There Are Places I Remember…

I have to admit that I’ve strayed from the classics lately.  My reviews of The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Metamorphosis are on their way but since finishing them, I have derailed a bit.  I’m nearly finished with World War Z (and loving every word!) and have also read the latest from author Neil Gaiman, you know… the reigning king of science fiction.  His work is typically dark and loaded with symbolism, not to mention supremely well-written and somehow, I managed to get my hands on his latest novel, a lovely little read called The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

TOATEOTL coverLike most of his fiction, TOATEOTL is part sci-fi, part fantasy, part fairy tale.  Steeped in myth and mystery, it will transport you to that precocious time in life when you were too smart to be called a child yet too naive and inexperienced to be deemed a young adult.  Told through the eyes of a 7 year-old who is depicted like a real kid, not a tiny adult or an unrealistically innocent dunce, as children are often portrayed in books, Gaiman hooks you on page one with this clever, nostalgic, naive, yet never-too-simple narrator.  Like real children, he’s a kid who at times, shows deep maturity and at others, childish innocence.

It is set in Sussex, England and begins with the narrator as an adult, returning to his hometown to attend a funeral.  While there, he wanders back through his old neighborhood and eventually visits an old farm on which his childhood friend, an extraordinary girl called Lettie Hempstock, lived with her mom and grandmother.  What he remembers is a story so remarkably strange and exciting but also dark and frightening, it’s a wonder how he ever forgot it.  I will say no more because as wonderful as this story is, a very big part of its charm lies in discovering it, page by page.

I breezed through its 180 pages within three days, hardly able to put it down.  The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a delight to read, making you remember what it felt like when you were old enough to know certain things about the world but still young enough to believe in endless possibilities, when every corner of the earth held more mystery and wonder than your imagination could keep up with.

~Nikki

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the sky / feeling I / get when you’re near / I’d give up gravity to feel

In my internet wanderings, I recently came across a Prometheus review that lambasted the movie for its inaccuracies and inconsistencies. Prometheus is certainly not perfect, and as Nikki pointed out in her review, it can be baffling at times. While Nikki stuck to pointing out basic character, motivation, continuity, and story flaws, the review I found – and the comments that ensued – were breaking down the actual scientific inaccuracies and plausibility of the film.

I should point out that I love and respect science. I devoted a portion of my life to it. I also love films, and the imagination and fantasy that many of them depict. And sure, I like a decent cup o’ plausibility with my fantastical universes. The Prometheus review that I stumbled upon was well-written, made some good points, and had me laughing. But it left me wondering how rigorously films should be evaluated on their scientific merit. And I am saying that as someone with a physical science degree – but that’s almost precisely why I’m saying it.

I am unsure of the scientific credentials of the author of this particular review and its commentators. I can’t expect they were too impressive, though, because there was a nine-comment thread where people were trying to work out the relativistic time and distance possibilities of the Prometheus and its journey. Everybody came up with a different answer to simply work out the ship’s distance from earth, yet each number was stated with utter certainty. The reality was that it took them six comments in to properly convert 3.27*10^14 km to light years, and that aint relativity, it’s multiplication. I especially loved a guy that commented, and I quote, “I’m familiar with general and special relativity, thanks,” and then proceeded to incorrectly convert kilometers to light years.

The fact is, crazy, (often impossible) complex shit goes down in sci-fi movies. My college physics textbook has a chapter on special relativity, and the example problems are all basic and simplified, assuming things like acceleration and deceleration. To truly work out the math of Prometheus, and how fast the ship had to be going…I can’t imagine that you wouldn’t need to take an upper level physics course on relativity. It’s not that I’m against scientific curiosity – of course not – but I’m against the common moviegoer speaking as though they have more authority on a scientific matter than Damon Lindelof, when likely they do not. Lindelof isn’t coordinating rocket launches, but neither are 99% of moviegoers.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Moving away from the Prometheus example, I recently watched the independent film Another Earth, and enjoyed it quite a bit. And this was in spite of some serious, glaring scientific inaccuracies. For example, there is another EARTH in the SKY, appearing bigger than the moon, and yet our own orbit, tides, and moon seemed unaffected. Etc.*10^9. The thing is though, is that there can’t be another earth. Not like the one in Another Earth. To half-quote The Social Network, if there was going to be another earth, there’d be another earth. So of COURSE it can’t happen the way it does in the movie, because it cannot happen at all.

But the question is, what if it could? Not, “what if it could, what would the science be” – you can’t really ask that, that’s like saying, “but what if two plus two was five, how would the numbers work on that?” The question is, if it could, what would the emotional, humanistic, and societal ramifications be? And that, to me, is the purpose of movies. I enjoyed Another Earth because of its lead character, the unique situation that the parallel Earth afforded her, and the resulting choices that it caused her to make. (And just imagine Star Trek if they didn’t have warp drive!)

I’m not against things being realistically displayed, but sometimes they simply cannot be, because they are not realistic. To me, the ability to portray the physically impossible is one of cinema’s advantages. I am content with – and I think, no less the intelligent for – sitting back, suspending the laws and constants of the universe, and seeing what we would do if they were broken.

~X

I May Be Paranoid But No Android

The bottom line is: watching Prometheus is an excellent way to pass two hours, even if not quite as inspiring as Alien.  I tried not to make constant comparisons, but the truth is there are a lot of similarities.  So many, in fact, it’s all but impossible not to think of the Alien movies for at least the first half-hour.  From the way the title appears onscreen as a series of singular lines to the opening sequence wherein we see panoramic views of the spaceship Prometheus and all of its sleeping crew, all but the android David, that is, the similarities are uncanny.  A few days before the premiere, the internet teemed with articles in which Ridley Scott tried damn hard to downplay the fact that this is a prequel to Alien.  I can’t for the life of me figure out why.  It certainly does have an intricate, detailed plot of its own, but it all leads to the origin of those fantastic creatures we watched Sigourney Weaver flush out into space a couple of decades ago.

Prometheus is an ambitious film and while very entertaining, not every idea it introduces is fully realized.  Some remain open-ended questions and some just flitter off into the air like steam.  We’re introduced to the lead character, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), an anthropologist who together with fellow anthropologist and the man she loves, Charlie Holloway (the terribly attractive Logan Marshall-Green), finds a number of similar drawings made by ancient civilizations separated by centuries as well as hundreds, if not thousands of miles.  They convince billionaire tycoon Peter Weyland that the drawings are an invitation by the alien race who created humankind to seek them on their home plant.  Weyland is elderly and facing his own mortality so the idea of meeting his maker before he kicks the bucket appeals to him enough to fund this expedition.  We’re told along with the crew that Weyland died shortly before the expedition began, however, but not before leaving specific directives to the only “son” he had, robot David, expertly played by the inhumanly talented Michael Fassbender.

The flaws begin to surface as soon as Prometheus arrives at its destination.  Practically every crew member of Prometheus just couldn’t wait to break protocol.  They refuse to wait until morning to begin exploring, acting like petulant children instead, and even remove their helmets once inside the “cave” that is actually another spaceship.  They jump off their ship during a rock storm, try to bring obvious contagions on board, touch every fucking thing they see – basically acting in the exact opposite way that actual astronauts and scientists would.  Which is something I didn’t expect from Scott.  In Alien, (again, I hate to compare but it must be done) he gave us the reverse: a crew of utter professionals who behaved as real scientists would.  I could buy into there being one rogue, reckless idiot on board.  But in Prometheus, the crew was damn near made up of reckless idiots.

The bit of back story about Shaw’s faith didn’t fit for me either.  We see an early memory of her father expressing his faith in the afterlife but the only faith Shaw professes is in her belief that the drawings she found were made by what she calls “engineers” and that these engineers are, in fact, aliens from another planet who created humans on earth before returning to their homeland.  At no point did she speak of faith or religion, only that she wanted to meet this alien race she believed to be our creators.  She never brought God into it.  So when, suddenly, two-thirds of the way through the film, David asks if she feels like her god has abandoned her, I thought: she has a god?

Other inconsistencies surfaced as well.  The character of Dr. Holloway transformed with every scene, so much so he felt less like a person and more like a prop to fill whatever purpose that scene needed.  The absurdly handsome Idris Elba, as Janek, captain of Prometheus, spoke not with his natural British accent but one of the American deep south, which wouldn’t have been any problem except that as the movie progressed, his accent all but disappeared.  The geologist among the crew looked like an escaped convict and the biologist seemed to know very little of anything biological.

Setting all of that aside, though, Prometheus is visually stunning and entertaining from start to finish.  Because it takes place on an alien planet as opposed to a spaceship in flight, it doesn’t have the claustrophobic feel of Alien but it does have loads of action and some very suspenseful moments.  More questions are raised than are answered but judging by its end, we’re practically guaranteed a sequel.  The film’s three leads, Rapace, Fassbender and Charlize Theron (who, by the way, is so disturbingly beautiful, I think she may literally be a robot) give outstanding performances.  I will probably see it again before it leaves the theaters and will absolutely see a sequel.  Hopefully, Scott will better blend the impeccably professional and meticulous style of Alien with the gorgeous and technologically advanced Prometheus.

~Nikki

The Galaxy Defenders

Men in Black (franchise)

Men in Black (franchise) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Do you remember the first two films in the Men in Black franchise? Because I sure as hell don’t (Sheesh, it was only 15 years ago). In the new millennium we’re used to our sequels getting green-lit before the first entry is even done filming. Perhaps it’s the large time gap between films, my low expectations, or the fact that I literally cannot remember a single plot point from the first two, but for my money, Men in Black 3 was an enjoyable summer weekend flick. And one that I think will stick with me more than the others.

The film opens in a badass lunar prison where the head Pussycat Doll (Nicole Sherzinger, looking siiick), breaks the head Flight of the Conchord (Jemaine Clement) out of the clink. It’s a killer scene – gross, funny, brash, colorful, and interesting. And a fun way to jump right in to MIB3‘s nifty plot: Clement’s Boris the Animal is a nasty, last-of-his-race killer who Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) put in jail in 1969. But not before Boris loses an arm in the fight leading up to his arrest. Now, Boris wants to go back in time to the day before all this happened, so he can kill K, keep his arm, and never be sent to prison. Oh yeah, and destroy Earth in the process, because of course. So begins Will Smith’s journey back to the summer of ’69 to stop Boris and save his partner.

A huge point in this film’s assets category is the cast. It’s always good to see Jones, as he does disgruntled and grumpy better than almost anybody. Emma Thompson is here, as the department head “O”, and as always, I get gloriously happy when she’s on screen. I’d like to audition her for the real-life role of my mom, or fun aunt, or basically a human I can have an interaction with. She doesn’t have a lot to do here, but it’s a’ight, cause I love her whole being. Jemaine Clement is chewing the shit up as the disgusting and horrifying Boris. He disappears into the role (as he’s under makeup/some CGI stuff, two buttons for his eyes, and is snarling for the entirety of the film), but I kept thinking, “who IS that?”, as his distinctive jaw and voice were still there. Maybe the only guy who didn’t do it for me was Will Smith himself, which wasn’t really even that big of a deal. He’s there to drop some jokes, and guide us through the story, which he does, capably. I just think that we might all be getting too old (including the Fresh Prince himself) for his frenetic, sarcastic shtick.

The real smoking gun here is Josh Brolin, who becomes the human hammer and NAILS IT as the younger K. The inflection, the stillness, the gaze, it’s all there – along with a tad more youth and happiness. It’s a great performance,  and doesn’t deserve to be forgotten about amidst the sea of summer films. Smith’s Agent J kept talking about how much lighter and less burdened young K was, as it’s alluded throughout that something must have happened that made K “the way he was” in the future, i.e., something tragic that changed him. Brolin brings a level of “before” to K that felt organic and true to the character we met in the late 90s.

The rest of the film centers around J going back to stop Boris, and there are certainly some funny moments. Bill Hader has a cameo as Andy Warhol (who of course was an actual alien, as are all models). J and young K’s differences still ring cute, as their chemistry is quite similar to when J is paired with older K, which is to the film’s credit. Some jokes were a tad clunky (the Asian restaurant owner, ehhhhhh), but we genuinely laughed many times.

The time travel aspect of the film seemed mostly sound to me. Things always get a bit tricky when you’re testing the boundaries of what makes sense, and while I admit I haven’t tried to really tax my brain too hard to find a chick in the timeline armor, nothing stood out as a huge gaping wormhole of wrong. The guys pick up a straggler along the way, a Robin Williams look-alike named Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is an alien that can simultaneously see every possible path to every possible future for any given situation at every single moment. He’s a sweet little character who guides us through the rest of the (more emotional) last third of the film.

I chose to catch this in the third dimension, and I’m so glad I did, as this is one film that’s worth the extra $5. There are enough scenes featuring flying, jumping off of buildings, and speeding through streets to keep it fun and zippy. Plus, you KNOW you want to see the moon launch in 3D!

Free images from FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Ah yes, the moon launch. The film’s climax takes place at Cape Canaveral, and while some of it was a tad eye-rolling (I need to just accept already and move past the fact that in action movies regular humans can jump like they have supernatural powers), it’s also fairly exciting. I knew the day would be saved, but I wasn’t sure how, and there ended up being a twist I didn’t see coming; I’ll be damned if it didn’t bring a tear to my eye.

Director Barry Sonnenfeld and writer Etan Cohen (what a name) kept things moving briskly, and this puppy stays below the 2-hour mark, which I appreciate, as I’ve got a life. With a fun, capable cast, a fairly original storyline that actually made sense, and characters you care about, MIB3 was a great way to kick off the summer blockbuster season.

~Annie


You Can Kill The Revolutionary But You Can’t Kill The Revolution

I saw the new movie, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, this weekend and I admit I went into it with fairly low expectations.  Not because I thought it looked bad, but because someone I work with told me beforehand that it was just mediocre.  Maybe my reaction was skewed since the bar had been set kind of low, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.  It wasn’t stellar; some of the dialogue was cheesy and, though I am a James Franco fan, he really didn’t pull off the whole scientist thing.  It was obvious as he delivered his lines that he wasn’t comfortable speaking the science lingo.  And one character actually uttered (very dramatically) the line: “You know everything about the brain except how it works.”  Seriously?  Who wrote that gem?  On the other hand, the always-outstanding John Lithgow has a small role in which he proves yet again he is an actor of profound ability.  Whatever that man is doing onscreen, whether it’s an outlandish comedic antic or an act of the deepest compassion, he sells it.  I could probably watch him sit in an empty room and stare at a clock for 2 hours.

Other than the over-the-top delivery of the uber-cheesy “scientific” lines, this flick impressed me.  The special effects were damn good and the plot was well thought-out and nicely executed, with a smooth tie-in to the original Planet of the Apes.  Mad chops to Andy Serkis (as in, the genius mastermind of Gollum of the LOTR trilogy) for bringing his performance capture method of acting to Caesar, the main chimp and true star of this film.  His performance and the gorgeous CGI ape won me over immediately.  And I wasn’t the only one.  The emotional bond between Franco’s character and Caesar, whom Franco took care of from his infancy, was so fully developed, I choked up on more than one occasion.  In fact, it surprised me how strong an emotional response I had to the story.

Director Rupert Wyatt did an excellent job of telling this tale from the apes’ point of view.  I admit I rooted for them pretty much the whole time.  By the end, I was more attached to a few of the apes than to any of the humans.  Not that I wanted to see any humans suffer (except Tom Felton, of Draco Malfoy fame, who played a real prick), but the chimps were treated with such a lack of respect and their pain and suffering met with such complete indifference by the humans “taking care” of them, that it felt good to see them victorious.  As a scientist, I’ve seen so many examples of the ways animals are mistreated in the name of medicine.  Not just euthanized and not just given experimental medication, but actually put into diseased states before being cut open to test the efficiency of a new surgical method, for example, or how well someone with, say, diabetes would do while undergoing a certain procedure.  I get the reasons for this.  I know these drugs/methods must be tested before tried on humans, but I can’t help but ask myself if we humans have the right to grossly manipulate and exploit other forms of life for our own benefit.  This is the reason this movie struck such an emotional chord with me.  Because the truth is, after all I’ve seen firsthand and read/heard about secondhand, if the monkeys ever get smart enough to organize a revolt, no one could say we didn’t have it coming.

~N.

Alligator Lizards In The Air

Sigh.  Cowboys & Aliens.  I don’t even know how to muster the energy to write about this movie, honestly.  Is it terrible?  Not at all.  Is it entertaining?  Mildly.  Why, oh why does “MEH” have to be the only word I can come up with to describe this useless flick?

The film opens with what everybody already saw in the trailer, which is the walking sex that is Daniel Craig, awaken in the desert, all alone and amnesia-ridden, wearing some nifty bracelet that is most certainly related to extraterrestrials.  He wanders into your typical western town full of dirtbags, some guys start shooting, some aliens arrive (in a pretty cool scene, admittedly), and start abducting people, willy-nilly.  The cowboys decide to hunt for the visitors out in the desert to try to get their loved ones back, and Craig slowly figures out where he came from and why he can’t remember.  It’s all much less riveting than it even sounds.

I did like the cast, even if I wasn’t very concerned with what happened to any of them.  Harrison Ford is somehow still kind of robust and agile, even at 69.  Olivia Wilde bugs me, though bless her heart, I don’t even know why.  I’d follow Sam Rockwell anywhere, and it was cool to see the always bizarre Paul Dano and the simmering Saulteaux Adam Beach get to play somewhat interesting roles here, as a wimpy spoiled asshole and loyal sidekick-who-longs-for-Harrison-Ford-to-be-his-daddy, respectively.  The only person on screen whose welfare I was at all concerned with was Rockwell’s Doc, and that’s just cause I like the guy so much – it has nothing to do with the film.

The effects were fine, nothing looked stupid or lame, yet nothing really blew my face off.  The aliens are meh as well – I swear to god, must EVERY ALIEN EVER FROM NOW ON LOOK LIKE CLOVERFIELD?!?!  Apparently, there are no more original otherworldly creatures.  We’ve imagined all possible ones into existence.

I do think Jon Favreau is a good director, I just tend to not be passionately excited about most of his films, and this one is no exception.  C&A is about 15 minutes too long, and was completely, wholly, unremarkable.  It’s a tad bit exciting, made me squirm in my seat and laugh once or twice, but plopped right in the middle of the summer, amidst all the other tentpoles and superheros, doesn’t stand out at all.  In the end, I’m not sure whether I’m more disappointed in myself for expecting some absolute CRAZINESS from the awesome title or the plethora of talented filmmakers for just delivering exactly what the words on the marquee promised.  Like, literally, that’s all you get.  Some cowboys, some aliens.  End credits.

~Annie

Was The Summer of ’79

Seeing the Amblin Entertainment and Bad Robot logos instills happiness and excitement in me, along with colossal expectations.  I’m a fan of Steven Spielberg (producer) and J.J. Abrams (writer, director) – really, though, who isn’t? – so to see their names together gives quite a thrill.  Unfortunately, expectations set that high are almost impossible to reach, and I found their first official collaboration almost meeting that crazy-high bar, yet falling a bit short.

If you’ve seen a trailer, you can probably figure out what they want you to know about the plot.  Without giving away too much (the whole crux of the film IS a mystery, after all), a group of middle schoolers in the summer of 1979 decide to make a zombie movie, accidentally witness and film a train accident (one HELL of an exciting scene), at which point the small Ohio town they live in becomes plagued with missing persons and problems galore.

Breaking down the film’s genetic code you can find pieces of E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Cloverfield, The Goonies, The Mist, hell, I even caught a whiff of District 9.  It’s definitely Abrams’ homage to Spielberg, and by the same rights, certainly his own film.

The cast consists of a group of kids, mostly newcomers, between the ages of 13 and 16.  They’re all terribly charming and likeable; a few get a lot of laughs (the scared puker and shrimpy, spunky cameraman/zombie in particular).  Unknown Joel Courtney plays Joe, our lead, and he reminds me an awful, awful lot of Elliot in E.T.  I’m not the first person to say this, because dammit it’s the truth. He’s got a kind heart and a shaggy 70s look about him.  Elle Fanning is Alice, the one girl in their group, who’s reluctantly agreed to be the one girl in their movie.  She does a great job, proving herself every bit as capable as her big sister.  Kyle Chandler (who no human could possibly dislike – if you do, check your pulse, you bastard) and Ron Eldard (who I loved on ER) are Joe and Alice’s fathers, respectively, and they do fine jobs playing troubled, single dads.

While it’s a very enjoyable and effective flick, in some ways it left me a bit empty.  Maybe it’s because my expectations were set too high (my own problem) or that so much of this felt pulled from other stories that have come before, or that the mystery wasn’t as satisfying as I wanted (again, my own problem).  I feel bad to beat it up, because it’s not a bad film, and isn’t worthy of a beating.  The cast is well-chosen and does a great job, it surely evokes the late 70s/early 80s, and you can smell the Spielberg and Abrams aromas all over it.  I guess I wanted a bit more magic, but don’t let that detract you from a fun summer movie that’s more than worth seeing – just go in knowing that Super 8 will probably not touch you the way its throwbacks did once upon a time.

~Annie