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Aug. 1st, 2010

Installment 4 of "Watching the Future" Is Up

Installment Four of my monthly column "Watching the Future" is up at SF Site. This time, I talk about Inception and its seemingly anomalous success among the recent plague of remakes infecting multiplexes.

Though remakes have a long history, their recent sheer numbers appear to border on epidemic. One cannot hear of movies currently in production without learning that it is a remake of this work or that. Indeed, at the recent Comic-Con director Matt Reeves defended his recent remake of Tomas Alfredson's masterful Let the Right One In, and I have heard many fans of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy breathe a sigh of relief at the casting of Daniel Craig in the remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, though I immediately wondered why it needed to be remade in the first place. I cannot bear reading of some young auteur daring to remake Escape from New York, Red Dawn or Total Recall without groaning. (Total Recall, especially, was bad enough the first time; do I have the stomach to try to sit through another go?)

Read the rest here.

Jul. 16th, 2010

Review of Inception up at SF Signal

My review of Christopher Nolan's science fiction thriller Inception is up at SF Signal, and for a change I'm actually quite positive.

Early in director Christopher Nolan's Inception, dream extractor Dom Cobb (Leonardo Di Caprio) asks architecture student Ariadne (Ellen Page) to design a maze in two minutes that would take someone one minute to solve. Cobb is an extractor; along with his point man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), he enters a subject's dreams in order to extract information, a kind of Parker (from Richard Stark's outstanding crime series) of the id and superego. In order to do so successfully, they need an individual who can not only craft the world of the subject's dream but also maintain its balance. And they need that stability for the dream heist that drives Inception's main plot because Cobb not only needs to enter his subject's dream but create a dream within that dream, a feat which Cobb's chemist Yusuf (Dileep Rao) believes too unstable.

Dreams and the architecture of dreams are the subjects of Inception, and it's to Nolan's considerable credit that he builds the movie's dream worlds with the care and intricacy of an architect. No surprise, then, that buildings and cityscapes feature prominently: as Ariadne designs her initial dream landscapes, cities fold themselves at right angles, stairways in corporate buildings fold onto themselves in an infinite loop (calling to mind M.C. Escher's painting "Ascending and Descending"), and two mirror cast reflections that create additional streets (reminiscent of passages in Jorge Luis Borges's story "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius"). No surprise, either, that Nolan's spends so much time taking the viewer on a tour of dream worlds and their logic that the viewer begins to worry that Nolan has not bothered to populate his own dream with interesting characters, thus dampening the viewer's involvement with Inception's story.

Read the rest here.

Jun. 5th, 2010

Long Overdue Updates

Okay, much to cover, so let's crank.

For starters, we have my review of the videogame adaptation of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, titled, appropriately enough, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time at SF Signal.

Though I have not seen many, and thus am hardly an expert, I would venture a guess that Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is the best film adaptation of a video game since the subgenre was inaugurated in 1993 by Super Mario Bros. Considering how wretched virtually all video game movies have been, from Street Fighter and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider to recent travesties like Hitman and Max Payne, one would make the reasonable assumption that this does not mean the most recent entry is good, and one would be right. In spite of this, it manages to be more enjoyable than it has any right to be, despite its lack of originality and its forgettable execution.

Granted, writers Jordan Mechner, Boaz Yakin, Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard must put their characters (such as they are) through similar machinations as those in the game, which keeps their plot mired in situations all too familiar to most fans of adventure and fantastic literature, but Mike Newell's direction often shows enough professionalism to engage the audience, taking his cues not from the game's third person acrobatics but movie serials from the 1930s and 1940s. Often, but not consistently; action sequences frequently lapse into slow motion (all too common in action movies today) and its aesthetics never rise above the point of view of a video game, making the viewer feel as if the seat should come equipped with a PlayStation 2 controller. Its attempts to become a modern day serial thus fall short of the same noble goal reached by Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Also up at SF Signal is my review of Vincenzo Natali's new B-pic Splice, which despite its timeliness strikes me as the worst mad scientist movie in a long while, even beating out John Frankenheimer's wretched The Island of Dr. Moreau.

From the time Mary Shelley created the first, elemental modern Prometheus in 1818, the mad scientist has become such a standard trope in the science fiction genre, so often used, as often parodied, that it cannot even be called a cliché. In a way, since Frankenstein's initial publication, its titular character has become the nodal point for any creative artist who wishes to tell the story of scientific progress gone amok, with the underlying message that There Are Things Man Was Not Meant to Know. Indeed, one could make the argument that most science fiction primarily is a retelling of the classic tale.

Given that, one should not be surprised to see Mary Shelley's considerable influence in Splice. And it says quite a bit that moments of Splice show a debt to not only Frankenstein but also to the oeuvre of Cronenberg. (The movie was shot in Toronto, the location of many of Cronenberg's films.)

But somewhere between the story by Vincenzo Natali and Anoinette Terry Bryant and the screenplay by Natali, Bryant and Doug Taylor, something goes as wrong as the Frankenstein story it tries to tell.

Lastly, Installment Two of my column "Watching the Future" is up at SF Site. This time your humble columnist travels back to Memorial Day weekend 1980, taking stock of the changes movie has undergone since the release of The Empire Strikes Back.

I cite The Empire Strikes Back as my first real love of cinema. I had seen movies before -- like most members of my generation, the original Star Wars heavily influenced my taste in 1977, Roger Moore's two recent James Bond movies, The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker, though nearly unwatchable for me today, fueled my imagination, and of course Richard Donner's Superman took me to comic book nirvana. Sure, I liked movies, but until The Empire Strikes Back I never thought about going to the movies. I went to a theater, but had not adopted the rituals. And, like most rituals, they are becoming obscure to the point of endangerment.

It was as codified as a Noh play. One might complain about the cost of the ticket, or the price of the food. If it was summer and you had nothing else to do and thought you could get away with it, you might try sneaking into another showing after your movie was done (or, if you were under seventeen, try sneaking into an R-rated movie). For a major event movie, you might have to wait in line for several hours before catching a screening (as we did for The Empire Strikes Back), and even then having no guarantee that you would see it at the time you wanted. Every now and then, you might decide to see a movie on a whim, so you might drive to the theater and watch anything that had an interesting poster and started soon. Nonetheless, for the true cinephile, this ritual had the same reverence as a devout Catholic attending mass. Movie theaters, even the bad ones, were our churches, and we could become upset at any disruption.

And there will be more. I would love to discuss Margaret Atwood's recent announcement that yes, indeed, she has written science fiction, despite the fact that a number of science fiction writers have likely exhausted this topic, but I want to let it sit for a little while so that I can make a coherent, reasonable observation, instead of the knee-jerk response that is too often the hallmark of the blogosphere.

More soon.

May. 15th, 2010

Interview with Bruce Sterling

Chairman Bruce talks Gothic High Tech, Favela Chic and atemporality. Fascinating stuff.

Robin Hood Reviewed at SF Signal

I promise, one of these days I'll see something I like. For the time being, my review of Ridley Scott's iteration of Robin Hood is up at SF Signal.

Near the beginning of Ridley Scott's Robin Hood, Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe, whose casting immediately signals problems) and his men stumble upon a group of English knights ambushed by Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong), an English knight with French lineage. Through the dying Sir Robert Loxley Robin learns of King Richard the Lionhearted's death. Wishing to return to England, he decides to assume Sir Loxley's identity and return the crown to King John (Oscar Isaac). Such concealment of identity and deception runs deep throughout the movie - so deep, in fact, that the movie falls prey to its own identity crisis.

It didn't have to be this way. Word has it that Ethan Reiff's and Cyrus Voris's original script, entitled Nottingham, focused on a sympathetic Sheriff in conflict with a villainous Robin Hood, both of whom vying for the affections of Maid Marian. But Scott (who, according to one report, has never been a fan of any serious screen version of Robin Hood, including the classic The Adventures of Robin Hood starring the incomparable Errol Flynn, and in fact prefers Mel Brooks's Robin Hood: Men in Tights) hired Brian Helgeland to rewrite the script, transforming the Sherwood terrorist into a bland contemporary action hero and concentrating on an origin story in the tradition of Batman Begins and Casino Royale.

Read the rest here.

May. 5th, 2010

If It Only Had a Heart: Iron Man 2 Reviewed

My review of Iron Man 2 is up at Moving Pictures. Would that I could have liked it more.

“Iron Man” caught everybody off guard when it was released two years ago. Directed by Jon Favreau, who was best known for small independent gems, it turned out to be one of the most witty, deft superhero movies since Tobey Maguire squeezed into Spider-Man’s tights. Though it lacked the depths explored by “The Dark Knight” (which was released later that summer), it nonetheless managed to linger in the viewer’s imagination long after the credits rolled. A sequel was inevitable. “Iron Man 2” brings back most of the original cast and director Favreau and adds screenwriter Justin Theroux (“Tropic Thunder”), but doesn’t capture the lightning-in-a-bottle quality of the original.

Read the rest here.

May. 1st, 2010

Watching the Future: Installment 1

The first installment of my column Watching the Future is up at SF Site. In our inaugural outing, I look at the Hugo award nominees for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form.

Think about it. Who didn't hug their inner twelve-year-old during Star Trek? Who didn't feel Up tug their heartstrings during the opening montage? Who wasn't impressed by the jawdroppingly stunning visuals of Avatar, or the cool intelligence of Moon? And who couldn't admire the B-movie ethos of District 9? For once, science fiction fans had a year that saw no real media embarrassments along the lines of Deep Impact or The Core. Indeed, the genre not only dominated the box office, but dominated with some of the strongest entries in a long while. That alone is worthy of something, right?

Well... right. On the surface, that certainly appears to be the case. But does this assertion hold up to closer scrutiny? Moreover, given the amount of science fiction media that we have absorbed in the last few years, from television shows like Battlestar Galactica to art house favorites like Children of Men, have we, as we did in the early 90s, the mid-80s, and the late 70s, achieved critical mass?

Read the entire entry here.

Apr. 23rd, 2010

Review of The Losers (2010)

My review of the adaptation of The Losers has just been posted at SF Signal.

You would think, given the genre (spy-fi) and the introduction of a nifty skiffy superweapon, that I'd be all over this one. Sadly, you'd be wrong.

Movies and comics share several conventions, but the paramount element of both is visual. Like comics, the appeal of movies is, first and foremost, in the images they present to their audience. This is not to say that any of the other pieces - character, story, ideas - are unimportant, but that what a moviegoer sees is what provides the thrill and joy. No matter how many other similarities they share, however, movies are not comics. The language is different, and in adapting a comic to screen one has to understand the difference for an effective translation. Richard Donner understood this when he directed Superman; Christopher Nolan knew the difference when he directed Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. The Losers, by contrast, suffers the fate of actually being too faithful to the comic, embracing not only its best elements but also its worst.

Sadly, that's the good news.

Read the rest here.

Apr. 19th, 2010

Review of Kick-Ass

My review of Kick-Ass is up at SF Signal.

Well, why not? As Dave Livewski (Aaron Johnson) muses with his friends in the too hip Atomic Comics shop with his friends at the beginning of Kick-Ass, with all of the superhero comics available, with comic book heroes finding themselves in hundred-million-dollar features every major movie season and developing a cachet of cool that, frankly, did not exist when I filled Dave Livewski's shoes more than twenty-five years ago (hell, I pretty much was Dave Livewski in high school), why hasn't somebody just put on a costume and become a superhero? His friends Marty (Clark Duke) and Todd (Evan Peters) lay it out easily: superpowers don't exist, and heroes without powers, like Batman, need enormous amounts of capital. (There's also the fact that comic book readers tend to understand that what they are reading is in fact fantasy.)

Catch the full review here.


The visuals in this short French film is kind of like what goes on in my head. Thanks to John DeNardo for the link. I don't speak French, but could understand Luis Bricenco's and David Alapont's Fard nonetheless.

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