Monday, September 1, 2014

The Paper

Year 6, Day 244 - 9/1/14 - Movie #1,835

BEFORE: Michael Keaton carries over from "Pacific Heights" - it's hard to find a good Labor Day film without resorting to "Norma Rae" or "North Country".  Besides, those films aren't even on my list.  But let's try a film about the hard-working (?) staff of a daily newspaper, since that's a job that requires people to work every day, even on holidays.  

THE PLOT:  Henry Hackett is the editor of a New York City tabloid. He is a workaholic who loves his job, but the long hours and low pay are leading to discontent, and a hot story soon confronts Henry with tough decisions.

AFTER: OK, good choice for Labor Day, and not just because the main character's wife is pregnant.  This is really about how people choose to balance work with their personal lives, or in some cases how they fail to do so.  Henry's the metro editor and always pulling late nights and coming home at 4 am, after putting the late edition to bed, plus he has trouble making it to dinners and family functions. His pregnant wife was formerly a reporter herself, so she's feeling left out and wondering if giving birth means the end of her career.  

The publisher of the New York Sun is an older man who put work ahead of family for most of his career, and now he's had four failed marriages and trying to reconnect with his adult daughter.  So you can see where a lifetime of putting work first might lead.  And the managing editor is having an affair with a reporter, while also deciding whether she needs to quit the newspaper to end the affair, or get a raise to pay for all the afternoon hotel bills.  Meanwhile, an investigative reporter who broke the story about a traffic commissioner who disobeys parking signs, feels he's being harassed by city tow-trucks in response.  So, really, nobody's doing a very good job of reconciling their work lives and personal lives.
This may feels like it rings true, but here also leads to too many subplots.

Into the madness of this daily grind drops a story about two white businessmen murdered in Brooklyn, and two black teens arrested, perhaps wrongly, for the crime.  Even though this film is now 20 years old, this topic feels quite timely given recent events - but you know this is a Hollywood film because the teens were arrested by white cops without the use of deadly force or even chokeholds.   Since this film covers just one 24-hour period, much of the drama revolves around whether the paper chooses to go with a "guilty" or "innocent" headline.  Unfortunately, this feels like an over-simplification, because most complicated major news stories probably aren't resolved within a particular timeline, or could possibly be quantified with just one headline or story.

And it's a big cliché to have someone say "Stop the presses!".  A writer can try to hide this by having his characters point out that it's a big cliché when they do it, but this doesn't change the fact that it's still a cliché.  It's been way overdone.  

This film will also make you wonder how people managed to get things done back in the days before everything was digital.  At this time in history, people were still using cameras with film, for example, which meant that they had to rush back to their darkroom and develop film in chemicals before they knew if they got the shot they needed.  

NITPICK POINT: Cell phones are not really seen in this film either, so reporters had to go to a police precinct, write something down on a notepad, then travel back to the paper to tell their editor in person what's on that notepad.  Funny, I thought we at least had payphones in 1994, but I guess I'm wrong about that.  Nope, I guess you had to take the subway all the way back to the newspaper to give someone that valuable information on paper, because I guess there weren't faxes or e-mails either.

A lot's been said over the past few years about the death of print journalism - but newspapers and magazines are still being published every day.  Sure, most news also appears on the web, and most newspapers and magazines put out digital editions as well as tree-based ones, but I don't see the physical objects going away any time soon.  I can still read a paper magazine on the subway or some place where I don't have a wi-fi connection, so there's the convenience factor.  I still buy the Sunday paper because I like doing the crossword on paper, and also circling the shows I want to record in the TV insert.  Call me old-fashioned, but I'm leaving it for the next generation to go all-digital if they want.

They still publish paper comic-books, though I don't know for how much longer.  Somehow collecting digital files doesn't feel the same.  And digital files will never, ever go up in value, so what's the point of collecting them?  Kids today don't understand we had to WALK (or ride a bike) to the comic book store every Wednesday, buy our entertainment in PERSON from an occasionally sketchy employee, then WALK back home, and now we were saddled with more paper that, once enjoyed, now had to be taken care of - bagged, boxed, stored and kept from danger for the rest of our natural lives.  That's an awesome responsibility that I fear future generations will fail to appreciate. 

I don't think "video killed the radio star", because we've still got radio.  Sure, the independent stations have gone under or all been bought up by large media corporations, but people still listen to the radio, right?  And iTunes and Pandora and Spotify didn't kill radio either.  Cable companies broadcast a bunch of music channels too, plus there's satellite radio and still you can turn on your AM/FM and find a good song in the genre you want.  In much the same way, I don't see that the internet has killed good old tabloid journalism - it's still there if you want to get your fingers covered in newsprint. 

Also starring Glenn Close (last seen in "Reversal of Fortune"), Marisa Tomei (last seen in "Happy Accidents"), Robert Duvall (last seen in "Open Range"), Randy Quaid (last seen in "The Missouri Breaks"), Jason Alexander (last seen in "Brighton Beach Memoirs"), Spalding Gray (last seen in "The Killing Fields"), Geoffrey Owens, Lynne Thigpen, Amelia Campbell, Bruce Altman, Jack McGee, Edward Hibbert, Siobhan Fallon, with cameos from Jason Robards (last seen in "Julia"), Catherine O'Hara (last seen in "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events"), Jill Hennessy, Bob Costas, Graydon Carter, Kurt Loder.

RATING: 5 out of 10 soda breaks

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Pacific Heights

Year 6, Day 243 - 8/31/14 - Movie #1,834

BEFORE: A three-day weekend where the weather isn't so great?  I'm down with this, because "everyone" is out of town, which means it's a great time to stay home and take care of some things, besides catching up on sleep.  I can get some comic books bagged up and placed in longboxes, since I'm about a year behind on organizing the collection. (The next step would be to move four or five boxes of comics to my storage unit, but one thing at a time.)  I can work on clearing both DVRs, not just one or the other.  I can re-alphabetize the DVDs while I pick out the September selections.  And we can go to whatever restaurants we want, even the ones that are usually too crowded, provided that still leaves me time to do those other things.  

This film was meant to follow "Six Days, Seven Nights", because of the rhyming thing, but since I moved the other Harrison Ford films, that ship has sailed.  Instead I'm using it to set up tomorrow's Labor Day film, which in turn sets up the back-to-school chain.  Linking from "Force 10 From Navarone", of course Harrison Ford was also in "Working Girl" with Melanie Griffith (last seen in "Mulholland Falls")
THE PLOT:  A couple works hard to renovate their dream house and become landlords to pay for it. Unfortunately one of their tenants has plans of his own. 

AFTER: Well, if you liked "The Money Pit", but wished it could be a lot more like "Cape Fear", then this is the film for you.  All the fun and excitement of renovating a house, combined with the fear and excitement of dealing with a psychotic stalker.  The thrill comes from the not knowing how far or fast the relationship between the landlords and tenant is going to go as it spins out of control.  

I've never been a landlord, but I did serve on a condo board for 11 years, and I know there are some fine legal distinctions that get made.  For example, no one in the building could sublet without permission, but they were allowed to have roommates.  So you couldn't rent out a room, but you could share your space - I guess you'd have to be sleeping in the same room or the same bed for that to be 100% legal.  But you can't invade someone's personal space by checking out their sleeping arrangements, so at the end of the day you can't really enforce the rules as they're written.  

For a psychotic person, the villain here sure knows a lot about the distinctions in the laws about renters and delinquent tenants.  Perhaps you wouldn't expect someone who's unhinged to have such a fine grasp of the law, but that's where we find ourselves.  Ultimately, though, the film can't decide whether he's a mentally evil stalker, or a cold, calculated identity thief, or just someone who likes destroying rental apartments.  So he ends up being all of the above - I think a screenwriter should be forced to pick just one track sometimes.  

The concept of "squatter's rights" is over-empasized here - sure, a tenant has rights, but if he hasn't paid his rent or security deposit, well then he's not officially a tenant, now is he?  The screenplay is forced to rely on a judge who either can't be bothered with details or refuses to listen to reason, and therefore rules in favor of the non-paying tenant, which seems like lunacy, but keeps the plot going.  

From a business standpoint, what can we learn from this film?  If someone offers you a medium amount of cash now as part of a business deal, or a larger amount of money if you'll take a wire transfer, TAKE THE CASH.  This isn't "Let's Make a Deal", there isn't a vacation hiding behind some curtain somewhere.  Take what the guy is offering in cash he has on hand, and let him wire you the balance.  Or, they have these new-fangled things called "checks" that you might want to look into.  

NITPICK POINT: I didn't realize that there was such an ancillary market for sconces and appliances.  I would think you'd have to know someone in the contracting business in order for stripping an apartment to be profitable, mostly because tearing the fixtures out without damaging them would be nearly impossible. 

I've made exactly two real estate transactions in my life, one was buying a condo in Brooklyn in 1991, and the other involved selling it in 2004 and buying a house in Queens.  In between I paid my ex-wife for her investment in the condo (as part of the divorce terms) and it turned out to be the smartest money I ever spent.  I don't like to brag about it, but after 13 years the condo was worth about four times its initial 1991 price, and selling it just made sense.  Even though I'd only managed to pay off about 1/5 of the mortgage on the condo, after selling it I was able to pay cash for 2/3 of a house, plus have some money for moving expenses and new furniture.  I know that my great fortune came from the increase in the value of the condo, but it was hard to feel like I hadn't bought a house with someone else's money.  

Also starring Matthew Modine (last seen in "The Dark Knight Rises"), Michael Keaton (last seen in "Speechless"), Laurie Metcalf (last seen in "U Turn"), Mako (last seen in "Conan the Destroyer"), Dorian Harewood, Beverly D'Angelo (last seen in "Coal Miner's Daughter"), with cameos from Tippi Hedren (last seen in "Marnie"), Dan Hedaya (last seen in "A Life Less Ordinary"), Jerry Hardin, Tracey Walter.

RATING: 5 out of 10 background checks

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Force 10 From Navarone

Year 6, Day 242 - 8/30/14 - Movie #1,833

BEFORE:  Morgan Freeman was my lead-in to the sci-fi chain, and Harrison Ford is my lead-out, carrying over from "Ender's Game".  (I guess I could have gone with Ben Kingsley to "Gandhi" or "The Dictator", but my chain is set, and I like it.)  There were supposed to be a few more Harrison Ford films here, but I needed to free up some 2014 slots for new films coming in, and I realized that those Ford films are mostly romance-based ("Sabrina", "Six Days, Seven Nights") so they've been moved to next February's line-up.

THE PLOT:  During World War II, several oddly assorted military experts are teamed in a mission to raid and destroy a bridge vital to enemy strategy.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "The Guns of Navarone" (Movie #708)

AFTER: Oh, I've been waiting a good long while to watch this - when I started the prep work for this project in late 2008, this one was on the wish list.  Not the watch list, the wish list.  It seemed that it was always running on AMC, which is a movie channel that airs films with commercials, so it's been banned from my line-up, except for emergencies.  Same thing with Sundance Channel and IFC, which USED to run movies without interruption.  I'd call the cable company and cancel those channels if they allowed me to do that, just on principle.

I don't know how long a channel licenses a film for, but I was willing to wait - I went ahead and watched "The Guns of Navarone", and other films where ragtag groups of soldiers take on seemingly impossible missions, like "The Dirty Dozen" and "Kelly's Heroes", and then finally a few months ago, one of the REAL movie channels started running this.  (Unfortunately, that channel is Encore, which believes that end credits should be blocked by a half-screen pop-up that tells me what movie is coming up next, but what can I do?)

Of course, I was interested in the type of war movie that Harrison Ford made right after appearing in "Star Wars".  For good measure it was directed by a man who directed four James Bond films, and there are at least three actors from the Bond films in this, plus two actors who had minor roles in the "Star Wars" films.  Oh, and the guy who played Apollo Creed - so it really is a ragtag bunch.  If you want to regard this as the film where Han Solo and the ship captain from "Jaws" team up with Apollo Creed to take on the Germans as well as the big guy from "Moonraker", well I'm not going to stop you.

The original film "The Guns of Navarone" featured two men leading a bunch of soldiers on a stealth mission on the Greek island of Navarone to take down some very large guns - and those two men (played by different actors, because Gregory Peck and David Niven got too old waiting to be in the sequel) now lead (OK, tag along on) a different mission into Yugoslavia, to find the spy who ratted them out on the last mission.

They join a team led by an American, Col. Barnsby - there was a Col. Barnsby in the first film, but he was an Australian Air Force commander, played by Richard Harris.  So I don't know if this is supposed to be the same character played by a different actor, or perhaps they just share a last name, which is a pretty strange coincidence.

There are a lot of different factions here, it's not just about Allies and Axis.  There are Chetniks and Partisans, both are local rebel groups, but which one's aligned with the Nazis?  Then we have double-agents and sleeper agents, and their alliances are always shifting, so navigating through the players to pull off the mission is a challenge in itself.

But the real thing to appreciate here is the team's level of ingenuity, which you'd like to think is the sort of thing that tipped the scales in World War II.  If they need to eliminate a particular person, or a military target, what's the best way to do that?  And if that doesn't work, what else can we try?  If we can't lower the bridge, can we raise the river?  And if we can't blow up the bridge, what's another way to take it out?  And if we don't have the materials we need, how can we get them?

This sort of illustrates the point made in "Ender's Game" - it's creative thinking that wins wars.

Also starring Robert Shaw (last seen in "From Russia With Love"), Edward Fox (last seen in a bit role in "Lost in Space"), Franco Nero, Carl Weathers (last seen in "Semi-Tough"), Barbara Bach (last seen in "The Spy Who Loved Me"), Richard Kiel (last seen in "Moonraker"), Michael Byrne, Angus MacInnes, Michael Sheard (last seen in "Frenzy")

RATING: 6 out of 10 panzer tanks

Friday, August 29, 2014

Ender's Game

Year 6, Day 241 - 8/29/14 - Movie #1,832

BEFORE: Back to another sci-fi film released in 2013, for the end of the theme.  I've got 68 open slots for films to watch this year, and I've got 45 films from 2013 and 2012 left on the list.  However, if I stick to my planned order, I'm only going to get to 27 of them - I've got some coming up soon, then some really classic films for a stretch, and tehn I'll get back to more recent films from Halloween time through the end of Year 6.

Linking from "Solaris", Viola Davis carries over - now do you see why I organized it this way?

THE PLOT:  Ender Wiggin is recruited by the International Military to lead the fight against the Formics, a genocidal alien race which nearly annihilated the human race in a previous invasion.

AFTER: I remember there was some controversy over making a film based on the work of Orson Scott Card, but I can't remember why.  He's a Mormon, and he was against same-sex marriage or something?  But there are a lot of people who are against that, how am I supposed to keep track of this sort of thing?  Plus, whatever happened to "turn the other cheek"?  If someone offends you, I thought you're supposed to forgive them, not just once but seventy times seven times or something.  I think we give too much leeway to people who feel oppressed, they shouldn't be allowed to hate in return, because that just compounds the problem, right?  If you hate the haters, how are you not a hater yourself?

Anyway, I'm free to judge the movie as I see fit, and I can keep that separate from any personal views that the original author may or may not have had, if I so choose.

What we're dealing with here tonight is the theory that somehow children make the best soldiers, at least in the future where experience with video games and lazer tag, due to their resembling real space combat, comes in quite handy.   The film mentions that kids are good at "board games", I don't know why that line wasn't changed to "video games".  This is a somewhat logical projection, because doesn't the army now use games like "Call of Duty" to identify potential soldier candidates?

But even if kids in the future are ideal strategists, and even if I assume that Ender is some kind of budding military genius, on par with Napoleon, he's still just a kid.  So I have to question the premise.  Sure, kids are impressionable - some might even do well in a military environment.  But where are all the adults?  I get that millions of people were killed in the previous alien invasion, but still, that was fifty years prior - there should be plenty of adults willing to go to war.  No matter how I try to justify it, this is still about sending kids into space to kill aliens, or practice to kill aliens.

So the film is on shaky moral ground right from the start - and then things get worse, but in ways I'm not free to talk about.  Let's just say there's a lot of debate over what makes a soldier into a soldier, and then what turns a soldier into a military leader.  The adults want to see if Ender is really "the chosen one" - so they test his resolve in various underhanded ways.  OK, so in order to nurture him into the perfect military genius, they have to lie to him, trick him, and put him through social torture just to make the exact sort of outcast they need.  Still not justifiable - the ends do not justify the means.

I'm reminded of the way Anakin Skywalker was regarded as the "chosen one" in the Star Wars saga, and just look at how great THAT turned out.  Actually he was perceived as the one to bring "Balance to the Force", and I figured out from Episode I that it might not actually turn out to bring a positive result - after all, there were thousands of Jedi and just 2 Sith - if you try to bring that equation into "balance", it's not going to be pretty.

I'm also reminded of my school years by watching "Ender's Game" - so I'm expecting that the high-school flashback dreams will recur very soon.  The physical challenges that Ender goes through in this film remind me of the hell that was gym class - forced to wear unflattering gym shorts in front of my classmates.  Like I wasn't already batting zero with girls before that, thanks a lot.  Then I have to do what?  Climb a rope?  Do a pull-up?  Look at my body shape, it's not going to happen, you Cro-Magnon gym teachers.  Admittedly we sometimes played fun games like Dodgeball and "Pin Bombardment", but if I was forced to run a quarter-mile or a 100-yard dash, I couldn't do it.  The class would be over by the time I made it around the course. 

Then came the fun of showering in front of other people.  Some of whom already had designs on making my life miserable, and now I have to be naked and vulnerable, nearly sightless without my glasses, in front of them?  Thanks again for that.  Being the largest kid in class meant I was bullied in grade school - there were two cliques in my grade school, and I didn't fit in with either of them, so I mostly hung out with the other unpopular kids, at least we could be miserable and unpopular together.

Things got a little better when I made it to junior high, which combined the kids from the three grade schools in town into one big class.  I was able to meet smarter, more pleasant people from other areas of town, instead of the meatheads from the neighborhood I lived in.  Turns out there were other smart people from those schools, and as long as I could keep my grades up, I could travel in a better social circle. 

Two things happened in high school that really helped me out, even though my grades took a little bit of a dive when tougher subjects like calculus and physics were thrown into the mix.  One was that I got really good at standardized test-taking for some reason.  Maybe it was all of the crosswords and other puzzles I'd been doing since I was a kid, but I scored really high on the PSATs, even got a small National Merit scholarship for that.  And I think that reflected well for the school as well as on my own permanent record, so I had a bit of a reputation as a great test-taker, even if my grades weren't straight A's any more.

The other was that when my voice changed, it went really low, and there was an astounding shortage of singers in the bass range.  I sang in the barbershop quartet in the school's production of "The Music Man", and this led to a part in an 8-person mixed Double Quartet group.  I even made the District chorus finals a few times, having had no luck getting anywhere playing the clarinet for the orchestra tryouts.   The great thing about being in the Quartet was performing in concerts around the state, which meant occasionally getting out of class to do so.  Suddenly I had something of an all-access pass, and making it to gym class was a lot less important.  Never had to do another failed pull-up.

So anyway, I'm not really buying into this "kids make the best soldiers" deal - but I think most kids should find something that they're good at, and run with it.  That can be art, or music, or the chess club, but whatever it is, it helps combat the awkwardness of being a teen.

I'm guessing that the "Game" in the title refers to the video-game that Ender plays in his spare time, which turns out to be somewhat important.  Or perhaps it's the "game" that he's forced to play to advance in ranks of a the militaristic society.  Or is it the "game" that his instructors/superiors play on him, by not being truthful?  I guess it's all of the above.

Also starring Harrison Ford (last seen in "Anchorman 2"), Asa Butterfield (last seen in "Hugo"), Hailee Steinfeld (last seen in "True Grit"), Abigail Breslin (last seen in "The Call"), Ben Kingsley (last seen in "Shutter Island"), Moises Arias, Aramis Knight, Suraj Partha.

RATING: 6 out of 10 fighter jets

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Solaris

Year 6, Day 240 - 8/28/14 - Movie #1,831

BEFORE: This choice was simple, since George Clooney has been in just two space films, so watching them back-to-back is a must.


THE PLOT:  A troubled psychologist is sent to investigate the crew of an isolated research station orbiting a bizarre planet.

AFTER: The initial goal was to collect all the remaining sci-fi films on the list together, but I accidentally caused a secondary theme to develop, which often happens.  Nearly all of the last week's films have also been about connecting or re-connecting with family.  Which is strange because that's not really a common theme in everyday films, so to see that pop up again and again in space, I have to wonder.  Perhaps many sci-fi directors think that the genre is somewhat impersonal and cold (in space, no one can here you bicker...) so the trend lately has been to inject a lot of relationship stuff into sci-fi movies.

We had Tom Cruise's character re-connecting with his past in "Oblivion", young brothers learning how to not fight with each other in "Zathura", a son and his absent father working together in "After Earth", the Robinson family taking on challenges together in "Lost and Space", brothers mind-linking to control giant robots in "Pacific Rim", and even Sandra Bullock's character thinking about her dead daughter while in space in "Gravity".  That trend continues tonight in "Solaris", as Clooney's character travels to a distant space station that somehow makes him re-connect with his late wife.

This film is enigmatic for most of its story - it's a long time before we really learn what's going on, and why.  In the meantime, our hero seems content to spend time with his wife again, even if he knows deep down that she can't be real.  A lot of old memories are dredged up, so the film gets overly flashback-y in the middle, to the point where I almost couldn't tell what was a flashback, what was a dream, and what was happening at the moment.  

Once our hero finally resigns himself to the fact that his resurrected wife is not who she seems to be, that's when things get weird.  Or I suppose "weirder" is more appropriate.  If your favorite part of the film "2001: A Space Odyssey" is that bit at the end that nobody really understands, and you wished it could be turned into a feature-length story of its own, then this is right up your alley.  However, as you might expect, that makes it very enigmatic and low on explanations.  

There used to be these street tiles in New York, and apparently in other cities, that nobody understood for a while - they'd say things like "Toynbee Idea in Movie 2001 - Resurrect Dead on Planet Jupiter".  I don't know about Toynbee, which could be a reference to a historian with that name or could come from a Ray Bradbury story, but I know a LOT about Arthur C. Clarke and the "2001" saga, and I think the person who made the tiles just really misinterpreted them.  The monoliths in "2001" were there to shepherd human progress, not resurrecting dead people.  Just sayin'.

Also starring Natascha McElhone, Viola Davis (last seen in "The Help"), Jeremy Davies (last seen in "It's Kind of a Funny Story"), Ulrich Tukur

RATING:  5 out of 10 pill bottles

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Gravity

Year 6, Day 239 - 8/27/14 - Movie #1,830

BEFORE: OK, I admit it - I screwed up my own actor linking.  Sure, anyone could have gone from "Elysium" to "Gravity" via the Matt Damon/George Clooney connection - the "Ocean's Eleven" series, of course.  But I had NINE sci-fi films to work together.  So I had to look at the big picture - and when I did, the only way to make all of the necessary connections was to go from Clifton Collins Jr. in "Pacific Rim" to Clooney via the "Perfect Storm"...

Only it wasn't Clifton Collins in that film, it was John Hawkes.  Sure, they look a bit alike - call up some pics on Google if you don't believe me - but it's still a mistake that I should not have made.  Character actors be damned, I should be able to tell them apart by now.  So my linking's down the drain...   Wait a minute, not so fast, Idris Elba links to Ed Harris (last seen in "Pollock") via a film called "Buffalo Soldiers" - and Ron Perlman also links to Ed Harris via a film called "Enemy at the Gates".  So the chain survives, I live to fight another day.  (Ed Harris is not seen in "Gravity", merely heard as the voice of Mission Control, but c'mon, work with me here.)

THE PLOT: A medical engineer and an astronaut work together to survive after a catastrophe destroys their shuttle and leaves them adrift in orbit.

AFTER:  This was one of the biggest films of 2013, nominated for a ton of awards (did it win any? I'll have to check my notes) and from everything I've read, it represented a giant leap forward in special effects, and storytelling in general.  Plus, it's got astronauts, and space shuttles and satellites!  As a geek, I should be all over this one, right?

Not so fast.  Turns out there are all different kinds of geeks - there are the type that go to Comic-Con, and then there are the type who hang out at Cape Canaveral to see a shuttle launch, or can't wait to hear the news about the new experimental space-plane or whatever the hell that thing was.  Turns out, I think I'm firmly in the first camp, not so much in the second camp.  I liked "Apollo 13", but because it's gripping story made for great tension - I wasn't watching it to see if they nailed the way weightlessness worked on screen, or to get a look at what the dials looked like on the Apollo module.  Yes, there are space nerds, as opposed to sci-fi nerds, and I don't think I'm one of them.  They really need their own name, to distinguish themselves from the fans of "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" - how about Astro-nuts?  OK, that's a bit derogative, but we'll workshop something.

Yes, it seems like this film was striving for REALITY, or as close as one can come to reality by using CGI and filming in a studio with people on wires and gimbals in front of green-screen can get.  Science FACT-ion instead of science fiction?  Of course, it can't be really real because we can't send our actors up into orbit or endanger them in any way, so a lot of people went to a lot of trouble here to duplicate reality (or a fictional reality that looks and feels like a real reality) and while this is science-based and fictional, I can't bring myself to consider it as science fiction - where are the aliens?  The robots?  Phasers and/or lightsabers?  

I put this on a DVD with the film "The Impossible", and I think my instincts there were spot on - it's about survival, doing whatever it takes to survive, get back to civilization and tell your story, and the stories of those who maybe didn't make it back.  Beating the odds, no matter what the cost.  Sacrifice as well as survival -

Now that we've established that, I can judge the film based on its own merits, right?  Not so fast.  Here's the part where the film and I parted company - the sequence that just HAD to be a dream, because it defied the rules of both physics and proper storytelling.  Yes, it was most likely a dream, but it LOOKED like part of the reality, and it was placed before the audience as if it WERE part of the reality, right up until the part where it was revealed not to be.  From a storytelling angle, this is dirty pool.  Bait and switch.  I'm only angry because a vital bit of information is revealed in this dream/hallucination, one that otherwise might not have come to light, and that's just not how dreams work.  You can't know something in a dream that you didn't know in your waking life.  Perhaps she knew this and forgot it and the dream reminded her of it, but it's still a dirty storytelling trick.

Beyond that, there were several times that I didn't really know what was going on.  Clearly there was some kind of specific problem taking place, but since at this point there was only one character on screen, and you wouldn't expect someone to talk to themselves the same way they would talk to another person, this sort of left me, as an audience member, out in the cold.  If I have to read the plot summary on Wikipedia the next day to find out what happened in the film I watched the night before, then someone involved in the storytelling process dropped the ball.  Or pitched it too far over my head. 

I can see how some people appreciated the sentimentality involved in the storyline - the drama and the emotions involved was there to elevate this over a simple story about astronauts and how they do what they do.  But I think it was a bit too much - I think "Gravity" represents not only the force that causes items to fall toward Earth, it also represents the heavy-handedness applied here by the director to try and elicit an emotional response from the audience. 

Of course, this all could be a result of a glitch in my progress - I simply read and heard too much about this film before watching it.  You reviewers and comedians who can't resist spoiling endings, I'm holding you to blame. Plus I had to dub it to DVD, and I had to check that DVD - so I probably saw too much about the ending before watching it in sequence.  They really should have had a disclaimer on this film - something like "You're going to want to see this in the theater, because if you watch it at home or read too much about the ending beforehand, it's going to seem like a pointless exercise."  That's much too long for the poster, but again, we'll workshop something.

Also starring Sandra Bullock (last seen in "The Heat"), George Clooney (last seen in "The Thin Red Line").

RATING: 6 out of 10 airlocks

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Pacific Rim

Year 6, Day 238 - 8/26/14 - Movie #1,829

BEFORE: I've blocked out the remainder of the year's films on the calendar, and I'm pleased with the result.  I sort of forgot that I should skip NY Comic-Con in October, and I'm also regretting I didn't save these sci-fi films for that time of year.  I think I'll be watching Bette Davis films around Comic-Con, and that just doesn't make any sense.  But the linking has led me here, and I'm making progress on the films of 2013, so I'm just going to keep going.  Speaking of linking, Gary Oldman from "Lost in Space" was also in "The Unborn" with Idris Elba (last seen in "Thor: The Dark World").

THE PLOT:   As a war between humankind and monstrous sea creatures wages on, a former pilot and a trainee are paired up to drive a seemingly obsolete special weapon in a desperate effort to save the world from the apocalypse.
 
AFTER: God, where do I start with this one?  I have a feeling I could spend 6 hours tearing this plot into pieces, and then nitpicking it into even smaller pieces, and never completely do it justice.

Let's start with the premise: giant monsters are rising up from the ocean's surface, through some kind of dimensional portal, and they eat humans and destroy cities.  Conventional weapons are (apparently) useless against them, so humanity's best choice is to build giant robots - but not real robots, robot-LIKE machines that are controlled from within by two humans apiece.  Humans that are expert fighters, and also mind-linked together in pairs to be even better fighters.  

Part 1: giant monsters are attacking.  And they can't be killed, and they're destroying everything.  If you hear this on the news, the natural response is to jump out the window, because at least then you won't get eaten.  But since we can't kill them and we can't destroy the portal, perhaps a better response would be to start working on that ark to get everyone to another planet. Nope, instead people sit around and watch as the monsters increase in size from category 2 to category 3, and so on.  How do people even know what a category 4 kaiju looks like, if it's the first time they're seeing one?

Part 2: conventional weapons are useless.  So we try something else, that's what we humans do.  If the redcoats are cutting us down when we line up, we hide behind trees and stone walls.  If it's too costly to take the Japanese islands back one by one, we drop an atom bomb.  We're told at the beginning of the film that nothing so far has worked, INCLUDING the giant robots - so why the heck are they still being used?  TRY. SOMETHING. ELSE.  Nope, let's keep using the thing that doesn't work, in the hope that it will.  Cause that's smart.

Part 3: the giant robots.  or Jaeger, or whatever you want to call them.  The shape of a bipedal human is unique, the product of millions of years of evolution, to do the tasks that helped keep us alive - which did not include battling giant demon beasts.  In fact, if a human was as big as a building, his shape would probably be a detriment, he might not even be able to stand up.  There's a reason that buildings and mountains have the shapes that they do, because that's what works at that scale.  A building-sized robot?  Not possible.  And its center of gravity is way too high, for starters.

Part 4: controlled by humans.  Why?  They never really explain why someone needs to be inside.  If we can build a giant fighting machine, why can't it be completely robotic?  If it needs to react to the moves of the kaiju, why can't it be controlled remotely, like in "Real Steel"?  This set-up just puts people at risk, and the whole reason to fight the demons is to protect people, right?  Why can't it be a drone of some kind?

Part 5: two humans apiece.  Why does it take two humans to run each Jaeger?  Because they say so, I guess.  You would think that having one person in control would mean faster reaction times and smoother moves, and you'd be right.  But the plot says they tried making robots controlled by one person, and one person couldn't do it.  So make the robot interface better - am I to understand human technology only goes exactly this far, that it can make a giant robot, defying all rational machine logic, but it can't fix whatever design flaw is preventing it from being piloted by one user? 

Part 6: the mind-link.  Another seemingly unnecessary complication.  The Jaeger needs two pilots, but they need to be mind-linked so they learn each other's complete history, secret fears and internet passwords.  This is so they'll function perfectly as a unit, hmm, almost like one person would - damn, I really wish we could make these things piloted by one person, but nope, it has to be two people acting as one, because we say so.  And also, you'd think that all this excess drama of dealing with not only one's own fears but also someone else's would really get in the way, but nope, this is the complication that somehow makes the whole thing possible.  Right.  

I think I'm starting to see the problem here - the government is using outmoded technology that has been proven to not work, refusing to invest any money to fix design flaws, or take any steps to properly protect the soldiers in harm's way, defiantly unable to develop strategies that work against an enemy it doesn't understand.  So, business as usual, am I right, people?

Then we reach the point that tells me that fighting the Kaiju with the Jaeger causes much, much more damage to our cities and the people living in them than if we had just let the Kaiju run wild to begin with.  I think giant robots falling down killed a bunch of people, and robots punching and missing destroyed more buildings than the demons did, so we would have been better off as a species by just giving in and not fighting back at all. 

Beyond all this ridiculousness, there's a lot of overacting.  Or maybe it's just yelling.  A lot of the dialogue in this film is delivered at top volume, because the actors need to compete against loud robots and louder monsters.  But that made nearly everything difficult to understand, in more ways than one.  It's a big, loud, overly complicated movie that makes no sense, so I bet it made like a billion dollars last year.

Also starring Charlie Hunnam (last seen in "Cold Mountain"), Charlie Day (last seen in "Horrible Bosses"), Ron Perlman (last seen in "Season of the Witch"), Clifton Collins Jr. (last seen in "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World"), Rinko Kikuchi, Diego Klattenhoff, Max Martini, Robert Kazinsky, Burn Gorman.

RATING: 4 out of 10 neural handshakes