Movie Review: “District 9”

Ever since I started reading science fiction a few years ago, I’ve been violently disappointed by every science fiction movie I’ve seen. After all, once you’ve read something by an author as flamboyant and vibrantly engaging as Harlan Ellison, or even something as pointlessly meandery but well-thought-out as Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, it’s hard to muster any interest in yet another cookie-cutter action-movie-in-space oh-my-god-they-did-it-again snoozefest. And in fact, I probably wouldn’t even have seen District 9 if I hadn’t found out Neill Blomkamp–director of the painfully short but lovable “Alive in Joburg”–had directed it.

Well, I’m very glad I didn’t miss it, because now I don’t need to bother seeing another movie for the rest of the year. With the possible exception of Children of Men, District 9 is the best movie of the decade.

Allow me to summarize the plot (the utterance of which you should take as a SPOILER WARNING): twenty years ago, a huge alien spacecraft hovered into place over Johannesburg, South Africa, and stalled. Those cheeky, curious humans, in typical fashion, chopped a hole in the side and found it full of dirty, emaciated, sickly aliens, who were promptly pounced upon by immigration agents and shuffled off into District 9, a slummy, decrepit shantytown near the city. Twenty years later, Wikus van de Merwe, an alien affairs agent working for MNU (the agency tasked with keeping the gross and squishy aliens (called “prawns”) out of sight of the sensitive, right-minded South Africans), has been tasked with going into District 9 and politely informing the aliens that we-uns don’t like yer kind ’round our fair city ‘o J’hannesberg no mores. Being a dunce and an asshole (“Here, take that, a souvenir from your first abortion!”, he says jovially at one point), he immediately gets himself into trouble and launches a massive battle that involves MNU, the downtrodden prawns, Nigerian gangsters, and enough firepower to level the whole of ol’ Joburg.

By now, this isn’t really sounding like the setup for a typical action movie, which is convenient, because District 9 is anything but. About half of the scenes are shot in an amazingly well-done documentary style (eat your heart out, Cloverfield), and it’s hard to fight the urge to write your congressperson about the horrible treatment of the prawns of Johannesburg. You see the aliens walking around, fighting over scraps of food, cowering in their shanties, pissing in the street, quibbling with Nigerians, generally trying to make a living. You know, like sentient beings are prone to doing. These are not the erudite space-angel cop-out bullshit aliens of movies like Close Encounters, these aliens are gritty and physical and, thanks to the best application of CGI I have ever seen, look REAL. I mean really real. Coming out of the theater, I half-expected a lobsterlike thing with a tentacled face and voice like a man hocking a loogie to beg me for spare change.

To me, it’s odd that District 9 should be such a damned good movie, seeing as it’s got a lot of the standard components of the genre: aliens with a dubious relationship to the oppressive humans, gunplay, energy weapons, conspiracies, biotechnology. It’s like Blomkamp disassembled a Yugo and somehow reassembled the parts into a Lamborghini. A low-emission hybrid Lamborghini, at that.

Which gets to my main point, and the reason District 9 puts pretty much everything that came before to shame. It actually has something to say about the world. In between (and sometimes in the middle of) the raging gunfights with “pop-goes-everybody” cannons and powered armor suits, are gritty bits of slice-of-life. The exact same social forces that allowed apartheid to flourish in South Africa for decades have forced the prawns into a miserable, dirty, painful existence. Because all human beings are greedy bastards who fear anything different from them, the prawns live in ghettos, surviving on catfood in tin shacks, and MNU saw a convenient opening to make some money off them at the same time. Wikus, like the audience, is force-fed this realization, and although it’s uncomfortable, it doesn’t come off as preachy. Neill Blomkamp has such a keen sense for both cinema and society that he’s able to pack conspiracy theories, gunfights, dark humor, and sci-fi tomfoolery end-to-end-to end without it seeming crass or exploitative or, worse, forced.

If you were still expecting a little patch of criticism in spite of the last seven hundred words of fanboyish gushing, well, the best I can do is that Blomkamp did manage to shoehorn an excessively-evil villain into the mix, one of those really annoying movie villains who keeps failing to die. There are a few other nitpicky complaints I could make, but honestly, for the first time ever, the rest of the movie is so good it actually makes up for its flaws. District 9 is a child of a different era, an era when people didn’t say “Donnie eats Doritos and plays World of Warcraft in his mother’s basement 20 hours a day, but he’s still a decent boy,” and when people didn’t say, “Well, the plot’s kinda stupid, but see it for the effects.” This is a movie from the era of “Well, George may have lost that arm in Korea, and maybe he drinks way too much, but he puts food on the table, so god bless him!” What I’m trying (a little too hard, I suspect) to get across is that District 9 is a movie that cares about the world, made by people who care about real social issues, and at the same time, is so incredibly entertaining that I never once felt like I was being preached to.

In summary: District 9 is substantial, beautiful, gross, amusing, funny, action-packed, textured, real, and enormously fun. You should see it, but don’t come crying to me when everything else this year is a pathetic disappointment in comparison.

Final Judgment: * * * * * * * * * º (9.9/10)

(I saw the movie on Sunday, and I have yet to come up with a single decent “prawn cocktail” joke. For shame!)

(Mr. Blomkamp: as per our previous arrangement, please send the seven million rand to my secret account in the Caymans)

Movie Review: “The Day the Earth Stood Still”

In this age of remakes, it’s getting harder and harder for me to write reviews because, usually, I haven’t seen the movie on which the remake was based. That’s a roundabout way of saying that when I went to see The Day the Earth Stood Still this afternoon, my impressions weren’t tainted by having seen the original.

The plot is fairly predictable (doubly so since the movie is so famous): aliens come to Earth to save it from destruction by humans, and they’re perfectly willing to wipe us out in order to do it. The duty of messenger falls upon Klaatu (played by Keanu Reeves), a creature in human form with unusual powers. He has come to pass judgment on humanity, and not surprisingly, ends up in government custody, where his lousy treatment probably doesn’t do much to get us off on the right interstellar foot. Also mixed up in this are Dr. Helen Branson (played by Jennifer Connely), an astrobiologist (extra points to this movie, by the way, for actually using the term astrobiologist, although she never really does anything astrobiological) and her snotty little pain-in-the-ass stepson Jacob, who spends three quarters of the moive doing nothing but getting in the way and aggravating my homicidal tendencies. There’s some other stuff (including John Cleese in a rare but decent straight role), but I don’t want to risk spoiling anything.

From the start, I was rather impressed by The Day the Earth Stood Still. It opens with Dr. Branson lecturing her students on astrobiology, and the movie gets even more extra points by mentioning Deinococcus Radiodurans (the nasty little bacterium that likes to multiply in the radioactive wastewater from nuclear reactors) and Jupiter’s moon Callisto. There are other examples of such unusual scientific accuracy. This is not the hacked-together pseudoscience you’ll find in a movie like Resident Evil (or even Sunshine to some extent). It’s not perfect, and the scientific validity starts to degenerate towards the end, but all in all, this film’s science is more impressive than most of what you’ll find out there.

Then there’s the human side of things. The stark portrayal of the Eichmann-esque soulless bureaucrats who represent the government made my bile rise, in a good way. I’d like to think that if an alien landed in the United States, we wouldn’t treat it as government property, lock it up, and cut bits out of it, but I’m not that native. And, with the aforementioned pain-in-the-ass stepson, the film also does a good job portraying modern xenophobia, although the message is frequently brought home with sledgehammer obviousness, and is watered down by the fact that the irritating little kid gives up his irritating ways by the end of the film. In the end, the neat happy-ending quality of it kind of diminishes the main message: that humans are selfish and evil and horrible, and that if we don’t make a lot of changes very fast, we’re probably going to drive ourselves to extinction.

Warning: Possible spoilers ahead.

There are a few scenes in particular that really grab my attention, and it might be worth seeing the movie just for them. For example, when we first meet John Cleese’s character (who is given pitifully little screen time), he comes upon Klaatu, who is busily erasing and correcting his calculations on a blackboard. He stands next to Klaatu, and there’s a really great moment of silent mathematical communication, an unspoken argument followed by Dr. Barnhard’s (John Cleese’s) realization of who Klaatu is. It was artfully done and subtler than what I’m used to these days, and I loved it.

My other favorite scene takes place towards the end of the movie. The humans (not surprisingly) antagonize Gort (whose name the filmmakers explain through a really shitty reverse acronym, by the way), who suddenly bursts into a swarm of microscopic metal insects who proceed to multiply and start eating everything. And I do mean everything. They swarm over the surface of the earth, eating ever human and manmade object in their path. It’s grim but oddly satisfying to watch all of our meager achievements collapse and evaporate in a swarm of nanomachines, and it’s a nice reminder that we are a temporary fleck of fungus on the surface of a grain of sand in the far corner of nowhere. These two scenes are almost strong enough to hold up the whole movie.

Spoilers end here.

I said almost strong enough. But, for all its good scenes, there are bad ones, too. A lot of the movie feels camp and uninteresting, and there are some scenes that could have been cut or shortened. And there is, of course, the aforementioned happy ending, and a long parade of rather blatant morals that culminate in said ending.

All in all, though, I liked The Day The Earth Stood Still. It managed to be fairly moving and thought-provoking without descending too far into the realm of clichés. The movie was pretty immersive on the whole, and Keanu Reeves was in great form again. It’s not quite the performance he gave in A Scanner Darkly, but it’s still pretty damn good, considering. And, as I said earlier, the movie gets a lot of extra points for actually making an effort to get the science right. There’s something slightly off about the whole film, but I’d say it’s decent enough to see on the big screen, or at least to rent when it comes out.

Final Judgment:

*     *     *     *     *     *     `     .     .     . (6.5/10 asterisks)

Movies to Watch Out For: The Road (~2009)

Warning: Probable spoilers ahead. Read at your own risk.

Around a year and a half ago, I was listening to the radio, and heard about the newest book in Oprah’s book club. I didn’t pay much attention to it at the time, but when I later heard that The Road was a post-apocalyptic story, I got more interested and picked up a copy. It quickly became one of my favorite books of all time.

Later, I was fooling around on the good old Internet Movie Database, and somehow or other managed to discover that there was a tentative movie version of The Road in the offing, but since the sum total of the information available at the time didn’t admit more than the fact that it was indeed going to be a movie, I didn’t really pay attention.

Today, a friend of mine called me up out of the blue to tell me that he’d seen a copy of the book in a store and that the cover apparently came from the movie, and I got interested. Lo and behold, there are now (probable spoilers ahead) pictures! As it turns out, the film is actually slated for release in 2009.

From what I can tell, it looks like the movie’s gone to some pretty great lengths to maintain the book’s haunting apocalyptic atmosphere, but I’ve learned to be very wary of the movie versions of really good books. Right off the top of my head, I can think of a few ways it would be easy to screw the whole thing up:

  • Mess up the atmosphere: Like I said, it doesn’t look like that’s what’s happened, but who can tell from still pictures?
  • Leave out important parts: I hate it when movie adaptations do this, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anything cuttable in The Road.
  • Fiddle with the characters: Cormac McCarthy already got them right, and I’m hoping they didn’t mess that up.
  • Make it all actiony: I don’t think there’s too much of a chance of this, but if they put in any unnecessary action, the whole thing would be ruined.
  • Change the ending: It should be pretty obvious to any reader of the book that The Road is not the kind of book that has a happy ending, and if the filmmakers shoehorned one in, I will find them and poke out their eyes.

In spite of my little bulleted list of negativity there, I have very high hopes for the movie. Cormac McCarthy’s rich descriptive style and subtle characterization should make for a fantastic movie, as long as it’s done right. Watch for my review in 2009!

Movie Review: “Burn After Reading”

It’s not often that I’m drawn to a movie by big-name actors, but when I read that the Cohen Brothers’ Burn After Reading starred both Brad Pitt and George Clooney, I got interested, and when I found myself in need of something to do, I went down to the movie theater with Burn After Reading in mind.

The film opens in Langley, Virginia, at C.I.A. headquarters (is there even anything else in Langley?), where we meet analyst Ozzie Cox (played by John Malkovich), who is demoted due to a “drinking problem,” then quits and goes home to his ice-queen wife and failing marriage. This is the point where it gets very tricky to try to summarize the film, for fear of accidentally ruining the jokes or giving away the dramatic twists, which are sprinkled liberally and unexpectedly throughout the film.

Suffice to say that Chad (Brad Pitt), an employee at a gym, accidentally comes into possession of secret information, and gets everyone around him embroiled in a twisted and complex web of lies and intrigue that also manages to involve Treasury agent Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney).

I’ve complained before about overly complex plots (Syriana being the inevitable example of a plot too twisted for its own good), and Burn After Reading is proof that it’s not just the fact that I was raised on plotless action-movie drivel. You see, although the plot of Burn After Reading is very intricate, it’s also accessible and perfectly understandable. The Cohen brothers manage to flawlessly weave together the lives of at least four major, well-rounded characters more seamlessly than I’ve ever seen. The film is like a cinematic Rube Goldberg machine: clever set-ups and excellent design allow what should be an impossible plot to come together believably. Even though every single character is stupid or shallow in their own way, they’re all stupid and shallow in the same way that real people are stupid and shallow. Pitt plays a goofy, air-headed bicyclist. Malkovich is a distant and somewhat sullen dullard. Clooney brings to life a nervous, paranoid ex-U.S. Marshall. Actress Frances McDormand is the familiar sufferer of a midlife crisis, bent on renewing herself in every way but the important ones. At first, the characters were hard to empathize with, but in the end, they all have a weird likeability.

The movie is also incredibly funny, with the kind of dark, bewildered deadpan humor that hits me just right. Although the plot is potentially grim and serious, it’s impossible not to laugh. Burn After Reading reminds me in some ways of the late great Kurt Vonnegut’s dark, sadistic, cynical humor.

This is the point where I’m supposed to lay out some criticism for the sake of balance, but with this particular film, that’s pretty hard to do. It’s so incredibly well-constructed and entertaining that I can’t think of any obvious dead spots or plot holes. The worst I can do is say that the dialogue seemed slightly stilted a few times.

That’s it. That’s all the criticism I can come up with. Burn After Reading is a wonderful satire of the shallow superficiality of our lives, of the veneer of solidity and invincibility over our government (and our relationships), and it’s also hilarious in a wonderfully subtle, understated way.

Final Judgment: Excellent. You should definitely see this film.


*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     `     (9.5/10 asterisks)

Review: “Cloverfield”

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

Many months ago, I was in the theater waiting for some movie to start, and I saw a preview that really caught my attention. It was some guy filming a party with a handheld camera, when suddenly, there’s a loud noise outside. The cameraman wanders out there, and joins a cluster of people standing on the street just as a sizeable chunk of New York blows up, raining debris on the onlookers as they scramble for safety.

That was my first and last taste of Cloverfield before I actually saw the movie last night. I’d meant to see it on the big screen, but I sort of lost interest as time went on. Now, I’m glad I didn’t spend twelve bucks on it. Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but the movie isn’t good.

It starts out slow. Very slow. Somebody named Rob is having a going-away party before he goes to Japan to be vice-president of something or other. The first fifteen or twenty minutes of the film is just a guy whose dialogue makes him sound drunk or high (or maybe a little slow) bumbling around and talking to people. I’m fairly certain this scene was meant as exposition, but it does a piss-poor job of it. Almost immediatley, I found my mind wandering. A lot of characters talk, but not one of them feels like an actual human being. After the tenth or so minute of this, I began to have my doubts.

Then, the aforementioned part of the city blows up, and it’s a mad scramble, first to get out of the city, then to go back for Rob’s girlfriend, who he apparently feels responsible for because of some argument they had. Blah-blah-blah. The plot, such that it is, is fairly contrived and stupid. It’s not compelling. It’s not even amusing in all its badness, because the film takes itself so seriously. We’re supposed to care about these characters, but that’s hard to do because they’re so flat and uninteresting, and the dialogue is so badly-written that, at several points, I cringed.

And it’s criminally short, too. As I came up on about the sixty-minute mark, I reached what I was certain must be the middle of the film. Now, I told myself, it might get interesting. But no. Five minutes later, it was over. Just like that. No conclusion. No attempt to wrap it up. Like the filmmakers got bored and wandered off. All right, I’ll admit it, the ending isn’t something you’ve probably seen very often, and I applaud Cloverfield for that. But the way the film was going, I was expecting a different ending.

The whole film is like that: I kept expecting one thing, and it kept delivering something else. At times, the movie was gritty and realistic in a very admirable way (which I’ll discuss at greater length later), but at other times, it was hackneyed and stupid, and endless stream of pointless scenes and stupid dialogue and clichés. It’s like there were two sets of directors: the good set and the crappy substitute set that came in whenever the good set wandered off, which was pretty often. The good scenes, the scenes that start to be immersive, are always (always!) followed by scenes in which the characters become irritating nonentities again. That, coupled with the short length and bad ending, make Cloverfield a hard movie to enjoy.

But like I said before, there were still some parts of the film that I actually did like (after all, at least it wasn’t Resident Evil or worse, Alien vs. Predator). For one thing, the entire film is shot from the viewpoint of somebody’s handheld camcorder, and although this kind of realism clashes terribly with the unrealism of the characters, it’s real enough to illuminate those scenes that are actually good. At times, it had a documentary feel to it, and I get the feeling that the directors deliberately mimicked the excellent documentary 9/11. There are points where the stupid main characters fall away and you’re left with a crowd of extras running around and trying to escape, and at those times, you could be forgiven for forgetting that you’re watching fiction. There’s a scene in a field hospital with wounded soldiers walking around, the mortally wounded being carted by on stretchers, and an alien something or other being carried away in one of those sealed glove-boxes that people use to handle biohazards. It’s an impressive scene, and there’s a real sense of panic and confusion and doom as the soldiers try to save those who can’t be saved. And when one of the characters falls sick because of exposure to the something or other, the way the CDC guys in the blue plastic biohazard suits respond put me a little bit in mind of Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone.

But, as I said before, this scene was immediatley followed by something stupid and unrealistic that didn’t fit at all. That’s the fatal flaw in Cloverfield: it’s impossible to really appreciate the realism, because the realism is always followed by unrealism.

I should also make a note that the special effects are mediocre at best. Considering how pretty and real-looking everything’s getting these days, and considering the fact that the filmmakers were trying to make a movie that felt like someone videotaping real life, they probably should have fired about half the writers and (film-review gods forgive me for saying this) spent more money on special effects. This is the first (and I hope the last) occasion that I ever end up saying anything like this, but if there’s a single movie where more special effects were needed, it was Cloverfield. The way the movie tried to make it really feel like video, with occasional stutters in the camera’s recording, or accidental flips back to earlier footage, was admirable, but completely diluted by bad dialogue and unrealistic CGI.

Now, before I cruelly dismiss the film, I do want to say one thing in service of it: the basic premise was good. It’s basically a Godzilla movie from a completely fresh viewpoint, and that kind of original thinking is pretty impressive. But in the end, the execution was rotten, which ruins the whole thing.

All in all, Cloverfield didn’t even come close to living up to all the hype and expectation around it. It was a bad, sophomoric, amateurish movie that could have been really impressive if it had just tried a little harder. As it is, though, it’s a real disappointment, and I wouldn’t reccommend even renting it, unless you just have to know what all the hype was about.

One final, nitpicky point before I hand down my judgment: Are we really supposed to believe that a handheld camcorder can run constantly for an hour, despite getting dropped, beaten up, blown up, and crashing from a helicopter?

Final Judgment:

*   *   `   .   .   .   .   .   .   . (2.5/10 asterisks)

Movie Review: “The Happening”

GoogleMy father is one of those infamous people for whom it is impossible to buy gifts. So, this father’s day, he relented and suggested that I take him to see The Happening.

I saw Signs, a previous movie by M. Night Shyamalan, who directed The Happening, and found it to be funny, atmospheric, at times absolutely frightening, and a pleasure to watch. I’ve never been a great fan of the horror genre, but there is something about Shyamalan’s films which is more engaging than the dross that usually gets placed in that genre.

The film begins in Central Park, where suddenly, people begin behaving strangely. In moments, there are people committing suicide in droves all over the city. Panic ensues, and an evacuation begins.

For the most part, The Happening follows Elliot (played by Mark Whalberg) and wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) as they attempt to survive the continuing onslaughts of suicide-inducing poisonous gas. The plot is realistic enough (even if the science is a little “approximate” for my tastes) to be engaging, but surreal enough to also be unnerving, and at times, quite funny.

But the plot isn’t what I really noticed about The Happening. What I really noticed was the fact that, at times during the movie, my heart rate began to edge up. From a twitchy, nervous guy like me, a movie that can get my heart going is really something. Even in the scenes where the outcome is obvious, there’s often a great deal of suspense.

Interleaved with the suspenseful scenes are the aforementioned surreal scenes. We see person after person sit down calmly and come up with bizarre and disturbing ways to do themselves in. The fact that there is no real enemy, that the enemy is your self-destructive tendencies, while a little disorienting, about doubles the creep factor.

The music helps this along a great deal. It’s unfortunate how little attention some films pay to their score, but that was not a problem with The Happening. Lonely piano and symphonic melodies underscore the surrealer and creepier moments, but the film isn’t afraid to use silence when necessary.

Still — and once again, the same is true for all the Shyamalan movies I’ve seen — there’s something slightly off about The Happening. It’s not exactly clear, but there’s a sort of strange, almost hallucinatory eeriness to the whole film. It’s hard to pin down, but at times, it can get distracting, and sometimes, it manifests directly, like in a particularly sadistic scene featuring a child and a shotgun. It doesn’t detract much (if any) from the film, but it does give one the feeling that Shyamalan is not the kind of person you’d like to sit next to on a long bus ride.

All in all, though, The Happening seems to be classic Shyamalan: the normal world backlit by strange and horrible circumstances. And although it starts to drag its feet a bit in the end, it’s still interesting, entertaining, truly scary, and very engaging. Worth seeing. Not worth buying any popcorn for, though. That shit’s gotten expensive!

Movie Review: “The Mist”

I saw a couple of trailers for The Mist, based on the Stephen King novel of the same title, and I was wandering through the bookstore a few months ago and thought that I’d give it a read. I found it gripping, interesting, and ultimately satisfying, as I find many of King’s novels.

Since I’m a firm believer in the ancient principle that a movie will always be worse than the book it is based on, I wasn’t expecting much when today I rented The Mist. But I wasn’t quite prepared for just how bad it is.

For the first three-quarters of this two-hour (two-hour!) movie, the plot sticks very close to the plot of the novel: a strange mist descends on a town, trapping a bunch of terrified people in a grocery store. Horrible things come out of the mist and do horrible things to the people. Classic Stephen King.

Given that the plot is interesting and psychological — two things you don’t see in movies these days — you might wonder how it would be possible to screw it up. Let me give you a list of good ways, although I might make director Frank Darabont angry, since he’s really the one that came up with these:

  • Atrocious dialogue. At times, it was so clumsy that I actually cringed. They took some directly from the novel, but not all of it, and the clash between the dialogue written by King and the dialogue added by the filmmakers is painfully obvious.
  • Flat characters. They should be moving. They should be sympathetic. They should be interesting. But they’re not. They feel like, to use an old phrase, cardboard cutouts, which makes it especially jarring when, in a rare moment of good acting, they express genuine-looking emotion.
  • They explain the mist. This is a mistake that most modern horror films make: either they explain who created the monster and how, or they tell you what’s making the zombies crazy, or something like that. The only two horror films I’ve seen where that’s been pulled off competently are 28 Days Later and I am Legend. One of the keys to the creepiness of King’s book was that they gave vague hints as to what happened, but they never actually told you. That’s always way creepier than actually coming out and saying it, which The Mist does with the same habitual clumsiness with which it does things.
  • The ending is incredibly depressing. I’ll try not to ruin it for you (anyway, Darabont already did that for me), but suffice to say that, even though it’s meant to seem bleak, gritty, real, and painful, it comes across as needlessly cruel, sadistic, and depressing. So, so depressing. Now, I’ll give Darabont credit where credit is due for creating an ending that is something we haven’t often seen before, but there is a point at which a depressing ending will puke all over the entertainment value of the rest of the movie. Darabont reaches that point, pays no heed, and keeps going, until he reaches the point known only as “Mass suicide in the movie theater.”

Now, I do have more than bilious hatred to spew about The Mist. I do enjoy tearing a bad movie to shreds, but I can’t do that with every aspect of the film. For one thing, the special effects are as incredible as anything you’ll see today. The mist feels real, and the filmmakers know when to use computer-generated mist and when to use an actual fog machine. The creatures are not only fairly faithful to King’s description, but they’re also suitably creepy. Even some of the scenes they made up and threw in there are fairly grotesque in a good way, the kind of good way that makes people want to watch horror films. As I said above, the ending, while depressing, is at least fairly daring. And Darabont, some of the time, keeps very close to King’s original idea.

But that last point actually becomes a problem at times. Nobody expects any film based on a book to stay close to the original storyline and dialogue. At least not as close as Darabont stays. I’ve been hoping for a long time to see a movie that was really just a visual version of a book, but now I see the error of my ways. If every book-direct-to-movie adaptation is as contrived and clumsy as this, then I’d rather see the director change what needs to be changed.

And even though he stays painfully close to the original story sometimes, at other times, he deviates shamelessly, wandering off into irrelevant or story-crippling (see bullet point #3 above) tangents, adding things that needn’t be added (gratuitous unnecessary gore, and in all the wrong places, too), and subtracting things that he probably should have kept (that hazy, panic-induced, shocked sex scene between the main character and the girl comes to mind). But probably the most painful loss is the feeling of panic, the feeling of dread, and that sense that everybody is slowly starting to break down and go mad. King does this very well. Darabont doesn’t do it at all until very near the end, when suddenly it was as though someone slapped him on the back of the head.

One final note. In the book, Mrs. Carmody, the religious lunatic, was more of a shriveled old bat, a hag with little more to do than play with her stuffed raccoons, read tabloids, and babble about the state of the world. But in the film, she’s about thirty years old, and delivers all of her lines with a kind of sickening melodrama not seen since the Wicked Witch of the West menaced Dorothy.

All in all, a bad movie. It has its good moments, but in the end, it’s far too clumsily-executed to be interesting, and long enough to make you feel like you’ve wasted a good chunk of your life. If you’ve read the book, don’t bother seeing the movie. And if you’ve seen the movie, I’m sorry, but Frank Darabont has already ruined the book for you.

Final Judgment:

* ` ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ (1.5/10 asterisks)

Review: “Sunshine”

I enjoy being cynical. Anybody who’s read even a handful of my posts will know that. But, like a character in a bad movie, I have a soft spot for certain things.

One of those is great science fiction. I was impressed by the writings of Arthur C. Clarke, Charles Stross, and Isaac Asimov. I was intrigued by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. And I was greatly moved by Danny Boyle’s Sunshine.

Sunshine is the story of a group of astronauts sent to deliver a bomb to “re-start” the dying sun. This plot sounds remarkably standard, and in a way it is, but then again, so is “Man wakes up in a post-civilized world, surrounded by zombies and struggling survivors,” and Danny Boyle managed to make that one come alive in 28 Days Later.

This may sound like disjointed gushing, but I honestly believe that Sunshine has to be one of the best science fiction films of the last ten or twenty years. The characters are very compelling, and unlike in most movies (science fiction or otherwise) of today, they actually feel like human beings. You come to feel for them, to understand them. Very rarely does one see that in movies these days.

The special effects are — and I feel like something of a fool for saying this — beautiful. Never before have I seen modern CGI used to such tremendous effect. The film manages to portray the sun’s incomprehensible brightness, and something of its great beauty as well. I never thought I’d say this, but for once, a movie left me with a profound appreciation for something.

The effects are impressive primarily because they mesh so well with the film’s overall artistic style. This style is incredibly rich and deep, and very compelling. I’m not sure how, but somehow, Sunshine manages to blend sound and light, letting our ears take over when the light gets too bright for our eyes to even comprehend. The movie makes light seem very substantial, very real, and dangerously beautiful.

This blurring between sound and light serves to accentuate the soundtrack, which is up to the extraordinarily high standards Boyle set in 28 Days Later. Frank Murphy and Underworld score the film with what has to be one of the most haunting soundtracks I’ve ever heard. Even the sound of a distress beacon is heavy with emotional impact, a lonely, heartbreaking sound that fits so well with the rest of the movie.

So, I’m several paragraphs into my review and already I’ve sung Sunshine‘s praises as though it were the god of my new religion. Make no mistake, the film is not a golden gift from the gods, but it gets about as close as any mainstream movie. Nonetheless, there were elements that bothered me. The movie developed a withering, aimless feel in its later scenes, and did not recover until somewhere near the end. There’s a rather oddly recurring villain who adds a confusing fundamentalist religious element to these scenes as well, and whom they might have done without. And, it fell victim to that omnipresent scourge, weak science.

In this case, however, I’m going to do something I’ve never done before, and will hopefully never do again: I’m going to forgive Boyle for his bad science. It’s a very rare thing when the characters are moving enough, the story is good enough, and the visuals are pretty enough to make me gloss over scientific omissions and mistakes, but that’s what happened here. Hell, I was even willing to ignore the fact that the film had sounds in the vacuum of space (which regular readers will know annoys me to no end). That’s how good the rest of the film is. It’s definitely a must-see for nerds and science-fiction fans. Normal people would probably enjoy it, too.

NOTE: Yes, I am fully aware that Sunshine came out in 2007. I’d intended to see it on the big screen (and I imagine it was even more incredible in the theater), but since there was less publicity than I’d been expecting, I somehow missed it when it was in theaters. Damn.

Review: “Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem”

Having seen the previous Aliens vs. Predator, I walked into the theater not expecting much of the sequel (pseudo-creatively titled Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem). Every now and then, I’ll walk into a theater not expecting much, and come out pleasantly surprised. (This happened with I Am Legend) This, unfortunately, was not one of those times.

The movie starts off from the last film’s shamelessly sequel-friendly ending. From there, it takes off, and never even considers landing. This might sound like a complement, but I assure you that it is not. By “takes off,” I mean in the manner that a hummingbird might take off after some mischievous birdwatcher filled a birdfeeder with amphetamines. The movie’s attention span about matches that of it’s intended audience. Once again, this is not a complement, since it would appear that its intended audience is indeed a bunch amphetamine-addled hummingbirds. I can’t remember a single scene — and this (unlike my previous descriptions) is not an exaggeration — that lasted more than about five minutes. The cuts were so jarring and furious that what little plot there was was completely obscured.

(Warning: Spoilers ahead!)

Read the rest of this entry »

Review: “I Am Legend”

Recently, I went to see Francis Lawrence’s film adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend. I entered the theater expecting the same kind of action-dense, sarcastic, humorous, and vaguely amusing movie that Will Smith is famous for, and came out in a state of utter shock.

Ladies and gentlemen, I Am Legend is, by far, Will Smith’s best performance. Ever. Better than Independence Day. Better than I, Robot. Better, even, than The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

So that I don’t ruin an excellent movie for you, I’m going to save all potential spoilers for the next section. Read on, if you want to know more.

Read the rest of this entry »

Movie Land III: Return to Movie Land

Today, as I was idly flipping through the channels on television (something I find I’m forced to do quite frequently, just to escape the worst of the modern advertisements), I stumbled across a TV edit of The Lost World, sequel to Jurassic Park. As I watched the film unfold, I got some more ideas for my continuing “Movie Land” series.

In Movie Land…

  • …the black guy dies first.
  • …if a black guy is unavailable or has already bought the farm, the valley girl dies next.
  • …after she’s taken care of, the bald white guy dies.
  • …next comes the bespectacled guy with two lines in the entire film.
  • …then it’s the South American guy’s turn.
  • …then the African guy.
  • …and finally, the comic relief guy.
  • …if anybody is killed near a river, the water will always flow dramatically red moments later.
  • …the hero drives a classic car, almost inevitably a muscle car. No exceptions.
  • …any intellectuals still manage to be cool somehow. None of them are ever pasty, physically frail or unfit, or any of the things intellectuals often are.
  • …the fat guy will always be stuffing his face. It’s never a glandular thing.
  • …a black guy with an afro is there for comic relief. No serious black character ever sports a ‘fro.
  • …if you’re in a city, and a disaster breaks out, expect a sudden rash of fender-benders, most often involving police cars and taxicabs.
  • …if the heroes are being pursued by the police, somehow, they will coax the squad cars into running into one another.
  • …though the hidden traitor amongst the heroes’ ranks is always very obvious (often sporting a sinister moustache, or inciting ominous music whenever he enters a room), the heroes remain oblivious to his/her presence.
  • …the villain gets his/her just desserts. No exceptions.
  • …in the same vein, white-collar criminals usually meet their demise in flames, no matter how sheltered their corporate lives.
  • …these same white collar criminals usually die this way because they also have a passion for high-tech weaponry/high-powered rifles/dangerous chemicals/fast cars/helicopters.
  • …nobody ever has a heart attack while running from the bad guys. Not even the middle-aged “mature hunk.”
  • …Elvis impersonators live very brief lives and meet very painful ends.
  • …the hero will have his/her revenge against the villain, even if this requires an impractical or impossible plan.
  • …impractical and impossible plans are the only ones ever considered. Nobody ever says anything like “I don’t think it’s a good idea to go out there…it’s swarming with ninjas. Perhaps if we wait a while they’ll go away. Or maybe we could negotiate with the ninjas?” Even if such a plan is proposed, nobody ever listens, and the person who proposed the plan dies in short order.
  • …the “prophet of doom” at the beginning of the film will always be right, especially if they are predicting a disaster.
  • …the “prophet of doom” will never be believed until it is too late.
  • …and the people who did not believe the “prophet of doom” are the first to die. Apparently one can survive even the worst natural disaster simply by agreeing with the hero.
  • …in a jungle, at least one person will fall down a very long slope, tumbling until they slam into the ground below. This slope will usually conveniently deliver them to the baddies’ feet.
  • …the Evil Overlord’s minions are expendable. You never hear “Taps” playing in the baddies’ camp.
  • …when attacking a very large ship/plane/spacecraft, there will always been one of the hero’s number who sees it wise to make a noble Kamikaze sacrifice. Often, their death is in vain, since the heroes end up having to save the day with their own dramatic scheme.
  • …gangsters (especially black and Hispanic ones) usually have intimidating nicknames like “Julio the Killer” or “Skin-Eatin’ Travis.” You never see the hero walk into the gangster’s establishment and say “Hey! I need to speak to Charles.”
  • …a cut never gets infected, unless this would in some way be “challenging” or “dramatic” for the affected character.
  • …it’s not really a disaster until a hundred-foot wall of water washes through New York, overturning taxicabs.
  • …an Asian character is usually the villain, and usually has either a very cheesy fake accent, or sounds like a professor of economics.
  • …any female villain’s heart can be melted by a suitably studly male hero.
  • …if you hear a sound, don’t walk up to the window. The source of the sound will usually smash through it in short order.

This one was so big I had to give it its own list:

…nobody — especially the hero — ever considers the long-term implications of their actions:

  • …no amount of radiation exposure is cause for alarm. Don’t even bother getting checked for cancer or leukemia, especially if you’re a main character.
  • …if you contract a virus, don’t worry, the hero will find a vaccine just in time to save you and/or the man/woman he/she loves. And don’t worry about long-term effects.
  • …even though a long-term coma requires some kind of brain damage, don’t worry, as long as you’re in Movie Land, waking up entails instantaneous recovery.
  • …the hero can blow up half the city in an attempt to stop the supervillain, and will still be commended for his/her actions.
  • …disaster recovery is always very quick. There’s never any looting or anything like that. I mean, come on, that’s just not human nature, right?
  • …you can breathe in all the dust and smoke you want and not so much as cough.
  • …being shot, stabbed, burned, shocked, thrown out of a car, hit by a car, beaten to within an inch of your life, hit with a baseball bat, or any other such injury requires only a few weeks’ recovery, and there are no lingering effects. Cane shops in Movie Land tend to got out of business rather quickly.
  • …whatever caused that menacing scar on the villain’s face, he/she suffers no long-lasting effects from it.

More later.

More Movie Land

In Movie Land…

  • … somehow, somewhere, the tables will turn, no matter how implausible this is.
  • … the hero will either be: a cold and distant “damaged” sort, an introvert with a heart of gold, or an extremely “cool cat.”
  • … the heroine will either be: cold and distant, continually mourning her dead husband, or a sex object.
  • … somebody will own a motorcycle.
  • … everybody is a grade-A marksman.
  • … even the most clichéd one-liners are treated as profound statements.
  • … if there is glass, somebody will be thrown through it, fall through it, shoot through it, or explode it. No exceptions.
  • … a long series of pans across a lovely, bustling city guarantees its destruction.
  • … a happy exterior masks a dark secret.
  • … in a war, one side’s soldiers are human, and the other side’s soldiers are disposable, inhuman drones commanded by someone who doesn’t care about them.
  • … fire leads to explosion. No exceptions.
  • … even supposed “human-level” robots are nowhere near human level, and despite recent advances in artificial intelligence, we’re apparently still supposed to believe that they are totally logical and emotionless.
  • … someone with brain damage is never cognitively impaired. In fact, they often gain a special talent.
  • … despite the laws of physics, you can hear everything in space.
  • … stars and planets are much larger and closer together than they should be.
  • … all stars are roiling balls of activity. Solar flares are constant. This is especially true of stars around which orbit “habitable” planets.
  • … some saccharine life-saving gesture will be repaid heartwarmingly later. No exceptions.
  • … nine times out of ten, somebody, usually female, will say “Do you think you can handle it?”
  • … people have no convictions about having a conversation whilst shooting high-powered weapons. Actually, the danger lurking all around them seems to make them even witter than usual.
  • … vampires are young, attractive, and overwhelmingly female. No exceptions.
  • … wizards are old men. No exceptions.
  • … if a large structure is depicted from the ground, at some point in the movie, that same structure will probably be seen collapsing in slow motion.
  • … when the above structure collapses, no matter what had been stored there, it will all explode or go up in flames.
  • … the climax of the movie is always an explosion. Even if the movie is underwater, in space, or in another such environment not conducive to explosions.
  • … the pyrotechnics guy is a pyromaniac. Thus, fire will be used wherever possible, especially if explosives are not available.
  • … if there is a puddle of gasoline, it will be ignited somehow.
  • … a small town is dangerous in some way.
  • … an abandoned small town is a deathtrap.
  • … a young, happy couple shown early in the movie and who never undergo any character development are about to meet a very grisly demise. You can usually bet that they will be eaten by something.
  • … an asteroid will be stopped at the last minute, no matter how unlikely.
  • … no matter how bad the apocalypse, a post-apocalyptic movie will always feature at least one really well-organized faction.
  • … no matter the circumstances, if a female character demonstrates a proficiency with any sort of weapon, the hero will be amazed.
  • … most heroes are sexist misogynistic “love ’em and leave ’em” types.
  • … as the heroes are leaving after the loving, they will either look mournfully to the right side of the screen or deliver a witty one-liner.
  • … the villain always, through sheer stupidity, or out of a desire to taunt the hero, leaves a trail of clues that can be followed using sufficient logic. No information is ever missing or misleading. Ever.
  • … one plot twist is the legal maximum. Offenders are labeled “indie” films and shelved at the back of the store.
  • … either everybody is who they seem to be, or nobody is.
  • … if you are persistent enough, you can defeat any number of enemies, as long as you are rugged, good-looking, and the enemies have a tendency to stand near explosive barrels, or under flimsy catwalks.
  • … if a character is above a vat of some lethal chemical, he or she will fall in somehow, unless he or she is the hero, in which case he or she will toss a lot of other people in.
  • … truckers tend to fall asleep just as a protagonist’s car is coming around the corner in the opposite lane. They also tend to swerve the moment they nod off.
  • … if a tractor-trailer crashes, it will fall off a cliff. Even if there are no cliffs nearby.
  • … if you can only see the “dead” villain’s hand, it will twitch, signifying that he or she is alive.
  • … the battle between hero and villain goes like this: hero fights villain. They’re equal for a while. Villain deploys clever trick. Hero is nearly defeated but fights back. Villain downs hero. Hero appears dead. Hero gets up triumphantly, calls on the power of The Force (or some other such generic “inner strength”), and defeats the villain in a single blow. Optional: the villain’s hand twitches and he or she stands, possibly killing someone the hero loves. The anger give the hero the strength to kill the villain.
  • … a woman with a British accent is always tall, blonde, and attractive. A man with a British accent is either a “cool cat,” or a grizzled, sarcastic, sardonic supporting character.
  • … the protagonist never has an accent, unless that accent is British.
  • … all the scientists are late-middle-aged white males, unless they are suspiciously young, blonde supermodel types.
  • … the Doomsday Machine is always powerful and impressive, never subtle and hard-to-find.
  • … you can get very close to a nuclear reactor with no ill effects.
  • … if a building collapses on the hero, he or she will emerge just after everybody writes them off. They will be dusty, but otherwise unhurt. They usually emerge from a fortuitously-placed piece of debris.
  • … hiding in a closet only guarantees that the Evil Henchman will have to circle the room a few times before dramatically plunging his or her fists through the wall. It doesn’t provide any actual shelter.
  • … all closets are equipped with slat doors to look through. No exceptions.
  • … the crack under any normal door is always big enough for dramatic shadows to flit across it. The illumination is, of course, always suitable to allow this.
  • … if the heroes are worn down after a long firefight, one of them will eventually glance over the top of a chunk of debris, drop down suddenly, and say some variation of “There’s way too many! We can’t go in there.” The protagonist will then proceed to go in there.
  • … the hero owns a motorcycle. Or, if he/she doesn’t, they will steal one, no matter how many other vehicles are available.
  • … heroes and villains have a tendency to steal cellular phones from men in business suits who are crossing the street. These men then proceed to point ineffectually, shake their fists, and yell “Hey! That’s my phone!” They then proceed to stand there, not doing anything about it.
  • … the Final Confrontation always takes place in an area free of civilians who might get underfoot.
  • … the Doomsday Device can always be stopped and started from one single button/key/etc.
  • … the head of a multi-national corporation is always evil.
  • … the little guy is always better than the big guy.
  • … if you dive screaming into a horde of enemies, the universe graciously goes into slow motion so others can watch in awe.
  • … nobody ever sees the body being put into the body bag. You either see the bag being zipped up, or you see it once it’s already been closed.
  • … though they have a tendency to peek under the bloodstained white sheet at a grisly murder, no detective ever yells “Oh my God! That’s disgusting!” and vomits.
  • … somebody who has an outlandish theory (usually about a coming disaster or something about that nature) and is ridiculed for it by his colleagues will be vindicated in the end. No exceptions.
  • … a hero’s companion who has supposedly been converted to the dark side, will always come back in the end, usually right before sacrificing themselves to free the hero.
  • … the hero is almost invariably a very acrobatic person. They usually also have martial-arts training.
  • … despite the obvious disadvantages, the hero always matches the villain’s weapon: even if a gun is available, the hero will keep fighting with that trusty sword. And win. No matter what.

More later.