(On Cable TV, May 2014) Reviews for science-fiction action thriller After Earth were downright hostile, and after seeing the result it’s not only easy to agree: it’s hard to know where to begin in reporting the on-screen disaster. It didn’t take a long time for the film to grate on my nerves: Never mind the “directed by M. Night Shyamalan” credit warning: the early scenes set in a far-future society multiply the implausibility, from window shades that don’t actually close to creatures that can (only) smell fear to some of the ugliest aesthetics imaginable. It doesn’t get much better once the plot gets in motion and that stupidity compounded by bad design lands two characters away from everything else. The script is terrible, and the direction isn’t much better: there’s little sense of energy or spectacle to the adventures of a young man racing toward survival. (Once upon a time, I defended Shyamalan’s directing skills even as his scripts worsened. Not anymore, and certainly not since The Last Airbender.) There isn’t much imagination on display regarding the features of this future earth (much of it “bigger and faster animals!”, ignoring the time required for evolution.) While it’s good to see Will Smith play a mature adult role, Jaden Smith doesn’t bring much as the lead –although it’s probably just as fair to blame both script and direction for his lack of affect. It all builds up to a snooze of a climax. Despite my own built-in liking for SF adventures, I found little to enjoy here, and considerable relief when the film ended.
(On Cable TV, May 2014) The one thing that a horror movie can’t afford to flub is its ending, and if The Conspiracy is interesting throughout, it’s really the ironic conclusion that makes it worthwhile. The premise is relatively witty, as two documentary filmmakers putting together a film on conspiracy theorists get caught up in a true global machination. The film slowly gets creepier at goes along, and if much of it can be foreseen well in advance, the execution keeps things focused. (There’s a lovely mirror shot toward the third act that is as effective a horrific reveal as could have been imagined.) I’m not sure that some of the plot mechanics can sustain more than a casual glimpse, but it does results in a strong third act, and a very well-done conclusion that is all the more horrifying by its reassurance that everything is just fine. As a low-budget Canadian found-footage horror/thriller film, writer/director Christopher MacBride’s The Conspiracy plays effectively with expectations and is a success at what it attempts. Not an unpleasant cable-TV discovery.
(On Cable TV, May 2014) Oh, what a fiendishly troubled family relationship is set up in Stoker‘s unapologetic gothic madness. Big foreboding house, dead father, crazy mother, troubled daughter and deranged uncle: it’s all there, along with generous helpings of tentative incest and confirmed murder. It takes a special kind of audience to play along, but director Park Chan-wook’s stylish direction means that everything look good even as the script makes no effort to be anything but a deep genre homage. The film surely takes its own time setting up all of its elements: Stoker is moody and contemplative at the best of time. It doesn’t help that the entire film exists in its own reality out of time, the characters living in personal orbits that have more to do with Hitchcockian homage than anything else. Mia Wasikowska is remarkable as the introspective teenage heroine, easily stealing the spotlight away from Nicole Kidman’s by-the-number deranged mother, but it’s Matthew Goode who gets the acclaim with his Anthony-Perkinsesque role as the visiting Uncle Charles, as his handsome features barely disguise a completely demented mind. The best moments of the film are in the heroine’s reactions to his psychopathy, as they take us farther from classical gothic thrillers and into something quite a bit more twisted. And then there’s the sumptuous direction, which imbues a great deal of class to a script that could have been handled as schlock in less-experienced hands. Where Stoker isn’t as successful is in doing anything with the elements at its disposition. Much of the third-act revelations are obvious, whereas what actually happens during the conclusion feels a bit flat despite the increasing amount of blood being spilled. Stoker makes more sense on a shot-per-shot basis than a sustained film, but the direction is so striking at times that it’s hard to be all that disappointed in the result.
(On Cable TV, May 2014) Every so often, I’m tempted to check out the latest Friedberg/Seltzer “comedy” just to check that this writing/directing duo is still operating at the lowest possible level. The Starving Games confirms that, yes, they are still all the way down there. Showing no measurable improvement over their streak of laugh-free comedies, it features the usual crude humor, meaningless pop references, cartoon violence, cocked-head reaction shot in lieu of a laugh track and lazy re-creations that have marred their previous efforts. It’s meant to be a straight-up feature-length parody of The Hunger Games, but no thought has been spent trying to comment upon the original source material or going further than simply aping the work of better creators. This time, however, Friedberg/Seltzer’s effort seems shoddier than usual: The Starving Games has a visibly lower budget than their previous efforts, and even the bare 70-minutes running time (padded with nearly a quarter-hour’s worth of bloopers and credits) feels endless. There are a few chuckles out there, but not as many as you’d think from even a low-budget parody film: I had more fun watching even the not-so-good A Haunted House. The sole bright spot is Maiara Walsh in the lead role: despite the terrible role, she throws herself in her performance with energy, and remains unexpectedly captivating throughout. Otherwise, there really isn’t much to say about The Starving Games: it’s empty even by the standards of dumb comedies, and only finds a purpose by being filler in-between better things.
(On Cable TV, May 2014) “Amateurish” is a good way to describe much of RoboDoc, from the thin lazy plotting to the on-the-nose dialogues to the overacting to the lame editing. Everyone mugs for laughs in the film, and it’s not even close to be subtle. While it’s closer to C-grade comedy than even the dumbest theatrical releases, RoboDoc at least understands that it’s supposed to be a crude blunt chuckle-fest. As a result, it feels a bit funnier than many more respectable comedies: For all of the film’s casual sexism and gratuitous racism, it’s surprisingly good natured. (There’s a worrying lobotomy-revenge gag late in the film, but it sets up a pretty good political joke not even thirty seconds later.) It would be easy to believe that much of the film’s built-in humanism comes from the two practicing MDs who wrote the script, in which a robotic doctor actually ends up being a paragon of good medicine and more efficient health-care. Insurance companies and ambulance-chasing lawyers are mercilessly mocked, and the end of the film suggests a better world in the making… which really isn’t the kind of science-fictional utopian thinking we expect in confronting a film presented by National Lampoon. The film’s comedy may not fly high, but it’s dense enough to offer a chuckle every few moments. William Haze isn’t too bad as the titular robodoc, but the only two actors who somehow manage to float above the rest are experienced sitcom actors Alan Thicke as a patrician doctor, and David Faustino as a nebbish engineer. Much of the rest is forgettable. Still, I’ve been bored, disgusted or put off by at least three other far bigger-budgeted films in the past week alone, and my tolerance for silly low-budget films grows at every failed Hollywood monstrosity. So while I’m not going to pretend that RoboDoc is worth more than a passing look in the absence of anything better, I’m not going to pretend that it’s completely worthless either. Fans of low-grade comedies can already recognize if they’re likely to enjoy it.
(On Cable TV, May 2014) Here’s a philosophical question: If you’re bored enough by a film that you slide off in a pleasant slumber by the time the third act rolls, and rouse just before the end credit, and yet feel no need to go back to check what you’ve missed, can you be said to have watched the entire film? What about when your attention is distracted by a second screen? What about when you just go to the bathroom, or grab a bite from the kitchen without pausing? What about when you blink and miss a few frames of the film? At what point does “not watching” become relevant, and when does it turn into a review statement of its own? All of this to say that while I had reasonably high hopes for Empire State, the film quickly degenerated in an implausible snooze-fest. The opening moments of the film set up an intriguing early-eighties slice of life in New York’s Greek community. Then it’s off to a heist caper, but not just any heist caper: one of the least plausible heist capers imaginable, filled with coincidences, laziness and hard-to-accept arbitrariness. Events “just happen” and it’s hard for fiction to let its main character plan such a heist while warning signs about him all abound. After an hour, the verdict is clear: Empire State is dull, tired and with little grace in the way it uses either its historical setting or its actors. Liam Hemsworth isn’t developing as a compelling lead actor and this film does nothing to enhance his distinctiveness as anything more than “Chris Hemsworth’s brother.” Michael Angarano’s more distinctive, but his slimeball character is more annoying than striking. Meanwhile, don’t be fooled by the box-cover: While Dwayne Johnson is in the film, he’s only in there for a few minutes, and seems to belong in an entirely different film every time he’s on-screen. Little wonder that even with a moderately-high budget, Empire State went direct-to-video ($11 million isn’t much by blockbuster standards, but it’s higher than most film of this kind). There’s little here that make the film special in any fashion.
(On Cable TV, May 2014) It’s easy to dismiss Vehicle 19 as not much more than a hum-drum thriller: it uses well-worn plot elements, doesn’t show any particularly memorable moments, features a dim-witted lead character, feels slow most of the time and if Paul Walker has now been semi-ennobled in death, he remained a fairly average actor throughout his career. But such a quick dismissal misses a good chunk of what makes this film remarkable. Top of the list would be the fact that, save for its final shot, Vehicle 19 never steps outside the minivan where it is set. The camera looks in (usually at Walker) or looks out but never leaves the vehicle, creating a claustrophobic feeling that’s appropriate for the trapped lead character. Writer/director Mukunda Michael Dewil’s plot screws are occasionally ingenious in the ways they, too, stop the film from leaving the minivan. The car chase sequences may feel too restrained to provide much entertainment, but their limited perspective ranks as unique (and seldom more so than in smashing through a convenience store). Vehicle 19 never quite manages to convert its unique assets into something fully engaging, but it does get a few points for ambition, for its South-African Johannesburg setting and for never quite spelling out its entire back-story. It could have been made a bit better, but what’s in there will strike the interest of a few viewers, especially those who like clever premises.
Tor, 2009 revised reprint of 1986 original, 416 pages, $C9.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0812550757
Having re-read Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game shortly after seeing its film adaptation, I was struck by an irresistible impulse to re-read the sequel as well: I would seldom have the original fresher in mind, and it would allow me to revisit Speaker for the Dead much as I revisited Ender’s Game, twenty years after first reading it.
Looking at my 1994 notes about both novels, it’s clear that nineteen-year-old-me liked Ender’s Game a great deal better than Speaker for the Dead. Despite being directly linked, they are very different novels. In Ender’s Game, protagonist Andrew Wiggin is a teenager struggling to make it through a series of desperate battles. In Speaker for the Dead, he’s a mid-thirties man trying to atone for his early crimes by living a life of peace and civility. The age-gap between this older Wiggin and me now is almost the same as the one between Ender’s Game Wiggin and me twenty years ago. As a result, I’m not really surprised to find out that I liked Speaker for the Dead a lot more now than I did then.
It’s also easier, in some ways, to figure out why Speaker for the Dead was such a hit back in the mid-eighties: It features a blend of far-future extrapolation, clean prose, exceptional characters, anthropologic mystery, a world-weary hero, galactic portents, as well as an exploration of colonialism, scientific ethics and the consequences of abuse. I’m not going to pretend that the mid-eighties were a particularly innocent and naïve era, but I will suggest that a number of those themes had not yet been explored then in the way Card dares tackle them, with heartfelt earnestness or blatant emotional manipulation. Looking at the field back then (which was reeling from the cyberpunk wave and perhaps looking for a bit more humanity in its flagship titles), it’s easier to understand why Speaker for the Dead would go on to sweep all awards and earn a place as one of the decade’s defining SF novels… even if it hasn’t aged particularly well.
But before digging into the novel’s problems, let’s spend at least a paragraph praising what works. Because there’s a lot of stuff that’s actually quite good here: Card may have earned a disgraceful reputation as a right-wing homophobe since his eighties heydays, but he’s a skilled writer, and at its best Speaker for the Dead can indulge into easily-digestible exposition (such as when a AI’s inner workings are explained), emotionally resonant sequences (such as when our protagonist does speak for the dead), intricate science-fictional mysteries (such as the riddle behind the alien lifecycle that so baffles the characters) and the technical challenge of spinning a tale with multiple family members and twice as many other characters. Speaker of the Dead takes place in a future with hundreds of planets separated by slower-than-light travel but united by instant communications, and it doesn’t take much more than a few consequent extrapolations to make core-SF fans giddy. The prose is easily digestible, Ender is an exceptional character (and as much as teenager-me wanted to be Ender’s Game tactically brilliant Ender, thirty-something-me would like to have Speaker for the Dead Ender‘s gift for empathy and effortless soothing.) and you can recognize how the novel hits many of SF’s power chords.
But one thing that thirtysomething-me does quite a bit better than teenage-me is question core assumptions of a novel. I don’t suspend my incredulity so easily, and I’m willing to suggest that contemporary Science Fiction is quite a bit better at building a more credible model of reality compared to eighties-era SF. Where I’m going with these caveats is how flawed Speaker for the Dead can feel once you apply more complex models of reality. So it does tackle colonialism –but in ways that seem incredibly manufactured, always from the oh-so-repentant perspective of the white colonial rather than the colonized (a crucial difference now far more common.) (And I’m not even going to talk about the ridiculous passage in which all aliens really do is aspire to starflight, and will flip over themselves if they don’t.) It does tackle victimization by domestic violence, but feels compelled to blame the victim a little bit for not caring enough about the aggressor. It does feature scientists at work… except that a quick look at what they do suggests that they have no understanding whatsoever of the way science truly works. (Or, perhaps more appropriately, not as much that they themselves aren’t very good scientists, but that the entire scientific establishment of the book’s universe is considerably dumber than one of today’s least-competent review boards.) And for all of the wizzy-bang flavor of its universe separated by distance and time, this society three thousand years in the future feels almost too comfortably contemporary –down to a number of planets settled by people speaking today’s languages apparently unchanged. And the inconsistencies… I’m somehow led to believe that Ender has never turned off his link with his AI super-friend Jane even as it’s suggested early during the novel that she’s got to sit around and wait decades every time he takes an STL star-ship trip. The instant he does turn off the link in real-time –blammo, instant unfriending. And how about the ableism late in the novel…? Or, heck, the very strange aside about Calvinism?
Oh, I’m not going to thoroughly tackle the novel’s flaws in order (If you want to, I would rather suggest Wil Wildman’s incisive and hilarious series of posts.) But once you start poking and prodding at Speaker for the Dead‘s assumptions, a lot falls apart. And if something hasn’t really aged well in thirty years, it may be primarily Speaker for the Dead‘s almost smarmy self-assurance that it knows best. Since then, we’ve seen far better examples, writing from better-informed perspectives and achieving far more nuanced goals.
(It’s also worth mentioning as a flaw that, for all of the historical acclaim that Speaker for the Dead got, it leads straight to third volume Xenocide, which earned far fewer friends either then or since. No, I won’t be pursuing my re-reading odyssey any further.)
So it is that Speaker for the Dead nowadays feels far less formidable than it did upon publication. Distance isn’t everything: I believe that the novel contains a number of unforgiveable shortcuts that make it now far less palatable to better-informed, more world-aware audiences. It’s still worth a read for those who are interested in the historical evolution of SF, but I’m not sure that the novel is worth just an entertainment read today –too many flaws, too many vexing presumptions, too many annoyances to fix. But that’s what revisiting books is for –sometimes they improve, and sometimes they don’t.
(On Cable TV, May 2014) The Die Hard series has had its high and lows, but if everyone agrees that the first one was the best, then everyone will recognize that this fifth one is the worst. A joyless action film in which a bland action hero traipses through Russia while insulting the Russians and reminding everyone that he’s supposed to be on holidays, Die Hard 5 becomes the generic end-point of any distinctive series: a film that could have featured any other actors with any other character names. To be fair, Die Hard 5‘s problems are much bigger than simply ignoring the character of John McClane: Much of the blame should go to a dumb script, with the rest generously gift-wrapped by director John Moore’ incoherent action sequences. There are few words to describe how stupid a screenplay this is, marred with coincidences, generic situations, implausible choices and tortured plans far too complicated to be viable. Die Hard 5 seems to be stuck with only one helicopter as an action device, and seems to milk its presence well past the point of diminishing return. The action sequences can’t be bothered to spatially orient viewers, instead relying on copious shaking, dishwater-gray cinematography and blatant disregard for plausibility. The car chase around Moscow, which should have been a standout sequence in any other movie, is here shot in such an incomprehensible fashion that it becomes irritating less than midway through. While Die Hard 5 would have us believe into some good-old father/son rivalry, the result on-screen is more annoying than rewarding, and the CIA plot thread is never believable enough. What a waste, what a sad footnote to a good film franchise and what a disappointment for everyone involved. Bruce Willis, surely you knew better?
(On Cable TV, May 2014) The narrative pedigree of this film is prodigiously confusing (it’s the sequel to a prequel to a remake), but the results are surprisingly entertaining, especially considering the production values of this direct-to-video effort. Helmed by the cost-effective and visually audacious Roel Reiné, Death Race 3: Inferno squeezes every dollar out of its limited budget for maximum impact. This is a B-grade action film by every measure, so it’s almost surprising to see the cleverness of the script (which manages to find something interesting to say in-between the space left by a prequel and a sequel), the unexpected charm of the actors, the impressive production values and the engaging pacing of the whole. Death Race 3 makes maximum use of its South African shooting location by featuring fantastic local visuals, and relying on captivating local talent for pivotal roles (most notably Hlubi Mboya as game-master “Satana” or Roxane Hayward as a mousy assistant). There are plenty of contrivances and outrageous use of exploitation devices –the nadir being the sadistic “navigator wars” segment. But the backbone of those films, the stunts and visuals, are as accomplished as one could expect from this kind of production, and Death Race 3: Inferno becomes decent entertainment no matter its budget class. You’ll know from the Death Race title whether you’re likely to enjoy it or not.
(On Cable TV, May 2014) Movie thrillers are built on contrivances almost as a matter of fact. But then there are thrillers like the 12 Rounds series, explicitly depending upon a tower of assumptions that only make sense at the movies. Can you believe in the existence of an ultra-competent vengeful psychopath who takes a year to set up an intricate series of challenges for our capable hero? Suuure. Much like the New Orleans-set 12 Rounds, this Direct-to-Video sequel (filmed in Vancouver but set in AnyBigCity, USA) is a pure genre exercise in implausible plotting, featuring a wrestler set up for an acting career and no real links with the first movie save for the similar premise. Once again, a protagonist is manipulated like a puppet through various games, all leading up to a twisted revenge scenario against imagined wrongs. There isn’t much more to the film, and director Roel Reiné, lately surprisingly good on limited budgets, here seems less interesting than usual in presenting a far more ordinary film than his previous few. Ex-wrestler Randy Orton isn’t too bad as the square-jawed hero –nearly everyone else in the cast quickly gets forgotten in average performances. The contrivances get annoying, but to its credit this sequel does something better than the original, and that’s to give the hero a sidekick so that he can interact with something more than a cell phone and booby-traps. Nevertheless, 12 Rounds 2 doesn’t take it to the next level. It remains a film that’s not too bad by the low standards of most DTV releases, but still quickly fades in memory once the end credit roll.
(On Cable TV, May 2014) With every new Kevin Smith movie, it becomes harder and harder to remember why I liked his first few movies. It may have been the sheer novelty of the sharp irreverent dialogue (at a time where this wasn’t as commonplace) coupled with the conspicuously lousy directing. But Red State is so far from the example set by his earlier better movies that Smith’s name as a director is now more cause for a double-take than anything else. A dull and unpleasant departure in C-grade thriller-land, Red State doesn’t quite know what to do with itself, and becomes less and less pleasant the longer it goes on. What looks at first like a cautionary tale about the dangers of Internet hook-ups quickly turns into an interminable sermon about right-wing conservatism, followed by yet another siege film in which the government agents play the trigger-happy just-as-bad guys. This Westboro-meets-Waco setup is pointless enough, but what makes it even less interesting is the sadism through which the characters are mowed down, the violent one-note caricature of the cult and the pointless resolution cloaked in anti-government clichés. Some actors manage to do good work: Michael Angarano could have been the protagonist of the film had it been better-conceived, John Goodman almost manages to acquit himself honorably and for all of the interminable duration of his monologues, Michael Parks is curiously compelling at the bloodthirsty cult leader. Smith’s direction has gotten better over the years but not that much better, and Red State‘s naturalistic atmosphere feels uglier than anything else, not exceeding the standards set by most Direct-to-Video thrillers. You can see the gleeful iconoclasm behind some of the film’s initial intentions, but the execution is simply too dull to be effective, and the film spares no time turning its audience against itself. As unpleasant as it is, rumors about an alternate rapturous ending as originally scripted would have made the film even worse, so I suppose we have that to be thankful about. Still, there is no excuse for the lengthy sermon scene or the trigger-happy violence. Where has Smith’s gift for witty dialogue, sympathetic characters or comic set-pieces gone? He keeps threatening retirement, and after Red State it’s easy to look forward to him keeping his promises.
(On Cable TV, May 2014) One of the benefits of being an omnivorous cinephile is that you never know when an oddball piece of cinematic knowledge is going to come in handy. In this case, Girl Walks Into a Bar‘s quirks makes far more sense when considered against writer/director Sebastián Gutiérrez previous films such as Elektra Luxx: the lead role of Carla Gugino (Gutiérrez’s girlfriend), fragmented script, interlocking subplots, varying tonal shifts, generally clever dialogue and presence of several good actors. It’s all meant to be a series of related stories set in various Los Angeles bars during one busy night, but it’s just as well-considered as a vignette film, with segments that don’t necessarily need to co-exist harmoniously in a coherent whole. There are highlights: Emmanuelle Chriqui’s world-weary monologue about the life of a stripper, Zachary Quinto’s clueless dentist trying to get his wife assassinated; Rosario Dawson as an employee of a nudist ping-pong club and a captivating presence for Robert Forster. While the film was conceived to be freely distributed on Youtube (although just for Americans…), it’s now making its way to specialty cable channels and can be caught there as a pleasant diversion. While Girl Walks Into a Bar is not particularly memorable, it does have a good cast, better-than-average dialogue and its inherent quirkiness makes it more interesting that most of the average fare out there.
(On Cable TV, May 2014) In theory, science-fiction doesn’t always require a big budget: you can set a pretty good science-fiction story in a mundane present-day location, just by evoking the impossible. Frequently Asked Questions about Time Travel takes up the gauntlet of delivering a low-budget, high-concept SF comedy by trapping its characters in a localized time-loop centered on their neighborhood pub. Add a sympathetic lead character (played with modest charm by Chris O’Dowd), a fetching spatiotemporal agent (Anna Faris, in a role that asks for interesting scene transitions), impending apocalypse, self-aware genre commentary from a screenwriter who’s obviously up to his classic SF references and the film becomes a bit of a hidden gem. Not everything works: the opening takes a bit of time to rev up, some of the hidden temporal surprises can be seen coming well in advance and the means at the film’s disposal aren’t quite up to the task of portraying the latter-movie revelations. Still, for an obviously limited budget, Frequently Asked Questions about Time Travel has a welcome charm to it, and does good things with what it has at its disposal. Don’t expect a classic, but do expect a decent time.
(On Cable TV, May 2014) The past ten years have seen a mini-boom of sort in fairy tales and fantasy books converted to the screen through the same screenwriting formula, all eventually leading to the climactic shock of two armies running into each other. Snow White, Alice in Wonderland, Narnia, Jack and the Beanstalk: nothing is safe from the Hollywood fantasy paradigm. In Jack the Giant Slayer, two fairytales become an action fantasy epic about kingdoms going at war, a peasant winning over a princess and assorted shenanigans to take over the throne. While the results can be interesting in bits and pieces (the depiction of a giant beanstalk has a can’t-be-missed patina of realism), it usually boils down to a familiar and ultimately boring template. While director Bryan Singer is a seasoned professional who knows what he’s doing, there simply isn’t much to the script. Nicholas Hoult does a bit better as the titular hero, although it’s easy to wonder what could have compelled Ewan McGregor and Stanley Tucci to take on such minor and thankless roles. It’s not an unpleasant film to watch… but the biggest problem with Jack the Giant Slayer is that it’s dull and almost instantly forgettable. Save for a highly pretentious final scene that somehow feels the need to link with the present, it’s a film that’s too middle-of-the-road to be noticeable. The perfect example of how quickly pop-culture can dispose of movies that have involved years of work by hundreds of talented craftsmen.