Category Archives: Movies

Blogging the Hugos: Interstellar

Screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan, directed by Christopher Nolan
Category: Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

interstellarWhen I was a teenager with a budding interest in physics, I read Black Holes and Time Warps, Kip Thorne’s general-audience book on some of the more exciting aspects of general relativity. I enjoyed it enough to mention it in my application to Caltech (where Thorne held the Feynman Professorship) as something that attracted me to the school. Years later, I was pleased to see that Thorne provided scientific consulting on Interstellar, and indeed it turned out to be one of the most accurate depictions of relativity I’ve seen in a major film. Combined with Christopher Nolan’s talents for impressive effects, the result was some truly stunning visuals of black holes, wormholes, and other real and theoretical astronomical objects.

It’s a shame about the rest of the movie. The actual plot, when it wasn’t just dull or predictable, seemed designed to annoy me (after luring in with the promise of hard science) by invoking not one but two of my least favorite tropes. First off, there’s the motivation for the journey into space—they’re looking for a habitable world, because the Earth is becoming uninhabitable. How did that happen? Climate change and large scale extinctions. Sadly, this is not just a trope in fiction: advocates of interplanetary colonization frequently cite the possibility of a planetary catastrophe as a reason to settle outside Earth. But both in reality and in this movie, we humans are the planetary catastrophe. Setting aside the immorality and irresponsibility of just giving up on Earth like a parasite looking for a new host, what exactly do they think is going to happen on the next planet we go to? Maybe let’s figure out how to live sustainably on one planet before we go out looking for a new home.

And if that wasn’t enough to get my blood pressure up, Interstellar pretends to be an old-school sci-fi story with smart people solving problems, until in the last act (spoiler alert!) it takes a sudden turn into that hoary old cliche where we see that the power of love is stronger than our precious science. Why is it that seemingly every science fiction movie in the last 20 years ends this way? What is even the logic behind the question, “who would win in a fight—love or science?” One is a feeling and one is a system of learning about the world—they’re entirely different kinds of things. It’s like saying “the power of the color green is stronger than mechanical engineering.” And why isn’t science allowed to save the day, outside of Breaking Bad where it’s only in service of evil?

That’s not true, I did see a movie last year where science saved the day—The Imitation Game. Science: it won World War II. Take that, power of love.

Blogging the Hugos: Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy
written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman, directed by James Gunn
Category: Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

GuardiansI only have a casual knowledge of the vast universe of superhero comics, so the first time I heard of the Guardians of the Galaxy was when news of the movie started to come out. From these early reports I learned that Chris Pratt would play the lead, and that there was some kind of talking space raccoon involved, both of which sounded like jokes at the time. (Less so now that Chris Pratt is a huge action star.)

In fact those things are supposed to sound funny, because this is a very funny movie. Granted, when your source material includes a space raccoon you’re probably forced to the comedic end of the spectrum, but it embraces the comedy with gusto, and without giving up the sense of epic adventure that comes with the superhero genre. And this is what’s impressive about Guardians: it tries to be many different things, at times going for action, comedy, or drama, while simultaneously following the conventions of superhero flicks and space operas—and succeeds at all of them. A lot of movies try just one of those things and fail; Guardians does them all and makes it look easy.

I think the worst that can be said for this movie is that the story structure follows the well-trod path of the superhero movies that came before it. There’s a big villain and an evil plot, the heroes win some early victories but then have a major crisis after which they need to get serious and learn to work together, and finally they defeat the villain by unlocking their true potential. On the other hand, I think it shows why this particular formula is so widely used—because when it’s done right, it’s really good. And as the climactic dance-off shows, Guardians is willing to subvert some of the expected story beats a bit.

To circle around to the beginning of this post, the reason I’ve never been that interested in superhero comics is that I’ve always perceived them as a little too silly. And this may come from my having grown up in the grimdark ’90s which wanted to be very serious while at the same time demanding that one accept all kinds of bonkers stories and characters from years past as canon. (This is also why I’m staying away from Zach Snyder’s takes on Superman and Batman. Well, apart from the fact that I swore off Zach Snyder after Sucker Punch.) Guardians takes an approach that I find much more palatable—embrace the silliness, space raccoons and all, and make it your own. Superheroes, after all, are supposed to be fun.

Blogging the Hugos: The Lego Movie

lego_movieThe Lego Movie
Written by Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, story by Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman, Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, directed by Phil Lord & Christopher Miller.
Category: Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

The Lego Movie is a minor miracle. This is, after all, a movie about a toy, and one with no particular associated narrative. It would seem destined to be a soulless advertisement for the many fine Lego sets available in a store near you. And while it certainly is true that nearly every character, prop, and piece of scenery in the film is a Lego product, what we got was an exuberant celebration of the possibilities that open up when we aren’t constrained by a pre-existing narrative and rely on our imaginations instead. This movie doesn’t so much encourage buying Legos as it does playing with them, in all the different ways that there are to do so.

It’s also a celebration of remix culture, both in its overt message against homogeneity and following-the-instructions, and in its own construction—where else can you see Dumbledore hanging out with Gandalf, Superman, and Milhouse from The Simpsons? Where else in a feature film, I should say, since scenes like this are played out all the time by kids with their action figure collections. It’s that sense of fun that suffuses The Lego Movie and makes it so thoroughly enjoyable. Well, that and the killer voice cast, snappy dialogue, and impossibly catchy theme song. In the end, The Lego Movie transcends its origins as an advertising vehicle by not just showing us the product, but embodying what we love about the product. That’s the miracle.

(Aside #1:This movie was on the Sad Puppies slate, making it one of the arguments against automatically rating slate nominees below No Award: this is a great film that certainly deserves to be in contention, and it doesn’t make sense to penalize it just because the Puppies had the good taste to include it on their list.)

(Aside #2: After writing a couple of posts focused on books, it feels a little strange to follow up with a bunch of movie reviews. But I’m ordering these reviews by when I saw/read each entry, and as it happens I saw several of the Dramatic Presentation nominees last year before I’d read any of the literature. So we’ll be doing those first.)

You spin my head right round

Labyrinth is, of course, the 1986 fantasy film with David Bowie:

However, labyrinth also refers to the balance organ of the inner ear. The structure contains three orthogonal fluid-filled canals (hence “labyrinth”) that sense rotations, along with additional organs that sense linear accelerations. This combines with visual inputs to give us our sense of balance.
So while the word labyrinthitis could refer to an uncontrollable nostalgia-driven desire to revisit the aforementioned David Bowie flick, it is actually the name for a viral infection of the balance organ. The symptoms of this infection bring to mind another movie entirely:

The experience of labyrinthitis can be easily simulated by a healthy individual. First, get your alcoholic drink of choice. Then, consume it until it feels like the room is spinning. Now imagine that this sensation persists continuously for a week. I’ve been describing it as “like being drunk without the fun part.” Naturally it’s tempting to grab some booze and add the fun back in, but I suspect that this approach is contraindicated.
At one point this week I thought the vertigo had become so severe that it felt like I was in an earthquake. Then I realized it was an actual earthquake. The various natural disasters striking the East Coast this week are not helping my condition any, but maybe if Hurricane Irene is spinning in the same direction as my head I won’t even notice it.
Years ago, in an eerie bit of foreshadowing, I contemplated in dinosaur comic form the possibility of being stuck with a constant spinning sensation. At the time I thought it merely a theological hypothesis, but now I know that labyrinthitis truly is… rotating hell.

13 Assassins: An anti-samurai movie

Recently I watched the Takashi Miike film 13 Assassins. I definitely recommend it for those of you who are fans of samurai movies. It’s structured something like a heist movie, where the first half consists of assembling a team (the eponymous assassins) for a big job, and the second half is one big action set piece. (It occurs to me that Seven Samurai had a similar structure. This is actually a remake of a much older film, and it makes me wonder if the original was actually a shameless knockoff of Seven Samurai that Miike decided to rescue from the dustbin of history. I can’t find much information on the original though, maybe it was actually a great movie in its own right.)
There’s a clear parallel between samurai movies in Japan and Western movies in the U.S. So clear, in fact, that some of the most famous Westerns are adaptations of jidaigeki films: e.g. The Magnificent Seven, A Fistful of Dollars. Beyond that, in both genres you have a romanticization of an earlier period in history. And in response there are films which push back against the romantic view, whether it’s Unforgiven taking apart the myth of the heroic gunfighter, or Blazing Saddles foregrounding the racism of the period.
13 Assassins is clearly in the latter tradition, using the format of the samurai movie to reject nostalgia for the samurai era. The plot follows an attempt to assassinate a corrupt samurai lord, but metaphorically represents an attack on the corruption inherent in the feudal social order. (Alternate title: “Now you see the violence inherent in the system!”) Although the main characters are (almost) all samurai themselves, it’s clear that they represent different aspects:

  • Lord Naritsugu is the sadistic villain of the piece, who tortures and kills for pleasure and with impunity (since he’s the shogun’s brother). Not coincidentally, he’s also the movie’s advocate for the samurai way of life, explicitly justifying his random violence as necessary to maintain order. He expresses nostalgia for the “age of war” (presumably the Sengoku period, a popular setting for samurai movies), and vows to bring it back.
  • Hanbei is Naritsugu’s lieutenant, and a model samurai: he sees Naritsugu’s evil for what it is, but is nevertheless completely loyal. His adherence to the bushido code applies in combat as well, where he’s shown to play by the rules. Hanbei’s role is to show how a flawed system can lead good men astray.
  • Shinzaemon is the hero, the leader of the team of assassins, and a former classmate of Hanbei. The clear difference between him and Hanbei is that Shinzaemon is willing to go outside the system when moral principles demand it. Early in the film he is reluctant to carry out the assassination plot, until he hears testimony of Naritsugu’s atrocities. Like Hanbei, his attitude is reflected in his combat tactics: he instructs his team that there are no rules in a fight to the death.

The end of the movie emphasizes each of these aspects further. Spoilers below:

Continue reading

Danke Schoen, John Hughes

I’m a little late in commenting on the death of John Hughes, but I learned today that he suffered his fatal heart attack on my very street here in New York. (There’s a shrine at the spot, with candles: sixteen of them, naturally.) Anyway, this gives me an excuse to bring it up a week after the fact.
Here is where I would launch into a discussion of the John Hughes oeuvre, but I have actually only seen three of the films he directed: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; Planes, Trains & Automobiles; and Uncle Buck. I was too late for the Brat Pack age bracket: I started high school in 1993, nearly ten years after Sixteen Candles. If any of you are Hughes aficionados, you’ll have to tell me which essentials I’m missing. The Breakfast Club? Weird Science?
For the moment, let’s ignore Uncle Buck and talk about the other two I’ve seen: Bueller and Planes, Trains. Hughes directed the two consecutively, and they make an interesting pair. They’re both basically road movies, but in Bueller the trip is an adventure taken purely for fun and escape, while in Planes it’s a hellish experience and the only goal is to get home. And they’re both buddy movies, with Alan Ruck and Steve Martin as the respective straight men opposite Matthew Broderick and John Candy. But the latter two are very different characters: Candy’s Del Griffith is very irritating at first, but turns out to be well-intentioned and generally a nice guy. Ferris Bueller, on the other hand, is very charming but actually kind of a jerk. (The movie portrays him as a hero, but just look at how he treats his alleged best friend Cameron.) It’s as if Hughes, in his attempt to move out of the teen movie genre, made the anti-Ferris with Planes, Trains.
In the end, Planes, Trains is the outlier, and while it’s genuinely a classic, what he’ll be remembered for are the high school comedies. Unfortunately, that’s where my John Hughes knowledge ends, so those of you who have actually seen these movies will have to take over in the comments.
[Yes, two posts this month! Maybe I should have spread them out more.]

Burn After Reading

Saw the latest from Ethan and Joel Coen last night. While it’s not at the level of their best films (No Country for Old Men and The Big Lebowski, and reportedly Raising Arizona which I still haven’t seen), it’s still entertaining and I recommend it. In comic tone it’s similar to Intolerable Cruelty but funnier. It’s also much less linear: it’s one of those plots that starts out as several seemingly unconnected stories that all come together at the end. Usually it’s better when this happens in a neat and clever way, but part of the comedy here is that the whole chain of events is pretty ridiculous. (This is one thing it does share with The Big Lebowski.)
I plan to sign up for Netflix in the near future, and one of my first actions will be to add a large fraction of the works of the Coen brothers to my queue. (I’ve seen just under half of them.)

The flaw of Forbidden Kingdom

(This post is spoiler-free.)
I saw Forbidden Kingdom yesterday: it’s a decent movie, with entertaining fight scenes; if you go in hoping to see Jackie Chan and Jet Li perform some entertaining kung fu, you won’t be disappointed.
However, it’s actually a movie about hanging out with Jackie Chan and Jet Li, and consequently the main character isn’t (despite the movie posters) either of the two Hong Kong stars, but a teenager played by Michael Angarano. I’m sure there’s a strong constituency for the “going on adventures with Jackie Chan and Jet Li” story, but for those of us who just want to see people get kicked in the face, Angarano’s character only gets in the way. On the other hand, there’s plenty of good fighting so it’s not a big disappointment, and having a broader audience helps movies like this get made, so I can’t really complain.
Unfortunately, this aspect of the film is made infinitely worse through the egregious use of one of my least favorite plot devices: the ordinary teenager from the real world who gets transported to a fantasy kingdom (which he then must save before returning home). As far as I’m concerned, any narrative that employs this lame plot is digging itself a huge hole right at the start, and will have to be exceedingly brilliant to make up for it. There are lots of good reasons to avoid this plot, and especially the implementation in Forbidden Kingdom:

  • It’s lazy writing. This plot is a way to avoid a couple of the challenges of writing in a heroic fantasy setting: the need to explain the special rules of the fantasy world to the audience, and the lack of a character the audience can relate to in a cast populated by legendary heroes. Dragging in a character from the real world is an easy solution to these problems that saves the writer from having to do anything sophisticated (such as a show-don’t-tell approach to presenting the setting, or writing complex heroic characters with realistic flaws and motivations).

  • It insults the audience. Because it’s really not that hard to stick a relatable character in a heroic setting—even young children recognize that the farmboy or the hobbit is supposed to be the audience stand-in. The “ordinary teenager from our world” is the most literal interpretation of the relatable character (short of a Choose Your Own Adventure story told in the second person) and suggests that the writers didn’t think the audience could handle anything more subtle.
  • It strains suspension of disbelief. A self-contained fantasy world is easier to accept than one in which people from the modern world are randomly popping in and out. Furthermore, it wrecks the sense of otherworldliness to have someone walking around wearing jeans and spouting American slang. There’s less immersion with a constant reminder of the real world in the center of the frame; a good fantasy should make the audience temporarily forget where they are.
  • It contains disturbing racial overtones. This plot device would have been bad enough if the teenager had been from Shanghai. But the use of the Boston setting and Michael Angarano suggests that the filmmakers decided that, in a film set in Fantasy China, a Chinese lead wouldn’t have been white enough or American enough for American audiences. Now, it may be true that the film will make more money with an American lead (although it’s interesting that he doesn’t appear on the posters). Nevertheless, such shameless pandering is ugly. And equally disturbing is the imperialist notion that powerful warriors like Jackie Chan and Jet Li couldn’t save China until the American (with no special skills or talents) showed up.

Now, I don’t want to say that this plot can never be done well, but it takes some excellent writing to save it. The anime Fushigi Yuugi is one example where this trope succeeds, due mostly to strong plotting and characterization. The film of The NeverEnding Story does a good job but keeps the real-world protagonist at a distance from the fantasy world for most of the narrative. On the other hand, one of the several flaws of The Chronicles of Narnia is its repeated use of this device.
More generally, I think the approach of inserting ordinary, relatable characters into a story about legendary heroes is way overused. In the fantasy genre, I much prefer stories without an obvious audience stand-in but with heroes who may have extraordinary abilities but have complex and human personalities. My favorite Chinese fantasy films—Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the underrated House of Flying Daggers—take the latter approach.
Going back to Forbidden Kingdom for a moment, I’ve just spent a lot of time trashing its plot, but of course in a movie like this the story is secondary to the spectacle. So this shouldn’t be considered a pan of the movie as a whole; however, this glaring flaw in the story does detract a bit from the experience.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

I’d like to introduce a new metric for rating movies in which a comedy film is evaluated based on the number of Belle & Sebastian songs on the soundtrack. As applied to movies I’ve seen recently:

  • Juno: 2 stars

  • Forgetting Sarah Marshall: 1 star
  • Be Kind, Rewind: 0 stars

This metric gets the correct ordering for this selection, but quickly breaks down when one realizes that Storytelling should then be the best film of all time.
Anyway, I saw Forgetting Sarah Marshall today, and found that it exceeded expectations in several categories, not just Belle & Sebastian songs but also general hilarity, Jason Bateman cameos, and (regrettably) full frontal male nudity. If you’ve ever seen a romantic comedy before you know the entire plot, but this isn’t what drives the humor so much as the interplay between the four principal characters. I place this one in the second tier of Judd Apatow productions: on par with Superbad, not quite as good as 40 Year Old Virgin or Knocked Up.
Reading the Wikipedia entry for Marshall writer and star Jason Segel, I see that he will be writing and directing the next Muppets movie. I’m looking forward to this as long as it doesn’t involve him appearing naked again.

New York City in fiction

federal hall
I’m off to New York this week to look for housing; to put me in the right frame of mind, I’d like to hear suggestions of iconic portrayals of NYC (particularly Manhattan) in fiction. Accuracy of the portrayal is less important than style, but if it captures the spirit of the city in some sense that’s a bonus. In any case the city shouldn’t just be the setting (Wikipedia has a whole category devoted to this); New York should be somehow central to the story or thematically important. Some ideas (just off the top of my head):

  • Film: King Kong, Escape from New York, Cloverfield

  • Television: Seinfeld, Sex and the City
  • Literature: Bonfire of the Vanities, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
  • Video games: Deus Ex, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty

Please suggest more, and I will check out the ones I haven’t seen/read so as to be up to speed on the cultural connections to my new location.
Bonus round: iconic portrayals of Wall Street or the finance industry in particular, such as the Oliver Stone film Wall Street.