Tremors 3: Not a good film; passable Brad Pitt impression.
It’s possible for a film to elicit sympathy, if not actual appreciation, from me. By this I mean, not the subject matter, but the film as a project.
Netflix required that I watch Transcendence over last weekend. It was among many titles being removed June 1st. It ended up at the top of my list because I generally like Johnny Depp’s work and I like science fiction, if done well. Alas, this wasn’t done particularly well.
I can see what they were going for. I feel like the film-class professor who, being presented with a bumbling yet earnest student’s term project, sees that he really tried but just didn’t make it. Do I give him a B- to encourage future efforts, a D+ to show that it was a mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly? Or should the proof of the pudding be in its eating? You get an F.
The film was a critical and commercial failure. It is estimated to have spent something in the $100-150 thousand range to taken in around $100 thousand. Professional reviews were mostly bad with a wide range of problems cited.
For me, this movie committed two of my pet sins. It suffers from the small world problem and, despite being a science fiction genre film, it has a poor grasp on the science. I’ll explore these one at a time before I then explain why, this time ,I wasn’t quite so offended as I usually am. I doing so, I’m going to absolutely ruin the movie’s plot. If you’re not on board with that, stop reading now.
For those who have never seen and have no intention of watching the movie, I’ll provide a very brief plot summary. You also have the above video, the initial trailer for the film, which actually summarizes the first 2/3rds of the movie pretty succinctly. As we start out, we meet Will Caster (Depp), a preeminent artificial intelligence researcher. After what seems like a very lengthy introduction, he is shot by a terrorist’s bullet, part of a coordinated attack on “all” AI research. Though he survives the shooting, we learn the bullet was tainted with plutonium and that a slow death by radiation poisoning is inevitable. While he declines, his wife (a beautiful and similarly-talented AI researcher) and best friend/colleague decide to attempt to upload his intelligence into their research computer**. They succeed. Or do they?
First things first. The movie carves out for itself an insurmountable problem. About half-way into the film, the terrorist organization comes after AI Will and his host machine. He survives by uploading his code to “the cloud” in the nick of time. At this point, the scope of the film becomes world-wide; no longer a small terrorist groups against a handful of computer researchers. How do you open the stage up to include everyone, everywhere? Well, you can’t. Instead, if you are Transcendence, you continue on with the same small group of characters; three AI researchers, a dozen-or-so terrorists, and an FBI agent who also is an expert in AI. The movie contrives a reason why this must be so, but it requires much plot twisting to make it work. As a result, the climatic battle scenes end up looking goofy. Against this superhuman, all-powerful AI the government of the United States fields what looks to me like a WWII airborne artillery gun along with a mortar or two, brought to bear by a dozen or so military contractors. It makes the big picture of a civilization-altering leap in technology feel, instead, very small.
A bigger problem, in terms of the viewer’s experience of the film, is a lack of consistency in the “science” part of the science fiction. I mentioned, briefly, the ideal that, in science fiction, the fiction should flow from the science. This is of course a rarity bu, in this film, scientific inconsistency is pushed beyond where our disbelief can be suspended. Once past the opening discussion about the state of AI and how close or far away we are from the “singularity,” there remains little relationship between what is possible and what happens on-screen.
This is a shame. If they had tried to be consistent, it may have gone a long way towards saving the film. I’ll not dwell on the details, because there are many different ways this could have been addressed. Just for an example, a sentient AI, distributed across the world’s computer hardware, would be virtually unconstrained by human concepts of time. Generations of evolution could happen in seconds. So when we see one scene featuring a large operating room with robotic surgeons, apparently necessary to repair a persons injuries, and then the next scene features black droplets rising magically from the desert to instantly repair everything, is this in conflict with our assumptions or a result of them?
While normally I’d love to hammer away at the inconsistencies (don’t get me started about the whole computer virus trope), in this case (I’ve said) I’m willing to forget and forgive. Why? I think this movie did have a plan. Transcendence begs us to judge it within the framework of what it was trying to do, rather than what it actually did.
Re-watch the trailer #1 again, especially if you’ve seen the second trailer or watched the movie or even read a plot summary. The story it seems to be summarizing is a version of the Frankenstein genre. A brilliant, but out of touch, scientist loses a beloved friend. He/she/they can resurrect the lost soul, but should they? From the trailer, we see that they do, and apparently succeed. But have they? “That’s not Will,” we hear ominously.
Along with Johnny Depp, Transcendence stars Morgan Freeman. Here is another actor whose inclusion all-but-guarantees an interesting viewing experience. From the beginning, we are meant to see Freeman as the guiding expert, the voice of reason, and the arbiter of morality. If the mere presence of that soothing voice is not enough, he rejects the office birthday cake in the first quarter-or-so*** of the movie, letting us know he is wise and allowing his character to survive. Whichever side Freeman takes must be the side of the right and the good. So when Freeman tells us “that’s not Will,” we know that it must not be Will. That it is in fact an imposter. A monster. A creature of our own creation that will now turn against us.
This, I posit, is the key to this movie. It is structured as a classic “horror” feature. This explains the entire structure, including the “impossible” build-up to the ending. Like any good horror film, once we see the monster figured out; presumably destroyed, we come to find out that the monster has certain previously-unanticipated qualities, allowing it to bounce back. Look at Transcendence as a horror movie and it makes a lot more sense. Even the ending, over which many struggled to find meaning, makes sense in the horror genre. We’ve finally killed the monster by burning down**** the entire world only to see that it survives in a drop of rain. Except that it isn’t a horror movie. Morgan Freeman was wrong. It really was Will.
That’s the twist. On paper, it probably looks pretty good. The audience is taken through this horror movie only to learn, at the end, it wasn’t a horror film at all. There was no monster. There were no bad guys. There was only misunderstanding and fear and a failure to communicate. It’s a nice concept. It is a message that should be particularly poignant in today’s world. It didn’t work.
One positive takeaway from watching this is I got to see Rebecca Hall playing Will’s wife, a role that came two years before she played the titular part in Christine. By contrasting the latter with the former, it clarifies the extent to which Hall brought Christine Chubbuck’s personality to the screen. As I’ve said before, it’s one of my primary metrics in judging acting work. When I’m unable to recognize the actor on the screen, hidden behind her character, that’s some fine acting work.
It wasn’t a total loss, but I can’t say I recommend it.
*The second trailer remixes the scenes to create a very different impression of the final movie. The first one matches the interpretation that I want to emphasize. If you’ve viewed the whole film, you can mix and match these meanings to take away your own interpretation of the work. This was probably meant to be a strength of the film. It is probably a big part of the reason for its near-universal rejection.
**Which survived the attack as a result of their rejection of government funding. I thought this trying to make a political or philosophical point when it was introduced. In retrospect, I think they were just trying to contrive the “all the machines were destroyed but one” plot element that was needed subsequently.
***As I try to place key plot events in the film’s timeline, I’m not sure if I’m getting it right. I’m also not going to re-watch this one for the purpose of writing down timestamps. The fact is, the film opens up with ponderous exposition of rain and gardens and a married couple in love. It seems to take forever before our minds can discern some sort of story from the slowly-developing imagery. So while it felt like an hour before the terrorist attack, it may have only been a very long 10 minutes. Once again, this looks to be intended as an important part of the structure of the project. We, the audience, are given these puzzle pieces and we are left to assemble them. Yet, there is more than one way to put them all together. Did we chose the correct one? It’s a nice idea, however, when you’re struggling to make sense of what you’re looking at in the first place, the big “twist” and “reveal,” when it comes, fails to have its intended impact.
****My first thought seeing the desperate citizens under martial law was didn’t I just watch this?
I’m almost certain I watched Hamburger Hill sometime around the time it came out (1987). I vaguely recall not liking it, although I can’t say I remember anything else about it. Within the last six months or so, happened across some video clips from it (I was perusing a best movies of the Vietnam War list) and wondered if I shouldn’t watch it again. Or for the first time if, perhaps, I hadn’t watched it already. It then took a slot on my “to watch” list.
When I found out it, this past weekend, that was set to be removed from Netflix in the middle of May, I decided that the time had come to give it a watch. This despite the fact that I’ve not been watching much TV recently and despite the fact that the film, although gone from Netflix, remains on Amazon’s included-with-Prime streaming.
It seems that, at the time it came out, the film was overshadowed by several of “the big” Vietnam War films that released just before or at the same time. Hamburger Hill debuted some 8-9 months after Platoon‘s release. It then shared the summer audience with Full Metal Jacket. A few months after that, Good Morning Vietnam was added to the competition. To lend support to the idea that this was a genuinely good film that was overshadowed by its bigger-budget brethren is a (presently) 100% tomatometer on Rotten Tomatoes.
But as I watch the film (or watch it again – I still can’t be sure), a number of things bother me. Part of the problem is that the likes of We Were Soldiers has raised the bar for what I expect from a war movie. Yet even evaluated from the perspective of the late 1980s, I don’t think this is in the same ballpark as Full Metal Jacket or Platoon.
My very first impression how much the actors reflect the look and mannerisms 80s, not the 60s. It has always been a problem and probably always will be, but failing to get the period right in your period piece tends to foreshadow other quality issues. It also mean that, throughout the remainder of the film, I have a hard time telling the supporting actors one from the other.
The focus of a film is on a single squad which, as the events of the film begin, is a mix of veterans and replacements. To start, the squad is being extracted from a firefight, perhaps a patrol gone wrong. We later find out that this nasty fight takes place in the region to which they are to ultimately return for the titular battle. The squad leader is played by Dylan McDermott* in what I would call the “lead role.” It is also his first credited film appearance. Strangely, Netflix doesn’t credit him as one of the “top” credits, despite his obviously key part. Amazon does, as does the “Blue Ray” disc version of the film. Odd.
While we, the audience, tries to figure out who these guys are and what they are up to, the movie seems want to run us through all the war-movie tropes. The Lieutenant / Platoon Leader is incompetent and the platoon is run by the Platoon Sergeant. There’s the draftees versus volunteers conflict (with a little anti-war and anti-anti-war politics thrown in for good measure). A nasty, friendly fire incident produces a gut-wrenching scene. It’s as if the writers wanted to take all the “issues” of the time and make sure each got their place within the film. One significant must-include for a 1969 period piece is the civil rights conflict. We are treated to repeated eruptions of racial tension in the mixed-race platoon. In this, that 80s look really confuses the story. There is an odd scene where the (black) medic teaches the new (white) recruits how to brush their teeth. The implication is that the whites are unsophisticated “rednecks,” perhaps in contrast to the urban (and urbane?) blacks. Yet, all the white boys looks suspiciously like 80s yuppies**.
The portrayal of battle itself also come off pretty flat. This may be par for the course for 1987. We’re still in the middle of that transition from the likes of Force 10 From Navarone to Saving Private Ryan in terms of combat realism. Gun handling is a mixed bag and nearly everyone fires incessantly on full-automatic from a single, 10-round magazine. The squad prefers to move around in a densely-packed group, and although here and there a thought is given to enemy location and flanks, it’s mostly a very simple and simplistic representation of the battlefield.
We rarely see the whole platoon together in a scene and rarer still the shots bring in the rest of the company. With that, there seems to be little consideration as to the greater tactical plan. One might argue this is intentional. Like the individual infantryman, the viewers are not privy to any overarching plan and we may even suspect that there isn’t one. Thus having combat scenes be confusing and disconnected is a feature, not a bug. Still, it seems like the scenes were put together, not with a temporal and geographic narrative in mind, but to serve the visual story. “Let’s have two intense combat scenes with an intervening pause for quiet reflection.” I, for one, think the movie could have held together much better if the directory tried to keep the battle itself coherent.
My perceived deficit in authenticity is not for lack of trying. Director John Irvin, himself, had made a documentary in Vietnam during the war (about war photographers) and strove for accuracy. Writer James Carabatsos served in combat in the Vietnam war and he specifically wanted to counter the non-realism found in films like Apocalypse Now or The Deer Hunter. I’ve read that the film was extensively researched and praise from the Veteran community often focuses on its realism. I guess it is all relative.
One final benefit to Netflix pulling this film just when they did is that I watched it over the same days as the actual battle, 51 years after the fact. It’s a coincidence attributable to dumb luck, but one that I appreciate nonetheless.
Return to the master post or proceed to the next article, also out of order, where I watched the Ken Burns documentary series. Or at least part of it. Much of that article dwells on the 1968 Presidential election.
*Looking over McDermott’s acting credits, I feel like I’ve seen him in a lot more films and/or television than he has actually been in. I don’t know why that would be.
**The one actor who has a grip on his poor, southern white-boy role is Steven Weber (Wings, The Shining), as the Platoon Sergeant. Later, some exposition reveals to us that Weber’s Worcester is a California, city boy. Oh well.
Write what you know.
Films are falling off Netfix, and I haven’t been keeping up. With folks around the world under various forms of lockdown, quarantine, and stay-at-home orders (not to mention those who are just taking a bit of a break), I’ve read a lot of complaints about not having enough to do with one’s time. I finding my own schedule squeezed by all manner of extra tasks. Far from binge-watching and otherwise “catching up” on Netflix, this is one area I’ve had to cut back on to make some time. This past week, though, I made some time.
The middle of the month has far fewer movies leaving streaming that you find at the end of the month and Mid-May is no exception. Nevertheless, there are a handful of movies that I haven’t yet seen and a couple of them that rank pretty highly. I had to spread it over multiple nights, but I did manage to watch one of them.
I led off the post the classic advice to would-be authors. In the case of films, it can sometimes pay wonderful dividends. Some of the more clever and intelligent films (and television) I’ve watched anchor their stories in the entertainment business. It’s a realm that screenwriters know well plus, who doesn’t want to take a peek behind the scenery.
The film Christine (no, not that Christine) feels like a script that took this advice. It is dramatization of a true story from 1974. It tells us about Christine Chubbuck and how she came to take her own life while live, on the air, as she led-off a local news broadcast. While her reasons were complex (both in the film and, assuredly, in her real life), much of the focus is on the questions surrounding professional integrity and ambition, particularly as it pertains to the slow slog up the ladder in network news (circa 1970-something).
Beyond the behind-the-scenes look at the businesses of putting on a nightly news show (again, circa 1970-something), the story is somewhat limited. It’s well-acted and looks good enough. We are shown a series of setbacks that would be enough to make many of us despair – cancer, career failure, and unrequited romantic desire. In defense of the screenwriters, it would be difficult to delve deeper into the psyche of Christine Chubbuck as nobody can really say exactly what drove her to do what she did. The films speculates some, but it has probably gone about as far as it dares. What remains is what the writers can KNOW. We know that the 70s news biz was a bit exploitative and sexist and that, for most of its participants, never led to either fame or fortune or even a sustaining career. So that’s the show.
Sometimes this works. In this case it leaves me feeling a little less than satisfied. It’s a shame, because it some ways the movie really was quite good.
We may all be inside watching Netflix, but Netflix still has films to remove from their streaming. Disappearing mid-month (among others) was the film Nowhere Boy. The movie is also unavailable on Amazon streaming (independent of whether or not you want to pay for it). Once again, I get a little bit of a glimpse into the economies of streaming services and I don’t understand it at all.
In any case, this is 2009 movie that Netflix has been pitching to me for some time now. It is also one that never manages to jump out of me, so it always remained quite a few titles down on my queue. While it sat there on the list, it never cried out “watch me.” It is a depiction of John Lennon’s late-teen years – during the time when he formed the band The Quarrymen. So he’s the boy. Because Nowhere Man is an autobiographical John Lennon song, but before he was a Nowhere Man he was a Nowhere Boy. Nope. I perpetually forgot who the “boy” featured in this story was and why I had wanted to watch it in the first place.
So after finally recollecting what I was getting into, the film gets off to a really slow start. We know we are watching John Lennon, because all that stuff in the previous paragraph, but we don’t yet know why. Finally, a little ways into the film, John’s mother teaches him how to play the Banjo, an instrument played by both his parents. From that point, the picture starts to pick up.
Perhaps part of what’s going on here is that John Lennon is much like Nikki Sixx (please, bear with me here). We see him deciding to become a “rock and roller” after watching Elvis on screen and admiring the lifestyle. It starts with hair and clothes for him but, then, he realizes that his dream is not to look or act like Elvis, but to actually BE Elvis.
Lennon’s motivation may be the same, but the movie is not. We see the genesis of the Quarrymen and their steady morphing into the Beatles. The film shows this happening, first, driven by John’s drive and personality and then propelled by the musicianship of Paul and George.
This isn’t a documentary. Real people are missing missing from the story while fictional people are added, and scenes are staged which don’t at all match what we know actually happened. It frustrated viewers and critics alike. However, if you either don’t know the details of the early Beatles or can accept that historically-inspired dramas often need to service the drama part above the historical part, you probably don’t mind. Indeed, on the whole, critics appreciated this film for what it was. It was popular enough, inside and outside of the the UK and it made good on its modest budget. By the end, I was glad to have watched it.
The band Mötley Crüe features a bit more prominently in my life than I would ever have expected. Despite being about the right age, I was never into the “hair band” wave of the early 1980s. I liked a few of the biggest metal acts of the 1980s, but they were mostly the already-established big names. Scorpions, Iron Maiden, Ozzy Osborne… these folks were topping the charts and I did dig their stuff. However, for the bands that were multiplying through the eighties and crowding the hard rock/metal field, well, I looked upon the bulk of the genre as gimmicky and unserious. Mötley Crüe seemed to me to be about as gimmicky and unserious as they came.
While I’d no doubt heard and could hum along with a few of their songs, as could anyone who listened to the radio, through the mid-eighties, I did not think of Mötley Crüe as a major artist. In fact, I can’t say I thought of them much at all. That was to change in the summer of 1987. May 11th of that year saw the release of the single Girls, Girls, Girls. This would be followed, almost immediately, by the release of the album by the same name. The sale of the album was backed by some heavy radio advertising push. At the time, a co-worker and I shared an apartment and we drove into work together. Every single morning we’d hear the pitch and took to feigning enthusiasm at the imminent availability of some new Crüe material.
The album release was accompanied by a summer stadium tour. The show came through Columbus OH in July. My roommate said that we had to get tickets*. I responded that we didn’t actually like Mötley Crüe, we were just pretending. “So what,” he said, “we have got to go and live the experience.” So we did.
Being the music snob that I was, I justified it in part by claiming that my interest was for the opening acts. I did consider the first opener, Anthrax, to be a legitimate artist. Second-bill Whitesnake won my respect by virtue of their connection to classic hard-rock bands like Ozzy Osborne and Deep Purple. But I was just too good for Mötley Crüe.
I took away two impressions from that concert. First, there were far uglier people in the world than, up until that point in my life, I’d ever known graced this earth. By and large, these were the folks there to hear Mötley Crüe, not Anthrax. Second, I had to admit that the Mötley Crüe show was a well-rehearsed and well-performed piece of entertainment. Up to that point, concerts that I’d seen pretty much consisted of bands playing through their songs while tossing in a little banter in-between tunes. With Mötley Crüe, I felt like everything was calculated to entertain. I didn’t come away from the show liking the band, but I did gain a bit of respect for them.
As I was writing this, I realized that someone videotaped that very concert and it is available on YouTube, both song-by-song and in its entirety. As I read through some of the comments, I gather that I was witness to one of Mötley Crüe’s better stadium shows of their career. Apparently, on top of the fan-lore, Niki Sixx talks about the show in his book The Heroin Diaries. Now I’m actually wondering if I could actually get a glimpse of myself if I watch the video. I think I should be just to the left and a little forward of the camera. The downside will be I’ll have to make it through the concert a second time. I’m not sure I can commit to that.
Life would soon take me away from Oh-Hi-Oooh and to the beaches of Los Angeles, but it could not take Mötley Crüe away from me.
While living in L.A., I had a friend who was dating a woman who had shared an apartment with Heather Locklear. The gals were still friends and they all would hang out as a foursome, mostly in Palm Springs. I never met either Heather nor Tommy Lee, but I was shown a bunch of poolside pictures. Sometimes it felt like I knew them. I lost touch with all of them by the time Heather and Tommy got divorced.
So why the trip down memory lane? Well, I decided to give Netflix another chance and watch another one of their “Original Movies,” the biographical drama The Dirt. This was a film that was pushed heavily by Netflix since it came out about a year ago. Unfortunately, the reviews (those few that covered it) weren’t too flattering and I figured to give it a pass. Nonetheless, Netflix kept on pushin’. The other night I was looking at some of the user reviews on IMDB and read one that said, basically, if you like Rock and Roll pictures, you’ll like this one. And I do.
The film is an adaptation of the book The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band. This was a collaboration between the band members themselves and Niel Strauss (author of The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists). The book The Dirt spent its share of time on the best seller list and garnered decent reviews. It took a few years before it was marked to be a film project and, although in retrospect that decision seems almost inevitable, it took even longer to get it made.
More than a decade went by before the film project came together. Completing it took Netflix coming to the rescue, buying the distribution rights and funding the movie’s completion. Once again, the band was part of the process and they are listed as co-producers in the credits. That said, the film doesn’t just glorify the band. Mötley Crüe went through some rough patches, albiet almost entirely of their own making. The ugly episodes are certainly portrayed. In fact, the band comes off on screen looking like a******s.
Critical reviews for the film weren’t great, as I said. The timing of the release was such that it was coming on the heels of my own disillusionment with “Netflix Original” material, meaning I was already predisposed to NOT watching it. In this case, now that I’ve seen it, my pessimism was overblown.
Instead, the IMDB commentary was right on. I am one who likes rock biographicals and this is a reasonably-decent example of the genre. I’ve read (somewhere, I forget where) that the dramatization is eclipsed by the various documentaries made about Mötley Crüe over the years. That may be so but, let’s be honest, I wasn’t really so much looking for a documentary about Mötley Crüe as some light entertainment. I’m thinking Marky-Mark’s Rock Star, but with a little more grounding in reality.
Here’s the funny thing. For pretty much any other “rock” movie that I’ve watched, the core of the story is the music. The genius of the writer, the virtuosity of the performer, or the great song that needs to be written. Even when the film fails to achieve this end, I assume that’s at least what they are trying for. Now, it turns out that I knew more Mötley Crüe than I had realized – the music that played during the movie was more familiar than I thought it would be. Even still, there is nothing from the band that I’d admit to being quality musicianship. The film makes no attempt to alter that impression. From the beginning, the concept for Mötley Crüe seems to be build the band entirely around image rather than song.
But so what. Let’s just say there is a reason that the Sex and the Drugs came before the Rock n’ Roll when we engaged in our teen-aged fantasy** of becoming the next… Vince Neil?
*Concert tickets, in 1987, weren’t crazy-stupid expensive like they are now. I bring this up because I remember, that same summer, arguing with my roommate about whether we should pay an extra $2 a month (on top of the already ~$10) for HBO in our cable package. I found the cost extravagant. He thought it would pay for itself if it saved us on a movie rental or two a month. Like with the Crüe show, he ended up persuading me.
**The film has a scene where the band chooses a name for themselves. It shows Tommy Lee suggesting the name The Fourskins. If so, he beat my friends to the idea by a year or two.
Early reviews of the film Midway were mixed. At least from the information that I was reading, this one was looking like something I might want to miss. Then I saw, on Facebook, a clump of reviews from friends of mine who are combat veterans. These fellas had gone to the theater right when the movie came out and loved the film. I decided I would have to watch it after all.
Making a film such as the 2019 Midway stands on the shoulders of a number of projects that came before it. The connection to Hollywood goes all the way back to the beginning. As depicted* on-screen, movie director John Ford was present on the island where he was actually shot in the arm during the attack. The footage he captured was made into an 18-minute newsreel called The Battle of Midway. We might classify this one as the first of the Midway films. Another newsreel was put together by Ford to honor the sacrifice, during the battle, of Torpedo Squadron 8 from the USS Hornet. America would have to wait until the 1970s, however for its first full-length recounting of this pivotal battle of the war.
Through the 1950s and 60s, as well as into the 70s, the World War II spectacular was a favorite genre. Major efforts featured star-lineups and various innovative efforts to “get it right.” For the 1976 Midway (free to watch on Amazon Prime, at least at the moment), authenticity in the battles scenes was derived in part from reusing actual battle footage and previously-created scenes from movies like Tora!, Tora!, Tora! and Hawai Middouei daikaikusen: Taiheiyo no arashi (Storm Over the Pacific). The theater run used “Sensurround,” featuring an additional low frequency soundtrack powering special speakers to produce a physical rumbling sensation. It was a technology developed for the 1974 film Earthquake, with Midway being the second film to use it. Midway turned out to be popular at the box office and easily made back its investment. Personally, I found the film to be weak in terms of explanation of the battle. On top of that, the special effects pale compared to modern capabilities as well (plus, I don’t have Sensurround speakers in my home). It’s earned its place as a classic war picture, but I’m not sure it can hold its own so many years past its prime.
The next picture that needs to be acknowledged has to be the Michael Bay spectacle Pearl Harbor (2001). One might go on and on about Pearl Harbor as a remake of Tora!, Tora!, Tora! or Pearl Harbor as a failure to remake Tora!, Tora!, Tora!, but that discussion will have to be saved for another time. I would rather draw your attention to the 40 minutes of big budget, modern* representation of Japan’s sinking of the American fleet. For many, this movie-within-a-movie is worth putting up with the rest of the three-hour film at least once. I’m sure many second or third viewings of Pearl Harbor simply skipped ahead to the battle. Bay’s combat sequence sets a new standard for the portrayal of World War II aerial combat. Gone are the days when we’ll be satisfied with watching gun camera footage, helmet-mounted cockpit cameras, and miniature ship models. Much was made about the “hollywoodization” of the imagery, but it is hard to deny that it wasn’t exciting and overall enjoyable to behold.
Pearl Harbor also took the story through the lead-up to the outbreak of war and into the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor bombing. Impossibly, the same film heroes fight in the Battle of Britain, in defense of Pearl Harbor, and the Doolittle Raid. Although poorly executed, the intent seems to be to collect the grand sweep of a world at war into a personal story about a girl. I guess it might have looked good on paper. The point is, Pearl Harbor put its titular event into the greater context and I suppose we should look to Midway to do the same.
In that vein, Midway opens up with a CGI-fest portraying the bombing of Pearl. My initial reaction was feeling cheated at being shown what I’ve already watched before (at no small personal cost). Having let the sequence settle in, though I’ll come to the defense of the writers; starting the movie with Pearl Harbor was their way to create a connection between the core characters (in this case, classmates from the Naval Academy). Following the start of the war, the film then whips you through an air raid in the Marshall Islands, the Doolittle Raid (again), before settling down a little bit for the actual Battle of Midway. Critics complained about the jumpy narrative, but I’d say it worked if you had a familiarity with the historical events, which I have.
Many years ago, I traveled to Honolulu for a family affair and I took with the me the outstanding book Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway. It is a positively outstanding book and the experience was greatly enhanced, for me, by reading it from a Pacific beach. Although that was a while ago, it meant that what I was looking for from Midway was highlight illustrations of what I got from reading Shattered Sword. At this, the movie actually did rather well. Just to cite one standout for-instance, a Midway scene has a Japanese officer explaining why the fire suppression system wasn’t working, a factor that Shattered Sword explained rather extensively. I’m not sure I would have even noticed that detail in the movie had I not been primed for it. Knowing the background, the 15 seconds of screen time was very significant to me.
All said, I’ll agree with my Veteran friends – this was a film worth seeing. Most importantly, it did not throw in a love triangle or personal drama to spice up the story. It mostly focuses on the historical aspects of the battle and, even where it did try to integrate individual drama, it seemed focused on using it to show the human side of war. There were plenty of inaccuracies when it came to the military aspects, but this time around it didn’t bother me. SBDs dogfighting with Zeros? Ehh, whatever. I think the movie did a reasonable job of capturing the feel of this moment in history and I can live with the Hollywood rework.
Were this some other time when I had a different set of projects in front of me, watching Midway would mean getting out my Carriers at War disk and playing some scenarios. I recall from the last time I did it that Carriers at War is no casual investment of time. So for this month, at least, I’ll simply be content to have enjoyed the show.
*At the time of the attack, Ford was an U.S. Naval officer. In the film, he seems to be portrayed as a civilian.
**If 19-years-old can be considered State of the Art.
At the end of March, a long list of movies came off of Netflix streaming. Among them was yet another film that Netflix has long recommended to me, Kill the Irishman. This was a 2011 film that flew completely under my radar at the time it came out. The whimsical title along with the marketing shot (Christopher Walken mugging for the camera) got it into my head that this was a Tarantino-style violent, black comedy. This perception was way off.
Kill the Irishman is a true-crime drama set in Cleveland in the 1960s and 70s. It portrays the “career” of Danny Greene, an Ohioan of Irish descent who rose through the Longshoreman’s Union to become a figure in the city’s organized crime underworld. By the mid-70s, Greene was a key figure in a mafia war that plagued the city and whose violence rose to national attention.
The movie is a decent shot at the genre, although its saving grace is probably that it is historical. I’ve read the criticisms that it is too much like Goodfellas. It’s an accusation that may come from the lack of a “good guy” anywhere in the story. Like Henry Hill, Danny Greene has few redeeming qualities beyond a testy sort-of charisma. He is a thief and a murderer, as are all his friends and his enemies alike. Greene’s greatest contrast with Hill seemed to be his going out in a blaze of glory, rather than settling into a life of witness protection. It may be this final move that says much about his life. As to the assertion that Kill the Irishman is simply an attempt to remake Goodfellas, I wouldn’t go that far. If I hadn’t read that elsewhere, I wouldn’t have come to such a conclusion on my own. In fact, I’d go so far a to say that Kill the Irishman is less derivative than The Irishman or Casino.
The weakness in the story is the haphazard nature with which it jumps through the years. One can understand “the early years” being a bit rushed. Danny Greene’s slow rise through the union ranks is only interesting as a set up for the mid-1970s gang war that both opens and closes the film. However, even at the film’s climax, Greene’s criminal activities are largely glossed over. Was the mafia really so angry with him because he had an unpleasant personality? Or was this more about dollars and cents. The film shows Greene seemingly minding his own business as the hitmen chase him down. I suspect the reality put him in a much more active role.
Val Kilmer’s bloated portrayal aside, the acting is all decent – albeit with all of the famous actors playing the same characters that we’ve seen them play through the years. The film is generally well made and reasonably entertaining. If it weren’t for the somewhat fresh take (i.e. not New York City) and the historical basis, I probably would have been less than thrilled. As it was, I was glad that Neflix finally motivated me to give this one a watch.
I wanted to like The Martian. I tried to like The Martian. It just wouldn’t like me back.
OK, it wasn’t that bad. Somehow, I just thought it should have been much better.
The film was created by Ridley Scott based upon the highly acclaimed novel of the same name. Already a master of science fiction, Scott benefited from extensive help and cooperation from NASA, who saw the film as an opportunity to pitch future manned space missions. The film had no shortage when it came to funding ($100+ million), an investment that was recouped many times over. So what’s the problem?
First of all, I thought the plot was excruciatingly predictable. Even if they hadn’t telegraphed the “everything goes wrong” moment with dialog, I felt like I could have predicted it within about 10 minutes based on industry formulae. Tension/release and all that. But does anyone go into this movie thinking that Matt Damon might not make it home in the end? How tense can it really be?
I haven’t been on a NASA campus for a while, so maybe it is true that the majority of the workers are either drop-dead-gorgeous women or youthful hipsters-of-color. Yet somehow I doubt it. We all know there are certain physical features that correlate with advanced degrees in engineering and, I hate to break it to ya, but these aren’t them.
So while NASA contributed, it looks like they focused on PR. Pitching the hot (and smart!) babes to the next generation of college grads makes sense for them. In the same vein, the visual aspects of this movie are quite good; state-of-the-art CGI, interesting near-future tech, and a believable Mars location (Jordan IRL). The science however (or SCIENCE! as they had the fucking* audacity to place on a board full of, at best, trivial rocketry equations) they seem to have left to the screenwriters. I’m probably spoiled by The Expanse (which, as the authors have said, isn’t meant to be accurate; but it does succeed in being sensible), but in a film where the technology seems so heavily featured**, it seems you’d want to do a better job with it.
The film also lacks in the character development. Matt Damon is chummy and likeable as always, but I felt surprisingly disconnected from him given the man-alone focus of the movie. On top of that, he is the best they’ve got. There’s not one other character in this film who builds a connection with the audience. Well, maybe Jeff Daniels. His “Director of NASA” character is decidedly unlikable. One Netflix review says he “is even dumber than he was in Dumb and Dumber, but not as funny.” That’s funny right there.
Speaking of funny, the highlight of the movie was Sean Bean making a Lord of the Rings joke. I literally broke into laughter. And now I probably just ruined it for you. Sorry.
Maybe I should read the book.
Netflix, meanwhile, has decided that I like “Classic Cerebral Movies” and “Sci-Fi and Fantasy based on Books.” I’m a little flattered. I’m not interested in any of their suggested movies, but I’m happy with the way they’ve defined me.
*I’m probably overreacting, but I see this selling of “SCIENCE!” as a form of religion as one of the more corrosive features of modern discourse. It is implicitly used as a political critique (my opponents are ignorant of science) and, as far as I can fathom, has little value in its explicit intent – which would be to get the young interested in math and science as a career path. Prove me wrong.
**I want to give examples, but then again what’s the point. Some of the propulsion goofs and simplifications got to me particularly, but technical ignorance abounds in this movie. In fact, a little reading on line shows me many, many items that I hadn’t noticed as I watched. Any science fiction film is going to have inaccuracies and simplifications. This one just took it too far.