Semi Movie Review: Ironclad (Historical Revisionism of the Worst Sort)

Have you seen Ironclad?  It stars Paul Giamatti as King John of England and James Purefoy as Thomas Marshall, a Templar Knight (Purefoy, by the way, seems to have had a role in at least 3/4ths of the medieval-era-ish film productions released in the last 6 or so years, which is impressive).  If you haven't, you're probably not missing anything you didn't see in Braveheart.

It's not a bad movie by itself, mind you.  A little on the long side at two hours, sure.  But as a film, it has a lot going for it.  Decent acting, a plot that makes internal sense, and a narrative that balances between all out war (there will be blood!) and the rigors of attrition.  If this were set in the mythical kingdom of Genland, with the plot centered on King Hojn's use of Adnish mercenaries to reclaim his throne from the wicked barons who forced him to sign the Namga Artac, then it would be an interesting movie with lots of parallels to England's medieval history.

But that's not what this film is about.  You see, in this version of history, King John doesn't successfully take Rochester Castle from an entrenched baronial force.  Rather, the French
magically show up and he's forced to trudge out into the marshes of England trailing his treasure (which is mysteriously lost), after which he dies of dysentery.  Thus the heroes are saved!  Oh merciful heavens our surviving heroes can go on to live their lives in sin!  Yes, sin.  You know why?  Because Thomas Marshall violates his religious codes of conduct as a Knight Templar by not only sleeping with a woman (abstinence!), but with a woman married to another man.  This results in said woman explaining how important it is for Thomas to live life.  Oh!  He must live it by committing a cardinal sin!

Don't get me wrong.  I'm not saying sex out of wedlock or adultery is evil or even sinful in my mind.  But we're not talking about the world I live in.  We're talking about 13th century England.  Now, I don't want to suggest here that nobody was breaking religious law back then.  I'm sure the Knights Templar were quite good and putting their willies where they shouldn't (according to their religious rules).  But we're told in this story that these vows are supremely important to Thomas.  Not just important, but so damned important that he spends the entire movie resisting temptation of one form or another, claiming the moral high ground alongside others with less strict religious rules.  And all this is destroyed by a single woman.  If any story could make it more clear to us that the serpent of the Bible lives in the loins of the female human, this is the one.

But I suppose that's me reading a lot into a movie within a film tradition in which religious "rules" really only mean a lot when it comes to who you marry and who you behead.
The real problem with this movie is that it gets its history so terribly wrong as to be dangerous.  Let's toss aside the fact that somehow our hero has resisted wicked temptation his whole life, the criminal use of modern phrases, and the strange logical gap between the importance of Rochester Castle (it controls everything in London and is ever so crucial to King John's campaign -- this is actually true) and the suspicious absence of anything resembling a defensive force in the castle itself (you can count the number of soldiers/archers/defenders on your hands and feet and still have digits left over).  Let's just talk about the utter failure on the part of Jonathan English (ha!), Erick Kastel, and Stephen McDool to write a story that resembles the actual event.

Let's take, for a moment, the glorious inadequacy of these writers, shall we?  The BBC website says the following of the battle Ironclad attempts to depict:
King John lay siege to the castle in 1215 and took it after two long months. He finally undermined the south east tower and burned the props with the "fat of forty pigs" causing the tower to collapse. The city was well placed for raids on London and it also enabled them to devastate the lands of Kent, particularly those belonging to Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury, who had crowned Rufus and was therefore Odo's and the rebels' enemy.
Short, but sweet.  The English Heritage website adds a few more details:
In 1215, garrisoned by rebel barons, the castle endured an epic siege by King John. Having first undermined the outer wall, John used the fat of 40 pigs to fire a mine under the keep, bringing its southern corner crashing down. Even then the defenders held on, until they were eventually starved out after resisting for two months.
What's that?  The French didn't show up and send King John packing at Rochester Castle?  Really?  You mean our heroes lost by starvation, thus surrendering after an understandably brave months-long fight?  The only thing Ironclad gets correct in the above description is that King John used the fat of forty pigs (sappers!) to cause the tower to collapse.  But most everything else -- the order of events, the players, etc. -- falls apart when under simple scrutiny.  There's no city.  No cathedral.  No indication that anyone actually lives near Rochester Castle, which is unusual when you think about the film's logic:  this is such a strategic point for taking the country, and yet nobody seems to live in the bizarre wasteland around the castle (there's no farmland either).  Not for miles!  And we're given some beautiful shots of England countryside to prove this!

Even Wiki-frakking-pedia points out where Ironclad fails miserably:
William d'Aubigny commanded the garrison but contemporary chroniclers do not agree on how many men that was. Estimates range from 95 to 140 knights supported by crossbowmen, sergeants, and others.[9] John did take the castle, most of the higher nobles being imprisoned or banished; and the French did not arrive in England until some six months after the siege had ended.[10] Characters departing significantly from the historical record include William d'Aubigny who was not an ennobled wool merchant (nor was he tortured and killed in the siege).
You'll notice the citation numbers.  Those two citations happen to come from fairly reputable sources:  Rochester Castle by Reginald Allen Brown (a guidebook from the English Heritage folks) and David Hume's The History of England.  That's right:  David frakking Hume.  But in Ironclad, a ragtag group of six "warriors" show up to "take" Rochester Castle and then defend it with the ragtag group of folks living inside.  And d'Aubigny has his feet and hands cut off and his body chucked from an improvised catapult into the side of the keep.  And John has a happy time with murdering those few nobles he gets his hands on in the film.

Odd how those little details managed to slip the writers' minds.  But why?  Isn't the very idea of defending a castle from a superior force already an exciting and dramatic story?  Couldn't they have told that story?  Did they have to have the French roll in early and save the day?  Deus ex machina!

Maybe I'm asking too much from my medieval movies.  Maybe becoming and academic has soured me to historical fiction.  I don't know.  What I do know is that this kind of crap annoys the hell out of me.  I want my historical fiction to at least get the major facts correct.  Otherwise, you might as well be writing alternate history...

Sadly, Ironclad neither gets the facts right nor does it succeed as an alternate history.  It's a film that historians of the period can watch only if they've had a lobotomy performed by a chimpanzee with a hot poker.  Even then, brain seizures are likely...

Directing: 2.5/5 (there are some weird moments where people seem to be doing something different when there are perspective shifts)
Cast: 3/5 (decent enough)
Writing: 1/5 (I don't reword stupidity)
Visuals: 2.5/5 (CG blood = idiotic)
Adaptation: 0.5/5 (it gets half a point for being correct about the fact that a siege took place)
Overall: 1.9/5

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Disclaimer #1:  I do not have a problem with artistic license.  Fiddling with minor details to add a little drama is fine by me, so long as the actual history remains relatively unchanged.

Disclaimer #2:  I am not a medieval history major, but I am one of those silly academics who has some vague idea how to research basic history to figure out whether something is true.

Quickie Review: Hanna

I got a chance to see Hanna with my brother and sister the other day and thought I would offer some short, but sweet thoughts.
Plot:  Living in the middle of nowhere, Hanna is raised by her father, Erik, to be a skilled soldier in order to assassinate the woman who killed her mother.  When Hanna is ready, they activate a distress beacon and put a plan into action.  But Hanna must venture out into the real world with all its luxuries and technologies -- a world she knows little about.

Pros:  Hanna is an action-packed thriller which shows why Saoirse Ronan is one of the best young
actresses in Hollywood.  She is simply brilliant in this film (with her German accent and perfectly stunned expressions when she's shown something her character has never seen).  Cate Blanchett is equally amazing as the psychotic Melissa, and Tom Hollander (Beckett from Pirates of the Caribbean) puts on one of the creepiest performances I've ever seen.

Cons:  Honestly, I thought the soundtrack (by The Chemical Brothers) was lackluster and, at times, overbearing.  Half of the background noise involved annoying groaning electronic noises with drum machine rhythms.  The film really deserved a better soundtrack.

I also thought that the ending left a lot to be desired.  There's a major twist towards the end, but it needed more development in the actual story.  Likewise, some of the action involving Bana looked forced.

Overall:  The film is entertaining.  The plot moves quickly, the characters are fascinating, and the concept is slightly science fictional -- all good things for readers of this blog.

Directing: 3/5
Cast: 5/5
Writing: 3/5
Visuals: 4/5
Adaptation: N/A
Value:  $6.50
Overall: 3.75/5

Movie (Mini) Review: Chocolate (Thai Martial Arts Flick of Awesome)

(I originally posted this mini-rant on Google+, but figured those of you who don't bother with all that social networking B.S. would also be interested.)

I just finished watching a martial arts movie called Chocolate.  The movie itself is pretty awesome:  it's about girl whose autism allows her to learn fighting styles at a young age; her mother and father were part of a gang/Yakuza dispute in Thailand, which led to her father's exile (before she was born).  And when her mother contracts cancer and can't afford the medicines, Zen (the girl) and her "cousin" Moom set out to try to collect on debts once owed to Zin (the mother).  But things go terribly wrong, as you can imagine.  Point is:  touching little story with a whole bunch of amazing fight scenes a la Ong Bak (only, you know, with a seemingly pre-teen girl beating the crap out of fully grown men).

But that's not the amazing part.  The really amazing part is when you get to the end and they start showing you the results of some of the fights.  This stuff wouldn't be allowed in the U.S., I imagine.  All the actors do their own stunts, and they get stabbed, break ribs, get smacked in the face, fall badly, and so on and so forth.  It adds a whole new dimension to the experience, because you start to realize that a lot of the things you see on the screen, while scripted, really do lead to the people getting effed up.  And that's, well, kinda awesome.

In any case, if you haven't seen Chocolate and you're looking for a little magical realism in your martial arts obsession, this is one to check out.

(Psst.  It's on Netflix stream!)

(I should note that I'm well aware that injuries occur in martial arts films quite regularly -- and probably with some regularity in other kinds of stunt-heavy films.  We just don't get an opportunity to see the carnage to the extent that you see in Chocolate.  Everyone gets messed up in this film at some point or another -- even the main actress.)

Movie Review: Contagion

I've been looking forward to Contagion ever since I saw the preview with Matt Damon.  My friends know I have a soft spot for Damon; I honestly don't know what it is about him.  He's a good actor, sure, but there are plenty of good actors I don't get excited about when I see they are in a new movie.  Damon, however...let's just say I do a little dance when I see he has a new movie for me to watch.  Maybe it's because of the Bourne films...

Moving on.

Contagion is an interesting take on a cliche theme:  that of the super infection which wreaks havoc on humanity while the government and society tries desperately to keep it under control.  Rather than focusing on the post-infection world, such as in Carriers, or a single family trying to survive the early hours of the infection (Right at Your Door), Contagion tries to show the bigger picture:  the family left behind by patient zero; the CDC director, field officers, and scientists trying to
contain the infection, stifle panic, and find out where the infection came from and how it can be stopped; the government agents trying to paint the "right" picture; and the conspiracy theorist trying to uncover the truth.  
In many respects, Soderbergh's germaphobic thriller resembles films like Love, Actually in its multiple characters and storylines.  But while I loved Love, Actually, I think Contagion leaves a lot to be desired.  The film follows the characters in chronological order, displaying the days since the first infection on the screen every time there is a shift.  Of course, doing so presents problems, since the first focus character is also dead within five minutes (Gwyneth Paltrow); we never get to know who she is as a person, except through the activities of other characters, most of which result in destroying our sympathy for her (she turns out to have been cheating on her husband).

And this is the primary problem with Contagion:  not enough time is spent with any of the characters to give us a good sense of who they are.  Their motivations are often strictly logical.  The father (Mitch, played by Matt Damon) becomes survival guru in order to save his biological daughter, who may or may not be immune to the virus; the budding scientist, Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle), takes a shot in the dark because, as we're told, getting the vaccine through human trials will take months (hooray for the bureaucratic process); and so on and so forth.  There are too few surprises -- except, perhaps, in the case of Alan Krunwiede (Jude Law), who starts as a conspiracy theorist with an anti-establishment bent, but then seems to become just as corrupt as the people he tries to depose.  The only character who seemed to grow by the end of the movie was Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), who begins as a somewhat warm-hearted figure, but concludes as a man who doesn't care that doing what is right might also mean breaking the law.  But the other characters?  They're empty.  Some are almost like cardboard cutouts of people we've seen in other disaster movies.  Too few characters show any development.  The focus is not on them (on their motivations, lives, feelings, etc.).

Rather, Contagion seems more focused on structural storytelling.  On the one hand, I think this is clever, since the narrative jumps back and forth to show what an infection looks like from all angles (within a certain view, of course).  Most films which deal with contagion do so by showing a small piece of a larger picture.  Such narratives focus on small groups of characters, surviving together, rather than separately.  But Contagion shows everyone, from the family man, to the lowly scientist, to the journalists and field scientists and government officials and so on and so forth.  Doing so, however, means the film can't focus.  It constantly shifts perspective to present new information (most of which we need, but a good deal of which is presented to the audience as medical jargon).

I guess what I'm getting at is that Contagion feels uneven.  It spends so much time trying to get us invested in some of the characters and their struggles, but because the structure is focused on the processes of contagion and containment, the characters and emotional impact get lost.  While I appreciated the style of Contagion, which sometimes takes the form of documentary and other times as a thriller, I couldn't help feeling detached from what was going on.  Hearing about all of the deaths isn't the same as seeing them happen or feeling their impact on the screen.  Numerous characters hear about the millions dying from the infection, but so few seem to have any connection to it or show distress.  And without that connection, the narrative falls flat.  If this is a serious infection, why can't we see what it looks like?  Yes, there are scenes which show us bodies being put in trenches, but these are few and far between.  Once the ball gets rolling, the infection is relayed to us in dialogue:  "it's killed X."

The movie had a lot of potential, and many of the name actors do their best with what little is given to them.  But my overall feeling is that of disappointment.  This was not the thriller I was expecting.  I want more than style in my movies.  I want to feel something -- to care about characters.  Contagion just doesn't do that for me, which is a shame when you consider what the film is about:  people dying from an infection.

Directing: 2/5
Cast: 3/5 (the cast is good, but they do so little on the screen it's hard to give them more than 3 out of 5)
Writing: 2/5
Visuals: 3/5
Adaptation: N/A
Overall: 2.5/5

P.S.:  I also think the film is ideologically confused.  If you see it, pay attention to how women, pharmaceutical companies, and those who poke back at the government are portrayed.  It's very weird...If anyone is interested in these things, I'd be happy to post an addendum.

Movie Review: Tron: Legacy (Strange Horizons)

In case you missed it, the fine folks at Strange Horizons have published my review of Tron: Legacy.  The review is focused on the worldbuilding, rather than the general quality of the film.  Hopefully you all find it interesting.  Do leave a comment there!

You also might want to see my brief, general review of Tron: Legacy here (where I put my score of the film, which isn't in my review at Strange Horizons).

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go jump up and down with excitement for an hour.

P.S.:  I don't suspect you could have missed my review, since it went up today.  But it's fun to say "in case you missed it."

Movie Review: Tron: Legacy (A Brief Review)

And by brief, I mean really brief.  I'm currently working on a late review for Strange Horizons, which will be my take on the worldbuilding.  However, since I quite enjoyed the film, I wanted you all to have my scores for the various aspect of the films, which I usually do at the end of every review.  I'll post a very brief explanation under each.
Directing: 3/5

Kosinski gets okay performances out of the cast, but his new director shoes are definitely showing.  I hope his work on The Black Hole remake is better (the same guy who wrote The Clash of the Titans is attached to the project, though, so I don't have high hopes).  It would suck something awful to remake a classic and give us, well, room temperature scifi water.  He's not a terrible director, like Uwe Boll, but hopefully we'll see improvement from here on out.

Cast: 3.5/5
The case is decent.  Bridges is not at his best, but nobody is awful in this movie.  That's a plus.  It's not bad casting, but they're not used well.  The fellow behind Castor is brilliant, though, even if he is insanely eccentric.

Writing: 3.75/5
Yes, the plot is simple, but since worldbuilding is a part of the writing, they get a huge bump up for creating a really brilliant world, and a plot that actually makes sense.  Simple may not be what people want, but it's better than creating an overcomplicated mess.  Legacy isn't a mess.  It's logical.  All of it.

Visuals: 4.75/5
Overall, the visuals are amazing.  They've done a fine job weaving the world together.  The only flaw I think is worth mentioning is that sometimes young Bridges looks a little too computerized.  They're still impressive effects in general, but there are moments where things aren't where they should be.

Adaptation: N/A
It's not an adaptation of anything, per se.

Overall: 3.75/5

Value: $9.75 (based on a $10.50 max)(this number is based on movie ticket value)
I loved the film.  I'd recommend science fiction fans to see it with the intention of watching a fun movie.  Don't go into this expecting Inception or Sunshine.  It's good cyberpunk fun!

Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One

It's finally here: the first part of the official end of the Harry Potter series. The books have long since passed, but fans that need their Harry Potter fix still have two movies left with which to indulge themselves. And the fans seem to know it if box office numbers have anything to say on the matter. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (part one) pulled in $125 million in the U.S. on its first weekend alone, and over $200 million extra internationally, smashing the franchise record of $102 million domestically for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. That number is nothing to scoff at either, especially considering the controversy over the splitting of the final book into two films. Fans of the books often wondered how they were going to pull off The Deathly Hallows back when we all thought there was only going to be one movie; the book, after all, is 784 pages long, and as much as the filmmakers have cut from previous books, doing so for The Deathly Hallows is incredibly tricky considering the number of plotlines needed to fulfill the agenda set up in The Half-blood Prince.

For that reason alone, The Deathly Hallows (part one) is perhaps the closest an HP film has come to the original source material since the original two films (directed by Chris Columbus). Coupled with the two movie split, this is a huge gamble. If you're going to split a movie in half, you have to justify that by creating a complete narrative that avoids leaving the audience with a cliffhanger, but is also open enough to warrant seeing the final installment. The Deathly Hallows (part one) comes close to meeting this task, though knowing whether the film is truly effective depends on what happens in the final half of the sequence. Still, what The Deathly Hallows (part one) offers
fans is an action-packed fantasy film that doesn't forget its core audience and sets the stage for the true climax of the series in part two.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (part one) drops the audience right where The Half-Blood Prince left them: in darkness. Voldemort has risen to power, influencing and threatening the safety of the wizarding world. The Ministry of Magic is rapidly trying to control public hysteria, mudbloods (wizards born of muggle parents) are being targeted and killed by Voldemort's army, and Harry Potter is in greater danger than he ever was before. But Harry Potter and his friends have a job to do: they have to find the last few horcruxes—the pieces of Voldemort's soul that prevent the Dark Lord from completely dying—and destroy them so as to end Voldemort's reign and bring things back to the way they were. And in their journey they'll discover more about themselves, the world around them, and what they must do and sacrifice to protect everything they hold dear.

The Deathly Hallows is perhaps one of the darkest of the Harry Potter films, even when compared to The Order of the Phoenix. Unlike previous films, the government-level adjustments to wizarding society in The Deathly Hallows are manipulated directly by Voldemort, instead of by the fear of what people are often unwilling to acknowledge (in the case of the wizards in The Order of the Phoenix, it is the fear of Voldemort's return, which, of course, proves to be a somewhat ironic fear, since it more or less plays into Voldemort's hands). The result is a more personal kind of darkness: characters betray one another—even people you'd never expect—proving that it has become increasingly more difficult in this world to know who to trust; likewise, people quickly begin to sacrifice their freedoms in the fear of something they feel helpless to resolve. Astute viewers will immediately begin to draw parallels between The Deathly Hallows and our own world, particularly given the changes in the last few months in the U.S. and elsewhere. Unlike our world, however, the one presented in The Deathly Hallows is reasonably projected from Voldemort’s rapid removal of wizarding society’s security blankets. Hogwarts is no longer the safe haven it had always been, even given the handful of dangerous incidences that have occurred there over the franchise. For Harry and his companions, this is doubly problematic, because what The Half-blood Prince showed them is that Voldemort can get to them no matter where they go. The Deathly Hallows continues this trend to even greater effect—without security blankets, Harry, Hermione, and Ron are both on the run and more desperate than ever to find the horcruxes they need to destroy Voldemort for good, because sooner or later, Voldemort and his men will find them and kill them.

The shift in tone, beginning most clearly with The Order of the Phoenix and culminating in The Deathly Hallows, coupled with the radical change of scenery, also make possible the ramping up of the action that has been teasing us for six movies. There are fewer restrictions on the characters, good and evil--both because of the conditions of the emerging world and the original source material--and this freedom is reflected clearly in the action. Duels are rugged and uncontrolled—an obvious contrast to the previous six films, all of which take place in the confines of school and the educational structure. Likewise, The Deathly Hallows is unfettered by a narrative dominated by children, not simply because the main characters are now practically adults; if anyone remembers the enormous duel between Dumbledore and Voldemort—and loved it as much as I did—then they’ll be equally pleased with The Deathly Hallows, where advanced levels of magic are in higher frequency and presented in situations entirely external from the school, thus adding a certain degree of realism to the story. That is to say that magic in The Deathly Hallows is not centered on training in a school, but on using it to achieve one’s personal goals, whether that be murder, manipulation, or pleasure. For example, we see the polyjuice potion used both as a deception for protection against certain death and as a spy device under much more serious circumstances than spying on one’s fellow classmates—specifically, to kill. I've always been pleased with how the filmmakers have attempted to render the magic from the books, and there are certainly no complaints here.

What The Deathly Hallows seems apt to do is open the floodgates that were gently cracked in The Order of the Phoenix (in the Dumbledore/Voldemort duel), but pushed closed again by The Half-blood Prince (arguably one of the worst films of the series). Harry, Hermione, and Ron are all obviously coming into their own, more secure in their abilities and unafraid to show it. Likewise, the loosening of Voldemort's leash—the danger posed to him by the Ministry of Magic and its allies--makes the first major sequence a thousand times more threatening than anything we've seen before precisely because of where it is placed: the muggle world, with a handful of overlapping spaces. The Deathly Hallows is far more action-oriented than previous franchise films, which makes for a far more rushed plot than HP fans might be used to. While this might seem like a criticism of the film, the quick pace actually enhances the desperation exhibited by the characters. Harry, Hermione, and Ron all ride on the same sheer dumb luck (as McGonagall would say) that got them through every major film plot in the series, not because they have a choice—which one might argue they had when they were younger—but because there are no other options.

That doesn’t mean the plot doesn’t have its problems. For viewers of the films who are unfamiliar with the books, much of what happens in The Deathly Hallows will feel incomplete. This is because the first half is intimately tied with the second. There are a number of elements that ring suspiciously of deus ex machina, for example, but which will—we can hope—be resolved nicely in the second part. Whether this is a problem of advertising or simply a mistake on the part of the filmmakers is difficult to say. The one crucial failing of the producers for The Deathly Hallows is that they have decided to wait until next summer to release the final installment while also doing very little to help viewers understand why both pieces have to be seen to get the full picture—I would argue that non-readers of the series are not particularly interested in issues of adaptation, which is fair.

One of the other flaws with the film is the visuals. While most of the CG renderings are beautifully done—such as the first major fight sequence and the various uses of magic throughout the film—the one weakness involves much more complicated CG elements: characters. One of my biggest pet peeves is in how filmmakers use CG. While the Harry Potter films have never been at the highest end of the visual scale, the rendering of several familiar characters in The Deathly Hallows could have been done more efficiently, particularly since I know what will happen in the second installment. Dobby, for example, looks less detailed than he did when he first appeared in The Chamber of Secrets; the same can be said for Nagini—Voldemort’s snake companion, who has a fairly prominent role in this particular film. Maybe this has more to do with my familiarity with the graphics quality of the last few years than with any degradation of the visuals in Harry Potter, but as much as I enjoyed the film, I couldn't help taking notice of how certain visuals didn't seem up to par. The good thing to take away from this criticism, however, is that the film is not as poorly rendered as The Expendables (2010), which did such a piss-poor job of rendering CG blood that I literally laughed out loud the first time the dark substance appeared on screen. To put it another way: the worst of the graphics in The Deathly Hallows are simply average, rather than exceptional (which I think the final installment of the film deserves).

But the shimmering star of the film has nothing to do with good graphics, high-flying action, or an appropriately rushed plot. Perhaps the greatest part of The Deathly Hallows is the chemistry between the main actors--Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint--and the supporting cast--who are only briefly on screen. Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint work superbly together. Their comedic and emotional timing is arguably the strongest it has ever been, demonstrating that we are dealing with a group of actors who have not only grown into themselves, but into the characters as well. In a way, they have grown with their characters and seem remarkably at ease fulfilling their roles. Humor is particularly well played throughout the film, both for the main actors and the supporting cast members. Ron, as always, acts as comic relief, but his jokes are no longer placed in moments of childish fancy, since doing so would cheapen the moment. Instead, Ron’s humor always acts as tension relief either during less-stressful sequences or at the ends of particularly dark ones. The supporting cast members are equally as funny. Fred and George (James and Oliver Phelps), for example, share a particularly touching moment early in the film in which humor is used as a kind of comforting device—and it works, giving the impression that these characters and the people surrounding them are all part of a real family unit. As much as the story focuses on Harry, Hermione, and Ron, the secondary cast members are equally as important, representing the solid ground on which the main characters rest their hopes and dreams. The fact that the secondary characters—with the exception of one or two new faces—move as smoothly on screen as our heroes—both in how they display the kaleidoscope of emotions that the opening thirty minutes of The Deathly Hallows offers and in how they relay humor to themselves and to us—makes losing oneself in the film remarkably easy. That's what we go to the movies for, isn't it? To lose ourselves. To become part of the world being presented before us.

In the case of Harry Potter, we're losing ourselves in a kind of dream, one that is full of adventure and wonder in a way that our own mundane world seems to be incapable of providing (it isn't actually incapable, but so many people assume it is). That's what we've been riding on since 2001: the awe-inspiring beauty of a world whose magic changes the very nature of how people interact with their surroundings. The Deathly Hallows is a continuation, but also a culmination and expansion on those moments of immersion. Now all we have to do is wait until July to lose ourselves one last time.

(Note: I originally sent this to Strange Horizons, which explains why it's a little late appearing here. They didn't take it, but not because it wasn't good; they decided to reject it because I waited a little too long to send it to them, and so they thought it seemed too old to offer anything "new." So, I'm posting it here for your enjoyment, and I will be sending something else to them soon enough--possibly something on Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer (the movie)).

Directing: 4/5
Cast: 5/5
Writing: 4/5
Visuals: 3/5
Adaptation: 4/5
Overall: 4/5

Movie Review: 2081

When I first heard about 2081, an independent film adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron," earlier in the year, I had high hopes that something good would come of it.  I am always skeptical of adaptations of science fiction works largely because they have been periodically butchered by Hollywood producers for decades.  But after seeing the trailer, I had a feeling that this would be a film to see, and when I was offered the chance to review the DVD, I jumped on it.

And?  I'm happy to say that I am not disappointed.  2081 is both an excellent adaptation of Vonnegut's short story and a visually arresting, emotionally-charged film that makes the most of its modest runtime (25 minutes).  It succeeds where, sadly, most full-length science fiction films have not by presenting a self-contained, complicated (but not convoluted) plot in a developed and fully-realized future.

2081 is set in a world where true equality is mandated by law.  The strong must wear weights so that they aren't stronger than anyone else; the intelligent wear transmitters that send loud, distracting sounds into their heads to keep them from being more intelligent; and the beautiful must wear masks, lest their beauty afford them an advantage over others.  Vonnegut's vision of the future conjoins equality politics and government intervention, pushing them both to their limit.
2081 presents Vonnegut's world in detail, changing the original story only when necessary and leaving the main thrust of Vonnegut's narrative, and the ultimate social critique within it, intact.  From a film perspective, this is risky, because faithful adaptations (or even semi-faithful adaptations) often flounder due to the untranslatable elements that exist within stories.  But 2081 succeeds, partly because of its length and partly because of the cleverness of the creators; instead of drawing the story out into a full-length film or drastically changing the plot or characters, the creators of 2081 instead add minor details to thicken the social critique and keep the story contained within a thirty-minute time span, which prevents already thin narrative elements from being dragged out to infinity.  These two elements create a vision that is perhaps darker than the satirical "Harrison Bergeron," but equally as poignant and gripping.  Much of what I perceived as the humor (dark though it may be) in the original story seems to have been lost in the film, but to the benefit of the story, rather than to its detriment.  2081 is supposed to threaten our sense of security, both in our biological makeup and natural right to advantage, and in our strong hold on the protected nuclear family (social Darwinism vs. capitalism's influence on the nuclear family as the family unit we see today).  Drawing out the influence of family on Vonnegut's narrative and making it far more central and troubling than in the original story makes 2081 into a powerful family tragedy, since the struggles of a family (and father) to remember a lost loved one amidst handicaps that make such remembrance impossible suggest undertones of Alzheimer's disease--the primary difference being that 2081's future is preventable.  But the strength of the narrative is not the film's only strong point.

From a visual perspective, 2081 is modest, but expertly crafted.  To be fair, "Harrison Bergeron" is not an intergalactic tale, nor an extravagantly scenic one.  All of its scenes are set in relatively simple locations:  a home and a theater, for example.  But these locations are handled well and serve to enhance the more technological aspects of the presented world--the high point of the visuals for me.  Televisions are updated to be slightly more interactive and noticeably more advanced (one of the characters fixes the television at the beginning of the film to highlight this); even the programs on the TV are shifted so that we get a sense of Vonnegut's world both from the interaction of the two primary characters and from the world outside as relayed from a proxy device (the TV).

Likewise, the machinery that makes everyone "equal" is marked by lighted displays (CGed as far as I can tell), presumably to suggest that there are details to be seen there that we don't actually need to see to get the point (except, perhaps, to remind us that the removal of these devices comes with a heavy penalty, which implies that the government is always watching).  All of these minor changes to the objects are handled with care in a way that many science fiction films are incapable of doing:  they are not gimmicks or CG-extravagant monstrosities to light up the screen, but accessories to heighten the impact of the world.

However, the film does not stop there.  It becomes obvious throughout who the central figure is, not just because the character in question receives the most screen time, but noticeably because the screen itself distorts as the "equality" machinery works to keep his intellectual capacities at bay.  These distortions are nothing new in science fiction (let alone film in general), but are used, much like the slight alterations to the technology presented on screen, to highlight the severity of the reality of 2081's future.  We, like the characters, are regularly disoriented by these shifts, but only for a moment; the result is that we are left with the truth, while the characters are subjected to full disorientation.

But effective disorientation requires good acting, and 2081 delivers just that.  James Cosmo (as George Bergeron) is superb here; Cosmo has moments where we can both hear and see the tremendous weight left on his character's shoulders by a tragic past and the world itself (literally and metaphorically).  For a story with very little dialogue, 2081 has to relay a great deal of its emotive power through facial and bodily expression, which Cosmo displays with great aptitude.  Even Julie Hagerty (known best, perhaps, for her role in Airplane! some thirty years ago) fulfills her role as Hazel Bergeron with such success, playing the somewhat dimwitted un-handicapped wife/mother with skill (Hazel even has a kind of charm that both amuses and annoys).  Armie Hammer as Harrison Bergeron, though in the film for only a brief moment, is also enjoyable, and slightly creepy; he plays the role with a sense of desperation and insanity (and hopefully I'm not the only one that sees allusions to Malcolm McDowell's portrayal of Alex in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange).

No film, however, is flawless.  Certain aspects of the visuals did feel a tad shaky (which is why I suspected that they were CGed, as indicated above).  In the end, this didn't bother me enough to see it as a serious problem, and I think it would be fair to say that I am extraordinarily picky when it comes to CG use (Michael Bay has effectively destroyed CG for me).  There are also some issues to be had with the structure of the plot.  While I applaud the creators for sticking to the source material, I still feel as though the ending lacks a full sense of closure.  Perhaps this is a personal hangup, but since 2081 shifts minor elements in the story to make the ending more climactic than Vonnegut's original story, there seems to be a greater need for a more effective closure beyond that of the source material.  I suspect that this is part of the reason some critics have had minor issues with the film.  Personally, I think the lack of closure is both problematic and interesting, and worth exploring should anyone be interested (I may do just that).  Still, 2081 feels constrained by a larger story sitting underneath Vonnegut's narrative--a story that never fully gets told, but probably shouldn't be simply because of Hollywood's obsession with expanding short stories into grander projects (see the plethora of Philip K. Dick monstrosities on IMDB).

(Even as I write about this last "issue," however, I get the sense that it isn't actually a problem so much as a bit of narrative genius.  You'll have to watch the film to understand, because I'm not particularly interested in spoiling films, let alone books or stories.  When you see the end, though, you should do as I did and try to consider why it exists as it does, and what it says about the world, the characters, and the satirical critique being presented.)

Whether the changes alluded to here should have been written out or fulfilled is up to debate.  In the grand scheme of things, however, it doesn't really matter, because despite this single flaw, 2081 is an excellent short film.  Any fan of serious science fiction should consider giving this film its due space, whether by buying it on DVD or renting it on YouTube (yes, they do that now).  Despite the high DVD price ($11.99, or $1.99 to rent), this film is absolutely worth it (a claim I cannot make for most Hollywood SF productions).  It's the kind of film that a critic feels compelled to write about, and that a fan will cherish for years to come (I am both at the same time).

If you'd like to learn more about 2081 and the creators, check out their website at Finally Equal.

Directing: 5/5
Cast: 5/5
Writing: 4.5/5
Visuals: 4.5/5
Adaptation: 4/5
Overall: 4.6/5
Value: $10.50 (based on a $10.50 max)(this number is based on movie ticket value)

P.S.:  I should note that the packaging for 2081 is quite beautiful.  Whoever did the DVD case design deserves recognition for keeping it simple and elegant at the same time.  They should then be hired to do all DVD case designs for every Hollywood and independent production company in the world.

Inception, An Addendum: Emotion

Last week, I reviewed Inception and mentioned that I intended to see the film again and write some more about it. Now that I've seen it a second time, I think there are three things that need to be discussed about the film: emotional maturity, the state of narrative ambiguity, and the music. All three have been discussed by film critics and fans, but I think that they are all important enough to address further, particularly because of what Inception might very well represent for science fiction film (i.e. a revolution of sorts). But because these three things deserve considerable attention, I'm going to break them up into three posts. First up is motion.

Inception: Emotionally Bereft or Misunderstood?

One of the things that Inception has been attacked for is its supposed lack of emotional maturity. Visually, the film is gorgeous and the narrative elements are quite intriguing and complex,
but when you separate those elements from the film's intended impact, it does become somewhat obvious that the emotional overtones are, perhaps, weakened, if not by the very nature of the kind of film Inception is, then at least by Nolan's desire to present a narrative that does not give clean answers. Cobb is really the only significant character that is given a developed emotional narrative, while secondary characters like Fischer display emotion only at key moments, and without actual development. The latter of these scenarios, however, seems to me to be entirely intentional and to serve a point.

Cobb's narrative is our focal point, and we're supposed to assume that his development is linear (to a point); everything else is washed into the background because Cobb is the only one whose emotional relationships actually influence everything around him. Further supporting this is the fact that we know that the emotional development for Fischer is entirely artificial: it is literally created from nothingness, and, thus, intentionally sudden and intentionally non-linear. Depending on how you interpret Inception, you could argue that Cobb's development is also artificial, but the problem with that interpretation is that it relies on an incredible leap of faith based on a handful of narrative clues that are intensely ambiguous. The reality is that Cobb's narrative, regardless of your interpretation, is linear and serves as a counterpoint to Fischer's narrative, which suggests, I think, that when emotion is fabricated, it must necessarily lose its potency.

What I disagree with in regards to Inception, however, are the various claims that the film "emotionally barren." Yes, the emotional tensions are not as high as they could be, but what matters in Inception is that what we're dealing with is a tour into the psyche in the most psychoanalytic/psychological sense. Inception is built like an impossibly complicated wall of layers. The layers bleed into one another; clues lie buried in places you didn't expect them to be, things occur and progress in ways that shatter previously standardized layers, and the narrative progression follows these layers as best it can to the climax, which is, in and of itself, fabricated from the deterioration of Cobb's mental health. What Inception gives us is a psychological treatment for the human psyche, bereft in part of emotion precisely because of the overwhelming quality of the emotions being suppressed. Cobb is a man whose past is mired in mistakes and the most disrupting of regrets, all of which he has tried to suppress within himself to do what so many of us do when we can't cope with what we've done or have seen: divorce ourselves from it.

To say that Inception is emotionally bereft, then, is to miss the point of the movie. Of course Inception lacks emotional depth; the focal point of the movie is a man who is psychologically ruined, who cannot face his past, who cannot hold the same emotional ties to the real world that he did before, and who, inevitably, finds that his psyche is more willing to break down his barriers against emotion and force him to face his reality than he is. The end of film, thus, offers an ambiguous but emotionally clear message by showing Cobb's admittance to his mistakes and rejection of his past. It's an ending that suggests that the uncontrollable parts of ourselves (i.e. the subconscious) have a stake in our actions and our emotions. Inception is not an emotionless film, but a film that is about finding those emotions beneath a suppressive wall of guilt and fear, and about breaking down those walls to find one's way back to "reality."

All of the above is how I view Inception's emotional overtones. But as many have pointed out, this film is open to an endless sea of interpretations.

Movie Review: Inception

There is only one movie I have been literally ecstatic about seeing, which is not something that happens to me very often. That movie is Inception. I can't quite explain why, except to say that the marketing team behind Inception managed to utterly captivate me with their trailers and strong attempts at keeping secret the details of what I am calling "Nolan's masterpiece." Point is, the moment I heard about Inception, I was hooked, and I have spent the last three or four months waiting for what I hoped would be the best movie of the entire year, let alone the best science fiction movie in decades. And you know what Inception provided? Everything I could have ever wanted and more. It is, in my opinion, the best movie of the year and is easily in my top ten best science fiction movies of all time. Calling Inception "Nolan's masterpiece" is an understatement. It is a tour de force, a feat of monumental cinematic proportions. For those that had doubts about Nolan's ability to escape the brilliant success of The Dark Knight, Inception proves you wrong, because it is the one movie that I think defines Nolan as an expert filmmaker, as the kind of writer and director that can actually produce high quality original material and direct it at a level that certain other filmmakers haven't been able to do since the beginning of their careers (I'm looking at you M. Night Shyamalan). Inception is, to put it more simply, a must see. Now for my review (after the fold): Describing Inception is difficult. I am writing this review with the intention of leaving out the specifics, partly because I think everyone should see this movie and partly because doing so could potentially ruin the experience of discovery that I received while watching it. With that in mind, I am going to steal the synopsis from IMDB to give you a better impression of the plot of the movie:
Dom Cobb is a skilled thief, the absolute best in the dangerous art of extraction, stealing valuable secrets from deep within the subconscious during the dream state, when the mind is at its most vulnerable. Cobb's rare ability has made him a coveted player in this treacherous new world of corporate espionage, but it has also made him an international fugitive and cost him everything he has ever loved. Now Cobb is being offered a chance at redemption. One last job could give him his life back but only if he can accomplish the impossible-inception. Instead of the perfect heist, Cobb and his team of specialists have to pull off the reverse: their task is not to steal an idea but to plant one. If they succeed, it could be the perfect crime. But no amount of careful planning or expertise can prepare the team for the dangerous enemy that seems to predict their every move. An enemy that only Cobb could have seen coming.
Inception is one of those rare movies that makes you think while entertaining you, something that doesn't happen all that often. Right from the start, the movie slams you head first into the complex world that Nolan has created, showing you how things work, how difficult and detailed everything is, and how much time and energy Nolan undoubtedly put into every aspect of the film, from the cast to the situation to the visuals. It becomes clear right that what is to follow (i.e. the primary narrative) will be a complicated, but thoroughly engaging event. And it is. The deeper Nolan takes us into the intricate web of his dream worlds, the more amazingly complicated, strange, and exciting things become. The progression of the primary narrative is smooth and timed perfectly (often for good reason) and the climax is probably one of the most brilliantly suspenseful moments I have seen on film (you'll have to watch to understand what I mean). Characters "die," even important ones, and the more complex the climax becomes, building up like a spiderweb or layering like a quantum pie, the more obvious the danger that everyone is in becomes--one wrong movie and everything will come crumbling down. The narrative, thankfully, is well-supported by two things: a fantastic cast and amazing visuals. The latter of these demonstrates precisely why only certain directors should use CG, because Nolan clearly understands where using CG is best placed and where using physical mediums is superior. Inception is a combination of both, in the sense that some action sequences are done almost entirely without CG, and others are not (the latter of these are typically scenes that simply cannot be done without CG). The appropriate lack of CG is no small feat. Entire action sequences that would likely be made easier on the actors and the director by reducing it all to a CGed mess are instead done with what we assume are expertly-handled wires and ingenious contraptions. An example of this is actually in the trailers, where we see Joseph Gordon-Levitt flying down or climbing up the walls of a hotel hallway. The entire sequence is brilliant, but even that snippet shows you just how important realism is to Nolan. He wants his vision to encapsulate the wonder of the dream, while also invoking believability; without that, the entire film would crash to the ground, because once the audience no longer suspends its disbelief, there is nothing left to tell or do but drawn one's own inadequacies.. From an acting standpoint, the film is well cast. DeCaprio's (Cobb) slight dislike for science fiction doesn't show as he delivers a believable character with a troubled past and an emotional mission. Gordon-Levitt (Arthur), surprisingly, not only demonstrates his often ignored ability to do something other that "teen comedy," but shows viewers, I think, that he is capable of pulling off action heroes. There was never a moment when I questioned whether Arthur was the right fit for Gordon-Levitt; he just seemed to fit. Ken Watanabe (Saito), who I greatly admire, starts off somewhat slow, but quickly becomes a fascinating secondary character, while Cillian Murphy (Robert Fischer, Jr.) delivers a stunning performance, despite having very little in terms of screen time. Ellen Page (Ariadne) helps round out the largely male cast with a strong, though not necessarily her best, performance, evoking a sense of maturity-beyond-her-years. She's not the only female character though, but I'm not going to say anything else about that. All in all, the cast is, I think, probably one of the best ensembles in a science fiction film, and possibly a good contender outside of the genre. But now we run into a problem. I've said nothing but good things about this movie. In a lot of ways, Inception deserves it. From start to finish, it is an amazing film, but it also doesn't feel like a perfect film. There is something missing. A key, but minuscule component. I think Inception's only flaw is that its incredibly complex, though fascinating narrative pulls something away from the emotional impact of Cobb's story. The end, while clever and definitely emotional, failed, at least on a first viewing, to bring me to the emotional level that I think Nolan was looking for, and this largely because I spent a considerably amount of time trying to make sure that I understood what was going on (that's not to say that I didn't have an emotional reaction, just that I wasn't brought to that "happy tears" or "sad tears" place that emotionally powerful movies often bring me to). But this might also be Inception's strength, because few movies are built in such a way that makes the act of seeing it again in theaters potentially rewarding. Now that I know how everything works, I feel as though it would be beneficial to head back into Nolan's vision and allow Cobb's story to consume me. I intend to do just that this week, and I'll be back with an addendum to this review. For now, you have my first round thoughts to roll around in your head. Directing: 4.75/5 Cast: 5/5 Writing: 5/5 Visuals: 5/5 Adaptation: N/A Overall: 4.9375/5 Value: $10.50 (based on a $10.50 max) P.S.: You absolutely must see this movie.