Monthly Archives: March 2012

Reviews: Science (vs.) fiction?

Recently, we had occasion to watch a couple of early science fiction movies. Sci-fi is such an interesting genre. In some ways, the creators have carte blanche, because they’re only limited by imagination (and technology, I suppose) in terms of what they can dream up. That can be a double-edged sword, of course, because one would assume most creators don’t want their premises to be too terribly ridiculous, although that’s clearly not always the case. The two films that we watched, in fact, are prime examples of both sides of that argument. One was certainly imaginative, but very scientific and exacting. The other one was, well, possibly the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever watched. Anyone care to guess what it was? Never mind, I’m going to tell you.

Destination Moon (1950)
I had never heard of Destination Moon before it arrived in my mailbox. Apparently, however, it has the distinction of being the one and only screenplay written by Robert Heinlein, of whom my husband is a big fan, and so there we are. It’s the pretty straightforward story of a group of men who endeavor to build a rocket that will carry them to the moon, and then about their journey and experiences. Now, please note the date of this film. 1950. Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969, so for the time, I’m assuming Destination Moon was some really crazy stuff. To a modern audience, while it’s obviously dated, however, there’s nothing crazy about it. Admittedly I am not a rocket scientist or an astronaut, but the numerous scientific discussions in the movie sounded fairly accurate to me; and the special effects, again cheesy to a 21st century eye, were exceedingly well done. In fact, it won an Oscar for its effects. The acting is nothing problematic but pretty forgettable; there’s very little humor and only one particularly dramatic scene that is effective, if not truly gripping.

Mostly, I’d say the movie was kind of dry. I kept waiting for some kind of ridiculousness, like little moon men or something, but that never happened. I think I stated at the time that it played sort of like a dramatized account of what the actual process of getting men to the moon was like, which is again fascinating considering the time-frame. Mr. Heinlein was known for championing scientific accuracy in his work, and Destination Moon certainly seemed to showcase that. While there are a few light and entertaining moments, it’s sort of slow going unless you are prepared to appreciate the content for its prescience and plausability. Having said that, I actually really enjoyed it. It was extremely interesting in a “historical” context; both in terms of the science being discussed and in the movie-making exhibited.

And in the other corner …

Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)
Plan 9 is pretty much everything that Destination Moon is not. Directed by Ed Wood, this cult classic is a haphazard mishmash of a few big-name scary actors, extremely poor effects and cinematography, and something that purports to be a plot. Basically, alien beings are putting into action Plan 9, which entails resurrecting recently dead humans in order to … take over the earth? Destroy the human race? I guess it’s the latter, although how they are actually going to manage that is never made particularly clear. Mostly, you’ve got some footage of Bela Lugosi, Vampira, and Tor Johnson, apparently none of which was actually shot at the same time, skulking around, some little UFO models hanging from wires (I kept waiting for them to swing and bang together), and the ridiculous concept of aliens using some form of electromagnetic science to resurrect dead people and control them. It would be laughable if it were not so incredibly flat.
If you’ve not heard of Ed Wood, he was apparently an eccentric “filmmaker” who had some success during his career, but is ultimately a cult figure known for making bad movies. Plan 9 From Outer Space has, in fact, received various awards for being the “worst movie ever”. To me, I’m not sure it can claim that title, mostly because I have some difficulty in calling it a movie at all. I don’t know what to call it. Some kind of artwork? It was so completely absurd and lacking in anything that could credibly be called a “performance,” that it just didn’t feel like I was watching a movie, even a bad one. Take my vote for Worst Movie, Battlefield Earth. There’s a plot, although I don’t remember it, and there’s atrociously bad acting from actors who aren’t always bad (Forrest Whittaker has an Oscar now, people) and by comparison the effects and costumes and things are totally brilliant. It’s a cohesive unit. It all goes together. Plan 9 doesn’t seem to follow the same mold, somehow. It’s like sitting in front of a screen while a series of images and sounds, connected in the loosest of ways, flash in front of you.

The one semi-positive thing that I will say about Plan 9 is this: it’s a form of protest. I won’t spoil it for you, just in case you’re seriously bored or curious and want to see it, but the reason that the aliens want to destroy the earth is a really interesting statement. The explanation comes toward the end (it’s blessedly short) and after all the inanity it was kind of a surprise to realize that, whether or not he consciously intended to, Mr. Wood injected a valid argument, something to think about, into this collection of sounds and images. I might even be forced to say that Plan 9 succeeds as a film based on that argument. Wow. English majors really can find meaning in anything.

Trailers, or, New Girl Crush Alert

Can we talk about Charlize Theron? Let’s. She’s been around for a while, of course, and she won an Oscar in 2004 for Monster. She’s drop-dead gorgeous, obviously, and I am totally in love with her in interviews, where she seems to be incredibly down-to-earth and cool. Also, she’s exactly one day older than me. Clearly, we should be best friends! Yet … I’ve only seen her in three movies, one of which I have practically no memory of (The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. I dug her in Hancock, and she had a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role in That Thing You Do!, so she’s had a varied career, for sure.Despite that Oscar win, however, I’d venture to say that she’s still not the most household of names. I expect that to change, thanks in part to last year’s Young Adult (haven’t seen it yet; it’s on the Netflix queue), but mostly due to what is likely to be a major June. Theron will be starring in Snow White & the Huntsman, and in Prometheus, both of which are undoubtedly headed for blockbuster status.

Snow White has been discussed previously on this blog, but you should definitely check out this new trailer in which Theron is even scarier, Kristen Stewart gets a little more action (and some dialogue!) and Hemsworth is, well, still hunky.

As excited as I am about SW&tH, I am super-super stoked about Prometheus, which I am ashamed to admit I have yet to address here. So, Prometheus, if you’ve missed it so far, is a “is it or isn’t it?” prequel to the Alien movies. It’s directed by Ridley Scott, who directed Alien, and the cast is a grand slam of currently hot young talent: joining Charlize Theron are Idris Elba, Noomi Rapace, and newly-minted Top Fiver, Michael Fassbender. Have I mentioned I’m excited about this movie? I’m excited about this movie. The irony is that I’ve never seen any of the Alien movies, and I am a complete and utter coward. The newest trailer for Prometheus scares the crap out of me, but I will still do my damndest to find a babysitter and drag my husband (also terrified) to the theater in June.

In thinking about lead actresses who can carry a film in the usually male-centric summer blockbuster realm, I’ll admit that I should’ve been thinking of Charlize Theron sooner. She’s got the build and the chops to be awesome in action roles, and I hope that Prometheus will gain her some more mainstream notoriety. In the mean time, I guess I’ve got some catching up to do … what Theron movies do you recommend?

More Best Picture nominees

So, the Oscars happened. If you missed it, they were pretty straightforward this year, with no major surprises. The Artist swept up most of the awards it was expected to, including the biggies: Best Director (Michel Hazanavicius), Best Actor (Jean Dujardin), and Best Picture. Meryl Streep finally has another Oscar, and the Best Supporting winners were the same people who’d been winning everything all season (Christopher Plummer for Beginners and Octavia Spencer for The Help. Out of the nine Best Picture nominees, we actually managed to see four prior to the ceremonies (reviews on three of those are here), and we’re still working to catch up on a couple. The remainder I guess I’m just not that interested in. Anyway, I thought I’d group the more recent two 2011 Best Picture nominees together in one post, so here you have it. We’ll get around to seeing The Descendents someday, probably.

The Help (2011)

I actually had very little interest in The Help before it started getting a lot of awards buzz. It sounded sappy and a lot of people took offense at how the racial issues and tensions were dealt with (which will always be the case). I guess I can’t entirely disagree with those issues, but I do think there are a lot of good things to be found in the movie. Whether or not it ought to have been a Best Picture nominee is a matter of opinion (In mine? Probably not.) but that’s neither here nor there at this point.

The Help is the story of a recently graduated young woman, Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) who returns to her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi looking for something to boost her into the world of serious writing. She finds her inspiration in the huge racial divide between her friends and their black maids, who keep their households running and raise their children while being paid a pittance and subjected to things like being forced to use separate bathrooms. Skeeter turns to two members of “The Help,” Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis, Meryl Streep be damned) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) who give her the inside scoop on their lives. Meanwhile, Skeeter’s “friend” Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard, fabulously villainous) is penning an initiative to have a servant’s bathroom installed in every home in the state, and Celia, a newcomer to town (Jessica Chastain, utterly charming) finds herself ostracized by the society ladies led by Hilly.

Is it sappy? Most definitely. Does it just barely scratch the surface of the tensions that led up to the civil rights movement? Indeed. Are there some really great performances to be had from a cast of very talented ladies? YES, and that is what makes The Help worth watching. I do think that Viola Davis ought to have won the Oscar for Best Actress over Meryl Streep. I haven’t seen The Iron Lady, and probably won’t, but I am just not on the “Streep is the best actress ever” bandwagon. To me, she’s one of those actresses who is always herself. Davis was just so effortless and compelling in her portrayal of Aibileen. Her every move conveyed the struggle of a woman attempting to go through a life of ignominy with grace and dignity. Octavia Spencer was also excellent as Minny, but I actually thought that her performance was outshone by two other cast members: Chastain as the sweet and silly Celia was truly moving, and Bryce Dallas Howard really ought to have gained more recognition for her hateful and venomous Hilly.

As a movie, The Help is pretty straightforward. Again, it’s one of those that works really hard to tug at your heartstrings, and it succeeds, but I found myself wishing it had really dug into its subject a little more. The ending, too, was a little too cut-and-dried. It doesn’t indicate that the struggle is over, necessarily, but it could have given a little more weight to the idea that the fight was just beginning, too. The performances are what make it, and I’m glad to see a movie with a predominantly female cast achieve some serious attention, even if I’m not sure it was entirely deserving.

Hugo (2011)

Unlike The Help, I was pretty excited about Hugo. It won several Oscars, mainly in artistic categories, and I daresay most of them were richly deserved. It certainly is a beautiful movie. However, I was ultimately very disappointed in the film, and along with The Help, I question its inclusion in the Best Picture race.

Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is a young orphan who lives in the walls of a Paris train station and keeps the clocks running. No-one knows he’s there, and he lives like a shadow: stealing food from the merchants inside the station and making sure to keep away from the Station Inspector (Sasha Baron Cohen), who likes to round up urchins and send them to the orphanage. Hugo has another big secret: an automaton that his father (Jude Law) found abandoned and was trying to repair when he died. Hugo thinks that if he can fix the mechanical man, it will convey to him a message from his father. To that end he also steals mechanical bits and bobs from a morose toy-seller (Ben Kingsley) who, we learn, is a lot more than he seems. Chloe Grace Moretz also stars as the young ward of Kingsley’s character, “Papa Georges,” and there’s a fun supporting cast of various Brits, many of them Harry Potter alum.

I’ll leave the synopsis there so as not to give too much away, but I will tell you that what Hugo really is is a love letter to the movies. Like The Artist, it hearkens back to the early days of cinema. That the film is directed by Scorsese is less of a surprise once you understand that it deals with the history of film (of which he is obviously a scholar), and again, it’s a truly gorgeous piece of work, with no detail left to chance. However, it suffers greatly from being adapted from a novel that is half words and half pictures. The dialogue is at times painfully slow, and the attempts to inject some humor and humanity via the various characters at the train station (including Sasha Baron Cohen’s war veteran inspector) just drag things out even further. With those extra plotlines going on, I felt as though the story of Hugo himself was given short shrift, and Asa Butterfield, while very engaging, was not given enough to work with.

Children’s movies these days seem to be run the gamut from completely insipid to moderately intelligent and well-done. Sadly, I am not entirely sure that Hugo ought to be classified as a children’s movie. I find it difficult to believe that an average kid would want to sit still for the whole thing when I could barely manage it myself. As a work of art, it’s quite beautiful, but as a piece of entertainment, it falls somewhat short of the mark. While the novel benefits from a “less is more” approach, the film adaptation tries too hard, and ends up disappointingly lackluster as a result.