, that I mentioned “Alien” in my review of “The Tree of Life,” because now we have Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus,” which is like “‘Alien’ Meets ‘The Tree of Life,'” and the same criticism that I leveled of “The Tree of Life” is true of “Prometheus”: that “the story of the humans in [‘Prometheus’] probably would have made a much better stand-alone film, stripped of the ‘2001’-like surrealism of cosmic vomiting and universal diarrhea, in which creation often rather violently explodes all over the place.”

In the opening scene of Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” — and it’s a grand, origin-of-man opening scene that makes us think way too much of the grand, origin-of-man opening scenes of Kubrick’s “2001” and Malick’s “Tree of Life” – we have what appears to be literal cosmic vomiting, as a proto-human, humanoid alien apparently vomits his (its?) DNA onto planet Earth as its body disintegrates into a waterfall, further seeding planet Earth with its DNA, eventually leading to us human beings, which doesn’t make much more sense, scientifically, than the myth that Eve sprang fully formed from Adam’s rib. But if I understand “Prometheus” correctly (and can anyone?), Scott presents this as more or less scientifically plausible.

It’s fine to create your own cosmology, but your cosmology needs to make sense, needs to follow logic and reason, if you are presenting it as logical and reasonable. “Prometheus” is chock full of logical and chronological inconsistencies and contradictions. Were I to watch “Prometheus” on DVD and be able to stop and start it again, I probably could fill pages of notes of all of the shit that just doesn’t make sense.*

And that doesn’t make “Prometheus” deep and unfathomable. That makes “Prometheus” not very well planned out.

The acting in “Prometheus” is good, even though our heroine more or less is an Ellen Ripley reboot, and expect Ridley Scott and his army of technicians to sweep the Oscars with technical awards, and indeed “Prometheus'” ultra-special effects and BIGNESS do indeed draw you in, at least at times throughout the film’s two hours, and so as summer-movie entertainment, “Prometheus” more or less succeeds, but by trying to do way too much, and by not making much sense in the process, “Prometheus” lets you down.

The main problem with “Prometheus” indeed seems to be Ridley Scott’s outsized ego. “Prometheus” isn’t just the dude in Greek mythology who first brought the use of fire to mankind, and “Prometheus” isn’t just the name of the ship in Ridley Scott’s first sci-fi film since 1982’s “Blade Runner,” and “Prometheus” isn’t just the humanoid alien at the beginning of Scott’s latest sci-fi film who apparently is the father (father/mother?) of all mankind on Earth, and “Prometheus” isn’t just the title of Ridley Scott’s latest film. “Prometheus” also very apparently is Ridley Scott — who wishes to remind you that he first brought the “Alien” franchise to mankind!

At age 74, perhaps Scott thought that “Prometheus” might be his last film, and so he had to make a splash. Ironically, it seems to me that had he tried to make much less of a big splash, “Prometheus” would have been a much better film, because it isn’t a big splash — it’s a big mess. A very pretty mess, but a mess nonetheless. With “Prometheus” Ridley Scott bit off way more than he could chew.

There are elements of “Prometheus” that I like. I like the proto-human, humanoid aliens, and I would have liked to have known an awful lot more about them, but I suppose that that would have been too much like “Star Trek” for Scott, and again, I have the feeling that we aren’t told more about these aliens not because Scott was trying to be coy (although I don’t rule out that he decided to save some details for sequels, of course), but because he actually never bothered to flesh out his cosmology for “Prometheus.”

Reviewers have been raving about Michael Fassbender’s performance as David, the android. I like Fassbender — he’s good in pretty much every role that he plays — but David is only a mish-mash of androids that we’ve seen before in the previous “Alien” movies and in many other sci-fi films. The protagonist juvenile android of Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.” also is named David, whose “daddy” is the CEO of a corporation, just like “Prometheus'” David is the ’droid “son” of a CEO. (The symbolism, I suppose, is that sculptor Michelangelo created his own David. Deep!)

Yawn.

And the theme of the robot who knows that he doesn’t have a human soul has been visited many times before, not only in “A.I.” but with “Star Trek’s” Data, of course. (To “Prometheus'” credit, I suppose, the android David apparently does not, in Pinocchio-cum-Data style, long to be a real boy, as does “A.I.’s” android David. “Prometheus'” David seems to prefer his status as an android.)

But why do almost all of the androids in the “Alien” movies have to be decapitated or cut in two? As I watched the talking head of David in “Prometheus,” I really could think only of the android characters of Ash and Bishop in “Alien” and “Aliens,” respectively, who were decapitated and cut in two, respectively, but who kept talking. Why couldn’t Ridley Scott have kept David in one piece?

And why did Scott have David deliver lines that are so similar in their content and even in their cadence to the lines that HAL delivered in “2001,” such as something along the lines of: “I know that we have had our differences,  [insert hero or heroine’s name here], but I can assure you that I am fully functional now”?

David’s being the only one “awake” for more than two years while the human crew were in cryosleep as their ship traveled to its destination (the Earth-like moon of a planet far, far away) on a mission that most of the crew members were not briefed upon until after their arrival at their destination also makes David too much like HAL and “Prometheus” too much like “2001” (as well as their grand opening scenes that retell how humankind came into being).

And for fuck’s sake, I love Guy Pearce, but if you have a character who is supposed to be an old, old man, why not just have an old, old actor play that role? (AARP, are you listening?) It’s taboo these days to put makeup on a white person and have him or her play, say, an Asian or a black person, so why is it OK to just put makeup on a younger man to have him play a Yoda-old man? (Age progression is different. Pearce’s character, the CEO of “Weyland Corp.” and the “father” of android David, is ancient throughout the entire film.)

Many reviewers have noted that “Prometheus” appears to be Ridley Scott’s attempt to take back the franchise that his 1979 “Alien” started, and indeed, the final, very apparently unintentionally risible scene of “Prometheus” — in a which a proto-“Alien” alien bursts from the torso of one of the proto-human, humanoid aliens — seems to be Ridley Scott fairly screaming: “See? I gave birth to the alien!”

Admittedly, the “Alien” franchise went off the tracks with its third installment, but “Prometheus” hasn’t put it back on track.

Gee. Maybe James Cameron can rescue the “Alien” reboot…**

My grade: B-

*You are demanding at least one thing about “Prometheus” that doesn’t make sense, so fine: Why does the humanoid alien at the end of the film, who, we are told, has been in cryosleep for at least 2,000 years, decide, upon finally wakening, that he still must fulfill his destructive mission on Earth? How does he know that the mission is still a good idea? Is it not possible that things have changed in two millennia? And even with the humanoid aliens’ advanced technology, how was he (it?) kept alive in cryosleep for two millennia?

Here’s another logical problem: The automated surgery pod that operates on our heroine — if it was programmed for male patients only, as we are informed, how did it cut open and then close her uterus? (Was the alien being in her uterus? She was told that she was pregnant, so I assume so.)

Here’s another problem: How can you actually reanimate the head of a humanoid being that has been dead for centuries? (And isn’t it repetitive? Ash the android’s head was reanimated in “Alien,” for fuck’s sake. WTF is Scott’s obsession with reanimated heads?)

And yet another problem: If the humanoid aliens’ DNA were exactly like Earthlings’ DNA, then why are the humanoid aliens hairless, pale (translucent, really) and huge? If the DNA were an exact match, wouldn’t Earthlings be giants, too?

There are many more inconsistencies and contradictions, but those are good for starters.

**Lest you laugh, Wikipedia notes that “Prometheus”

…began development in the early 2000s as a fifth entry in the “Alien” franchise, with both [Ridley] Scott and director James Cameron developing ideas for a film that would serve as a prequel to Scott’s 1979 science-fiction horror film “Alien.” By 2003, the project was sidelined by the development of “Alien vs. Predator,” and remained dormant until 2009 when Scott again showed interest.

I am not certain whether Scott and Cameron were working together or were working independently on an “Alien” prequel, but I rather would have had Cameron make the prequel than Scott…

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Documentary ‘Bully’ flawed but spurs vital conversation

Film review

review-bully-movie-image-alex

Kelby is one of the bullied students who had a strong family and friend support system in "Bully."

Alex and Kelby, above, are two of the victims of school bullying who are featured in The Weinstein Company’s documentary “Bully.” Alex, who was born prematurely, in the documentary is portrayed as being called “Fishface” and routinely physically assaulted at school and on the school bus, and Kelby left her school because of very apparently coordinated anti-lesbian discrimination. Below is 18-year-old Sawyer Rosenstein (who is not featured in “Bully”), whose school bully put him in a wheelchair when he was 12 years old. Sawyer and his family just settled with the board of the New Jersey school district for more than $4 million. In the settlement the school board denies that the school failed to protect Sawyer, even though its failure to protect him is quite fucking obvious.

The documentary “Bully” should be required viewing for every American, even those who, like me (a gay man), don’t have a son or daughter in a public school and (most likely) never will.

“Bully” is not only about how cruel and abusive some students can be toward other students, but it’s about how chronically victimized students routinely are failed by the adults in their lives who are supposed to foster and to protect them — not just by school teachers and school administrators, but also by their parents.

An assistant principal featured in “Bully” especially is clueless and worthless — she’s a baby boomer, and it’s all about the baby boomers, so there you go.

In one scene, the assistant principal forces the victim to shake the victimizer’s hand, as though that superficial action were any true solution to the long-term problem of the one student chronically bullying the other. The assistant principal in this incident apparently makes the common, unthinking person’s error in basically asserting that whenever there is a conflict, both sides must be equally guilty. (Actually, that bullshit belief just comes out of the sheer laziness to actually sort it all out and see who truly is at fault, but instead to just try to sweep it all under the carpet.)

In another scene, when a couple of parents come to the assistant principal after having viewed actual video footage of their child’s being seriously, violently bullied on the school bus, the assistant principal (again, a baby boomer) surreally manages to make it all about herself, even whipping out a photo of her grandbaby, stating that of course she cares about all of our babies (of course, the student who is being bullied is not an infant).

The assistant principal also declares that she has ridden that bus herself and that there is no problem whatsoever on the bus. Never mind the facts that there is video footage of the serious problems with violent bullying on that bus and that of course the students are going to behave themselves on the bus when the assistant principal is on board.

What the fuck? With brazenly incompetent, self-interested school administrators like these in our schools, administrators who are more interested in playing politics and in portraying a false portrait of how things are rather than actually being responsible to the students in their care, no fucking wonder bullying is such a problem.

It’s not just the school administrators, of course. The United States of America’s number one spending priority is not its schools, but is the bloated-beyond-belief military-industrial complex.

If enough Americans truly cared about what was going on inside our schools, our schools would be much, much better — including being adequately staffed so that incidents of bullying would be reduced significantly. We have the resources to greatly improve our students’ lives; it’s not a lack of resources, but it’s a lack of caring, including a nationwide public apathy that just allows the powers that be to steal our tax dollars and spend them not on what we need, such as good, safe schools, health care and environmental protection, and to take care of the least among us, but to blow our tax dollars on the military-industrial complex, which is not about defense, but which is about making filthy, treasonously rich swine even richer than they already are through such avenues as colossal military contracting waste and waging bogus wars for corporate expansion, such as how Iraq has been opened to the profiteering of Big Oil via the illegal and immoral Vietraq War.

“Bully” raises these important issues, at least indirectly, but as a documentary is flawed.

“Bully” focuses on bullying that has occurred in public schools in the Southern and Midwestern states of Iowa, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Georgia, and ignores bullying that happens elsewhere in the nation. Bullying is a national problem. My guess is that it’s significantly worse in the red states than it is in the blue states, but it happens eveywhere.

“Bully” probably focuses too much on one child, the 12-year-old Alex, who was born prematurely and who, while he’s an affable kid, is different from the others (who call him “Fishface”) and who thus is bullied. That said, Alex’s life is an excellent example of a child who has been failed by most of the adults in his life, not only by his bus driver and his draw-droppingly awful assistant principal, but even by his own father, who advises him to just fight back, even though Alex is fairly slight and probably can’t effectively fight back physically.

Alex’s father tells him that if he doesn’t fight back, his younger sister will be bullied, too — and that’s putting way too much pressure and responsibility upon a minor, and letting the adults continue in their dereliction of duty.

Even Alex’s mother, who apparently is the most genuinely concerned about him, probably should have concerned herself more about what was happening to him at school and on the school bus before she found out through the documentarians’ film footage.

Another flaw of “Bully” is that while we don’t need grotesque details, it sure would be nice to be told in more detail why, exactly, some of the victims of bullying-induced suicide took their own lives. The young man named Tyler, for example. Why was he bullied? Was he gay or suspected to be gay? In “Bully” we are told a lot about Tyler, who hanged himself in his bedroom closet at age 17, but we’re not really told about why he was bullied.

For the most part, “Bully” doesn’t tell us what to think, but lets us come to our own conclusions. The story of Ja’Maya, a black teen who says that she only brought her mother’s handgun with her on her school bus because she wanted to scare the kids who had been bullying her, reeks of racism/white supremacism as we watch yet another stupid white male, baby-boomer sheriff — who perhaps never has been a victim of bullying himself, but perhaps has been a bully his entire life (bullies are, after all, drawn to law enforcement) — declare that no amount of bullying could justify what Ja’Maya did, and we are left with the sense that if Ja’Maya were, say, a white male jock instead of a 14-year-old black female, the “criminal” “justice” system where she lives would have treated her very differently.

Kelby, the 16-year-old lesbian who is featured in “Bully” is eloquent and intelligent and strong, but “Bully” probably doesn’t say enough about the bullying that happens to gay and lesbian and non-gender-conforming students, who comprise probably the most-bullied group of students.

“Bully” should be an invitation for us not only to declare jihad upon bullying in our public schools, but to tackle the bullying that happens in our workplaces as well. In many if not even most workplaces, bullying occurs on a regular basis. The belief that adulthood in and of itself automatically erases the dynamics that we saw in our public school days is a fucking myth.

The perpetrators of bullying in the workplace know better than to get physically abusive/violent in most cases, but verbal abuse/harassment, sexual harassment/sexual abuse and the abuse of power can make the workplace just as hostile as a public school. And just like bullies in school are careful about bullying when no one in authority is present, workplace bullies most often do their deeds when there is no one who might do something about their bullying is around.

Hopefully more documentaries about bullying will be made, although after “Bully,” school administrators might be much less willing to appear on camera.

Stories of bullying abound, such as the current news story about Sawyer Rosenstein, who became paralyzed from the waist down when a bully at school punched him when he was 12 years old. Sawyer, now 18, is in a wheelchair and just settled with the board of the New Jersey public school district for $4.2 million.

Admittedly, most individuals who are punched don’t become paralyzed — Sawyer apparently was the unfortunate victim of a freak medical event (a blood clot) — but Sawyer’s case illustrates how seriously dangerous bullying can be.

At least three months before his bully put him in a wheelchair Sawyer had informed his school’s administrators that he was being bullied, but even after Sawyer’s life-changing injury at the hands of his bully, msnbc.com reports,

The [New Jersey public school district’s] board denied [in its settlement statement] allegations that it or its employees had “failed or compromised its responsibility to develop and to implement effective policies and procedures to protect the safety and rights” of the school community, … noting that the district “prides itself for the role which it has played in recognizing and developing an awareness of the dangers of bullying, intimidation and harassment in the school setting.”

Bullying can’t be addressed if school administrators, in order to save their own skins, won’t even fucking acknowledge it.

It’s our own collective fault, however, that brazenly incompetent and self-interested school administrators like these remain in power and that our schools don’t have more resources, such as adequate staffing to supervise students, to combat bullying.

And until school administrators and teachers stop saying that it’s the parents’ responsibility, and parents stop saying that it’s the schools’ responsibility, and school administrators stop saying that it’s law enforcement’s reponsibility, and law enforcement stops saying that it’s the schools’ responsibility — and all of us (even those of us without children of our own) take responsibility for the well-being of our young people — our public schools will continue to be more like prisons than like places of learning and personal growth.

My grade: B-

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