Movie Review Rant : Catching Fire (2013)

As I write this sentence, Catching Fire (2013), the sequel to The Hunger Games (2012), is encroaching upon the $700mil box office mark.  It's a huge film, and there are a lot of things to love about it.

Before I get to my rant/review, here are a couple quick notes:

  1. I hadn't read the book when I saw the movie, so the reactions below will jump back and forth between placing the film in relation to the book and treating the film on its own terms.
  2. There are spoilers.
  3. Nothing is in any sort of order here.  Like my post on Riddick (2013), I'll cover everything I feel like talking about as they come to me.
  4. I've discussed some of these things in the Shoot the WISB episode on Catching Fire over at The Skiffy and Fanty Show.
The World and POV Shifts
In the first film, there were a handful of cuts away from the central action to the characters involved behind the scenes:  the gamekeepers, the president, Haymitch, the folks at home, etc.  These served to give us a sense of the world in which these games are a centerpiece.  The problem with The Hunger Games was its inability to rationalize the system of oppression that made the games possible.  There were certainly attempts, but in the end you either had to accept the status quo or give up any possibility of immersion.

Catching Fire does a decent job rectifying this problem.  For one, it centralizes President Snow as the actual and real villain.  In the first film, the Capitol and the other players in the game were all potential villains, but here, Snow is never anything but.  From his first interactions with Katniss to the cut scenes showing him planning her torture and eventual defeat, Snow is the adversary the film has always needed:  he's the face of all that is wrong with the Capitol.  For me, Snow provided the rationalization for the world that I needed.  His interest in oppression is partly about power, but it is also about his own myths about what revolution entails, such that preserving those myths and power structures becomes more important than considering the implications of one's actions.  Snow, as such, continues to exert his authority -- a largely dictatorial and malignant one -- to preserve the system and to make sure nobody has the means or the will to challenge it.  The Hunger Games are simply a means to an end:  they're a reminder of the past and a reminder of the power Snow/the Capitol wields.

A lot of the scenes that best express Snow's justifications for his brutality are in his interactions with his granddaughter, who appears to become entranced by the symbolic rebellion of Katniss.  Presumably, she doesn't understand what is happening in Panem, but the threat is there for Snow nonetheless:  if his own family can be turned against him, his ability to maintain order will be permanently compromised.  It's a nice touch, as it would be too easy just to make Snow a vile, disgusting bag of skin, as he appears to be in the books.  Here, there are little hints of humanity in play, and so he becomes even more horrifying as a villain the more we realize how human he really is.
Likewise, the POV shifts are generally a good thing.  They give us an impression of the world, its logic, etc.  They also show us things we otherwise don't get to see in the book, which helps the film avoid the problem of having no viable method to display Katniss' internal struggles.  The problem with these shifts, however, is in their unnecessary ability to trick us as viewers, which I'll get into in the next section.

WANTED:  Clues That Logically Lead to X
There are two main issues with the structure of the film.  The second of these I'll discuss in the section below on endings; the first I'll cover here.

One of the new central characters is gamekeeper Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman).  At the end of Catching Fire, it is revealed to us that he, Haymitch, and several of the tributes have been conspiring to extricate Katniss from the games so she can remain the symbol for the upcoming revolution.  But unlike the book, which leaves a great number of clues as to Plutarch's true allegiances, the film simply discards most of those clues for a shocking reveal.  This works in the book for one reason:  we're in Katniss' head the whole time.  But the book gives us plenty of clues.  It makes it clear that there's something fishy going on, even if Katniss hasn't quite figured it out yet.  The shock in the book, as such, is measured by revelation:  so that's what all those clues are about.

In the film, most of those clues are gone.  For all intents and purposes, we're supposed to believe Plutarch is just like everyone else in the Capitol, albeit perhaps more macabre than the average flashy Capitol-ite.  But almost every scene involving Plutarch doesn't give us the impression that he's actually one of the good guys, as he spends most of his time trying to convince President Snow that X method is the best way to destroy Katniss as person and revolutionary image.  His ideas are, in retrospect, not terribly good, but they are, in the moment, convincing in their brutality.  The shocking reveal, however, doesn't have the benefit of proper foreshadowing or retrospective revelation, despite a good chunk of the film taking place outside of Katniss' perspective.  And without that benefit, Plutarch's apparent heroism is incomprehensible as a consequence of the plot, and, thus, neutered.  Were we supposed to hate Plutarch in the end as Katniss does, or find something redeemable in him?

Thankfully, this issue doesn't affect the allied tributes.  There are enough moments where Finnick and Johanna hint that something else is going on, giving Katniss and the audience a moment to consider what that something might be.  If only the same had been true of Plutarch.

Jennifer Lawrence Rocks
To say that Lawrence delivers a superb performance in this film is really just an attempt to say something we already know.  She's an exceptional actress, and she brings a great deal of emotional diversity to her reprised role.  That's no small feat when you consider that she doesn't have the benefit of internal monologue, which means we never get a clear sense of what is going on in the character's head (something the book gives us in droves); she has to show us.
Though I obviously have opinions on the ending, I also think the final shot (a closeup of Lawrence's face) is one of the more sure examples of the toll this world has had on the character of Katniss.  You can see the different emotions rolling through her face; she begins as visibly saddened, weaving swiftly through the stages of grief, until finally her sadness morphs into contempt and anger.  Then the film cuts out.  If the ending itself were actually about Katniss' emotional shift, it could have ended on this scene without issue.  This is what we've been waiting for, after all:  Katniss is going to war.

But I'll get to a discussion of the ending later.  Here, I'm concerned with Lawrence.  And she's exceptional.  Frankly, Lawrence really carries this movie, which makes the nearly $700mil box office tag all the more exciting.  Perhaps we'll see more films with female action leads in the near future.  Big films with lots of attitude.

Women
If you've seen The Hunger Games, then you have a good sense of the main characters here.  Regardless, I think it is worth noting that, unlike other female protagonists or sidekicks in so many films of any genre, the female characters here are fascinating, even if they are only on screen for a short period of time.  Some of those characters are also quite complex, revealing their layers over time.
From the aggressive, "don't give two shits" Johanna to the deceptively mindless and emotionally removed Effie to the reluctant but capable hero in Katniss, this film gives us a lot to work with when it comes to its female characters.  There's also the rather motherly Mags, who doesn't actually get to say anything in this film; yet, her bravery and kindness in action define her in ways that I think are quite significant in relation to the other characters.  Her relationship with the rude and lecherous Finnick, for example, provides a human dimension to her fellow male tribute, such that we're able to put trust in someone we previously thought would seek to harm our original heroes.  Though I wish we could have received more from Mags, I still loved her as one of many quite different women in this film.

(And, yes, it passes the Bechdel test, too, as female characters frequently discuss things that don't have anything to do with a boy; when they do talk about boys, it is frequently not about romantic entanglements, but salvation and violence.)
All of this led me to remark the some nights ago that it would be awesome if someone would make an Expendables-style film with an almost exclusive female action star cast.  That film is coming.

The point is this:  whatever flaws the film may have, it is a film where women are prominent players in a good portion of the action.  This is not to suggest that it is a perfect portrayal, but success shouldn't be judged by the absurd standard of perfection anyway.

PTSD Lite
I didn't honestly expect the creators of this film to actually address what seemed quite obvious to me after the first film:  these kids are going to be fucked up.  But they did.  Personally, I think they might have done more with the PTSD subplot, as a few bad dreams really doesn't cover it, but it was clear after twenty minutes of film that this was never going to be about the ramifications of the Hunger Games in the personal lives of the victors.  I think that's unfortunate, as actually addressing this issue with some emotional depth would lend credibility to the world.

Still, for a film meant, oddly enough, for younger crowds, it is rather poignant to address the consequences of violent confrontation, especially since we live in a time of sort-of-not-really-over-war.  If it had done so with greater focus, such as was done in Iron Man 3 (differently, of course), it might have added depth to Katniss' character and provided a more cogent rational for her initial refusal to get involved in the ensuing rebellion.  This is something that the book handles well due to the strict focus on Katniss' POV.  One scene in particular involves Peeta's post-games "talent," which all victors are basically required to share with the Capitol.  In Peeta's case, he paints, but his paintings are all from his nightmares of the games, which Katniss initially finds horrifying; soon, however, she recognizes their value:  they are a cathartic release for Peeta.  His greater sensitivity to the pressures of violence are partly responsible for leading Katniss and Haymitch to the conclusion that they must save Peeta -- granted, they also want to save him because he possesses a particular charm that might be useful later (Katniss recognizes that revolution is coming and that she will be a part of it quite early in the novel) and because, well, he's just "good."  Such a scene could have given the characters a moment to discuss their troubles, and it would likely have helped solidify the friendship that begins to develop in this film.
Endings
This film lacks an ending.  It just...ends.  While I appreciated the idea of Katniss destroying the arena and even the idea that this final act of rebellion within the terms of the capital would lead inexorably to an actual revolution, I still could not help finding the cliffhanger "look, the revolution has come" ending ineffective.  For one, it comes out of nowhere.  Katniss wakes up in a hovercraft to find that Plutarch, Haymitch, and Finnick have been conspiring to start a rebellion using her as a figurehead; she flips out, wakes up in a room with Gale looking over her, and we're told "hey, the revolution has come, District 12 ain't there no more, and...yeah...good times."  That's where it ends.

For me, all middle films have to leave some questions unanswered, but not the questions most pertinent to the film in question.  The conclusion to The Empire Strikes Back is anything but complete in the larger scheme:  Han has been kidnapped; Luke has failed to defeat Darth Vader; the rebels have gotten their asses handed to them; and there's a lot left to be done.  Empire, however, is complete in terms of its self-contained plot:  all of those things I just mentioned were conclusions to events specific to this film.  But unlike Empire, Catching Fire never defines the terms of the next engagement, nor does it conclude all of its self-contained plot elements.  It drops us in a moment which is decontextualized and abstract.  Revolution has come, but we don't really know what that means, particularly if we're to accept the fact that District 12 has been wiped off the map in a matter of days (at most).  There is no explanation for the absence of many of the characters -- presumably, most of them are dead, but it's never an issue that gets discussed in any depth.  All we're told is:  the revolution has started.
It's that absence of a denouement which makes this a weaker film than the first.  Like Matrix Reloaded, we're thrust into an entirely different world, but not one which has a basis or development out of something else.  Part of the problem, I think, is the structure of the other parts of the film; if the end result is the beginning of a revolution, it seems to me that the film needs to more accurately foreshadow this moment so the shocking revelation for Katniss need not be so shocking for us.  Shock is cheap.  It works once, but after you've seen it a few times, it loses its value.   But being able to piece together the clues in a concrete fashion adds something to the game.  We don't have that here.  There are breadcrumbs, sure, but their meaning doesn't naturally end with "revolution."

Conclusions
Overall, I enjoyed the film.  I thought it was stronger than the first until the end, and I appreciated the clearer villains and attempts to rationalize the world, even if this whole system still doesn't make a whole lot of sense.  The biggest flaw for me, obviously, was the ending.  I particularly despise middle films that end on cliffhangers, which might explain why I initially despised the second Matrix film.  All films must end in some capacity, even if their unanswered questions will be continued elsewhere.  Still, if you haven't seen it, you should do so before it leaves theaters for good.  Doing so supports an otherwise solid franchise and the possibility of more strong female leads like Katniss Everdeen -- plus, it's a glowing endorsement of Jennifer Lawrence, who I adore.

So that's what I have to say on that.  For now...

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Directing: 4/5
Cast:  4.5/5
Writing:  3/5
Visuals:  4/5
Adaptation: 3.5/5
Overall:  3.8/5 (76%)
Inflated Grade:  B (for solid acting, a stronger narrative thrust than the previous film, solid visuals, and suspense)
Value:  $9.00 (based on $10.50 max)

Movie Review: Riddick (2013) (or, I’m Going to Mega Rant Now)

Spoiler alert:  Technically, I'm going to spoil this movie for you.  Not all of it, mind, but enough of it that you'll know the major plot elements and what not.  I say "technically" because nothing in this movie is all that surprising, except that it's horribly disappointing for any Riddick fan.  You already know the basic story; you just don't know the new characters.

What follows is not a review in the traditional sense.  There's no "structure" here.  I have so much to say about this movie that I've decided to rant my way through many of the things that I either enjoyed or hated with a passion.  So what you'll see below is a collection of thoughts, organized by titled sections.  You don't have to read it all if you don't want to -- pick and choose as you see fit.

OK.  Let's get to it.

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I've seen quite a few films this year, but Riddick (2013) is the only one I'd give a Prometheus Award to.  What's a Prometheus Award?  Basically, this award should be given to every sequel or prodigal return which does everything wrong despite having every opportunity to get it very right.  Ridley Scott's Prometheus (from which the award would derive its name) is the epitome of failing to meet expectations.  You can find out why I think that here and here.

The premise of Riddick is this:
At some point after becoming Lord Marshall of the Necromongers, a reluctant-leader Riddick decides to hunt down his homeworld, Furya, which only Vaako knows about because the previous Lord Marshall deleted all the maps (except there were maps in The Chronicles of Riddick, so whatevs).  After convincing Vaako that he can have the throne all to himself if he'll just take Riddick to what remains of Furya, they head off into the night.  Riddick is betrayed by Vaako's men and left to die on a sulfur tomb planet (not Furya).  But it's Riddick, so he survives. 
While trying to survive on this hostile world (full of aliens and things), Riddick steals a strange dog-like creature puppy, raises it as his own, and then heads off to better pastures, where he discovers a mercenary supply outpost.  And then things fall apart.  Some super rainstorm is coming, and Riddick, for some reason, knows it means trouble (alien monsters!) and decides to trigger the emergency beacon at the outpost, set some traps, and then get off world.  Murder ensues.
There you go.

Now for my thoughts:
Logical Gap #1:  Riddick is Two Different People Inside His Own Head
Early in the film, Riddick tells us that he's been stuck on this sulfur tomb planet from hell because he essentially lost his animalistic instinct (or, in normal people terms, he got soft).  So he resolves himself, via internal monologue, to rediscover his animal instinct so he won't get stabbed in the back again.  OK.  Good so far.  Sounds fine to me.

Oh, wait, no.  So what Riddick's mind actually meant when he said that was this:  I want to get my animal instinct back, but really I'm just going to do what I've done since the end of Pitch Black and make attachments to other living things even though I just said doing so will get me killed.  Basically, Twohy sets up this perfectly acceptable narrative about Riddick's desire to return to his old ways, but then ignores it completely.  We never expected the character to keep his power as Lord Marshall anyway, so having Riddick return to his roots as a slick-shit killer (Toombs!) make total sense.  Only that's not what actually happens.  Instead, Riddick's first act is capturing a crazy-ear dog puppy to use as a guinea pig, but since the thing is so damned cute, he just has to raise it as his own.  And so begins Riddick's version of A Boy and His Dog.

None of this would be a problem, except that Riddick's internal monologue tells us that's exactly what he won't do.  So is it that Riddick is confused about his own terminology, or are we supposed to assume that Riddick's own mind is an unreliable narrator?  This is one of many logical inconsistencies in the film...
Emotional Buttons Not Pushed Properly
On the subject of A Boy and His Dog, it became clear to me that the dog critter thing was destined to die, and the film gives its mercenary characters numerous opportunities to do so.  We're supposed to feel suspense as the dog gets closer and closer to what is obviously set to be his death, but not because we feel for the dog (the only character worth caring about, honestly), but because it's supposed to do something to Riddick.

The problem?  Riddick has his little 15-second "I is sad about dead friend" moment, but afterwards he returns to his old self.  When he threatens Santana with death, we're supposed to think it has something to do with the fact that Santana shot the dog in the head, but the dialogue is so stilted that there's no way for us to separate "this moment" from any other moment in Riddick's life.  He always threatens death and then kills some character we're all not supposed to like anyway, but the reason we don't like Santana is the same reason everyone else doesn't like him:  he's a piece of shit.  Riddick knows this before Santana kills his dog, so what should have been a great opportunity for Riddick to go a little off the rails with crazy "you killed my dog, so I'm going to cut off half your face before I kill you" talk, he just says "you die in the first 5 seconds," giving other characters the opportunity to say "that was 5 seconds" after Riddick does kill Santana.
Basically, what we know about Riddick from the previous two films disappears in these moments.  We know he's not just a slick-shit killer (Toombs!).  He also has a kind of heart buried in all that super duper killing-ness, and occasionally it comes out or ties together in an exciting way.  Here, it all feels forced and confused precisely because the Riddick that Riddick says he's going to be and the Riddick we're actually shown aren't the same people.  So when that moment comes that we've all been expecting -- seriously, you know it's coming the moment they (Riddick and dog) become friends, so this isn't really a spoiler at all -- the emotional response is stilted.  It isn't there.  Which brings me to...

Writing, Dialogue, and Direction
The great thing about The Chronicles of Riddick was its willingness to engage in camp for the sake of the story.  There's no point at which we're supposed to completely take this world seriously anyway, so you might as well play it up with some really awesome lines of terrible.  That's what makes them so amusing, if you ask me.  Characters utter things like this:
Lord Vaako: This is your one chance. Take the Lord Marshal's offer and bow.
Riddick: I bow to no man.
Lord Vaako: He's not a man. He's the Holy Half-Dead who has seen the Underverse and returned with powers you can't imagine.
Riddick: Look. I'm not with everyone here. But I will take a piece of him. [points to Irgun]
Lord Vaako: A piece you will have.
It's punchy.  It's simple.  It's campy.  It's fun.

But in Riddick, the dialogue is so simplified, so basic, so drawn out for no good reason that what is actually a two hour movie feels like three and a half.  I can think of one great scene to illustrate this point:
Close to the climactic "the monsters are coming and we gots to get outa here" final sequence, the remaining mercenaries stand in a room around Riddick, who has been captured and put in chains.  Boss Johns sits down on Santana's box-for-heads and interrogates Riddick about his son (the Johns from Pitch Black), which would sound interesting if not for the fact that every five-word sentence uttered by any character at any point in this scene is followed by long stretches of silence.  These silences might also be interesting if the actors were doing something worth looking at, but they're just standing there staring.  That's it.  The moment should be tense.  When Riddick threatens Santana, we should see the disbelief (or terrified belief) in what Riddick is saying, played up for the audience because we all know Santana is going to die.  And that should appear not just in their faces, but in the dialogue.  Punchy, fun dialogue.  At least when Toombs captured Riddick and gave him his "what for," there was something actually going on there.  A history.  A conversation.  A very creepy conversation.  But not so here.  The whole scene drags out without supplying any useful tension, because nobody seems to know what is going on but Riddick (the audience doesn't either, really), and nobody seems to care.

The dialogue never escapes this problem in the film.  It's stilted and devoid of the brand of morbid humor and camp that made the previous two films so much fun.  The life feels like it has left the franchise here, and that's unfortunate given the potential to do something new with a franchise that, thus far, has never stuck with a single generic format.  Pitch Black was a scifi-horror flick; The Chronicles of Riddick was a kind of space opera; and Riddick is...umm...an intermittent scifi-horror flick with a side of post-apocalypse, revenge narrative, and bad commentary on human nature (well, Furyan nature).

Riddick feels like a film whose director has lost touch.  And that starts from the bottom up.  The script doesn't know what kind of story it's supposed to be, and the story it presents never escapes the repetition of franchise's original template.  Riddick is almost literally the same movie as Pitch Black in terms of its overarching plot, but less interesting precisely because we've already seen Pitch Black.  At the same time, it tries to be a bunch of other things, but the only story we really should care about is the repeat of Pitch Black.  And that's the problem:  there aren't any surprises for us.  We know Riddick is a slick-shit killer (Toombs!).  We know he's going to kill some people and then some monsters and get off the sulfur tomb planet.  We know this because we already saw it.  So when you have Riddick running around being a slick-shit killer (Toombs!), it's not a surprise anymore.  We know.  Now give us something else to work with.

Oh, don't get me wrong:  Riddick really tries to give us something else to work with, but really all it does is rip off A Boy and His Dog for 45 minutes in what I would describe as a snoozefest.  That's the other problem with Riddick's plot.  It may be cliche within its own franchise, and it may present us dragging dialogue and lackluster direction, but it is really just a boring damn movie.  There's no tension for Riddick.  We don't care about the mercenaries, so when they die, it doesn't matter (that's half true; we sort of care about a couple, but mostly we don't care because they're not people anyway).  Even though Riddick spends the first 10 minutes trying to survive on a hostile alien world, we soon figure out that, hey, he's actually going to be just fine and get back to slick-shit killing again (Toombs!), so there's no tension there.  When the aliens finally come, a few people die, but it happens so quickly and without any of the drawn out horror and worry we got in Pitch Black that it might as well not have happened.

This is perhaps why I am so disappointed in Riddick.  It's not good.  It's boring.  I guess it takes a special kind of awful to take a character like Riddick and make him as uninteresting or un-compelling to watch as a game of golf...but Twohy has managed that here.
Logical Gap #2:  He Done Tried to Kill You, But Nah, No Need to Notice, Bro
There are a lot of logical inconsistencies in this damned movie.  The one I'm going to talk about here completely tore me out of the movie-watching experience.

At some point during the story, Riddick had stolen some battery things from the merc ships as a kind of leverage to convince them to let him get off the planet.  When the alien scorpion things show up, the remaining mercs decide to let Riddick loose so they can retrieve the batteries.  Riddick, Boss Johns, and Diaz (one of Santana's remaining men) hop on their hovercycles and head off into the night, giving Riddick the opportunity to test out his brand new motocross tricks (err, hovercross?) for no apparent reason.  While riding on a narrow passage overlooking a canyon, Diaz bumps into Boss Johns and sends him careening off the edge; Johns barely survives and ends up sharing a hovercycle with Riddick.

And then moments later...nobody shoots Diaz or calls him out or says fuck all to him.  The guy literally just tried to kill Boss Johns and nobody seems to have noticed at all.  I'm not kidding.  NOBODY DISCUSSES IT!  Not a fucking thing is said.  Boss Johns acts like it didn't happen, and then they're all shocked and supa surprised when Diaz betrays them all and tries to steal the batteries for himself.

What?

WHAT?

WHAT?

How the fuck does any of this make any sense at all?  HE TRIED TO KILL YOU.  Why are you surprised?

Sense this film does not make...
Religion
We've had religious characters before.  You all know that.  You saw Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick.  I've always loved Keith David's portrayal as Imam.  He's campy, sure, but all of the Riddick films have been, so his character always fit in as a sort of moral foil to Riddick.  But the important thing about Imam is the fact that we know enough about him to know he's a person.  He doesn't spout his religious stuff just to remind us that he's religious; it's a part of his character as a devout religious man (in Pitch Black, for example, we learn that he's on a sort of pilgrimage; his religious status grows in The Chronicles of Riddick, introducing his family and wider religious ties -- all this for a secondary character).

But in Riddick, our religious figure is Luna (Nolan Gerard Funk), who apparently has some religious psychological disorder which requires that he randomly prays and/or spouts lines about angels and what not for no apparent reason other than to remind us that creepy shit is happening.  There's no explanation for his religious belief.  He's just...religious.  And we know that because he randomly says religious things.  But at no point does any of this become important.  He could easily sit there and go "oh Jesus oh Jesus oh Jesus" every time weird shit happens and you'd get the same thing:  a set of pointless lines.  The difference?  At least "oh Jesus oh Jesus oh Jesus" would make sense in the context of a series of horrifying, bloody scenarios...

So we've gone from Keith David's Imam, who feels like a truly devout religious person with a definitive, lived-in past, to Luna, who might as well have spent the movie speaking in tongues for all the use he was.  His entire character makes no sense here precisely because nobody ever explains who he is.  Why is he with this ragtag group of sorta-mercenaries?  Why did he get involved with Boss Johns?  What was he doing before he showed up here?  Why does he randomly pray or babble about angels?  I don't know.  The film never tells us.  Instead, his religious stuff is presented as some kind of nervous tick, with the same depth and usefulness for the character as a pair of moldy socks.

Well, that is if moldy socks randomly flew at the camera in the middle of shots, reminding you that there are moldy socks here...just so you know about them.  In case you wanted to know -- you didn't, but the film wants you to know anyway...just so you know...about moldy socks.
People of Color, What?
There aren't a lot of things I like about this movie, but the fact that a huge portion of the cast are people of color is one of them.  Saladin Ahmed was just talking about this very issue on Twitter recently, and I recall telling him how much I'd like to see more films with PoCs in lead roles, too.  And here we are.  Riddick (Vin Diesel, who identifies himself as a PoC) is not the only speaking role for a PoC.  There's Diaz (played by Filipino and former wrestler, David Bautista), Moss (played by African American actor Bokeem Woodbine), Lockspur (played by Native American actor Raoul Trujillo), and Falco (played by Danny Blanco Hall, who is of African descent).  Most of these characters would be considered proper supporting actors, in the sense that they receive a decent amount of dialogue, such that if they were ever portrayed as actual people (see the next section), we'd actually know something about them.  We'll get into the problems with all this in the next section (womenz), but for now, I want to marvel at the idea of a relatively high-profile SF film containing non-minor speaking roles for Filipino, black, and Native American actors.  I can't think of any other American-made SF films doing anything close to that this year.

Now, don't get me wrong here.  I'm not saying that these roles are wonderful super duper amazing or anything.  They are flawed all around.  And there is the annoying fact that almost all of the PoCs are dead at the end, despite the fact that pretty much every character is incompetent in this movie.  But they're actually in this movie...in relatively large numbers (at least half the cast is a race other than white, and several of the cast members are Spaniards, which is interesting), and a few of them do a little ass kicking (mostly with guns, but that's OK)...and it's just a good thing that needs to happen more and more (the "existing in a movie" part, not the "dies by the end" bit).

Plus, Vin Diesel is in this, so it gets special points for that (I want him to read lullabies to me so I can go to sleep at night).

Objects with Boobs (*cough* I Mean Women)
Kameron Hurley has already discussed this on Twitter, but I'd like to take a moment to hash out some of the things I think is wrong with the way women are portrayed in this movie.

First, the only characters who get naked and/or killed for no clear reason are women (Riddick gets naked in one scene, but you can't see anything because he's in shadow, so it doesn't count).  The first few women we see are shown seconds later butt naked on a bed, doing some kind of sexy bisexual temptation bed dance for Riddick.  Apparently he's un-amused because one of them is a secret lady assassin (see the plot problems above).  The second woman gets shot in the back after being released by the mercs on Riddick's sulfur tomb planet...to which the Spanish bounty hunter, Santana, can only reply, "I was becoming attached" (or something like that).  After that, it doesn't really get better.  Dahl (Katee Sackhoff), who should be the most interesting female character in the whole movie, spends most of the film doing the following:
  1. Standing around looking menacing
  2. Telling people about her sexuality
  3. Shooting a big gun, but only kinda good
  4. Muttering a handful of lines that should be interesting, but really lack the umph her character deserves
  5. Showing boob or otherwise getting sexually harassed and/or assaulted by the other male characters (mostly Santana, but Riddick gets in on the action later)
Most of this might be OK if there was any indication that her character, conveniently named Dahl, was actually a character.  But she's not.  She has so little dialogue (let alone relevant dialogue) and so little on-screen time in comparison to her male counterparts that even when she's there, it's clear the reason has to do with the fact that she's a chick with guns.  At least in Battlestar Galactica, she got to play a real person.  A real "strong female character" (whatever that is).  In Riddick?  She's a caricature of a "strong female character."  She's strong, determined, and menacing, but only enough so we know she's those things.  There's no depth or emotion behind it.  It just is.

And that's the problem with all of the female characters here.  There are no real female characters.  There are just people whose job it is to look sexy on screen while holding guns or showing boob.  At no point did I sympathize with Dahl, because I knew next to nothing about her.  Even when she smacks Santana in the face for his sexual comments, it's only to reinforce her caricature as the type of strong female character you expect to solve problems with fists (except for the one time when Santana really does try to rape her -- I think -- wait...no...she solves that with fists too, but we never see it.  Honestly, I don't know why nobody killed Santana, since none of the other characters are presented with rational reasons for not using violence against violence).

Ultimately, Katee Sackhoff could have been replaced with anyone competent enough to scowl or expose her side boob.  Sackhoff is wasted in this movie, and that's such a damn shame!  When you put someone with that much talent into a movie, you have to give her something to work with, FFS.  But Twohy doesn't give her shit at all.  And it's frustrating as hell.

Pretty Things!
The film is gorgeous.  It's got that going for it.

I'm Done...For Now
Yeah.  I think that's enough.  There's a lot more I could say, but I have to stop myself before this becomes a 5,000-word rant from hell.

If you saw the film, feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments.  I'm now going to watch something good to cleanse my pallet.

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Directing: 2/5
Cast: 2.5/5 (for the simple fact that they're not actually used for anything worthwhile)
Writing: 1.5/5
Visuals: 4/5 (the only good thing about the movie; clearly they spent all of their $38mil budget making this pretty, because I doubt any of that money went to writing or paying actors to do much)
Adaptation: N/A
Overall: 2.5/5 (50%)
Inflated Grade: D+ (for lacking actual characters, a story we've already seen in Pitch Black, logical inconsistencies, and so many other issues)
Value: $3.50 (based on a $10.50 max)
Toombs!


Movie Review: The Wolverine (2013)

I don't know if it is common knowledge yet, but I pretty much hated the first stand-alone Wolverine movie.  Its plot didn't make any sense, the CG was lazy (at best), and the far-reaching story-line left much to be desired.  Almost none of those problems exist here.  The Wolverine is a high-octane action thriller with a fairly self-contained narrative, decent female characters, and a
compelling, though limited, examination of mortality.  This is one you should see on the big screen!

The Wolverine begins many years after the events of X-Men:  The Last Stand.  A psychologically-wounded Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) lives a mostly solitary life in the woods, desperately trying to fend off his nightmarish dreams with alcohol.  One of the dreams involves a Japanese soldier man named Yoshida (Ken Yamamura), who he saves from the atomic bombing of Nagasaki.  The other dream involves none other than a mental reconstruction of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who forms the metaphorical representation of his deepest injuries:  those of the soul.  Eventually his past catches up with him:  much older Yoshida (Hal Yamanouchi) has sent one of his agents, Yukio (Rila Fukushima), to find the Wolverine to offer the "gift" of mortality in exchange for taking Logan's gifts for himself.  But the schemes in the Yoshida household are not what they seem:  Mariko (Tao Okamoto) is set to inherent "the throne," her father, Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada), wants her out of the way, and a mysterious mutant known as Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) has managed to stop the Wolverine's regenerative abilities in the service of her own violent agenda.  Trapped in the middle, Logan must protect Mariko, uncover the plots that seem ready to destroy her, and regain his abilities before his injuries finally catch up with him.

Needless to say, a lot of people get stabbed.

There are a lot of things I love about this movie, but due to space, I can't cover them all in depth.  What I will say is this:  the film met my basic expectations.  When I came to The Wolverine, I wanted the following:
  1. Decent CG (Wolverine's claws should actually look like metal claws)
  2. A Coherent Plot (no giant plot holes)
  3. Decent Character Development (the main folks should actually change somehow)
  4. Focus (10,000 subplots do not a good movie make)
  5. Awesome Action (good choreography and bit of gritty realism)
The Wolverine offers pretty much all of these, more or less.

First, I have to talk about the visuals for the film.  While the direction is perhaps somewhat uninspired (where's some Bourne-style action when you need it?), the look of the film does not disappoint.  Bad visuals are one of my biggest pet peeves.  If I can't believe what I'm seeing on the screen -- within reason -- then I cannot get into the characters whose motivations are based in part on the world in which they exist.  In the case of The Wolverine, the visuals rarely fall short of reasonably realistic, and this made it possible for me to suspend disbelief and immerse myself into the film experience.  For example, Wolverine's claws, which spend as much time on screen as every other actor other than Jackman, are rendered so well that it's hard to believe they're not actually part of his hands.  The same is true for Wolverine's injuries, which always look (and, by extension, feel) real.

Additionally, the action sequences look beautiful, most notably the bullet train fight, in which Wolverine takes on several knife-wielding thugs while trying not to get thrown off the 300 MPH vehicle or get smacked by a metal arch or a billboard.  Usually fights on top of large moving vehicles are dull and repetitive.  While I enjoyed Star Trek Into Darkness, the climactic flying dumpster battle at the end left much to be desired.  Here, however, the stakes have been raised.  The heroes and villains both struggle to hang on to the top of the train while trying to kill one another.  This makes for good comedy, such as when Wolverine feigns jumping over a metal beam, thus smacking one of his enemies into paste, but it also makes for a fight scene that has seemingly real stakes.*  Anyone can die.
Death is one of the things that makes this film far better than the Origins version.  The film explores two different dimensions of mortality:  the pain Wolverine feels at carrying the memory of killing Jean Grey within him and how discovering the possibility of death can change people.  I'll admit that I didn't care for the way they manifested Wolverine's dream-sequence-Jean-Grey terrors, but I at least understand what the director/writers wanted to do.  Wolverine believes he has no reason to live, and that the root of that disinterest in life stems from Jean Grey's death/murder.  But what he apparently has to discover by the end of the film is a different sort of purpose in life, one that involves using his powers for something greater than himself.  I don't think the film makes this message explicit, but the last moments of the film seem to suggest, to me, that Wolverine's rediscovery of the value of life, in part through his relationship with Mariko, represents one of the fundamental breaks from a life of killing necessary to turn Wolverine into more than his past.

The other major exploration of mortality concerns Wolverine's apparent vulnerability.  For at least half of the film, Wolverine is supposedly susceptible to the same physical pressures of any other regular Joe.  With his healing factor turned off, every attack could end his life.  In every other film incarnation of the character, Wolverine can take bullet after bullet without so much as blinking.  He doesn't get tired.  His head never rings from a blow.  He simple grimaces and moves on.  Filmmakers have responded to this by creating villains that do bigger and badder things, which seems like a horrible slippery slope to me:  once you start doing that, you have to keep making the villains bigger.  But in The Wolverine, he bleeds, and then keeps bleeding.  When someone smacks him on the skull with a fist or a blunt object, he falls -- the film also makes an effort to show just what having a metal skull would do to a person...ring, ring, ring.  Unfortunately, while the narrative plays up the mortality narrative, the film doesn't address why Wolverine can keep moving about despite his serious injuries.  He might grow tired or weak, but somehow he keeps going.  The film never offers an explanation for this, though I suspect it has a lot to do with the fact that even without his healing factor, Wolverine isn't like the rest of us.  I, however, would have liked the film to reduce Wolverine to a total mortal, to put him out of commission for part of the film so that the secondary characters, especially the women, can take charge.
And that's one thing that this film does quite well:  the female heroes are relatively three-dimensional and compelling.  Yukio, who sees the future, is a sensitive martial arts expert with a side of arrogant snark.  And her action sequences are some of the best for one really good reason:  she kicks serious ass and knows how to navigate the field of battle when the deck is turned against her.  The other main female character, Mariko, seems to fall within the realm of a traditional Japanese woman (somewhat timid and willing to defer to her male elders) and fulfill the cliche "damsel in distress" trope.  However, her character does develop from timid to determined young woman by the end; she may never become the one who uses physical force to get the job done (that's Yukio's job), but she seems to recognize that strength can come from elsewhere.  The narrative also pays attention to the relationship between Yukio and Mariko, albeit somewhat simplistically.  While they are interesting because they are opposites of one another -- socioeconomically and physically -- giving their characters some background makes them more than mere set dressing.  I wanted to learn more about them, but I knew going in that The Wolverine was an action film, not a drama.**

That doesn't mean the film didn't have enough space to give us a little more about Yukio and Mariko.  One of the criticisms many have lobbed at The Wolverine concerns its unnecessarily complicated list of villains.  I won't name them all here; all you need to know is this:  there are at least five different villains, some of whom are working with one another (sorta).  While the film more or less closes all of its villain loops, the overabundance of villainous characters means that no single villain gets much attention at all.  The single mutant in the list, Viper, is the most caricatured villain of the lot; her motivations are never made clear, and what few lines she's given tell us nothing about her character other than that she is a bad person and has creepy super powers.  The other villains at least get a little depth, but it is superficial depth at best.  The result is a film that sometimes has to rush through things before it can get to the next major plot point.  This is no more apparent in the climax, when at least three of the five villains are dispensed in the same sequence.  It doesn't make for good character development, both because the villains aren't really characters at all and because all the time setting up all those villains takes away from time that could be spent on other characters.

I will say this about the villains, though:  the film avoids playing the "we have to create a villain so super powerful that Wolverine can't possibly win" card.
Overall, I actually quite liked The Wolverine.  While there are too many villains, which strains the plot and the development of the major characters, and there are some continuity issues in terms of Wolverine's powers, etc., I found the experience of the film mostly enjoyable.  There were quite a few humorous moments, the action sequences were exciting and high-energy, and the narrative, however strained, made sense.  If this is what we can expect from future Wolverine movies, then I think we're moving in all the right directions.

Directing: 3/5
Cast: 4/5
Writing: 3/5
Visuals: 4/5
Adaptation: N/A (I haven't read the relevant comics for this chapter of Wolverine's life, though I am familiar with them.)
Overall: 3.5/5 (70%)
Inflated Grade: B (for exciting action, a contained narrative, decent secondary characters, and Hugh Jackman's sexy self)
Value: $7.50 (based on a $10.50 max)

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*This scene occurs after Wolverine's healing powers have been dampened, which means that he'll pretty much die if he gets smacked by a support beam.

**Yes, this film passes the Bechdel Test.

Note:  I've heard some folks criticize the film because of its representation of Japanese culture.  If I were more informed about Japanese culture, I would feel comfortable to comment.  However, I honestly don't know enough about Japan to know whether the Japan in The Wolverine is an ethnocentric stereotype.  Does anyone have any insight here?

Things Happening Now: World War Z, Shoot the WISB, and Women Authors

What's going on over at the Skiffy and Fanty compound?  Quite a lot, actually!

First up, authors Emma Newman and Susan Bigelow joined the S&F crew to talk about science fiction and fantasy by women.  I quite enjoyed the direction we went after listing some of our favorite female authors, especially since we covered things like how reading influences writing and so on.

Lastly, the most recent episode of Shoot the WISB has hit the web.  This time, I'm joined by David Annandale and Jen Bosier for a discussion of World War Z.  The episode contains a lot of spoilers, so save it for later if you intend to see the movie.

And that's what's going on over at the S&F compound.  Go DL the episodes and enjoy!

Shoot the WISB #02: Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) Reviewed w/ Paul Weimer and Jay Garmon

Spoiler Alert:  the following podcast contains spoilers for the film being reviewed; if you wish to see the film without having it ruined for you, download this podcast and save it for later.

Paul Weimer (website / twitter) and Jay Garmon (website / twitter) join me to discuss the good, the bad, and the ugly of J.J. Abrams' second installment in the Star Trek film reboot.  Feel free to offer your thoughts in the comments below.

You can download or stream the mp3 from this link.



Movie Review: Iron Man 3 (2013)

If this is the end of Robert Downey, Jr.'s Iron Man films, then he's certainly left with a bang.  While far from perfect, Iron Man 3 (2013) continues Stark's emotional development with the same humor and action we have come to expect.  But it is also an unexpectedly deep look at Stark as a man amidst increasingly dangerous villains, tying together not only the previous two Iron Man movies (2008 and 2010), but also Joss Whedon's The Avengers (2012).  Flawed though it may be, Iron Man 3 is an excellent conclusion to a superb series.
Iron Man 3's basic premise is this:  Tony Stark has returned home from the events in New York City, only to find himself overwhelmed by panic attacks and nightmares; to distract himself, he has begun tinkering endlessly in his lab, building suit after suit after suit.  Meanwhile, the United States
has become the target of a mysterious "super" terrorist who calls himself the Mandarin.  Soon, the President re-brands War Machine as the Iron Patriot and sends Colonel Rhodes out to hunt down the infamous terrorist.  Back home, Tony challenges the Mandarin, meets some old faces (sorry, I won't ruin this for you), and finds himself face-to-face with a wall (of mysteries and mysterious men with unique abilities).

Honestly, that is about as close as I can get to describing this film without ruining some of the major twists and discoveries.  There are a remarkable number of things going on in this film.  I am still astonished that they could work so much into a 130 minute time slot without producing a film that feels unnecessarily rushed; instead, Iron Man 3 is just a tad bit long, with parts of the latter half of the film moving a little too slowly for my taste.  Part of that dragging feel stems from the fact that the movie is divided across three interests:  Tony's war with himself (his apparent PTSD), Tony's attempts to find and uncover the Mandarin, and the U.S./Rhodes' attempts to do the same (subplots aside, of course).  While Shane Black (writer/director) handles these elements well enough, I think the attempt to focus on so many elements (particularly via the framing device -- Tony's voice over that connects a past event to the events of the film), with twists and all, is a tad much for one film.
Still, I cannot help but appreciate the fact that, much like the previous two Iron Man films, this third installment actually addresses some of the real-world ramifications of Stark's life as man and machine.  The previous films explored Stark's conflict with the morality of the military industrial complex (Iron Man) and the fear of impending death (Iron Man 2).  Here, the conflict is two-fold:  as in the second film, the past has come to haunt Stark, but in a far more personal way than before (the frame narrative explores this).  More importantly, however, is the connection back to The Avengers, which has affected our hero in the way you'd expect:  a psychological disorder (PTSD).  I can appreciate the desire to show this on film, but what makes this work for me is the fact that our hero actually has psychological issues.  Iron Man 3 explores the psychology of Stark in more depth than previous editions, giving the character a uniquely "human" feel.  Unlike other superheroes in the Marvel film canon, Stark/Iron Man is fully realized as a complex individual.  Far from the eccentric, prick-y man we saw at the start of the first film, this concluding volume has shown us that he is, in every way possible, just as susceptible to the pressures of daily life (and war) as the rest of us, even if, at the end of the day, he is still eccentric and prick-y.  What makes him super is not some superhuman ability to "cope," but rather his intense desire and dedication to a "cause."  This is the underlying narrative of Iron Man 3, and one that we can hope will continue in The Avengers 2, however briefly.
Related to this is one of the strongest aspects of the film:  the cast and their interactions with one another.  Downey, I think it is fair to say, is probably the only person who will ever truly fit into Stark's shoes, and here he has to pull out more than simple sarcasm and jackassery.  Stark's panic attacks and nightmares require a careful balance between epiphany and masking; nobody would expect Stark to accept what is happening to him, and Downey does a fine job portraying that conflict.  While the PTSD symptoms could have been handled with more care, I think Downey (and Shane Black as director) remained true to the character.

The other cast members are also on top form:  Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts remains as charming as ever (she also gets a little action time, which is awesome to see) and Guy Pearce proves that he needs to play a Die Hard villain at some point in the near future, pulling out an excellent Jekyll & Hyde performance as Aldrich Killian.  It's hard to believe that Guy Pearce once played this Queen:
The standout supporting actor performances, however, must be given to Ben Kingsley (the Mandarin) and Ty Simpkins (Harley Keener).  Kingsley's Mandarin is cold, calculated, and preacher-like -- even creepy.  I believed him as a terrorist, as a fully-realized villain with complicated motivations.  They've updated his character, too, and in a way that I think makes the Mandarin more relevant.  In the film universe, the Mandarin is more akin to the mythic face of terrorism today; that myth becomes important to the narrative, and forms one of the various critiques of U.S. foreign policy in Iron Man 3.  Much like Pearce, Kingsley demonstrates a chameleon-like ability to become other people.  While I still have some reservations about the way this narrative played out, the concept of the Mandarin offers food for thought (particularly to us scholarly type people).

Child actor Simpkins, however, gives the film its heart-filled center.  As Keener, he has a profound impact upon Stark, and the two (Downey and Simpkins) play well off each other -- humor and all.  I think paring the two gives Stark the gateway he needs to see beyond his own dilemmas, and Simpkins delivers a wide-eyed-but-looking-for-a-role-model performance worth noting.  If there isn't a remarkable young actor in Simpkins, I will eat my own shoes (metaphorically speaking, of course; I imagine shoes these days are made out of material that will kill me if consumed).
Of course, all this requires solid writing.  For the most part, Drew Pearce and Shane Black deliver, though there is a noticeable lack of depth in some of the villains, despite the fact that their motivations for doing what they do are complicated, if not understandable.  This is all too common in action-oriented films like this, but it is unfortunate when you have the opportunity to present villains who are motivated by more than simple villainy -- villains about which the audience can feel conflicted.  While many of the "henchmen" in Iron Man 3 do have complicated reasons for doing what they do, they don't act like it.  They are just villains in the purest sense.

The only other problem I have with the film has to do with the new Iron Man suit (the MK 42).  While the films (and the character in general) has always required one to suspend disbelief, I found the newer suit implausible, if not outright ridiculous.  This particular suit flies to Stark in pieces, guided by wireless nodes in his arms.  While the MK 42 becomes important to the conclusion of the film, I found it hard to accept the premise, if only because it seemed a little ridiculous to me.  Still, for those expecting a lot of Iron Men in Iron Man 3, you'll get the great gift of all:  the Iron Legion.  The CG, of course, is damned beautiful, especially in the concluding moments (explosions and all).
Of course, what holds everything together for this film are not the visuals (pretty as they are), the villains (compelling though they may be), or even the narrative as a whole.  Rather, what makes Iron Man 3 such an exciting and fascinating conclusion to the series -- if, indeed, this is the end -- are its fulfillment of Stark's emotional arc and the presence of exceptional actors (working with decent material).  While far from a perfect film, Iron Man 3 is, I think, what a lot of us were hoping for:  a high-octane superhero epic with well-acted character development and psychological depth.  I definitely recommend seeing it in theaters if you can.

Directing: 4/5
Cast: 5/5
Writing: 4/5
Visuals: 4/5
Adaptation: N/A (I haven't read enough of the comics)
Overall: 4.25/5 (85%)
Inflated Grade: A- (for solid action, continuity considerations, and addressing Stark's human side)
Value: $9.50 (based on a $10.50 max)

Movie Review: Oblivion (2013)

(This review is as spoiler free as I can make it.  In doing so, there are a lot of things that I'll say without context, as the particularities of certain characters or plot elements have not been revealed in the trailers and are rather important to the viewing experience -- mystery!)

Tom Cruise's new science fiction action adventure has been in theaters for a week-ish, and it has already opened the taste debate.  A great deal of "average viewers" have come out of Oblivion with positive feelings, remarking that, while far from a perfect film, it succeeds as entertainment with a sliver of substance.  Critics have not been so kind.  They've called the film self-serious, absent of self-awareness, a ponderous mess, and so on and so forth.

I couldn't disagree more.

While far from perfect, Oblivion is what Prometheus promised to be last year:  a high concept, thrilling exploration of the human condition through the lens of science fiction.  Where Prometheus failed to deliver (see here and here for my take), Oblivion has filled in the blank, offering the same visual awe of 2012's "big film" with a far more coherent and cohesive plot, consistent (though incomplete) characters, and a few decent twists and turns.  Most of all, Oblivion gives us a few answers, even if it never quite explains everything in the end.  All this combine to make a film that, in my mind, deserves a little more credit.  After all, it's not
often that we are given action-oriented science fiction that also has a little something to contemplate, right?  For that reason, I see Oblivion as an attempt to revitalize action-oriented SF with just a smidge of actual substance -- a film that, despite its flaws, is entertaining and a tiny bit cerebral.
If you don't know already, Oblivion follows Jack Harper (Tom Cruise), haunted by strange dreams, and Victoria (or Vika; Andrea Riseborough), his companion and communications overseer, as they monitor the "strip-mining" of Earth's resources for use by humanity off world.  From the opening moments, we learn that Earth was invaded decades ago by an alien species called the Scavs; humanity responded by nuking the Earth, forcing the surviving humans to move off world to Saturn's moon, Titan.  Jack and Victoria have been tasked with maintaining a fleet of defensive drones as remnants of the Scav forces attempt to sabotage the operation.  But Jack's dreams are not what they seem:  they are memories.  And as everything Jack knows about the world is uprooted by his discoveries, he will reveal an even more terrifying truth than the destruction of Earth.

Sure, the film's central conceit is certainly not original.  Post-apocalyptic SF is almost always cliche before you get into the particulars, and inserting an alien invasion doesn't help with originality points.  Even the somewhat hokey voice over is so painfully common in genre films that it's difficult to take it seriously (in the case of Oblivion, the voice over is actually important, but it does feel out of place, even by the end).  However, what I found most compelling about Oblivion was its method for exploring familiar territory:  fusion.  Cross-genre narratives are not unheard of in SF, but they are less common (at least in explicit form).  Here, Joseph Kosinski (the director behind TRON: Legacy -- my review here) fuses post-apocalypse with alien invasions and cyberpunk (an element I won't discuss here for fear of spoiling the narrative).  Part of telling good stories with old material is finding a different way to approach that material.  Oblivion does just that, pitting the "man on his own" trope on the same stage as a cyberpunk-ian identity crisis.
It's perhaps for this reason that I didn't find myself bored while watching Oblivion.  Kosinski's writing and direction, while flawed in places, provides a deliberately measured approach to these familiar concepts, refusing to resort, as a standard, to visual or action antics for the sake of furthering the plot -- though you'll find some of that here too.  Rather than become trapped in a long, drawn-out action sequence, Oblivion takes a slower approach, unfolding the layers of mystery piece by piece.  While there are certainly plenty of pretty (if not sexy) action sequences in Oblivion, they are, if anything, necessary components to the narrative, rather than mere eye-candy (in my mind).

Equally arresting is the dramatic contrast between the natural and the artificial -- a visual aesthetic as much as a thematic one, which is made apparent from the start, with extensive scenes involving Cruise, well, cruising around an "empty" Earth in advanced aircraft.  It shouldn't surprise, then, that so much of the film is concentrated on the visual aesthetics of both the post-apocalypse and cyberpunk, blending the relative order of technology into a world of natural chaos.  From a purely visual perspective, Oblivion is absolutely gorgeous -- even more so, in places, than last year's Prometheus.  Several minutes are spent presenting vast natural wildernesses, rocky "deserts," the natural encroaching upon the remains of human civilization, buried buildings, forgotten ships resting on dried seabed, and so on.  Even the action sequences -- high-energy and, at times, emotional -- are well-rendered, and themselves as visually arresting as the natural and artificial environments that dominate the set pieces.  It is unmistakably a gorgeous film.
Cruise performs well in this environment, bringing a sense of heartwarming nostalgia in one moment and deliberate confusion in the next.  Contrary to what other critics have said, I see Cruise's performance as nuanced, reflecting a character torn between two realities:  the one in which he is living and the one that lingers in the background like a ghostly echo (the one to be uncovered).  The film is undeniably about Jack's journey to find himself and his place in the new world awaiting him, and Cruise plays well to this theme.  Truthfully, this is not exactly outside of his artistic territory, as some of his previous films have pitted one man (and his secondary character set pieces) against a new reality (War of the Worlds is a recent example).  He seems well-fitted to this sort of role, and here delivers a performance that, while not on par with Will Smith in I Am Legend (a far more challenging role, I think), is far from weak or forgettable.  I wouldn't say this is Cruise's best performance, but it is certainly one I will remember.

Oblivion's two biggest problems, however, are pacing and secondary characterization.  The film seems motivated by two separate concerns:  a desire to explore the human condition through a deliberate and nuanced "man on his own" narrative and an equally powerful desire to provide an action thriller replete with some familiar SF trappings.  Sometimes, these desires do not mingle well, resulting in huge action sequences that are offset by canyons of slow material.  In the case of Oblivion, the extreme rise-and-fall motion feels like it is delaying the conclusion, adding more "mysteries" to be solved for later.  While these reveals are clearly crucial to the ending, I get the sense that a little trimming or re-organizing of some of these sequences could have helped better pace the discovery process.  Alternatively, perhaps Oblivion simply tries to bite off more than it can chew for a two hour movie.  There's simply too much rising-and-falling here; at times, it is almost exhausting.  The problem, however, is that there probably isn't a solution for this -- at least, not one that wouldn't gut some of the film's major conflicts.
Related to this is the problem of character development.  ]Jack Harper understandably receives the bulk of the attention, while the secondary characters receive are themselves sometimes merely set pieces.  In particular, the two primary "love interests" -- Victoria and Julia -- receive little attention, despite playing a crucial role in Jack's growth as a character.  Oblivion is, essentially, a film of the "one man against the world" variety.  The female characters, in that model, aren't necessarily crucial for Harper's development.  In some sense, Victoria and Julia (Olga Kurylenko) are only a few steps removed from being pure objects, which is unfortunate when placed in the context of Jack's "awakening."  All the same identity crises and worries hit them too, yet because of the film's central focus on Jack as "male center," their development as characters is unfairly stunted.  While both Kurylenko and Riseborough put on great performances, they unfortunately have less material to work with than Cruise.  None of this, of course, should be a surprise, considering how action-oriented films often portray secondary characters -- as caricatures or set pieces.

Despite these flaws, however, I see Oblivion as a bit of a sleeper classic.  It may not change the way we view SF cinema, but it certainly fills in a gap left behind by the existing variety of mind-numbing SF action flicks (G.I. Joe and Transformers 2 and 3, I'm looking at you).  With just the right amount of substance, Oblivion provides both heart and entertainment.  I, for one, enjoyed it a great deal.  You just might, too.

Directing: 3.5/5
Cast: 4/5
Writing: 3.25/5
Visuals: 5/5
Adaptation: N/A
Overall: 3.9375/5 (78.75%)
Inflated Grade:  B (for solid action, compelling ideas, a decent plot, and gorgeous visuals)
Value:  $7.50 (based on a $10.50 max)

Mid-Year Movie Roundup: My Brief Thoughts On What I’ve Seen So Far This Year

Thus far this year, I have seen the following movies:
Chronicle
The Hunger Games
The Avengers
Prometheus
John Carter
Snow White and the Huntsman
American Reunion
The Cabin in the Woods

Not many, I know.  Most of them are genre fiction, minus American Reunion.  There are two proper science fiction movies (The Hunger Games and Prometheus), one that could very well be science fiction, but treats its universe like a fantasy one (The Avengers), and some that are technically science fiction, but really fantasy with some technological wonders (John Carter and The Cabin in the Woods).  The last is a pure fantasy (Snow White and the Huntsman).

The movie I liked enough to see it twice falls to one film: The Avengers.

The movies I thought were quite good: Chronicle (one of the few good uses of shaky cam I've seen), The Hunger Games (solid acting with a cool, slightly used-up idea), The Avengers (so far the best movie of the year -- Joss Whedon at his best), John Carter (beautiful film with a decent little story), The Cabin in the Woods (Joss Whedon at his best again, ripping apart the tropes of the horror genre).

The movie that were better than I expected: Snow White and the Huntsman (some really nice twists on the classic story). 

The movies that were so-so overall: Snow White and the Huntsman, American Reunion (they tried to take us to a new level, but didn't quite get there; still, it was a fun movie).

The greatest disappointment: Prometheus (in fact, the more I think about this movie, the more I really hate it)

Have you seen any of these movies? If so, place them in the categories I've given above and let me know what you think!

Shoot the WISB #01: Prometheus (2012) Reviewed w/ Paul Weimer

Spoiler Alert:  the following podcast contains spoilers for the film being reviewed; enjoy at your own risk (or something like that).


Paul Weimer was kind enough to spend a little time with me talking about the release of Ridley Scott's long-anticipated Alien prequel, Prometheus.  If you've seen the film and want to offer your two cents, feel free to do so in the comments.

You can download or stream the mp3 from this link.


Movie Review (Preliminary Thoughts): Snow White and the Huntsman

(These are my early "just got home from the movie" thoughts.  They do not represent my final verdict on the film, which will come when I've had time to let things stew.  That said, I don't expect my opinion to change terribly much over time, as they did for The Happening, which I would now give a 1/5 if I were to review it again.)

Here goes:

A super great awesome movie? No. A terrible film, a la Rotten Tomatoes critics? No.

There's a lot of really interesting twists in this movie. They take the basic concept of Snow White that we are familiar with (Disney's version, more or less) and completely flip it on its head. There are some unique plays on magic, the idea of balance in nature, and so on. In some ways, it reminds me of George Lucas' Willow, but with a noticeably less campy tone.

The film does suffer from lack of characterization for certain characters, a few pacing problems, and some icky cut scenes, but I absolutely loved how they tried to give us a look into the evil Queen (Theron) and her motivations. I even thought their attempt to make Snow White more than just some pretty chick who sings to birds and makes squirrels clean dishes and their attempt to challenge the traditional royalty marriage paradigm refreshing, even if they didn't quite succeed at what they set out to do. (Also: Kristin Stewart actually shows emotion in this movie. Twilight has definitely wasted her...)

So, it was a decent movie as far as fantasy flicks go and might be worth seeing as a matinee. My score after these early thoughts: 3.25/5 (not great, but far exceeded my expectations).

Anyone else seen it who wants to offer their thoughts?