Author Archive

Watching the Future: Worlds of Whimsy and Despair

Thanks to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (and its follow-up trilogy The Hobbit), the Harry Potter series, and HBO’s own A Game of Thrones, audiences think they have a good understanding of fantasy, or what they think of as fantasy: a setting with a medieval or quasi-medieval feel, with feudal systems and fiefdoms dotting lands plucked from European storybooks; epic battles waged amid the thunder of hoofbeats, the wail of battle cries, and the clang of swords; magics, both subtle and overt, cast by white-haired, robed old men or children brandishing wands (at times with uncomfortable Freudian overtones); and of course a dragon or two—indeed, seldom does an audience member find a fantasy movie lacking enchanted animals.
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MOVIE REVIEW: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

REVIEW SYNOPSIS: Enjoyable if uninspired, Captain America’s second solo adventure proves a solid entry in the Marvel filmic universe despite an overlong running time and too few new ideas.

MY REVIEW:

SYNOPSIS: When S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury is attacked by a strike team, Captain America finds himself enmeshed in a conspiracy that could test his very loyalties.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: The cast, especially Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson; quieter, character-driven elements in the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, efficient action sequences filmed by directors Anthony and Joe Russo; a couple of strong reveals.
CONS: Routine thriller script, including a bland conspiracy plot.
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Watching the Future: Remakes, Redux, Redoux, Reflux

A few days ago, like most Internet denizens, I brought up YouTube to watch the brand-new trailer for Gareth Edwards’s film version of Godzilla, coming this summer.  And, like most who reloaded it multiple times, goggling at the waves flooding a small coastal town and Bryan Cranston’s desperate shouting to others about the impending danger of the Big Green One, the trailer caused me to embrace my inner ten-year-old, who spent far too many Saturday mornings and afternoons glued to the television resting in the corner of his apartment as it took him to Monster Island, where Mothra, Mecha-Godzilla, Rodan, and other oversized monsters did battle among scientists who knew almost nothing of real science, screaming mobs, and military men growing more and more desperate to save Japan from more destruction.  Add to this elements of Ligeti’s “Requiem” and I was able to feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.  I even forgave the loud BWAARRP of horns that seems a permanent fixture of the modern American movie trailer.  I was excited.

And then held myself in check.  Yes, it looked good. Yes, Edwards, with his landmark Monsters, seemed knowledgeable enough about genre and genre tropes to make an interesting movie.  It looked impressive, and even somewhat scary, much in the manner of Ishirô Honda’s 1954 classic…

And therein lay my problem.

This was a remake.
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More than two decades ago, when I was banging my head against a keyboard in desperation trying to write fiction, I somehow became convinced that I should abandon prose and begin writing screenplays.  I read several books, some of them concentrating on formatting (useful because I had, at that point, never considered that writing a screenplay required different textual semiotics from prose), but learned the most from those focusing on structure, such as Robert McKee’s Story and Syd Field’s Screenplay, among others.  Although they never quite get me to the point of actually writing more than a few pages of half-baked ideas (though I did collaborate with one friend on a spy story made obsolete by the abrupt conclusion of the Cold War), they taught me enough about what made stories work to allow me to begin finishing prose fiction at a regular pace.

Had Dan O’Bannon’s and Matt Lohr’s Dan Obannon’s Guide to Screenplay Structure: Inside Tips from the Writer of Alien, Total Recall and Return of the Living Dead been published at that time, it easily would have been one of the books I absorbed.  It certainly would have been something I studied carefully.  McKee’s Story offered a wealth of dos and don’ts, Syd Field’s Screenplay broke down three-act structure in a way that made sense, but this particular manual came from the same mind that produced one of the greatest science-fiction horror movies of all time, one of the best-known zombie movies (made before zombies shambled into the cultural zeitgeist), and one of science fiction’s best known indie movies.  He also worked on one of the greatest movies never made, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune, so what he said would have carried a great deal of weight for this budding science fiction writer.  In fact, his work views drama in a manner that seems self-evident but that other writers seldom explore.  It’s a work I’d recommend not only to screenwriters, but also to those who want to write fiction.

Dan O’Bannon died in 2009, before he and Matt Lohr could finish their collaboration.  I got the chance to talk to Matt about the book, and about what makes his approach to writing different from others.
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REVIEW SUMMARY: Spike Jonze turns his eye toward science fiction with a touching, ultimately human love story between a man and an operating system that easily stands as one of the best genre movies of the past decade.

MY RATING:

SYNOPSIS: Introvert Theodore Twombly purchases an artificially intelligent operating system, which he names “Samantha,” and begins falling in love with it.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Winning performances by all major and minor actors, particularly Joaquin Phoenix and a disembodied Scarlett Johansson; often understated screenplay and direction from Spike Jonze, especially in its handling of futuristic romance; limited intrusion of technology into story; plausible, likely vision of the future…
CONS: …that occasionally feels underpopulated; not quite enough time devoted to the OS’s own burgeoning culture.

Her is not the movie I expected.  Most would not expect it from Spike Jonze, the director of the surrealistic Being John Malkovich and the brilliant Adaptation.  It’s not that Her lacks the vision and insight of those two groundbreaking movies—it does not—but that it proves a vastly different experience from either, not least of which in its approach.  Instead of a visit to the strange headspaces of celebrities or trekking through the ennui of writer’s block, Jonze’s new, breathtaking picture offers something both surprisingly familiar and far stranger than anything he has made before.  Familiar, in that he once again visits areas of the heart most humans never knew existed.  Strange, in that he has made a true quill science fiction movie, something those who know his work would never have expected, and done so incredibly well.
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MOVIE REVIEW: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

REVIEW SYNOPSIS: Despite a relentless pace and impressive effects, most notably bringing to life the impressive dragon at the heart of the tale, part two of Peter Jackson’s adaptation seldom engages and often bores.

MY REVIEW:

SYNOPSIS: The hobbit Bilbo Baggins and a pack of dwarves continue their quest to liberate dwarvish treasure hoarded in the Lonely Mountain by the dragon Smaug.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: The dragon Smaug, arrestingly realized by CGI and voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch; well-realized renditions of the Elf Kingdom and Lake-town; winning if hammy performance by Stephen Fry as the Master of Lake-town; impressively staged action sequences…
CONS: …that go nowhere for most of the movie; needless chases that serve little purpose; blending of elements from both Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Silmarillion that fit together too unevenly; forced love story between elf Tauriel and the dwarf Kili; dialogue and character development that sit poorly with the action sequences.

In a niche in world letters there lived The Hobbit.  Not an unknown, unobserved niche filled with the trite borrowings of second-rate hacks and uninspired tales palely reflecting J. R. R. Tolkien’s much-loved children’s book, nor yet a dry, bare, desiccated niche where fantasy fans sucked dry the marrow of their favorite genre: it was The Hobbit, a groundbreaking work that, despite countless imitators (and outright theft), still holds the power to enthrall readers of all ages today.
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MOVIE REVIEW: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

REVIEW SYNOPSIS: Sluggishly paced, taking few chances and not nearly as engaging as it should be, the second installment of the popular trilogy still maintains enough interest to be enjoyable, thanks in large part to interesting supporting characters and a more in-depth look at the world that can host such sport.

MY REVIEW:

SYNOPSIS: Hunger Games survivors Katniss and Peeta find themselves once again in a battle to the death, this time with other Hunger Games winners.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Mostly good performances from leads Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson, with solid secondary performances by Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer; interesting glimpses of the world outside of District 12 and the Capitol.
CONS: Bland and uninteresting turns by many of the recurring characters, including hammy performances by villains Donald Sutherland and Philip Seymour Hoffman; sluggish, faltering beginning that never fully allows the movie to gain its footing; only fitfully suspenseful; routine screenplay and obvious direction; heavy-handed treatment of themes and ideas.

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MOVIE REVIEW: Ender’s Game (2013)

REVIEW SYNOPSIS: Stiff, surprisingly bloodless adaptation of a classic science fiction novel, maintaining a certain fidelity to details but neutering much of the source material’s key thematic materials.

MY RATING:

SYNOPSIS: After aliens have attacked earth, Earth’s International Fleet recruits young Ender Wiggin to train for, and ultimately fight, the next battle.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Good supporting young cast….
CONS: …wasted by given absolutely nothing to do; surprisingly bland performances from the leads; hammy performances from the supporting cast members, especially seasoned veterans like Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley; routine screenplay that never fully engages; unremarkable direction.
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FILM REVIEW: Gravity (2013)

REVIEW SYNOPSIS: More technically adept and visually breathtaking than emotionally compelling, Alfonso Cuarón’s follow-up to Children of Men immerses without ever fully engaging.

MY RATING:

SYNOPSIS: Two astronauts in near-earth orbit find themselves stranded and in need of a way back home when debris from a destroyed satellite collides with their space shuttle.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: Impressive concept; well-executed suspense and genuine sense of danger; outstanding special effects; striking visuals.
CONS: Unnecessary introduction; clichéd approach to character and theme, hampered by undemanding performances from its leads; heavy-handed (yet still effective) symbolism and philosophy.

“Life in space is impossible,” a caption reads at the opening of director Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, something, perhaps, the audience should know but that Cuarón and his brother Jonás (who co-wrote the screenplay), perhaps, do not trust his audience to fully comprehend.  Forget what they should, by now, have learned in seventh-grade science class, or though common sense and logic, or even through fifty-plus years of space programs since the Soviet Union lobbed Yuri Gagarin around our pale blue dot.  Surely moviegoers, many of whom have spent countless hours watching 2001: A Space Odyssey, Marooned, or even Apollo 13, understand a setting like near-earth orbit enough to know that space has no air (and therefore no sound), that temperatures bounce between too cold and too hot, and that lack of friction turns even the smallest piece of debris into a high-powered bullet.  Regardless of intent, this simple setup seems like a misstep.
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MOVIE REVIEW: The World’s End (2013)

REVIEW SYNOPSIS: Director Edgar Wright concludes the Cornetto Trilogy with the tastiest morsel of all, a lean yet loving tribute to John Wyndham, Jack Finney, and Ira Levin that never skimps on inspired comedy or genuine emotion.

MY RATING:

SYNOPSIS: More than 20 years after they attempted to complete the infamous Golden Mile, Gary King invites his old school friends to return to the town of Newton Haven to make it to the World’s End, the final pub along the Mile, only to discover that the town has been taken over by robots.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Insightful screenplay; interesting characters portrayed by compelling actors; very funny; good blend of action, acting, and ideas.
CONS: At times feels overstuffed.
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MOVIE REVIEW: Elysium (2013)

REVIEW SYNOPSIS: Despite an interesting heist element, above average action, and glimpses of an intriguing future, Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to his surprise hit District 9 lacks subtlety, genuine social conscience, and intelligence.

MY REVIEW:

SYNOPSIS: After an accident that exposes him to lethal doses of radiation, Max DeCosta agrees to pull a heist that ultimately will take him to the space station Elysium, where he can be cured.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Alice Braga, somewhat sympathetic as a mother who wants to bring her daughter to Elysium to cure her illness; good sequence involving an information heist; intriguing vision of a Los Angeles slum.
CONS: Mindless screenplay and direction lacking subtlety; flat characters that never develop; world makes very little sense.
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MOVIE REVIEW: The Wolverine (2013)

REVIEW SYNOPSIS: Enjoyable if forgettable, The Wolverine’s balancing of comic book superhero adventure and existential thriller never fully engages as either.

MY RATING:

SYNOPSIS: Haunted by the death of Jean Grey, Logan travels to Japan to meet with a former Japanese soldier, whom he saved during the bombing of Nagasaki, who offers him the chance to become mortal again.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Good fight sequence on the outside of a bullet train; humorous sequence as Logan and Mariko check in to a love motel; Rila Fukushima’s Yukio.
CONS: Routine performance by Hugh Jackman as the title character; bland villains and flat suspense; sluggish screenplay riddled with clichés; James Mangold’s uninspired direction.
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MOVIE REVIEW: Pacific Rim (2013)

REVIEW SYNOPSIS: Despite impressive action and effects, Guillermo Del Toro sends a labored, often lifeless love letter to the giant monster genre.

MY REVIEW:

SYNOPSIS: When giant monsters rise from a portal beneath the Pacific Ocean, humanity engages them in battle with an army of behemoth robots piloted by pairs of human beings.  When the struggle continues for more than ten years, master pilot Raleigh Beckett is called back in to service for one last surge.

MY REVIEW
PROS: Incredible monster design; stunning action sequences; Charlie Day’s amusing turn as a xenobiologist and “kaiju” groupie; Ron Perlman as a dealer of black market alien remains.
CONS: Charisma free leads in Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, and Rinko Kikuchi; routine, derivative, and clichéd screenplay, allowing interesting subplots to be overtaken by uninspired central plot; unmemorable dialogue spoken by mostly dull characters.
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MOVIE REVIEW: Man of Steel (2013)

REVIEW SYNOPSIS: Overly long, sloppily scripted, needlessly violent, with changes that need not—and in some instances, should not—have been made, Zack Snyder’s telling of the classic superhero’s origins, despite some good touches, never coheres into a unified whole.

MY RATING:

SYNOPSIS: Kryptonian scientist Jor-El sends his only son to Earth as his own world perishes.  The boy grows to manhood and learns of his identity and extraordinary powers as a renegade general from his home planet demands his surrender.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Good cast, with strong performances by Russell Crowe and Amy Adams; incredible rendering of Krypton; small, standout scenes.
CONS: Muddy, redundant script; too much action; too little character development, with the main characters underfinished; a major change in the title character that goes against his primary image.

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MOVIE REVIEW: Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

REVIEW SYNOPSIS: Though it starts strongly, the sophomore journey of the fresh-faced crew of the starship Enterprise covers too little new ground.

MY REVIEW:

SYNOPSIS:  When a rogue Starfleet agent attacks a secret archive, Captain James T. Kirk is tasked with hunting him down and terminating him.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Good opening sequence; strong interaction between Kirk and Spock; good turns by Karl Urban and John Cho.
CONS: Anemic, especially in its revelations; far too derivative of the previous movie; laughable emotional sequences; action scenes that drag on far too long.

Star Trek Into Darkness, director J. J. Abrams’s follow-up to 2009’s Star Trek, is everything its predecessor was, only too much more so.  This isn’t necessarily a good thing, though several good things work in its favor.  Abrams’s gamble with making over Gene Roddenberry’s classic space opera with a new perspective on a much-beloved universe and fresh faces on seasoned characters reaped a handsome payoff, though astute audience members wondered if he could sustain what often seemed a one-picture trick.  They had a right to question how a crop of young actors possibly could play roles so identified with elder thespians that they wove their dramatic tics into the fabric of their characters.  Loyal fans, by contrast, knowing the full future history of the United Federation of Planets and the floor plans of the NCC-1701 U.S.S. Enterprise down to the last rivet, expressed honest trepidation at possible revisions to Roddenberry’s timeline, to say nothing of its philosophical underpinnings.  The resulting Star Trek was an entertaining if occasionally brainless affair, balancing well the expectations of both a summer movie crowd and faithful Trekkers despite dangling plot lines and scientific rationales bent into configurations that would snap the most pliable rubber.

But it worked even after the novelty wore off, and proffered challenges for a sequel.  Could Abrams and company make a follow-up that was less cluttered with the need to make the new timeline work and more focused on the things that made Roddenberry’s utopian vision compelling—namely, character and story?
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MOVIE REVIEW: Iron Man 3 (2013)

REVIEW SUMMARY: Messy and needlessly convoluted, lacking much of the cleverness and insight of Iron Man and Marvel’s The Avengers, Iron Man 3 still engages thanks to director Shane Black’s remarkable set pieces.

MY REVIEW:

SYNOPSIS: As Tony Stark deals with the emotional fallout of his previous adventure with the Avengers, the terrorist knwon as the Mandarin strikes targets in the U.S., once more causing Stark to return to service as Iron Man.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Watchable action sequences; good twist on the Mandarin character.
CONS: Characters too broadly drawn; routine and at times clichéd screenplay; feels smaller than previous efforts.

The biggest threat posed in Iron Man 3, the first post–Marvel’s The Avengers superhero movie featuring a member of Joss Whedon’s groundbreaking team-up, is neither Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) and his group nor the Mandarin’s (Ben Kingsley) terrorist bombing plot, but scope itself.  Iron Man worked because director Jon Favreau injected independent film sensibilities into a blockbuster comic book movie, something that other directors either never attempted or tried unsuccessfully.  This hampered Iron Man 2, a soulless placeholder that, for all its numerous, crippling faults, still gave us Garry Shandling and Sam Rockwell in a popular superhero picture.
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BOOK REVIEW: The Apes of Wrath, edited by Rick Klaw

REVIEW SUMMARY: An eclectic, enjoyable mix of fiction and nonfiction suffering only from one or two significant absences.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: 17 remarkable stories and four insightful essays all dealing with our simian cousins.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: The strength of the fiction included in the anthology, from groundbreaking genre classics such as Leigh Kennedy’s “Her Furry Face” and Pat Murphy’s “Rachel in Love” to lesser-known tales such as Gustav Flaubert’s “Quidquid Volueris”; interesting essays from Jess Nevins and Scott Cupp on apes in literature and comics, respectively.
CONS: Odd if understandable exclusions; one or two obvious inclusions; the editor’s own contribution on apes in cinema a bit too brief.

If one wanted to get technical, any story featuring a human being is an ape story; zoologist Desmond Morris even identified us as such in his 1967 book The Naked Ape.  So our fascination with gorillas, chimps, and orangutans, among others, in ethology and in popular culture, should come as no surprise; after all, our nearest genetic cousins share so many of our features that we cannot help but feel kinship and awe.  We gaze into these alien faces and of course see ourselves.
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FILM REVIEW: Oblivion (2013)

REVIEW SUMMARY: Often visually arresting sequences never save this homage to 1970s science fiction films from flat characters, routine action, and uninspired direction.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Decades after an alien invasion, a memory-wiped drone technician begins to question his assignment after an astronaut who resembles a woman in his dreams crash lands amid the rubble of a ruined earth.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Breathtaking imagery of a world devastated by an alien invasion.
CONS: Clichéd characters who never generate much life or interest, especially in the affectless performances by Tom Cruise and Olga Kurylenko; uninvolving direction by Joseph Kosinski; generic, uninvolving action sequences; flat screenplay heavily reliant on obvious plot twists; noisy score by Anthony Gonzalez and Joseph Trapenese.
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FILM REVIEW: Evil Dead (2013)

REVIEW SUMMARY: Dumb, noisy, and ultimately pointless reboot of Sam Raimi’s groundbreaking picture shows as much life as the revenants shambling across the screen.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Five friends meet at a derelict cabin in the woods, where one finds an ancient book deep within a cellar strewn with decaying animal carcasses.  When one utters an incantation scrawled in its pages, it summons the demons living in the woods.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Occasionally interesting shots.
CONSs: Generic characters and situations; strained pace; fumbled misdirection; routine direction; underfinished screenplay; poor nods to the earlier movies.
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FILM REVIEW: Jack the Giant Slayer (2013)

REVIEW SUMMARY: Well-executed set pieces, clever touches, and tongue-in-cheek manner manage to save Bryan Singer’s mostly by-the-numbers fantasy adventure.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Farm boy Jack accepts a payment of beans for a horse, which sprout into a beanstalk beneath his home up to a world of Giants who are none too happy being relegated to a land away from humans.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Efficient direction from Singer, who finds a good balance between action and humor; reasonably good casting (especially of Stanley Tucci as Roderick and Ewan McGregor as Elmont); amusing, often clever sight gags; interesting blending of the classic English and Cornish folk tales.
CONS: Largely bland leading man and woman; character motivations at times make no sense; script’s blending of folk tales not smooth and starts too slowly.

It must be a challenge to make a fantasy movie in the wake of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (to say nothing of the phenomenal success of the Harry Potter franchise), especially when it comes to making movies out of other successful series, each more anemic that the last.  Challenging and even foolhardy; how many of even the genre’s most devoted fans would bother to sit through, say, Joe Johnston offering a cinematic tour of one of Piers Anthony’s Xanth novels, or even (wait for it) a Zack Snyder–helmed rendition of Terry Brooks’s The Sword of Sha-na-nara?  Even scarier, how many would want to?
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