Monthly Archives: January 2013

Starship Troopers: Invasion (2012)

(On Cable TV, January 2013)  It’s almost reasonable that this fourth film in the Verhoeven-influenced series would make the jump to full CGI animation: after all, most of the film takes place in entirely-synthetic environments, with aliens battling human soldiers in oversized power-suits.  Never mind if the human CGI characters haven’t improved much since 2001’s Final Fantasy: The Spirit Within: they’re now much cheaper to produce (Final Fantasy was a prestige $137M production released in thousands of movie theaters; Invasion is a direct-to-video release) and actors don’t have to negotiate harder if they’re asked to perform nude scenes.  (In the spirit of the franchise, Invasion has one naked locker-room scene.  In CGI, it’s about as appealing as you’d think –which is to say, not very much.)  At least the format enables the screenwriters to indulge into complicated action sequences that could never be executed otherwise: Invasion spends much of its time in space, battling evil bugs aboard space stations and starships.  The goal here is to deliver on a lot of military Science Fiction action against evil bugs, and the film more or less manages to deliver –albeit with some rough pacing issues in the first act, as undistinguishable characters are set up with the goal of killing off most of them before the end of the film.  Invasion plays roughshod with physics (an action beat early in the film makes no sense considering that there’s no gravity in space, but the entire film assumes that there is) and Parisian geography, but there are a few neat ideas here and there (being able to use the powered armor adds a bit of action), a good sense of mounting tension and at least a nod at the series’ continuity –although I’m told that the story makes more sense if you’ve seen the Roughneck animated series.  While the result may be a bit formulaic, the screenwriting possibilities offered by CGI make it better than either the second or third film in the series… and that’s significant: Invasion may be most interesting considered, alongside Sony stable-mate Resident Evil: Degeneration, as an early example of how animation can be used to extend the life of SF franchises (perhaps soon allowing characters to remain forever young despite their connection to an actor).  As it is, the film isn’t a complete waste of time, although you may have to like military SF in order to make the best of it.

Terrorvision (1986)

(On Cable TV, January 2013) I must be losing whatever little horror-camp sense of humor I might have had, because my reaction to this horror/comedy hybrid is closer to faint disgust than knowledgeable amusement.  Terrorvision (watched because of three silly reasons: I’d never heard of it, it shares a title with a British pop band I like and it could be recorded on the PVR without too much trouble) mixes lame comedy with gooey horror in showing an extraterrestrial monster invading a family home.  But it’s all in the execution, and clearly the filmmakers had no intention of delivering a conventional film.  Here, the family home is decorated like a brothel, the adults are swingers, the grandpa is a survivalist, the teenage daughter incarnates 80s-pop-chic and all are meant to become monster fodder.  Terrorvision is directed with a sense of overacting, plastic sets, straightforward cinematography and a garish design sense that make lower-rung sitcoms look subtle.  The initial impression is off-putting (especially for those without affinity with trash camp cinema), but what keeps the first half-hour interesting is a growing dismay at how bad the movie can become, mixed with an unhealthy fascination at seeing so many 80s clichés piling up on-screen.  (Also: getting a glimpse at the naughty art on the wall of the house)  Once half the family has been killed shortly after the hour-long mark, however, much of the interest evaporates, leaving a slight sense of grossness at the results.  Grotesque and iconoclastic, Terrovision does have a few things going for it: its willingness to subvert expectations, however, would have been more acceptable had it been tempered with better laughs, fewer gross-out moments, a bit more wit and/or some nudity (curiously enough for a non-mainstream horror/comedy hybrid, Terrorvision mercilessly teases but never delivers.)  I ended up fast-forwarding through much of the last half-hour, and watching the last few minutes in real-time did not make me regret that decision despite the narrative subversion that gets wilder and wilder as the film advances.  In fact, I felt slightly dirty after watching the film, as if it hadn’t managed to earn its transgressions with basic filmmaking competence.  But then again, maybe I’m losing my sense of humor.

The Words (2012)

(Video on Demand, January 2013) I’m favourably pre-disposed toward films about writing and writers, but even with this added sympathy, there are many ways in which The Words doesn’t quite work as well as it could.  The interweaving of stories in which a successful author tells us about a young writer hearing about another young author’s life is intriguing, but the conclusion seems to spring forward at about thirty second’s notice, with a scarcity of details at the upper level.  The sudden appearance of the end “directed by” card is a disappointment, as so much of the story seems unfinished.  More holes emerge the longer one thinks about the film.  I also had a few problems with the putative protagonist of the film, ably played by Bradley Cooper: What kind of idiot calling himself a writer works exclusively for years on a single literary manuscript in New York City?  Who is incurious enough not to investigate a literate manuscript from post-War France when so many great writers lived there at the time?  Why even call yourself a “writer” when there’s so little hesitation in plagiarizing so thoroughly?  Even allowing The Words those premises as given (and adding the improbability of a manuscript remaining undiscovered for decades) and appreciating the careful way in which the film is constructed doesn’t necessarily make the film a success considering its cast.  Dennis Quaid and Olivia Wilde’s characters remain half-developed mysteries, unbalancing the film’s core of interest to its first fictional level.  Despite the deliberate ambiguity at the very end of the film, The Words seems half-finished, a decent film petering out in a wet whisper of a conclusion.  Despite wanting to like the film and everyone involved in it, it ends up being a bit of a dud.  A well-made, respectable, often-likable dud, but a dud nonetheless.

Cooking for Geeks, Jeff Potter

O’Reilly Media, 2010, 432 pages, C$43.99 tp, ISBN 978-0-596-80588-3

To repeat the obvious: Books aren’t just about their subject matter than they are about their relationship with their intended audience.  You can turn an ordinary book into a remarkable oddity simply by shifting the audience, and that’s where the genius of Jeff Potter’s Cooking for Geeks comes in.

Yes, there have been a lot of cookbooks over the past few years.  Cooking has become something cool, and cookbooks are reliably the top-selling genre of non-fiction books.  Everyone needs to eat, so the theoretical audience for cookbooks is everyone.  Who isn’t hungry for a few more delicious recipes? So when publishing house O’Reilly, specialized in technical manuals for computer experts, decides to publish something called Cooking for Geeks, you can expect some serious cooking advice for equally-serious nerds. 

One of the best things about the book is that it makes no assumptions of competence.  Geeks can learn anything, and much of the book is dedicated to re-explaining cooking from a technical perspective.  If ever you’re in the market for an explanation of food that somehow involves references to UNIX, solid engineering principles and geek-culture icons such as Mythbusters and XKCD, then, well, Cooking for Geeks is exactly what its title promises.

As may be expected from a geek-book explaining the world, Cooking for Geeks is both playful and endlessly curious.  One of the earliest exercise in the book, demonstrating how recipes aren’t sacred tests, consists in data-mining the internet for pancake recipes, and then averaging out the results into a peer-reviewed meta-recipe of sorts.  Cooking isn’t like programming in that precise syntax isn’t required (loose typing is fine), but cooking is like coding in that there are often many, many ways to get to the same results.  (It’s no accident if Cooking for Geeks contains both “don’t deviate from the recipe” and “deviate from the recipe” as fundamental advice.)  If everything else fails, you can either recompile (alter the ingredients) or go COTS (order pizza).

Potter’s assured main text is enlivened by numerous pull-outs and interviews with geek and cooking notables.  The interviews bring different voices into the narrative, explore tangential subjects or simply show how cooking is unusually well-suited to personal explorations.  All interviewees are enthusiastic about their topics, and this attitude carries over into the book’s cheerful boosterism for cooking.  Nearly every page of Cooking for Geeks brims with the typical geek attitude of endless curiosity about the world.  Compared to other introductions to cooking, Potter’s technical tangents are what makes the book worth reading.

From relatively basic beginnings, Cooking for Geeks gets quite a bit more complicated as it goes on, eventually touching upon deeply geeky cooking innovations such as molecular cuisine, sous-vide and “power-tool” cooking in which warranties get voided.  Throw in an exemplary chapter on food safety and the result is a well-rounded introduction to the culinary arts for an audience that wouldn’t necessary know where to begin in the vast, vast ocean of cooking-related information.  Potter has done the research, cleared away the confusion and presented an invaluable distillation

Will it transform anyone into a decent cook?  It depends on readers’ follow-up, of course: The danger with cookbooks, no matter the audience, is that they are read enthusiastically and then gradually forgotten without having made an impact, falling victim to the chronic lack of time that everyone (not just geeks) is belabouring under.  The same amount of time required to become a proficient coder is the same as one required to become a decent cook, and no amount of cheerleading can go against the pressures of life.  But that’s outside the book, and in the meantime Cooking for Geeks is almost exactly the best cookbook that could have worn this title.

Final Destination 5 (2011)

(On Cable TV, January 2013) I’m of two minds about the Final Destination horror film series: While the first one created a nice sense of dread that carried through after the credits rolled, much of the subsequent series has been pure carnography, with ingenious Rube-Goldbergian death sequences leading to excessive gore.  Final Destination 5 is neither better nor worse than the series has been on average: The opening disaster sequence is impressively staged, with Vancouver’s Lions Gate Bridge earning a starring role in the process.  When it comes to the usual death sequences, they blend amusing fake-outs with preposterous assumptions about the fragility of a human body: In this film, the slightest blunt trauma apparently causes bodies to explode and rain internal organs.  It’s this cheap Grand-Guignol approach to its deaths scenes that drag down the series’ more interesting themes.  At least Final Destination 5 is slightly better than its immediate predecessors in expanding the mythology: it suggest another way out of the death cycle but, true to the series’ increasingly tedious nihilism, immediately snatches it away in a muddle of dark irony and plot holes.  The finale brings back the film to the first installment but the stunt feels more perfunctory than interesting –it would have worked best as a trilogy-finale, but it’s not as if there won’t be another Final Destination 6 in a few years, after all.  As for the film itself, there’s some crisp and efficient work here by director Steven Quale (shot in 3D, the film still works just fine in 2D TV-land), and some of the actors are charismatic enough to make us sympathise with them a little bit. (“Aw, c’mon, couldn’t we wait a bit before killing Olivia?”)  While still a notch better than usual horror film (and quite a bit better than the usual fifth installment of ongoing horror franchises), this Final Destination 5 is also sadly notable for the opportunities it doesn’t take.  It’s good at what it tries to do, but for once I’d like a less gory and more thoughtful take on the same material.

Wrath of the Titans (2012)

(On Cable TV, January 2013) The sad news is that Wrath of the Titans doesn’t have the arch melodramatic tone that made its predecessor so much fun to watch: “Release the Kraken!”, anyone?  The good news is that this sequel to Clash of the Titans remains a relatively entertaining action/fantasy film: the bare-bones plot serves handily as an excuse for well-choreographed action sequences involving grander-than-life fantastical creatures.  Director Jonathan Liebesman shows a good eye for flowing action sequences, and the film has a few gorgeous continuous shots in which the action plays out beautifully.  Tons of fiery special effects add more interest, especially when dealing with the skyscraper-sized end boss.  Sam Worthington holds the film together as no-nonsense reluctant hero Perseus, but Bill Nighy has a bit of fun as a half-mad god while Liam Neeson also makes an impression as a bound Zeus.  Thematically, there’s a flicker of interest when we realize that the story is taking place at the twilight of the gods’ influence over human affairs: there’s a last-hurrah atmosphere to the plot that interesting in its own right.  Still, let’s not kid ourselves: this is pure spectacle, the fantasy elements being excuses for bigger action set-pieces.  Wrath of the Titans works well in this context, and delivers the high-gloss entertainment factor that viewers of the first film expected.  That first entry wasn’t all that good, but this follow-up best succeeds at what it tries to do, and that’s already quite a bit better than many recent action/fantasy hybrids.

Looper (2012)

(Video on Demand, January 2013) There are quite a few things that annoy me about Looper: The inanity of its time-traveling premise, the slap-dash way its future is assembled, the way the two main stories of the film don’t seem to mesh seamlessly, the lengthy time-out in the third quarter of the film… all elements that could and should have been fixed.  But these doubts having been expressed, let us not be distracted from the fact that Looper remains one of the strongest SF films of 2012 in a relatively crowded field: It’s a solid movie, a confident effort that doesn’t spoon-feed its audience and engages with provocative questions about our relationship with ourselves (in the first plot-line) and our duty to the future (in the second).  Joseph Gordon-Lewitt stars as the younger version of a character also played by Bruce Willis, but it’s writer/director Rian Johnson who emerges as the big winner of the film: not only does he turn in an accomplished piece of cinema, he also plays with SF archetypes in a refreshing matter-of-fact fashion that allows him to use those elements to get to the core of the drama he wants to set up.  Looper goes effortlessly from the streets to the cornfields, striking a Midwest SF atmosphere that feels refreshingly different from many of the other recent SF blockbusters.  While the script has weaker points, it manages to present a few complex ideas cleanly, and its second half’s sense of moral uncertainty is uncanny in the best sense.  For SF fans who are tired of the same old visually-spectacular-but-dramatically-hollow products, Looper is a small triumph and another entry in the mini-boom of good original cinematic SF since District 9

The Girl (2012)

(On Cable TV, January 2013)  The example set by Alfred Hitchcock still looms large over the entire suspense genre, but as the years go by the filmmaker seems to be remembered more as a cultural icon than a man.  That makes him ripe for a re-interpretation:  The Girl uses the director’s troubled relationship with actress Tippi Hedren as a way to explore his weaknesses and the result is damning.  Here, Hitchcock is portrayed as an unapologetic harasser, blending unwelcome advances into the power dynamic between director and actress, abusing Hedren under the guise of filmmaking as a way to take revenge against her unwillingness to play along.  The Girl is obviously told from Hedren’s point of view –Sienna Miller spent some time with Hedren in preparation for her role, and Toby Jones seems fully committed to presenting an increasingly unlikable portrayal of the director.  For a TV (BBC/HBO) film, the film has acceptable production values and decent direction.  Both Miller and Jones turn in good performances, and film enthusiasts will appreciate both the recreation of The Birds’ shooting process alongside an unusual look at the dynamic between actor and director.  While Hitchcock’s portrayal here is one-sided (numerous other associates of the director have spoken against the film; the competing Hitchcock biopic is said to be more sympathetic), it’s certainly not uninteresting.  As such, the film warrants a look even as a dramatized exaggeration of real-life events: we may not know the true story, but the way it’s presented here is enough to make anyone wonder about what went on in 1960s Hollywood.

Premium Rush (2012)

(Video on Demand, January 2013) There are times during Premium Rush where it’s not clear whether we’re watching a straightforward action thriller, or a glorification of the New York bike courier subculture.  But why can’t it be both?  After all, it’s practically a given that if you want to write an easy story set in any subculture, you bring in money, violence, chases and corrupt cops.  Here, Joseph Gordon-Lewitt easily buffers his credentials as a hot young actor equally capable of playing action hero as he is in delivering sometimes-awkward dialogue: he plays the best of the Manhattan couriers, soon involved way over his head as a hilariously intense Michael Shannon chases him down.  It’s all slap-and-dash by-the-number plotting, but writer/director David Koepp keeps things moving at a satisfying pace through interludes zooming around New York, hopping back and forth in time as the glory and danger of being an NYC bike courier is graphically described.  There’s some satisfying black comedy in the way our protagonist sees the world, and some meta-amusement once viewers understand the way the cycling set-pieces are lined up in a row: Here’s some Central Park racing, here’s stunting in a warehouse; here’s a hip reference to flash-mobbing…  You’d think that 2012 was a bit late in the movie-making game to deliver such blunt material, but Premium Rush is that kind of film: no subtext, straightforward dialogue, convenient coincidences and half-hearted plot justifications.  (Well, maybe not even half-hearted –No one ever thinks of using the subway in this movie.)  Does it work?  Sure, but only in the barest sense: It moves along, delivers the goods with a bit of visual flourish and Gordon-Lewitt manages to be not annoying in a generally annoying role.  But that’s it: If you’re thinking about Premium Rush as being anything but a glossy Hollywood look into bike messenger subculture, it’s disappointing.  The film doesn’t sustain a serious second-guessing of its assumptions, and relies on stock clichés far too often to be respectable.  Simply put, it could have been quite a bit better –either as a thriller or as a look into the subculture.