Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Nine Movie Reviews Apes, Marvel, Interstellar, Marvel, Lucy, St Vincent, and more Marvel

Camp X-Ray: Maybe it's the fault of Kristen Stewart's directors. She is believable here as a taciturn, brooding marine, just as she was believable as a taciturn, brooding vampire's girlfriend in Twilight, a taciturn, brooding Snow White in The Hunstman, and a taciturn, brooding teenager in Speak. But she was also believable as a taciturn, wild party girl in On the Road. I hope she is given more to do in future movies (unless we've really seen all she is capable of).

Here she plays a marine who develops a sense that the Guantanamo Bay detainee in her charge, played by Peyman Moaadi, is not just a prisoner but a person. Standard army operating procedure is to treat prisoners with complete detachment. One can understand the army's perspective: it's not the army's job to decide who is or isn't innocent, and some of the detainees are highly intelligent and cunning, which makes personal interaction with them dangerous, even treasonous. But this isn't a temporary detention center; it's a permanent detention center, with no trials and no escape. Isolation in a temporary detention center is understandable; isolation and complete loss of autonomy for the rest of your life without due process or trial, with no hope of human contact, is not a life worth living. It's troubling.

The premise has a somewhat forced but captivating climactic scene. (Only the physical contact at the end bothered me. Maybe an American Christian would see a touch between a female guard and male prisoner as two people connecting on a human level. But I think a religious Muslim would see it as a jarring contact between a man and a woman - the guy has probably never touched a woman other than his mother in his life - and that doesn't really present the message that the movie was going for.)

It has a message, but it's not a heavy-handed one. We don't get much about the other marines or her background, or his background for that matter. We just get some glimpses into his character, as well as his frustration. We see posters about 9/11 hanging on the wall. It's a lot like a two-person play, with a few brief moments on stage from the other characters. Interesting.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier: The first Captain America was complete candy without even a pretense of realism. This one has matured and brings the film franchise squarely into line with the other Marvel movies. It's got everything you expect from a Marvel movie (see the X-Men review below), with a totally irrelevant plot that has holes you can throw a shield through, but it's a little bit better than average owing to a little more tension: it's actually possible that this Captain America might die, since in the comics the guy who wears the suit sometimes dies and his role gets taken over by someone else. It works about as well as any of the others do.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: It's the old story of racism, mistrust, and war, this time between humans and apes, instead of between humans and aliens or two factions of humans. The same plot ideas and stereotypes are here: the slow realization that "other" is not necessarily bad, the racists on both sides who turn on each other and threaten to derail everything with sneakiness and sudden violence because they want war, the undecideds caught in the middle, etc.

Technically it's fantastic, of course, and the acting and plotting is good. This is better than the first movie, and it's good entertainment, but it's ultimate lack of depth and maudlin sentimentality is a bit too Marvel-ish for my tastes. The ape leader Caesar is the most developed character, the humans were types.

I love Keri Russel, and here she is, looking and acting just like she did over a decade ago in first-season Felicity.

Interstellar:This is a pretty fantastic movie. It's an updated version of 2001: A Space Odyssey with some environmental messages thrown in. In the not-too distant future, Earth is dying from crop failures and all stories about space programs are taught to be fiction. A former NASA pilot and his brainy daughter think they have received from messages from a ghost in the bookcase who writes in Morse Code using gravity. He ends up piloting a secret mission through a one-way wormhole to explore other planets while they face the scientific problem that this entails her growing old before him due to time dilation; even if he finds a habitable planet, will it be in time to save the Earth and will humans be able to find a way to get there? That's just the basic structure of some of the beginning of the movie.

What makes this movie fantastic? An epic story. This movie has a Big Fat Developed storyline in several acts with real changes from act to act along an evolving story arc. When was the last time you saw that in a movie? Most movies today, even the good ones, are just collections of scenes hung around themes with irrelevant stories that take two sentences to tell.

The story is pretty great, the science, visuals, and effects are thought-provoking, and the acting is adequate. I wasn't too thrilled with Matthew McConaughey; he's about as good as Keir Dullea was in 2001. Update: I saw this a second time, and I take back what I said about Matthew: he was great. Anne Hathaway and the others were good, and I liked the non-anthropomorphic black monolith-bots. The ending (reminiscent of 2001, but less off the wall) is odd, but it works if you understand the premise that they're using.

Intelligent science fiction that isn't too sappy (just a bit) with a captivating epic story, good science and effects, and solid performances is a rare thing. It's better than 2001 (2001 was original and thought-provoking, but it was self-indulgent and really didn't have much of a story).

Lucy: I laughed out loud at the sheer stupidity that was Skyfall and Elysium; this one beats both of them hands down. Wow, is the premise dumb. It's bad enough that the entire movie is based on the discredited legend that humans don't use more than 10% of their brain. Apparently using 10.5% causes you to involuntarily levitate up to the ceiling. By 20% you can control matter and minds around you and by 30% and 40% you are dissolving flesh, disrupting electronic communication around the globe, and melting into the cosmos. Holy idiocy.

One of the first things to go with increased intelligence is any tone in your voice or the ability to understand or convey emotion or humor. Like so many other movies, superpowers come and go when required by the script because of ... plot coolness. One of the most painful parts was watching Morgan Freeman, who in real life presents actual science in his TV series Through the Wormhole, present scientific sounding mumbo-jumbo in service to the plot. Bad bad bad.

St Vincent: Bill Murray plays a crusty war-veteran living a sad life with bad habits and a few debts. His regular companions are a cat and a stripper/hooker played by Naomi Watts. In next door moves a recently separated and struggling mother played by Melissa McCarthy and her son who needs a father figure played by newcomer Jaeden Lieberher.

If you're thinking you know the plot to this already, you do. The acting is fantastic, but the movie is so-so; most of it is pretty average, with a some flashes of brilliance (due to the charm and talent of the actors) and flashes of awkwardness due to the predictable plot forcing certain scenes and confrontations that don't work as blocked. A braver screenwriter would have tossed them out. It's an ok film for a lazy evening, and fun to watch Murray own certain scenes, like when he sings Bob Dylan while watering his garden. But that's about it.

On the plot-hole side, I don't understand how a man with no money in his bank or wallet, in debt to bookies, insurance companies, and everyone else, and with nothing to pawn, manages to keep feeding himself, paying his bills, drinking massive amounts at bars, playing bets at the racetrack, paying a hooker (not just for sex, but for he medical bills), and also pays for a CAT-scan and months of hospital bills.

The Hundred-Foot Journey: Oprah sucks the soul out of any movie she touches; all of her movies are feel-good Hallmark movies with nothing to say because they have no courage to say it. In this movie, a talented cook from India and his family set up shop in France across the street from a talented French restaurant. A small amount of culture class and racism ensues, but only enough to acknowledge it and then pretend it never happened. He rises in the world of cooking, but realizes that he misses his family and everyone - everyone - lives happily ever after.

There is a scene of turbulence in India at the beginning, but it is nameless and faceless, so we can't get involved. There is a racist guy in France, but he does a little bit of racism to very little effect and leaves the scene and everyone forgets that racism ever existed. There is some promising tension between two love interests competing as cooks, but it is briefly mentioned and then forgotten.

Everyone is adorable, perfect, successful, and inoffensive. The movie is pretty. The dishes are pretty, but according to some web sites I saw, some of the recipes and techniques are inaccurate. It's an ok date movie.

The Maze Runner: Another entry in the young-adult dystopian future film-fest. This one is not so good. Dylan O'Brien wakes up on an elevator that takes him up to a walled-in field populated entirely with teenage boys. They have been living there for up to three years, with a new arrival every month. Every arrival has no memory of the world before he awoke in the elevator. The walls are tall and there are doors in them that open every day and close every night. These lead to a maze that some of the boys explore each day; failure to return by the time the doors close is certain death due to the monsters that roam the maze at night.

Of course - spoiler - Thomas is going to be the one to lead some of the boys out of the maze, and of course the boys will all be stereotypes: competing leaders, the be-friender, the resentful second-in-comand, etc. Everything that happens happens because... plot. The boys have obviously been put there for some reason, which is not fully discovered by the end of the movie (so that we can have a second movie). What happens is so tightly railroaded that it fails to inspire and makes you want to smack the writer upside the head. The boys are smart enough to build a lookout tower several stories high, but can't be bothered to build a ladder to climb up the wall (which has tons of vines hanging down it)

About the only bright spot is the girl who gets sent up the month after Thomas - with a note saying that she will be the last: she is treated like a human being. No one makes any sexual comments, no one falls in love with her, no one treats her like a lesser human or tries to protect her. She plans, plots, and fights like anyone else. That's kind of refreshing.

The rest is ho-hum.

X-Men: Days of Future Past: I haven't reviewed any of the other X-Men movies, but I've reviewed many Marvel movies and this is a Marvel movie.

All Marvel movies have great effects, repeated from movie to movie, that all look the same. This movie has fire blasting giants, and so did Thor, and The Avengers or maybe one of those other movies. Who can remember? All Marvel movies have cool characters with witty lines and funny scenes but no conversations or anything deep or important to say. The moral message is something like: Be brave! Don't give up! Work together! Use your superpowers to hurt bad guys more than they use theirs to hurt you! All Marvel movies have a quest to control the unlimited power source that can control the world/galaxy/universe (apparently, it's always the same source, or one of several). All Marvel heroes have superpowers that are forgotten whenever we need plot, because plot can't happen if one of them would use their powers to their full effect or remember them at inconvenient times. All Marvel movies have completely indestructible heroes who never die; on the rare occasion that they seem to die, they come back to life at the end of the movie or in the next movie, but you never cared enough about one to care about their dying in the first place. It's all humor, cool factor, and effects.

Yada yada. This movie involves time travel and a reboot of the franchise, since Wolverine goes back in time and stuff happens to prevent other stuff happening, thereby undoing most of the other movies. Some people found some of the X-Men movies to be better or worse than the others, but I find them to be all the same (I thought The Wolverine was a bit less interesting than the others, but whatever). It's Marvel: it's big budget, it's entertaining, it's fun, it's brainless. They could stop making them and I wouldn't miss them.


Chris said...

Hi Yehuda,
I enjoy your capsule reviews of movies - and they can be especially amusing because you are so massively down on both the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Fox's X-men franchise. :) Personally, I broadly enjoy both these franchises which - compared to other mindless action movies and movie franchises - are rather good at what they do. Of course, you have to buy into what they do - which you don't. But it's fun to hear you vent your ire against them.

Regarding "Interstellar", I had a much less positive experience than you, which I have a blog post about for next week. I could not get past its ideological motives and the self-contradictory ways they manifest in its world. Again, here you bought into what the movie was doing and enjoyed it - I couldn't, and so had a tougher time.

Such is perhaps the challenge of movies in general: they ask us to suspend disbelief, logic, continuity, personality etc. for the purpose they choose to respond, and whether we enjoy them depends to a large extent upon whether we are willing to pay these additional costs of entry.

Anyway, just wanted to say how much I like your capsule reviews and wave hello from afar.

All the best,


Yehuda Berlinger said...

Thanks, Chris. I'm obviously not so down on Marvel that I don't keep watching the next one. I recognize its entertainment value, I just always wish they had more important things to say and more interesting and relatable characters and conversations.

It's nice to know that some people still read my infrequent posts while I struggle to make progress on my book.


Yehuda Berlinger said...

Regarding Interstellar, my friend who saw it with me said that it was the best sci-fi movie ever, in part because it is what Neal Stephenson asked for in the Hieroglyph Project: science fiction used to be scientist-positive inspirational stories and movies way back in the golden age, but the last few decades have brought us only criminal and war based sci-fi. Interstellar is one of the few movies that hearkens back to the old style of movie that might inspire a new generation of scientists.

And yes, there are other messages in the movie, and I'm sure you'll talk about them!


Chris said...

Hi Yehuda,
Thanks for your comment on my blog. I have given my rebuttal.

I just wanted to add here that I do agree that the devolution of sci-fi into criminal and war themes is a small tragedy, and directly related to the equivalent narrowing of horizons in games, that I also lament.

But I'm not of the opinion that we need to recreate the scientist heroes of early science fiction - although my perspective is skewed by the UK, which already venerates physicists as priests. Hell, they almost got me to join this priesthood! I went to university to study Astrophysics. :p

What I would like to see - which "Interstellar" partly does - is sci-fi that tackles important issues by projecting them onto a fictional stage. The great science fiction stories have done this, in my view... very few movies even try these days.

Lastly, I want to note that I did enjoy "Interstellar", which my critique might not make clear. If I had hated it, I would not have wasted my time writing about it. I've become careful about this. ;)

And yes, still reading you and the other few bloggers who are keeping the dream alive. I can't read daily any more, but I do still read. Also, I'm looking forward to your book. Your thoughts have consistently inspired me - often through rejection of some point tangential to your core claims, but such is often the way of great discourse. It is only in such clashes that we truly have opportunities to learn about ourselves.

Take care,