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Nov. 21st, 2010

Column Notification and Reviews

With all that's occurred over the past two months, I have been negligent in updating this particular sliver of cyberspace, so let me attempt to correct this gross oversight.

In the first place, we have Installment Eight of my monthly column Watching the Future, in which I try to figure out why, in light of Damien Walter's Guardian article, there aren't more cinematic science fiction masterpieces.

In 1994, I attended a panel at Armadillocon that discussed the failure of most sf movies to match the quality of its print counterpart. As an example, somebody made a derisive comment about Stargate (which I had just seen and hated) and a couple of members of the panel said, "Oh, you know, there was a lot to recommend that." I sat in the audience with my jaw dropped. Impossible, I thought. The panelists are bemoaning the state of sf cinema, which has been dreadful for most of its history, and yet they're making excuses for that particular piece of tripe? Really? How on earth do you improve sf movies if you continue to make excuses for the crap?

How does this happen? And what can be done about it?

Note that I do give warning about the impending film snobbery.

And I've got three recent reviews out. The first is of Gibson's newest novel Zero History, and I pride myself on not going too fanboy.

Looked at solely from that standpoint, Zero History might indeed seem absurd. But Gibson is after much more than a few playful jabs at the standard thriller plot, despite the effectiveness of those plot elements. In one sequence, Hollis and Milgrim wind up at a French fashion fair, where Milgrim tries to lose a paramilitary type who is tailing them. A ruse that involves dropping his cell phone into an expensive stroller pushed by the wife of a Russian mobster leads, in a roundabout way, to a kidnapping scheme. No, what Gibson is after is an exploration of not only fashion but lifestyle. For while the characters in Zero History operate in a civilian world, that world has co-opted the methods created by the military, thus making the separation between the two meaningless, an ironic Interzone where Federal agents receive intelligence dispatches via Twitter and penguin-shaped surveillance drones float above the streets of Paris.

I didn't say this in my review, but I was also glad to read a thriller in which the characters are those who actually act like they've read a thriller or two. Indeed, Hollis Henry is making her way through Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male early in the novel.

And of course there are movies. I review the new installment of the Harry Potter franchise, though my feelings are at best mixed.

Their search takes them through various forests and charmed cities, and at this point the movie drags. A shame, because this is the point where the movie should hold most of its emotional weight. The three have just lost their mentors through death or alienation, they have pushed away their families to protect them, and so have nowhere to go and nobody to show them what to do next: an apt metaphor for wandering through the interzone between childhood and adulthood. But the aimlessness isn't very interesting. Though I admire what writer Steven Kloves and director David Yates were trying to accomplish (and they certainly try), they dramatize it poorly. It doesn't help that Radcliffe, Grint and Watson wear the same dour expressions throughout, as if they've studied under the Derek Zoolander Center for Children Who Can't Read Good and Wanna Learn to Do Other Stuff Good Too.

And we have a review of Gareth Edwards's first feature Monsters, which I found to be very good indeed. If any one recent science fiction movie deserved a large audience and wide exposure, this would be it.

Two scenes early in the sublime Monsters show that writer-director Gareth Edwards is, with his first feature, not only a master cinematic craftsman but one also schooled in showing his audience his world rather than explaining it. As photojournalist Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) and Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able) await transport to a ferry that will take them away from the Central American Infected Zone (where, six years before, a satellite carrying alien microbes crashed, causing new life forms to appear) and back to America, they stay overnight in the home of a Hispanic family. As they talk to the mother and her children, a television plays in the background, featuring an animated children's program that presumably explains the giant squidlike aliens. Another occurs when Kaulder and Wynden pass a mural depicting the aliens fighting jets and tanks. Both sequences are over very quickly, but they tell the audience nearly everything about the world Edwards has created.


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.

June 2012




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