A Story Out of Time and Place and the Escape Hatch of Fantasy: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005) — Retro Nostalgia

With the monumental success of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (dir. Chris Columbus; 2001), Lord of the Rings:  The Fellowship of the Ring (dir. Peter Jackson; 2001), and their immediate sequels, Hollywood perhaps hoped to capitalize on the epic fantasy feel of Tolkien's narrative and the young adult/children's audience that so fervently devoured the Harry Potter books.  Naturally, they turned to The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis.

If I'm honest, I'm quite a fan of the Narnia films even as I'm critical of their structure.  There's something deliciously joyous about portal fantasies wherein children are whisked away to save the world, hanging out with talking beavers and every fantasy creature under the sun.  Narnia was wish fulfillment for me in so many ways.  Adventure?  Check.  Epic scale?  Check.  Kids becoming greater than themselves?  Check.  It is a deeply hopeful series of films (and novels -- though I suppose The Last Battle might be perceived as rather "doomsday-ish" today).  Sometimes, one needs a little optimistic, no?  The first of these films, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (dir. Andrew Adamson; 2005), is perhaps the strongest as a narrative, but it also has its problems.  Granted, these are problems which make more sense in a certain perspective, even if they don't quite work in film.
The first of these problems is fairly easy to critique.  If you've seen the film, you'll know that Peter and the rest of the Pevensies somehow miraculously learn military tactics, swordfighting, horseback riding, bow shooting, and other combat-relevant skills in a matter of minutes.  In the film, this is assumed to occur in a handful of days; the White Witch and her army, after all, are merely hours from the location of the Narnian army.  Throughout the film, the sense of time is skewed, partly because, as we learn, Narnia runs on a different clock from our own (a year on Earth is decades on Narnia) and partly because time is not strictly relevant in this world.  The first film doesn't address this latter point all that well, to be honest, though you can sort of follow the logic after repeat viewings.  Regardless, the longer the film runs, the more its sense of time deviates from the measured pace of the opening scenes, wherein the Pevensies survive a Nazi bombing of London, are sent off to the countryside by train, and spend a considerable amount of time trying to being normal kids whilst living in a country at war.  The deeper into the fantasy world we go, the less time (and, by necessity, space) become relevant features for the narrative.

Additionally, the film's logic of time is intricately bound up in its treatment of space.  That Aslan can run vast distances in mere hours at what is a remarkably quick pace for a very large lion (as indicated by the development of the battle between the Narnians and the White Witch's army) suggests either that the film has no sense of time or that the world of Narnia is not nearly as big as we assumed.  The latter seems the more accurate interpretation in the sense that our interpretation of space is necessarily an Earthen one, a problem which the Pevensies are or become, as with time, deeply disinterested.  Once they become embedded in the conflict of Narnia, in fact, the temporal and spatial skewing is more pronounced, such that by the end of the film, neither is particularly stable.  And this all hinges on the entire series' underlying Christian allegory:  if Aslan is literally God, then it follows that his access to and understanding of time and space in Narnia is not like ours at all, and thus anyone operating under his influence would not be bound by the restrictions of space and time either.  Once the Pevensies meet Aslan and become part of his "world," time and space lose their Earthen focus.  They are meaningless distinctions.
None of this quite excuses the film's somewhat rushed epic narrative or the series' propensity for deus ex machina antics.  But understanding why the narrative is structured in such a manner that time and space just don't make a lot of sense gives us, I think, a better understanding of the film's narrative of child heroes.  Unlike The Lord of the Rings or even Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia is absolutely embedded in a child's fantasy, albeit a Christian-influenced one.  That fantasy, like a bedtime story, never adheres to novel-length conceptions of time; such stories rush to the conclusion because they are not about the "grand narrative," but about the immediate gratification of the child's fantasy, whether via the characters within the story world or the actual children (or, in my case, adults who miss certain qualities of childhood).

In fact, this may be the thing that makes me love these films so much.  They are, in a sense, free from the constraints of serious storytelling, opting instead for metaphor, blatant allegory, and absolute heroic fantasy mediated through the child.  I watch the films in this series and can't help but become immersed in a world where heroes still exist and can be drug out of the depths of cowardice or made from the spark hiding beneath childhood insecurity.  They're so much about doing good because it is good, and being rewarded for that deed.  Even as an atheist, I can appreciate this sensation, because however realistic one wishes to be, there will always need to be an escape hatch for life, even if it just comes in the form of a children's fantasy movie.  The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is my escape hatch.


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Movie Review: Hot Tub Time Machine (dir. Steve Pink; 2010)(A SFF Film Odyssey)

The first time I saw Hot Tub Time Machine (dir. Steve Pink; 2010), I wasn't sure how to take it.  So much of the film made me uncomfortable because the characters seemed, for the most part, painfully unlikable.  That fact became clearer as I began comparing HTTM to other films of its type, leaving me to wonder:  why would I root for anyone in this movie when I'd rather each of them got hit by a bus instead of the one-armed Phil (Crispin Glover)?  Here lies a film that I'm sure even a teenage version of myself would find impossible to stomach -- bereft of redeemable characters, excessive for shock value, and overall a perfect storm of the worst raunchy comedy tropes.  It's a film best avoided so you can spare your brain the scrubbing.
HTTM is another take on the raunchy teen comedy, albeit one which uses time travel so its adult characters can relive the glory days of their teen years.  The story follows Adam (John Cusack), Nick (Craig Robinson), and Lou (Rob Corddry), former high school friends who reconnect after Lou attempts suicide because he can't let go of the past.  Together with Adam's nephew, Jacob (Clark Duke), Adam and Nick try to raise Lou's spirits by taking him on a trip to the fictional Kodiak Valley, where the three them used to party in their youth.  The problem:  like their lives, Kodiak Valley is quickly falling apart.  But surprise...their hot tub moonlights as a time machine, and soon all four of them are whisked away to the 1980s, reliving their glory days all over again.  Only this time, they're going to do things a little differently.  OK, a lot differently.

Like most raunchy teen comedies, HTTM is about a few things:  partying, sex, drugs/alcohol, and friendship.  It also happens to be about a group of almost ne'er-do-wells striving to fix their past mistakes in what is best described as hypermasculine wish-fulfillment.  One of my favorite examples of this subgenre is American Pie (dirs. Paul and Chris Weitz; 1999), which on its surface is just another "teens trying to get laid" story, but upon closer inspection becomes a comedic critique of the subgenre's tropes and an amusing tale of young men on the cusp of actual adulthood -- mediated, of course, through a narrative primarily focused on sex.  It's far from a perfect film, in part because it relies, at times, on too many of the cheap sexist gags that continue to plague raunchy teen comedies, but it is a film that, at its core, is about something beyond the simplistic "fucks and friends" stories that lazier raunchy teen comedies present.

HTTM's narrative, however, is exhausting primarily because it is so unlike American Pie in its vulgarity.  Where American Pie attempts at a correction of its high school dickery by making most of its characters realize the absurdity of an anti-virginity pledge, HTTM flips everything in the other direction by trying to convince us that the only real answer to the world's problems is for the sex-crazed, drug-addled, lazy troublemaker to have unprotected sex with his friend's sister.  It doesn't temper its vulgarity to support its narrative of friendship, either; it relishes in the excess of its validated crude "hero."  Lou repeatedly cries out "semen" and other vulgarities as he knowingly impregnates Adam's sister, all so we can watch Adam cringe, as we rightfully should, at what is happening.  It is a film awash in its own bodily fluids, unsure how to paddle out of the kiddy pool.  Every crude act, mistake, and horror is validated in this film as appropriate male behavior.

Worse, where American Pie shows its characters actually working toward a future, almost all of the characters in HTTM are essentially thieves who either literally steal from the hard work of others, as in the case of Lou (a girlfriend who "gets him") and Nick (a music career), or who steal time to make up for past mistakes, as in the case of Adam (who uses his future knowledge to screw over the Google creators by making Lougle).  Because ultimately, all of the protagonists are losers with no perception of the future, no plan, no hope, no dream.  Their dreams have died with their youth.  In this stark atmosphere -- which can only lead us to Idiocracy (dir. Mike Judge; 2006), not the conclusion the film actually gives us -- we're also smacked over the head by the fact that the younger generation is resigned to a similar fate, as Jacob's future is practically forfeited from the moment we meet him.  The young, like the old, have no dreams at all -- as Adam says to Jacob while castigating him for spending all his time playing Second Life:  "You're twenty years old. You've never made an important choice in your life."

This would be brilliant if it were an intentional satire of what we might call the new Lost Generation of men -- if the comedy was at their expense, not as a reinforcement of their values.  But HTTM is none of these things.  It is a male power fantasy whereby self-disenfranchised 40-somethings can drink, fuck, and steal their way back to success.  That makes its comedy all the more irksome and all the more less palatable than something more honest with its narrative.  American Pie, for example, is a mostly successful comedy about young men learning what it is to be men (and sometimes (often) failing, learning the wrong lessons, or becoming mockeries of themselves); HTTM is a comedy about the men who never learned the right lessons and never will.  One of these stories is funny.  I'll let you guess which one.

About the only thing I can praise the film for is its soundtrack, which contains such classics as Motley Crue's "Home Sweet Home" and Salt-n-Pepa's "Push It."  That's what I'll choose to dwell on for the next few hours.


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Movie Review Rant: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010; dir Jon Turtletaub) — A SFF Film Odyssey Review

Though not the first live-action remake of a Disney cartoon, 2010's The Sorcerer's Apprentice is part of what might be called Disney's 1st Phase of Live Action Remakes, sitting right between the last of the Pirates of the Caribbean (At World's End; 2007) trilogy films and the much more interesting Maleficent (2014).  If this is a phase of live action remakes, then it is a loose one, with an unclear path -- a test bed, if you will, since the previous remakes have mostly taken the form of almost faithful adaptations of existing stories (101 Dalmations in 1996 and Alice in Wonderland in 2010, for example) or adaptations of existing characters or rides:  The Country Bears (2002), Pirates of the Caribbean (2003, 2006, and 2007), and The Haunted Mansion (2003).  The Sorcerer's Apprentice, along with Alice in Wonderland, appear to be "cusp" films, resting on the precipice of a second phase of live action remakes. Now, Disney has or plans to release a torrent of remakes or adaptations in what seems to be its second phase:  Maleficent (2014), Cinderella (2015), Tomorrowland (2015), The Jungle Book (2016), Alice in Wonderland:  Through the Looking Glass (2016; the sequel to Burton's previous adaptation), Pete's Dragon (2016), and Pirates of the Caribbean:  Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017).

So how does The Sorcerer's Apprentice measure up in this new "renaissance" of live action remakes or adaptations?  Unfortunately, about as well as you'd expect:  on par with The Haunted Mansion, a less-than-stellar film which probably shouldn't have been made in the first place.  Unlike Maleficent, which was flawed but thematically compelling, The Sorcerer's Apprentice is a muddled mess of an adaptation.  Tonally inconsistent and obsessive in its need for grandiosity, this film is the mark of a studio that has yet to develop a clear path, which makes The Sorcerer's Apprentice forgettable and mediocre at best.

Let's begin, shall we?

The Plot(s)(s)(s)(s)
The Sorcerer's Apprentice isn't exactly a torturous film; a better description might be painfully mediocre.  The film opens by committing what I consider to be one of the Sins of Filmmaking:  opening with a narrated prologue that turns out to be more interesting than the actual main narrative.  Right from the start, we're told that Merlin had three apprentices -- Horvath, Balthazar, and Veronica -- who vowed to maintain order against a sect of sorcerers known as Morganans -- the followers of Morgana le Fey (Alice Krige), who decided, as evil people are wont to do, to destroy the entire world, presumably so she could remake it in her own image or something like that.  The apprentices seem to have Morgana and her followers under control; that is until Horvath (Alfred Molina) decides to betray Merlin, allowing Morgana to murder the famous sorcerer and steal his power.  In the final moments, Veronica (Monica Bellucci) casts a binding spell, merging her soul with Morgana's and forcing Balthazar (Nicholas Cage) to entomb both within a nesting egg as part of a kind of stasis spell.  With Merlin's final breath, he tells Balthazar to find the Last Merlinian using his magic Merlinian-detecting dragon ring.

Thus ends the first part of the narrated prologue.  I kid you not.  The first 5 minutes of this movie are spent telling us a story that would barely fit into a movie of its own.  And there's more.  There are entire minutes of Balthazar wandering around the world for centuries in search of the Last Merlinian, all with someone (I assume Molina) narrating it for us.  This is followed by our first introduction to our supposed main character, Dave (played initially by young Jake Cherry and later by Jay Baruchel), who lives in modern day Manhattan, has a crush on a girl, and can apparently wander off in the middle of a field trip with nobody immediately noticing -- especially if he wanders off in search of his "do you like me, yes or no" note.  Go figure.  That paper magically flies into a mysterious shop, in which Balthazar lies in wait, ready to pounce like the predator that he has become.  Dave is somehow convinced that he should stick around and let a weird creepy older man put a dragon-shaped thing in his hand.  And then all hell breaks loose.  Dave accidentally opens a giant nesting egg, which releases Horvath, who has, like others before him, been entombed for quite a while.  There's a wicked cool magic fight (seriously, the magic is pretty cool in this movie), Balthazar and Horvath are trapped in a weird gizmo, and Dave has a total freakout, only to be laughed at because that's what happens when you try to tell people there are wizards and what not.

That's the end of stories two and three, by the way.  There's more.  Yes.  More.  Finally, we get to grown up post-therapy Dave, who has somehow become a physics nerd cliche.  Horvath and Balthazar are finally released from the giant weird urn that sucked them up in the first place, there's yet another fight over Dave, who was the last person to see the remaining layers of the nesting egg, and finally, we get to the point:  Dave is special McSpecial because he's the Last Merlinian; Balthazar will teach him (because he actually needs Dave to fix the binding spell on Veronica and banish Morgana forever; I know, there's a lot of shit here), and all of that has to take place while Horvath is having crazy fits of, well, crazy trying to either kill Dave, capture Dave, release Morgana while trying to kill Dave, or generally trying to hurt Dave somehow, but never actually doing it except in really small ways, because no movie villain would be complete without being utterly inept at the one job they were gifted to do:  kill the "good" guys.  Meanwhile, Dave has a crush on a girl from elementary school, and she's suddenly back in his life, so he tries to date her and be super suave; oh, no, I'm totally bullshitting, because Dave spends the entire movie assuming he's no good at basically anything other than Tesla coils...cause reasons.

That's story four.  There's also a fifth story:  it turns out that Balthazar and Horvath both fell in love with Veronica, but Balthazar actually got the girl, and that pissed off Horvath, who then turned to the Dark Side because his wittle feelings were hurt.  And that's still a thing in the present.  For narrative tension purposes, obviously.  Also:  Dave is kind of in love with Becky (Teresa Palmer), even though he hasn't seen her since the 4th grade, but since he's our hero, the film will make a big fuss about it all.  Otherwise, she's not that important to the movie.  Except for one brief moment where she moves a satellite dish and sorta saves the world.  But the film barely acknowledges that event...

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the plot we're presented in this movie.  Or, should I say, five different movies crammed into one 109-minute Disney flick.
And that leads me to...

You're a Confused Puppy, Movie
Much like the first of Jackson's Hobbit movies, The Sorcerer's Apprentice is utterly confused as a film.  It doesn't know if it wants to be an epic fantasy set in medieval Europe, a time-shifting magic journey through various exotic locals, a love story, another love story (but with a triangle and lots of betrayal), a kid's fantasy adventure in modern America, or a really late coming-of-age story about a dorky "uncool" kid finding out he's got wicked cool powers and can totally get the lady, y'all. It's like the film is having this conversation with itself (over and over):
It wants to be all of these things (even though the trailer is clearly of the "dark" variety), but by trying to do so, it ends up being none of them.  The overarching magic apocalypse plot is not enough to tie the pieces together into a coherent whole.  Rather, that overarching plot is so thin that it reveals how poorly constructed this film really is.  This was cobbled together from multiple subgenres, with no logical transition between any individual point.  The only real binding element is Balthazar, but he is discarded as the "main character" as soon as young Dave appears on the screen, reminding us that this story isn't actually about all that other stuff from "back in the day" -- and never was.

By being so cobbled together, The Sorcerer's Apprentice is tonally inconsistent.  The first narrative is actually quite dark by comparison to the subsequent stages of the film, each less serious than the supposed frame narrative -- this despite the pending magic apocalypse.  The "true" narrative is meant as an action comedy, with predictable (though sometimes amusing) master/apprentice banter and villainous buffoonery (most of which isn't actually funny).  The comedy feels out of place.  This is such a serious film from the start, so to try to turn that serious plot into a less serious one seems like an act of desperation:  the writers had to find a way out of what was clearly not a plot for kids (and, yes, this is a movie meant for kids because it's essentially that part of Fantasia, but drawn out for two hours).

Nicholas Cage, Will You Always Be My Magician Daddy?
Cage's role as Balthazar is probably my favorite of his numerous acting jobs in the last five years or so.  Though he has little to work with in this film, his role as the somewhat subdued but quirky mentor is actually enjoyable -- and almost lovable.  Given Cage's storied career, there's a certain irony at play here.  Rather than indulging in the kind of antics one might find in a film like Face Off (1997), The Sorcerer's Apprentice pokes fun, deliberately or otherwise, at the kind of characters Cage so often plays.  Balthazar is not Face Off crazy:
He's this much crazy:
That's a still shot from the actual movie.  After a fight scene involving an ancient Chinese wizard and a dragon, David literally asks Balthazar, "Are you insane?"  The response is almost precious.  These small bits of humor make the film enjoyable at times, so much so that I almost wish this were more of an epic film whose primary plot was the story of a sorcerer and his apprentice than a film that wants to be everything.

Cage has a dozen or so moments like this, sometimes facilitated by Baruchel and sometimes reliant on a previous context (such as the joke about the shoes he forces David to wear).  Essentially, the film made Balthazar my favorite character, since it never seemed like Cage was trying to be funny.  He just was.  Horvath's apprentice?  Almost desperate to be the funny incompetent villain, but never successful at it.  He's just incompetent and irritating.  Baruchel?  The same.  Desperate whiney apprentice becomes mostly annoying apprentice who probably should die just to make the film interesting again.

But Balthazar?  Actually funny.  Actually interesting, if not flawed or thinly developed.  Such is life.

Oh, the Ladies Sorta Do Stuff, Too
There are three "main" female characters in this film:  Becky (a college student who runs her own radio station), Veronica (one of Merlin's apprentices), and Morgana (the villain...sorta).  You'd think a film featuring three women in various positions of power would actually get things right, but it doesn't.  For the most part, the women in this story do nothing of consequence.  If they do anything of significance, it either occurs in off screen or in the final minutes of the film.  Let's do a quick rundown:
Veronica, the first woman we're introduced to, is technically fridged in the opening moments.  She is ultimately what motivates Balthazar to spend centuries searching for the Last Merlinian, even though he actually needs David to do the job of finally killing Morgana.  Balthazar even keeps his love of Veronica a secret, leaving David to find out about it from Horvath in what is a convenient "see, your mentor lied to you and probably told you that girls were a distraction, right" plot twist that doesn't actually amount to anything because David doesn't react and nobody really seems to care.  And in the final moments, Veronica is not an active participant.  Despite being a far more powerful sorcerer than David -- if not in terms of power levels, then certainly in terms of experience -- she spends most of the battle lying on the ground or standing around doing nothing.  At the very least, you'd think she'd offer David advice in his battle with Morgana, but she neither helps him in the fight nor in his attempts to bring Balthazar back from the dead.  The great sorceress:  fridged love interest, and that's about it...
Morgana is a different story.  Taking the form of cosmic villain or force, she's less a person in the movie than the film's version of Voldemort.  Horvath does most of the work as villain, though he turns out to be more incompetent than his master.  Though Morgana does lose in the final moments, it's a mostly forgivable loss, since she did spend centuries in a nesting egg.  One is bound to get rusty, after all.  I think the portrayal of Morgana as cosmic entity suits the story, though I wish she had been a more active participant.  A more interesting narrative would have had Horvath release her near the beginning of the modern narrative, putting him as second fiddle to her villainous appetites.  Alas, like so many female characters in this movie, she spends most of the film doing nothing.
Like Veronica, Becky spends a lot of time staring at the man for whom she is the love interest, and despite running her own radio station and appearing to be in control of her own life, her role in this film is almost entirely that:  to be the love interest.  Though she does help David and Balthazar in the final confrontation by facing her fear of heights and climbing to the top of a satellite dish perched atop a skyscraper (so she can turn it and prevent Morgana's spell from functioning), this feels almost secondhand.  So little of Becky's story is integral to the overarching plot that any intersection between the two seems like just an excuse to make her more part of Balthazar's world, and thus also a hybrid like David, than a good reason to give us a competent female character who just happens to be the lead's romantic compatriot.  This is no more apparent than in the framing:  the first time we meet Becky (as a young girl), she is coded as "young boy's love interest" by David's presentation of a note that asks her whether she wants to be his friend or girlfriend; this is brought up again right before David goes off to fight Morgana and is finally answered after Morgana is defeated:  girlfriend.  That Becky faced her greatest fear and managed to save the world?  I guess that happened, but we can all forget that because of this:
The Sorcerer's Apprentice is hardly the worst offender when it comes to the portrayal of women in sf/f films, but it isn't one which does anything memorable with its female characters.  These are bog standard characters:  villains, fridged loves, and love interests whose actions are less important than whether she kisses the hero.  I guess I just want more, and now that there are so many films which feature female characters who give me more, I'm less patient with contemporary films that don't.

Jay Baruchel, Oh How I Loathe Thee
The Sorcerer's Apprentice holds the distinction of being the only film to date that has made me dislike Jay Baruchel.  It's not that Baruchel is a bad actor or anything like that; the problem is that Baruchel is never given a chance to transcend his nasally "no confidence" caricature into anything resembling a sympathetic hero.  He does participate in the final battle by actually becoming a Super Saiyan...
OK, well, not quite.  He really did a thousand hadoukens while fighting a shadow version of Morgana, having spent most of the movie being remarkably inept at actually using his magic powers.  But, y'know, in a clincher, he can just fire off ten straight minutes of hadoukens like they were nothin'.
Here.  See for yourself:
Sure.  That looks cool (not really; the whole "let's borrow stuff from DBZ and Street Fighter" is beyond lame), it has no bearing on the rest of the film, since at no point does Dave actually grow as a character.  There's no transition.  Right up until the final "battle," Dave is always on the verge of walking away or believing he is basically worthless.  Some of that is understandable, given what happened in Narrative #3, but after a while, it gets tiring.  The attractive college girl is obviously into you, dude.  You know how we all know?  She willingly came over to your not-quite-legal underground physics lab (in what looks like an abandoned camp for war time prisoners) at night, and also willingly climbed into your metal cage and let you shoot lighting from Tesla coils all around her.  By that point, either she really really likes you, she's really really really into slightly mental physics tricks, or she's insane.  Those are your three options.  

Also:  when a guy who has been around for nearly 1,000 years and rides a giant metal bird monster tells you you've got what it takes to be a great sorcerer, you should probably listen.  Especially if he's Nicholas Cage.

But, no.  What the film gives us is a Doubting Dave doing his doubt face all over the place.  Totally ace.  It's exhausting...

One Final Thing:  That Scene You Know a Film Called The Sorcerer's Apprentice Would Have
You know what I'm talking about.  This scene:
Well, The Sorcerer's Apprentice remakes it:
My problem with this isn't the act of the remake.  The scene is fine by itself.  It's even a little fun.  The problem I have with the scene is that it feels so forced in the context of the film.  David is already kind of a failure by this point of the movie.  He gets flustered by his inability to do what Balthazar wants him to do, despite numerous attempts on his master's part to remind him that it takes time, and he never seems to accept that his responsibility in this new world is such that Balthazar would naturally be disappointed by an apprentice going after a girl instead of training.  So we don't need this scene to make that disappointment more apparent.

Likewise, the scene just doesn't fit.  The Fantasia version is lighthearted.  Mickey Mouse stomps around and conducts an imaginary orchestra while mops run about cleaning things -- per silent instruction from his master.  It's fun.  Silly.  Goofy.  It's a moral tale about messing with powers beyond your control, but told through a children's cartoon.

The version in The Sorcerer's Apprentice is none of those things.  David only wants to clean his magic physics dungeon so he doesn't drive Becky away by seeming immature.  If there's a moral lesson here, it's one muddied by the intent, which is implicitly a sexual one.

Given that the film bears no resemblance to Fantasia's most memorable sequence, this all seemed painfully unnecessary -- in the same way that the reversal of the Kirk/Spock relationship in Star Trek Into Darkness seemed unnecessary.

Conclusions:  Oh, Right; I'm Supposed to Have Final Opinions
Honestly, I don't think The Sorcerer's Apprentice is anywhere in the worst 100 films of all time.  It's probably not even in the bottom 200 or 300.  But it's certainly not a good film.  If anything, this is just a lazy movie, and it's that laziness that makes this film less than enjoyable.  From the bloated plot to its confused tone to its typical treatment of its female characters, The Sorcerer's Apprentice is more or less what you'd expect from a studio trying to cash in on a quick buck.  Unfortunately for Disney, it doesn't look like they succeeded.

Directing: 2/5
Cast: 2.5/5
Writing:  1/5
Visuals: 4/5
Adaptation: 2/5
Overall:  2.3/5 (46%)
Inflated Grade:  D+

Movie Review: Monsters (2010) (A SFF Film Odyssey Selection)

I didn't realize until pulling up the IMDB page for Monsters (2010) that its writer and director, Gareth Edwards, is also the director of the upcoming Godzilla (2014).  And that makes a ton of sense.  While Monsters is hardly Godzilla-ish in form, it does take what is a painfully small budget for a kaiju film (supposedly $500k) and put it to good use, providing a measured and sometimes look into humanity's interaction with nature and with himself.  In short, where Cloverfield fell into all the wrong traps, Monsters simply avoids them in favor of what should have mattered in Abrams' viral-media monstrosity:  the characters.

The plot of Monsters is fairly straight forward.  Six years ago, enormous alien creatures arrived on Earth.  Everyone believes this is an invasion and quarantines the "infected zones" in hopes of keeping the aliens from taking more territory.  Jump ahead to the present:  a photojournalist in search of the perfect shot of the enormous creatures is forced by his boss to escort Samantha, the boss' daughter, out of Mexico to the American border before the next cycle of aggression threatens the quarantine borders.  In their struggle to escape, Samantha and Andrew learn about one another's past:  what they're running from, what they're running towards, and who they really are in a world that wants them to conform to contradictory identities.

I'd like to take a moment to focus on the last line of my description, because I think one of the points of this film is to question the nature of the title.  What does it mean to be a monster?  One of the things I had expected from this film, particularly given the locale and the ways in which places south of the American border are typically portrayed, was a sea of humans doing horrifically violent things to one another.  In many respects, I think that was a narrative this needed, if not in a direct allegory about "the third world," then certainly as a commentary on what desperation does to people.  But the film never goes there.  Instead, it opts for humans betraying one another on a relatively mundane level while the "monsters" are shown to be, as I expected, misunderstood.  It also tried to convey a message about the interaction of man and nature, particularly when a group of armed escorts tell Samantha and Andrew how these enormous aliens fit into the new ecosystem -- they likewise convince us that we really don't know what to think about the creatures; thus, we shouldn't come to any hard conclusions on the matter.  When we finally see the creatures, that narrative is already apparent, and the film handles that revelatory moment with a deliberate minimalism:  the only ones who seem to have any significant dialogue are the aliens (albeit, it is animalistic and unintelligible to Samantha and Andrew, as well as to us).

That said, I don't think the narrative about humanity's "monsters" is given the attention it deserves.  While Samantha and Andrew do get screwed over a number of times in this movie, the threat this poses always seems muted by the fact that there's really no reason for Samantha and Andrew to enter the quarantine zone to escape when they could simply head south (maps in the film suggest this is a possibility).  The monstrosity of man, then, is hardly monstrous.  It is mundane and largely uninspired.  A corrupt ferry worker?  A thieving "prostitute"?  A thieving and corrupt armed transport system?  All here, and all are resolved with uncharacteristic simplicity (or sort of ignored).  In effect, the dread these situations should have produced never came to fruition.  This isn't a terribly suspenseful film, even though it needs to be.  It's a numbed film, one which opts for an almost extreme minimalism by the standards of the kaiju format that I think something really does get lost in the translation.

Part of the flaw of the film's minimalistic approach likewise limits the performances of the lead actors:  Scoot McNairy (Andrew) and Whitney Able (Samantha).  Overall, their performances are serviceable, but not as emotional as one might expect given a) the situations they're in throughout the film (the verge of death), and b) the situations they were in before everything went to hell (Samantha and her broken relationship with her fiance; Andrew with his "I'm the father, but I can't tell him because it would confuse him" scenario).  In a weird way, I thought I was watching an anime along the lines of, say, Makoto Shinkai, with minimal, limited performances (The Place Promised in Our Early Days, for example), but what differentiates Shinkai from Monsters is a kind of Hemingway-an iceberg effect, in which the larger plot concerns are made almost secondary to the internal conflicts of the characters and their struggle with how to express it; even with that minimalism, a film like The Place Promised in Our Early Days gives in to the necessity for emotional displays in scenarios where the internal explodes over the external.

Monsters, however, contains so few of these bursting moments that the emotional connection to the world is sometimes lost.  Andrew has one incredibly tense scene in which he engages in a phone call with the boy we now know is his son (but who himself thinks Andrew is just a family friend); McNairy loses composure and struggles to keep his voice straight as his body and face contort in agony -- the intensity of this scene is notable because it is so separate from the film's previous performances.  Samantha has a similar moment at the sight of several dead bodies, including that of a young child.  But everywhere else, it's as if these characters haven't entered a certain kind of hell; they seem detached, but without a clear reason for it.

Though I've largely criticized the film for many of its important aspects, I will say that in terms of the portrayal of characters over spectacle, Monsters succeeds.  These are characters, not caricatures.  They have real motivations and flaws, and these are presented evenly throughout the narrative so it is clear that they are supposed to be the real concern, not the critters wandering about in the dark.  Though I know Godzilla will be more interested in the spectacle than Monsters, I do appreciate that Edwards saw fit to make a kaiju film that was so invested in the lives of its characters over a weak found footage fetish beset with college kid caricatures.

Monsters also succeeds in its attempts to present a kind of kaiju sensibility.  The creatures are mysterious and shown infrequently to maintain that mystery.  For a film with such a small budget, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Edwards didn't feel it necessary to opt for cheaper graphics to put the creatures on the screen for longer periods.  If this were a Syfy film, it would have spent half its runtime presenting painfully bad CG renders; instead, Edwards gifts us a simplified portrayal that is both gorgeous and wondrous.  One of the ending scenes, in which a lightning storm provides brief flashes of the creatures walking in the dark is one of the most haunting and gorgeous scenes in kaiju cinema -- or so I believe.

Likewise, I appreciated Edwards' use of local color in his work.  This easily could have been a film set in some generic U.S. city, but it is instead set and shot in Central America (Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Mexico, to be specific).  Though they play fairly small roles, many locals are also part of the film, though I suspect much of this was a matter of budgetary necessity than anything else.  Still, the attention to locals, however limited (and, perhaps, concerning), is something to appreciate if only because it's good to see in a film set just over tomorrow's horizon.  Maybe that's just me, though...

Overall, though I enjoyed this film a lot more than Cloverfield or the horrendous Godzilla (1998), it is also a flawed work.  Would I recommend seeing it?  Absolutely.  It's a film that deserves a lot more attention than it received when it first graced the big screen (and the little screen, if I recall correctly) in 2010.  When it is on the mark, it is a treat.  If anything, I'll certainly remember it in the years to come.

Directing: 3/5
Cast: 3/5
Writing: 3.5/5
Visuals: 4/5
Adaptation: NA
Overall: 3.375/5 (67.5%)
Inflated Grade: B- (for compelling kaiju style, decent visuals, and solid locations)
Value: $8.00 (based on $10.50 max)


This post is part of my 2010:  A SFF Film Odyssey feature.  Past reviews, discussions, and so on can be found on this list.

A SFF Film Odyssey (2010): The Official List

The following is a list of every film I'm going to watch and discuss/review this year.  These titles will eventually link to posts here or on The Skiffy and Fanty Show.  Keep an eye out as I fill this whole thing up!

Note:  if something is missing from the list, please let me know in the comments; I've tried to include every sf/f "feature" film released in 2010, but I could have missed something.  I'm also going to go back to some of these films if I have already reviewed them in the past.

The full announcement about this project can be found here.

Here goes:

("F" denotes a film that did not originate in the U.S.)

Alice in Wonderland
Alien vs. Ninja (F)
Altitude (F)
Arctic Blast (F)
Arietty (F)
Arthur 3:  The War of the Two Worlds (F)
Arthur and the Minimoys (F)(Filler)
Arthur and the Revenge of Maltazard (F)(Filler)
Avalon High
Beyond the Black Rainbow (F)
Clash of the Titans
Despicable Me
Die kommenden Tage (F)
Enthiran (F)
Future X-Cops (F)
Gulliver's Travels
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1 FIN
Hot Tub Time Machine FIN
How to Train Your Dragon FIN
Hunter Prey
Inception (review; post on emotion; post on emotion) FIN
Iron Man (filler)
Iron Man 2 FIN
Kaboom (F)
Legend of the Guardians:  The Owls of Ga'Hoole
Mardock Scramble:  The First Compression (F)
Monsters (F) FIN
Mutant Girls Squad (F) FIN
Nanny McPhee (Filler)
Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang
Never Let Me Go (F)
Percy Jackson and the Olympians:  The Lightning Thief
Prince of Persia:  The Sands of Time
Rare Exports:  A Christmas Tale (F)
Repo Men
Resident Evil:  Afterlife
Shank (F) FIN
Shrek (Filler)
Shrek 2 (Filler)
Shrek Forever After
Shrek the Third (Filler)
Sleeping Beauty (F)
Space Battleship Yamato (F)
The Book of Eli
The Chronicles of Narnia:  Prince Caspian (Filler)
The Chronicles of Narnia:  The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
The Chronicles of Narnia:  The Witch, the Lion, and the Wardrobe (Filler) FIN
The Crazies
The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya (F)
The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec (F)
The Last Airbender
The Nutcracker in 3D (F)
The Sorcerer's Apprentice FIN
The Strange Case of Angelica (F)
The Tempest
The Twilight Saga:  Eclipse
The Twilight Saga:  New Moon (Filler)
Tooth Fairy
Toy Story (Filler)
Toy Story 2 (Filler)
Toy Story 3
Trollhunter (F) FIN
Tron: Legacy (Strange Horizons review; mini review) (F) FIN
Twilight (Filler)
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (F)
Universal Soldier:  Regeneration
When in Rome
Womb (F)