Monthly Archives: November 2014

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

(On Cable TV, November 2014) On paper, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty looks like a terrific film: Ben Stiller as a dreamer forced out of his comfort zone, elaborate fantasies gradually ceding to ever-more-incredible real adventures as based on a classic James Thurber story.  There’s a lot of potential here for a meaningful film, heartfelt lessons and grandiose epiphanies.  The film’s budget is decent, allowing whatever fantasies and real-life vistas to be captured in detail.  Why, then, does the result feel so perfunctory?  While the film isn’t unpleasant to watch, it somehow fails to spark beyond mere competence.  The fantasy sequences are seamlessly integrated (and at least once escalate all the way to superhero theatrics) but even they can’t completely bring sharp humor and cutting wit into the entire production.  It probably doesn’t help that the third act drags on for so long, especially once the emotional high points of the story should have been settled.  There isn’t anything bad to say about Stiller’s direction –especially given the visual inventiveness of some sequences– although he himself may be too old to play Mitty.  (Meanwhile, Kristen Wiig is pretty enough as the somewhat underwritten love interest, while Adam Scott is deliciously evil as an insensitive boss.)  The integration of (now-defunct) Life Magazine is felt more deeply as thematic assistance than product placement (although if you want product placement, eHarmony, Papa John’s and Cinnabon are there to make you happy.)  Much of the plotting seems arbitrary, with at least two palpable moments where narrative tension evaporates at the moment it should become more urgent.  There may be an unresolvable tension at work here, between the wild fantasies and the desire to deliver a grounded and meaningful life lesson.  Even when it strives to embrace a more colorful, grander life, the film seems happy in its mild-mannered ways.  In the end, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty settles for being a good film rather than the great one that it wanted to be.

Why Horror? (2014)

(On Cable TV, November 2014) While being called a “horror fan” may not carry as big a social stigma as it used to in a pre-Walking Dead era, professing to love horror can still earn a few alarmed stares.  Why Horror? tries to answer its own titular question by tagging along horror super-fan Tal Zimerman as he muses about the reasons that attracted him to the horror genre.  Writers/directors Nicolas Kleiman and Rob Lindsay follow Zimmerman as he questions his parents, undergoes an MRI scan, travels around the world and has sensors applied to his skin as he watches horror movies with his mom.  A somewhat amusing animated segment attempts to summarize the history of horror movies in five minutes, but Why Horror? isn’t a history of horror as much as it’s a level-headed but enthusiastic attempt to explain why some people are drawn to the genre.  Is it about “safe scares”?  Is it about seeking to understand our own death?  Is it about grim laughter in the face of mortality?  Is it about being shocked away from our safe realities?  All of those answers, and more, are valid –if there’s any conclusion from the film, it’s that various people seek horror for their own reasons, and while fans, filmmakers, authors, sociologists and cultural anthropologist can all poke at the question in their own way, it remains a very personal answer.  In passing, Why Horror? touches upon the twenty-first century mainstreaming of horror, the presence of women in making and enjoying horror, the way the genre is perceived around the world (the films starts and ends in Toronto, with stops in London, New York, Mexico and Japan) and why horror movies make such great date nights.  Interviews with people such as Eli Roth, the Soska sisters, George Romero, John Carpenter and others –including a few people I swear I’ve met at Toronto-area conventions.   As a documentary, Why Horror? is a competent effort, perhaps a bit rough around the edges but it definitely offers a few answers to its central question. 

1941 (1979)

(On Cable TV, November 2014) I had been curious about Steven Spielberg’s 1941 for decades (since seeing it as a video-store rental in the mid-eighties, as a matter of fact), but now that I’ve found the time to see it, my first reaction is a blend of bewilderment and hilarity.  It’s fairly rare to see big-budget farce these days, and so 1941‘s most distinctive feature is the way its shamelessly silly comedy is played along a backdrop of expensive and explosive sight-gags.  It takes a while to adjust: the first (day-lit) half-hour feels dumb and uncomfortable as the dozen characters are rapidly introduced while mugging for the camera and the broad comedy seemingly goes everywhere.  It gets better once night falls and the film focuses (somewhat) on a USO show and ensuing mayhem.  The dancing sequence is one for the books, and as the comic set-pieces escalate, 1941 finds an amusing overblown rhythm.  Unfortunately, it peaks nearly twenty minutes before the actual end of the film, and the rest is just wrap-up.  There’s a decently subversive intent here in making fun of war paranoia following Pearl Harbor (I imagine there’s a pretty funny 2001 movie in our future poking fun at post-9/11 hysteria, but we won’t see it before 2039.), but the film as a whole feels as undisciplined as it is lavish.  It’s certainly still impressive: the special effects are top-notch even today, and the cast has some of the biggest names in then-film comedy.  (You can fawn over Dan Aykroyd or Ned Beatty or John Belushi, but I’ll giggle over Nancy Allen’s plane-crazy character, or Wendie Jo Sperber’s persistent Maxine.)  For better or for worse, there aren’t that many films with that particular tone nowadays, and so 1941 does warrant a look despite a number of significant flaws.  (Fans of stockings and garters will also be pretty happy with the film.)  Finally, as if you needed any further reason, it’s a Spielberg film, which means that it’s visually inventive and creatively self-assured: there are audacious camera moves everywhere, and the mayhem seldom degenerates into nonsense.  For all its flaws, it’s a big movie that tries things now seldom attempted.

Non-Stop (2014)

(On Cable TV, November 2014) Is it time for yet another Liam Neeson thriller?  A better question would be: when isn’t it time for another Liam Neeson thriller?  An action star at a time when most other actors his age are trying to get out of the strenuous business, Neeson reliably takes on another grizzled veteran able to intimidate grown men simply by stepping into frame.  Here, he’s back in action as a federal Air Marshall who discovers an intricate conspiracy aboard his flight.  Racing against time, will he be able to discover who’s goading him by text messages?  It’s not a big plane, and there are only 150 suspects…  Director Jaume Collet-Serra handled the ensuing madness with occasional flourishes of style (most notably with a shot floating throughout the airplane), never quite letting the insanity of the script run away from him.  It’s a little bit demented, but just enough to keep the screws tightened during an exercise in a familiar “plane in peril” sub-genre.  (It’s quite a bit better than Flight Plan, if anyone remembers that)  While the specifics of the plot don’t always make sense, and the rationale behind the plot isn’t something that can really be explained while sober, there’s something interesting about an airplane thriller revolving around the very notion of inflight post-9/11 anti-terrorism security.  (Also ingenious: The on-screen effects showing us the text messages read by the characters.)  Lupita Nyong’o was cast in this film quite some time before winning an Oscar, so don’t be surprised to see that she has practically an extended cameo.  While the result isn’t particularly good, it is good enough to be entertaining when it needs to be, and fully exploits the added gravitas that Neeson can bring to any role.

Lone Survivor (2013)

(On Cable TV, November 2014)  It may or may not be interesting to note how many relatively-recent American war movies (The Alamo, Black Hawk Down, etc.) have been about disastrous engagements with high casualties.  Lone Survivor follows in that tradition by following a minor Afghanistan operation in which a team is practically exterminated in the ensuing carnage (this isn’t a spoiler: it’s in the title.)  The focus, here, is obviously on the nobility of being a warrior against terrible odds.  Lone Survivor clearly courts military-minded audiences, reassuring them that their sacrifice is necessary, that everyone involved is a hero and thus spends much of its energy nailing down the details of the fighting rather than try to make it fit in any broader context.  While that’s sure to annoy anyone with even the slightest doubts about the usefulness of the Afghan effort, it does help Lone Survivor feel quite a bit more grounded than other movies taking recent American military adventures as a springboard to overly-broad philosophical questions.  In this case, it’s clear that Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch (surprisingly credible) and Ben Foster do pretty well in bringing life to underwritten characters, and that director Peter Berg is hyper-focused on the details of his centerpiece firefight.  Even the blood spurts look realistic.  Still, Lone Survivor operates in a void of meaning.  Despite the film’s sometimes heavy-handed worship of its characters, the third act is fit to make anyone shrug: to what good the sacrifice?  As much as the film will try to claim that it’s not really interested in the wider context, it does exist in a wider context and its punishing centerpiece action sequence does frame the film as something worth showing every Veterans’ Day.  Some audiences will be satisfied by this simple quality.  Others will bemoan that Lone Survivor could have been much better.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

(On Cable TV, November 2014) I had to free my mind of two reasonable notions before starting to enjoy this second instalment of The Hobbit trilogy: First, that it ought to be faithful to the original novel; and second, that it had to be paced efficiently.  Once you accept the idea that The Hobbit is going to be a grand fantasy quest put together using the same grandiose tone as The Lord of the Rings, it actually becomes a bit more bearable.  The lavish, spectacular action sequences don’t feel out of place, and once you warm up to the tone, the lack of snappiness in the telling of the tale (which will eventually stretch a 300-page book for kids into a seven-hour trilogy of movies) simply becomes something to accept.  It’s hard, of course, to fault Peter Jackson from doing the best he can in making The Hobbit seem like an important story and recapture the magic of The Lord of the Rings: This second tome never misses an occasion to harken back to the other trilogy, either by featuring the same people (Legolas, back in fine surfing form), mentioning them (“my wee lad Gimli!”) or setting up portentous signs of Sauron’s return.  Still, this is fantasy-epic filmmaking of the highest order: the lavish details are all in place, the camera flows smoothly, the CGI is often flawless and the sheer excess of means used to put together this super-production seems worthwhile in itself.  There are some crazy sequences in here, perhaps the best being a long-running battle around rapids –there’s a lengthy shot in there that’s nothing short of beautiful action filmmaking.  There are small issues here and there (a shoehorned romance, overdramatic moments, arguably a sequence designed to trigger fits for arachnophobes), but the dragon pretty much makes up for it.  The pacing, as languid as it can be, is quite a bit better than the first instalment of the trilogy, and the cliff-hanger ending promises much for the concluding volume.  In the meantime, it’s a bit foolish to try to pin down a specific rating for this middle tome –best to wait until the end to take it all in.  All seven hours of it.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert A. Heinlein

Berkley, 1996 reprint of 1968 original, mmpb, ISBN 042503013X

So here it is; the fourth entry in my Heinlein Re-Read Project, in which I re-read his four Hugo-winning novels, roughly twenty years after first doing so.

I was really looking forward to revisiting 1966’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, largely because I remembered it so fondly.  One of SF’s classic novels, it’s a tale of lunar revolution against an oppressive Earth, augmented by then-top-notch ideas about space warfare, artificial intelligences, unusual social constructs and libertarian ideals.  It was so influential on me when I read it in the mid-nineties that I still have, somewhere in my files, an unpublished novel that takes heavy inspiration from it (along with a generous dose of Babylon 5).  As recently as a few years ago, I reiterated (in my Alternate Hugos list) that it was the best SF novel of 1966, describing it as “One of the great kick-ass hard-SF novels of all time, augmented by the usual playful Heinlein prose.”

Twenty years later… well, I have to own up to the fact that I once wrote those words.

The big difference between now and then, as far as I’m concerned as a reader, is that I have had nearly all libertarian sympathies evacuated out of me by the real-world demonstration that libertarianism is an idiotic ideology, fit for fiction and the daydreams of those deluded that they (of course) would be the masters of a purely libertarian society.  (Meanwhile, in the real world, citizens of libertarian societies such as Somalia don’t read much SF.)  I’m also far more inclined to question the assumptions behind didactic fiction, and not quite so impressed by a mass of plausible-sounding exposition thinly disguised as lecturing narration.

So, knowing all of this, how does The Moon is a Harsh Mistress measure up for the contemporary reader?

Not as well as it once did.

Oh, I’m willing to concede that it’s still a historically important novel, one that deserved the amount of attention that it got at the time.  Published in 1966, three years before Americans even landed on the Moon, it makes not-entirely-dumb extrapolations about the colonization of the Moon, the development of artificial intelligences, possible warfare scenarios between the Moon and Earth and the development of matriarchal polygamous “line marriages” in a place where men outnumber women 2 to 1.  It’s told vividly thanks to Heinlein’s renowned knack for readable prose (even though he handicaps himself by removing articles from the narration, giving it an interesting Russian-accented flavor) and his unequalled ability to make straight-up exposition and lecturing somehow enjoyable.  Much of the first third of the novel feels like a revolution procedural, complete with ideas on how to organize effectively.

Unfortunately, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress may be a bit too smart for its own good, especially when seen from a modern perspective.  For once thing, procedurals are only as effective as our belief in their accuracy.  By now, it’s obvious how much of Heinlein’s fiction was informed by his own dogmatic beliefs; we can see him palming the cards, stacking the deck and shutting down objections by claims of authority.  It’s also unfortunate that the novel was so influential in that reacting to it now also includes reacting to its imitators: there have been countless attempts to re-tell lunar revolutions since then, making the novel a major libertarian classic –it’s a bit too easy to (unfairly) argue against libertarianism by arguing against the novel.

Nonetheless, let’s take a look at the deck-stacking.  Heinlein takes great care to portray his protagonists as unfairly oppressed by an evil colonialist Earth government.  Hearkening back to Australian history, he posits a Moon mostly colonized by prisoners, forced to cultivate grain as a main export.  Neither of those assumptions seem like a viable economic model, especially the idea of having grain (cheap to produce, more useful in bulk) as a main export rather than more profitable products best manufactured in vacuum microgravity –try selling that business plan to would-be moon colonisers and you’ll be laughed out of the room these days.  The Terran influence on the three million lunar colonists (after more than seventy-five years of colonization!) is a curious blend of uninterested custodianship, with no self-government, an implausible lack of communications between Earth and the Moon, and an exploitative economic model that makes practically no sense.  Heinlein somehow portrays this as the vicious impact of government over a libertarian society… which then revolts to become even more libertarian, although not in a social sense but only in an economic sense… wait, what, does this novel even make sense anymore?  At times, I could swear that Heinlein was using TANSTAAFL as a libertarian argument about as effectively as some teenagers shout YOLO.

So, from a modern perspective, the very foundations of the novel have credibility issues, and that’s not even beginning to climb up the ladder to the novel’s other particularities.  In one of the great plot cheats even attempted, Heinlein tries to make us believe that revolution is going to be a risky thing for the colonists… excepts that he gives them the full powers of an Artificial Intelligence that is in charge of just about anything worth anything on the moon, from shipments to communications to personnel databases.  When much of the plotting for the revolution seems to come up on a whim in-between three people and their all-powerful pet AI, we’re somehow expected to doubt that the revolution’s going to fail once they control the information network.

So: As much as I’d like to remember The Moon is a Harsh Mistress as “one of the great kick-ass hard-SF novels of all time”, a re-read with a few more years’ hindsight reveals a far more flawed novel than I remembered.  The exposition is more blustering than sensible, the final act a bit more sadistic than warranted, the events obviously manipulated according to the author’s intention to re-create a valorous American Revolution in Spaaace!  The absence of anything looking like an Internet (or, heck, anything like a free press and basic communications between the Moon and the Earth) makes the novel an irremediable historical curiosity, as the past fifty years have taken us in directions far stranger than anything Heinlein set down in his novel. To a contemporary reader, the details of the AI running things are about as quaintly charming as a description of the Arpanet’s early days – punch-cards almost included.

Still, I’d be disingenuous if I didn’t compare it to the novel of its time.  Heinlein’s “strong female characters” are more informed by his lechery than actual belief in equality of agency (I’m skipping over a number of somewhat icky passages regarding the age and consent of some of the characters…), his portrayal of information technology is a creature of the mainframe world, his willful ignorance of communication networks is required for the novel to work as such, and his didactic tendencies are only a few novel away from spilling out in full cranky solipsism, but The Moon is a Harsh Mistress still holds up better than its contemporaries by a significant margin.  It has scope, daring self-imposed handicaps, an accumulation of technical details and a perspective that at least tries to acknowledge an entire world. This does not ensure that it’s a novel fit to hand to any circa-2014 readers, but it does means that it will remain a historically important SF landmark.

Still, I emerge from this re-read considerably less enthusiastic about this novel than I did beforehand.  Some of the ideas still hold their own, but most of the others have become historical curios.  The political intent of the novel is intrusive enough to alter the plot in ways that just seem dumb to anyone who doesn’t agree.  And for a novel that left such a good impression years later, I was a bit surprised to find out that it leaves much to be desired as sheer story: Much of the first two-third is exposition upon exposition about an internal revolt whose outcome is practically assured by the aces in the rebels’ pockets, while the rest is told in a surprisingly unengaged fashion.  That few imitators have managed to be as good as The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is no assurance that a sufficiently-talented author could improve upon it.  But, please, let’s leave the libertarianism out of it, or at least explore it in a way that doesn’t make any politically-savvy reader want to bang their heads against the nearest wall.

* * *

This may as well be the best place to draw a few hasty conclusions about my four-book twentieth-reading-anniversary tour of Heinlein’s Hugo-Winning novels.

I started out with the best of intentions.  Mocking Heinlein has become a bit of an easy target in today’s online fandom, as older readers tssk-tssk younger ones for not knowing Heinlein, and younger ones aw-c’mon their elders by demonstrating that RAH doesn’t hold up as well as memories suggest.  My self-taught SF education was directly inspired by the old-school, and I have read enough disingenuous cheap-shot condemnations of classic SF novels to last me for a while.  I started the re-read project after making my way through a Heinlein biography, and was partially motivated to do so out of yearning for the same flash of excitement that accompanied most of my early Heinlein experiences.

Alas, one never steps into the same river twice, and so my reading today is equally informed by the criticism that have been aimed at Heinlein than by the books themselves.  Even being sympathetic to the idea of Heinlein’s novel as historically-important references, inside and outside the SF genre, wasn’t enough to make me ignore the growing issues in considering those books today.  Yes, Heinlein wrote better female characters than most other SF writers of the time.  Today, that’s nowhere near an excuse for how they read on the page.  Sure, Heinlein’s grasp of politics resulted in unusually complex ideas on the nature of self-determination and power.  But today’s models are a bit more complex, and the current perception of Heinlein has to belabour against the imitators and fans that have dumbed down many of his more nuanced ideas.  (Not that Heinlein, at times, was immune to the exasperating tendency of claiming that there were simple solutions to every complex problems –as long as they were his!)  No one is going to take away Heinlein’s importance in the development of the genre’s history, but it’s probably time to acknowledge (putting it bluntly) that he is dead, that his influence is waning and that soon enough, he will be read for historical purposes far more than straight-up entertainment.  (As it happens to nearly all authors.  That we’re still talking about Heinlein 25+ years after his death is a pretty good achievement in itself.)

As for the four novels themselves, I note that my initial ranking of them would have been something along the lines of Starship Troopers, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Double Star and (significantly lower) Stranger in a Strange Land.  (If you want to rank these novels by cultural influence, absent any personal preference, then the order still remains Stranger in a Strange Land, Starship Troopers, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and (significantly lower) Double Star.)  After a re-read, the only change in my order of preference would probably to put Double Star first (surprisingly enough), with the other three novels in the same order.  Double Star has aged pretty well, largely because it’s an interesting story well-told (the other books aren’t as strong in terms of story, and suffer from a lot of excess lecturing) and its universe is now so far away from accepted reality that it’s now charmingly quaint and reflective of the SF of the time.  The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is probably the book that has suffered the most from a re-read: Like Starship Troopers, I find it more fun to argue against, but while Starship Troopers still had some wit and plausible deniability about its most outlandish statements of opinion-as-fact, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress seems crankier, embittered and easier to dismiss.

It would be dishonest for me not to acknowledge, despite my misgivings about Heinlein’s novel as read today, that I do admire this quartet of novel, as much for their influence than for their willingness to stake out ideological positions that initially seem so starkly at odd with each other.  That the same man would be able to write novels that would be so respected by groups so different (hippies, soldiers, libertarians, with a side-order of parliamentary monarchy for Double Star) is nothing short of awe-inspiring.  Nothing like it will ever be achieved again.

I may, for fun, try re-reading those four novels again in twenty years.  Perhaps I’ll arrive at a more nuanced opinion then, perhaps I’ll be even more dismissive of their failings than I was in 2014.  Perhaps social conventions will evolve closer or farther away from those novels.  I don’t know. That’s what makes the prospect of re-visiting them again so exciting.

WolfCop (2014)

(On Cable TV, November 2014)  Experience has taught me to expect the worst from Canadian horror movies, but I keep coming back because of films like WolfCop.  Put together on a shoestring million-dollar budget in slushy Saskatchewan, WolfCop has one undeniable advantage: it’s fully aware of what it’s trying to do, and it’s refreshingly old-school in the techniques it uses to get there.  Seemingly escaped from the era of VHS tapes à la Hobo with a Shotgun, (it even has a self-titled song during the end credit) WolfCop is never embarrassed about its policeman-turned-werewolf premise and ladles on the consequent puns.  (A lot of low-budget films try to indulge in their own insanity, but only WolfCop dares include a Red Riding Hood sex scene.)  The script offers a bit of substance and wit –I particularly liked the stipulation that “the victim” ought to be the village idiot.  There is perhaps too much gratuitous gore, just enough female nudity, definitely too much gratuitous male nudity (including graphic parts of a werewolf transformation that no one should ever see) and an overall feeling of unassuming fun from it all.  Leo Fafard is pretty good as the titular WolfCop named “Lou Garou” (bilingual bonus!)  The script could have shortened the setup in favour of more fun-and-games starring the WolfCop, but writer/director Lowell Dean definitely knows what he’s trying to do here.  While the result isn’t worth shouting about as a modern classic, WolfCop is the kind of film worth watching with a group of B-movie fans, and one that gives a better reputation to Canadian low-budget horror filmmaking.  A sequel is reportedly in the works, and I’m looking forward to it.

Maleficent (2014)

(Video on Demand, November 2014) There have been many, many film transforming classical fairy tales into fully-fledged fantasy epics lately, and it’s in that context that Maleficent scores higher-than-average satisfaction as a modern retelling of Disney’s animated “Sleeping Beauty” through the antagonist’s eyes.  Of course, this is a rehabilitation rather than a subversion: This Maleficent is traumatized by past wrongs, outclassed by a greater evil and proves herself worthy of admiration through a lengthy rehabilitation period during which she does much good.  So it goes, with added feminist parables to make it even more interesting to today’s audiences.  Not much of the story is a surprise once the rehabilitation aspect becomes clear, but it’s executed competently, and Angelina Jolie gets a terrific role befitting her A-list celebrity as the titular character.  What’s more interesting is how pretty Maleficent is: papered almost wall-to-wall with computer-assisted imagery, this is an often-gorgeous fantasy film in which we get more than the ugly monsters and clashing armies so often seen from other fantasy epics.  (We do get the clashing-armies shot, but at the beginning of the film, and so liberated move on to something else.)  While the film is often by-the-numbers, it does have a bit of charm and interest.  Still, be warned: With the body violation subtext running so deeply into the villain-turned heroine’s motivation, this really isn’t a movie for little girls.  For adults, though, Maleficent is something more unusual, and far more interesting than another of those “fairy-tale turned into fantasy epic” movies we’ve seen so often lately.

Knights of Badassdom (2013)

(On Cable TV, November 2014) The good thing about low-budget filmmaking is the freedom it offers to explore oddball niche topics.  So it is that Knights of Badassdom is all about a sub-segment of geekdom so geeky that even other geeks often dismiss it – Live-Action Role Playing, or LARPing for short.  This film is about such an event, where people dress up as fantasy characters and go hiking around the woods for a few days in an attempt to recreate the spirit of their favorite fantasy games/books/movies.  Here, of course, things are complicated when a spell goes wrong and brings back a succubus into the real world.  As bodies pile up, our heroes have to figure out how to vanquish their foe, and how to do so when surrounded by people convinced that it’s just another wrinkle in the game.  Seemingly designed for the Comic-con crowd, Knights of Badassdom takes a few TV fan favorites (Peter Dinklage, Summer Glau, Ryan Kwanten, etc) and thrown them in the middle of a script sweetened with geeky inside jokes.  To the film’s credit, much of it actually works: While the film is hampered by a small budget, it does actually understand what it’s trying to do, and delivers a few chuckles along the way.  It’s too bad that the film suffers a bit from procedural blandness: in trying to combined comedy with horror, Knights of Badassdom often ends up with a compromise that won’t truly please anyone.  Still, it’s a bit of a wonder to see such a niche film makes its way to cable TV, and remains accessible to people without much of an interest in the subject matter (the sequence where fight scoring is explained, with some visual aid to highlight the hits, is a good example of making the material more accessible.)  It may not be much of a film, but it’s true to its goals and remains reasonably entertaining throughout. 

Pompeii (2014)

(On Cable TV, November 2014) A quick look though this site will show that I have nothing against Paul W.S. Anderson’s blend of action theatrics and simplistic screenplays.  It doesn’t always work (Soldier, ugh), but then again it sometimes does in carefully controlled doses (Event Horizon, the Resident Evil series).  So it is that his Pompeii puts fancy CGI makeup on the familiar body of a catastrophe film and produces something far blander than we’d hoped for.  It’s clear that, for all of the usual hollywoodization of the true story of Pompeii’s volcanic destruction, a lot of work has been spent making the film historically credible.  The re-creation of a roman city is impressive, and publicity surrounding the film assures us that the city’s geography is as historically faithful as modern research allows.  Still, that level of attention to detail doesn’t amount to much when the film’s broad dramatic plot seems lifted from so many familiar sources.  Here’s the brave low-class hero; here’s the forbidden love interest; here’s the despicable villain.  (Kit Harrington is just boring as the hero, while Emily Browning goes through the motion as the re-rigueur heroine.  It’s Keifer Sutherland who gets the best performance as a delightfully villainous senator)  Much of the first hour is interminable as the plot pieces (as thin as they may be) are brought on the table and placed to dramatic effect once the volcano starts erupting.  Things do predictably pick up once the catastrophe starts, and there’s some undeniable visual interest in seeing a city being destroyed with fiery rocks once Vesuvius shows what it’s capable of doing.  The action sequences are staged with skill, making Pompeii fitfully entertaining.  There’s a bit of unusual audacity in the ending, but it doesn’t come with the emotional punch that the filmmakers were hoping for –I’m not sure you can combine camp and pathos in the same vehicle.  Pompeii may come complete with a 3D version, but it’s a surprisingly old-fashion sword-and-sandal catastrophe film, built from familiar plot templates and boring until the destruction starts.  There’s worse out there, but it shouldn’t be too hard to find better.

3 Days to Kill (2014)

(On Cable TV, November 2014) By now, anything with Luc Besson as a screenwriter should come with its own warning: “Stupid stuff within.”  The problem isn’t that Besson’s name is usually associated with dumb scripts: it’s that the same issues keep coming back: dumb anti-establishment rants, moronic plotting, blatant misogyny and a striking lack of tonal unity that has the films jumping all over the place.  With 3 Days to Kill, writers Besson and Adi Hasak end up reprising the worst aspects of From Paris with Love: no skill in blending comedy with violence, dim-witted characters and plot-lines that would have been laughable thirty years ago.  Here, a CIA agent suffering from a fatal disease is manipulated in executing “one last job” while caring for his estranged daughter.  What follows is an unlikable blend of torture played for laughs, uncomfortable comedy, fish-out-of-water parenting and a portrayal of espionage that makes James Bond movie feel sophisticated.  The film hits its worst moments when it asks us to believe that a character would forget about violent torture in order to help his torturer bond with his daughter… moments after being electrocuted.  Such uneasy blend of jokes in-between deathly serious violence show the tone-deaf sensibilities of either the screenwriters, or fallen-from-grace director McG, whose Charlie’s Angels heydays are nowhere reflected in his recent work –it’s not this or stuff like This Means War that make him look better.  While 3 Days to Kill does briefly come alive during its action sequences (in particular, a chase sequence besides La Seine), much of the film is just inert, flopping aimlessly and failing to get its audience’s sympathy.  Surprisingly enough, Kevin Costner doesn’t emerge too badly from the ongoing train wreck –he’s able to display a certain weary stoicism through it all.  Once really can’t say the same about Amber Heard, playing dress-up as a would-be femme fatale when she’s got the gravitas of half a beach bunny.  (Her character may be badly written, but the way she plays it make it seem even worse.)  It’s refreshing to see Connie Nielsen in a motherly role, but Hailee Steinfeld may want to re-think playing such unlikable brats flouncing without reason.  3 Days to Kill redefines “scattershot” in the way its scenes don’t seem to flow along in the same film, and how it usually privileges the dumb answer to just about any plot question.  The predictable plot twists, stomach-churning “comic” violence really don’t help… but what else have we come to expect from Luc Besson?

I, Frankenstein (2014)

(On Cable TV, November 2014) An intense impression of familiarity is what first emerges from expensive-but-generic action fantasy film I, Frankenstein.  Seemingly built using the same pieces as the Underworld series, Van Helsing and so many other attempts at shoe-horning familiar characters into a generic template, this film has the generic east-European blandness of so many other forgettable urban-fantasy films.  The Manichean mythology is dull, the poor lonely hero is dull, the visuals are dull and there are few surprises along the way to the Big Fight at The End.  Still, I, Frankenstein isn’t a complete dud for a few reasons: The first is Aaron Eckhart, using his square jaw to good effect as the stoic patchwork hero.  The second is writer/director Stuart Beattie, quite a bit better as a director of action sequences than as the screenwriter: While the script is bland, some of the fight sequences are handled with a decent amount of fluidity and lengthy takes.  Bill Nighy does a little bit of scenery-nibbling as the villain, but not enough to become a memorable antagonist.  While the film has thematic ambitions, most of those lose themselves in meaningless nonsense, especially whenever the film tries to claim that its hero is soulless. (What does that even mean?)  The humorlessness of I, Frankenstein doesn’t contribute to any enjoyable campiness, leaving very little as a feature when the film can’t emerge from its downbeat muck.  Too bad for Eckhart (who hasn’t really broken through as a big star despite a few great performances), but too bad for viewers as well, served reheated fantasy leftovers as if they were somehow important.