Tremors 3: Not a good film; passable Brad Pitt impression.
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.
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.
When one reads First Blood today, their situation must be similar to my own experience with the James Bond series. For almost all of us, we have been introduced to the character of Rambo through the movie series, not the book upon which that first film was based. Because of that, we tend to focus quite a bit on how the book deviates from the movie and not the other way around.
The most obvious difference is that Rambo (the first name John was added for the film, in the book he was just “Rambo”) did not survive the book. In fact, the original ending of the film also had Rambo meeting his maker. Fortunately for Stallone and decades of Rambo movies, the test audience was upset that the main character died in the end. Giving the people what they want, the ending was re-shot to have Rambo survive.
The author of First Blood, David Morrell, would go on to write sequels to his novels. When he originally sold the rights to his book to Hollywood, it came with the provision that he alone could write additional books about Rambo. This actually gave him quite a bit of leverage. Novelizations were popular aspects of movie marketing in the early 1980s (Rambo: First Blood Part II came out in 1985) but the studio was required to go with Morrell or nothing. Morrell negotiated that he would write the book, but only if he was allowed to deviate, as he felt appropriate, from the screenplay. The studio reluctantly agreed and a series of novels were also launched. Naturally, the book Rambo had to have come back alive, but if Morrell could handle that then so can we.
When I began my reading of the book, my immediate comparison was not with the movie, but with today’s military-veteran-turned-hero book genre, which is now quite popular. Following decades of war in the Middle East, there seem to be plenty of authors who themselves have had military experience, spawning a genre that thrives on meticulous detail. Morrell, by contrast, is a Canadian-born English professor, lacking military experience. My first clue was his reference to the “Congressional Medal of Honor,” a phrase I would expect those with familiarity with the honor to avoid. He also has describes the firearms to which Rambo has access in the language of someone unfamiliar with firearms. In both these cases, I may just be applying 2020 sensibilities to 1970 mentality – the military crowd of the Vietnam generation was less meticulous about all the tech-specs than even the keyboard warriors of today. Nonetheless, the book comes off as a decently researched, but not first hand, description of the guerrilla warrior.
Morrell has elaborated on some of his intended themes in interviews*. The idea came from seeing a juxtaposition of television footage from the Vietnam War and domestic images from the Civil Rights -related unrest. It occurred to him that it was difficult to distinguish the two and it got him thinking about what it would be like if the Vietnam War came home to America. At the same time, as a professor, he spoke to students who had been in the war and began to appreciate the mental trauma they had brought back with them – what we would now call manifestations of PTSD. The book sprung from an desire to dramatize these thoughts. Perhaps intentionally, the “war,” in his case, is but a single soldier. Yet, this single, trained warrior brings many deaths and out-sized destruction to small town America.
When it came to the film, star Stallone objected to the murderous nature of the character. He demanded the screenplay be rewritten so that John Rambo was responsible for only a single, and unintentional, death. By contrast, the Rambo of the book, once he begins to kill his adversaries, takes to it like a fish returning to the water. Stallone wanted his character, the misunderstood veteran, to be unambiguously sympathetic. In the book, however, Rambo and his nemesis Police Chief Teasle, are treated more equitably. Both make mistakes and yet both are military heroes in their own right and are intended to be equally deserving of our sympathy.
Morrell uses the dual characters of Rambo and Teasle to compare and contrast America’s past with its (then) present. Teasle is a hero of Korea, an early Cold War conflict and a war fought, in many ways, as an extension of World War II. In Vietnam, the United States began its path through repeated involvements in asymmetric warfare; wars fought by very different rules. Rambo, the insurgent, understands Teasle’s rules but Teasle struggles to understand Rambo. The individual struggle symbolizes America’s post-World-War-II struggle to find its place in the world – a struggle that remains relevant today.
Those ideas aside, reading this book made me think about one more of my recent themes from this site. It strikes me as unreasonable when books from nearly a century ago are available only for an order-of-magnitude above their original cost (or entirely out-of-print), locked up by some mega-publisher, making profits at the expense of readers and the work of a dead author. Yet here is an example of a writer who continues to actively market his work, albeit a 50-year-old work. Do any of us begrudge him earning a living from his efforts? I’d say no, although that makes it difficult take a stand on intellectual property protections. There are either rights, which can be bought, sold, held, and exploited or there are not. Or is there a middle ground?
*One such interview is printed in the back of the newest pressing of the book.
I had time for one more movie before February’s streaming purge kicked in. This, my third choice, also creates a trilogy of postbellum posts, none of which are really about the years following the Civil War. The doubly-third film is The Salvation, a Danish-made Western.
The story is one we’ve seen before. Two brothers, veterans of the Schleswig-Holstein wars, come to the American Southwest to create a new life. After seven years establishing themselves in their adopted country, brother Jon sends for his wife and son to join him from Denmark. An incident that seemingly sprung from the family being in the wrong place in the wrong time turns out to be part of a conspiracy involving the town elders, an evil gang leader, and a shadowy corporation. This time, though, they messed with the wrong Dane. Mads Mikkelsen plays the reluctant hero whose battlefield skills empower him to take on all comers.
This film follows a pattern of European movie-making I’ve enjoyed recently. Although having a budget enhanced by government grants (Wikipedia estimates 10.5 million euros), these are still small projects by American standards. Some shaky CGI aside, though, this one stands up fairly well on its own merits. Mikkelsen has built a solid name for himself as action star and plays the vengeful victim à la Clint Eastwood. One notices a number of European accents among the supporting characters. This probably isn’t so strange historically (westward expansion was fueled by immigration), but does further betray a non-American production. Leading woman Eva Green (French actress who played Vesper Lynd* opposite hero Daniel Craig against Mikkelsen’s villain in Casino Royale) is helped along by her playing a mute character – she’s had her tongue cut out by Indians. Mikkelsen’s opposite is gang leader Henry Delarue, very well played by Jeffery Dean Morgan, whom I know best as Watchmen‘s Comedian.
All-in-all this was a decent movie, worth watching. I’m glad there are European filmmakers willing to augment Hollywood’s sequel-fest. This one is particularly well-suited to American audiences who might otherwise shy away from foreign productions. While the Danish characters occasionally speak to each other in their own language**, the vast bulk of the film is in good ole American English. It’s an action shoot-em-up, so the tension is mostly of the “how’s he going to get out of this one” variety. It’s not deep, but its what we expect from the genre.
So The Salvation is good, but I can’t call it great. With Netflix films, I always must struggle with their rating system. I’d give this one 3 1/2 stars, but that’s not an option. So is it 3 1/2, closer to 3 or 3 1/2, closer to 4? In this case it gets a “closer to 3” rating and I have a couple of specific issues. There is, of course, what I led off with. The story is a stock Western tale, done so often its not even worth trying to figure out what it copied. But while copying Shane can get you an entertaining Pale Rider, to create The Unforgiven, you have to have something unique to say. Yet even given the stock plot, in this case I found the story too depressing. Maybe it was me and what I was in the mood for, but at some point I was thinking that, while we’ve got to see our hero driven to seek vengeance, does that mean simply killing everyone?
A third strike comes from the portrayal of guns, an inability to do correctly seems endemic to Hollywood. Of course this isn’t exactly Hollywood – it’s a European production, filmed in a believably-American-looking South Africa. Nor it is it all that bad relative to other movies. Still, the one thing that got me was the use of rechambering lever actions to indicate the imminent threat of a shooting. The first time Mikkelsen finds discarded rifle, he wisely checks the chamber. So far so good. But as the film goes on, it seems like every encounter, nearly every shot fired, has to be preceded by ejecting a round and chambering a new one. At some point, I couldn’t take it any more.
The final area where I have some criticism and parting thoughts is the historical grounding of the film, of which there is little. Not that I would expect it. Everything to this point says action film, not historical drama. I also was required to learn a little Danish history to understand the backstory of the main characters, which is an added bonus. However, the key twist to the movie – the tie in to big oil – is way out of its historical context. The discovery of oil and the beginnings of its use for consumer goods is probably about right time-wise, its just in the wrong place. Oil was being extracted from Canadian Oil fields and, circa 1871, there was some oil harvesting occurring in the American northeast. A woman named Lyne Taliaferro Barret had even begun the effort to extract oil from her Texas land by this time, but she was still nearly 20 years out from completing her project. The idea that a sinister big-oil corporation could be driving the criminal activity in this film is a fevered 20-teens dream.
There was another historical bit, however, that got me to wondering, and on this one I don’t know the answers. A Western trope that pervades the genre is the small town taken over by a menacing bandit gang. In film, it is the quest of the hero to free the innocents by killing (or just running off) the bad guy that makes the story. While corruption and powerful criminal syndicates are all too common, now as well as in the past, how “realistic” is this story? Was this a feature of the post-Civil War west that even organized, but isolated, settlements would frequently fall victim to lawlessness and extortion? If that did indeed happen, was it more likely to have been tied to organized activity (Ranchers, Cattlemen, Railroads, Oilmen, etc.) or was it a form of petty warlordism rising in the wilderness? Something to think about.
Unlike this movie, which isn’t an occasion for deep thoughts. Enjoy the action. Enjoy the shootouts. Expect Mikkelsen to get his revenge in the end.
*Vesper Lynd appears in Casino Royale to manage the financing for Bond’s gambling venture. Eva Green’s character in The Salvation, The Princess (also Madeline), manages the money for Delarue’s crew. Coincidence? I think not.
**Jon’s wife and son, having just arrived from Denmark, speak no English. Said wife is played by Danish pop-star, Oh Land, who is also the money.
I suppose it comes inevitably with age, but these days films, songs, books, and all manor of popular entertainment come and go and I am none the wiser. When it comes to films, sometimes Netflix points out to me what I’ve missed, but not reliably so. One such push from them was the 2012 film Lawless.
I assumed, based on my unfamiliarity with the title, that it wasn’t much of a success. The title tells little and the poster adverts seem to push the name actors (Shia LaBeouf usually has top billing) rather then explain why one would want to watch it. In fact, it was only the subtitle, the even more bland “Based on a True Story,” that reeled me in. I was later a little surprised to learn that the film earned something over $54 million, more than doubling it’s production budget. The film was even nominated for the 2012 Palme d’Or*, one of 22 titles.
The film also stars Tom Hardy, whom I’ve seen (but had yet to happen at the time Lawless was made) as both of the Kray brothers in the film Legend. His portrayal of Forrest Bondurant is remarkably similar to his portrayal of Ronnie Kray. I began to question his acting range until I remembered he was also Reggie. Moreover, he was playing both of the Krays on the screen at the same time. Since Legend came after Lawless, it is very possible that he was directed to make Ronnie like his Forrest.
I was also taken aback by the writing credit. Nick Cave wrote the screenplay, based on a novel, namely The Wettest County in the World (2008), by a Bondurant direct-descendant Matt Bondurant. Nick Cave also did the music, but that isn’t so surprising. When I watched The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, also scored by Nick Cave, I realized that he is now involved extensively in film. Lawless is Cave’s second screenplay (with the first being western drama The Proposition which, like Lawless, was directed by John Hillcoat). The project grew out of initial work of these two.
Nick Cave also has a minor part in this film. He gets himself shot up in the street by “big time” gangster Floyd Banner early on in the film. We can’t even tell it was him as his face is never shown, nor does he appear in the credits. I’m relying on IMDb to get this fact right. Seems like a bit of a letdown after his cameo in The Assassination of Jesse James…, wherein he actually got to sing a song on-screen.
I had an amusing reaction when first watching that particular scene. I’ll share. As the gangsters’ cars roar into town, then-timid Jack (LaBeouf) hides behind his truck to observe the killing. Afterward we are left, momentarily, to wonder whether Banner might take him out (eliminate the witness) until Banner (played by the always-intense Gary Oldman) relieves the tension with a wink. At the end of this scene, Jack runs into the street, takes off his hat, and begins placing the spent .45 brass into it. I naturally assumed he was going to reload it. If it weren’t illegal to filch evidence from a live crime scene, I’d probably do it too. But I was wrong. He wanted the spent cartridges as souvenirs, particularly to give to his friend who had a fascination with the famous gangster.
Production notes aside, I found this to be a worthwhile film. The theme of three brothers against the world is a good one and it helps that the story is more-or-less historical. Technically, I found a little too much of the dialog to be mumbled – I occasionally had trouble understanding what was said. Also, the mix of historical record, fill-in-the-blank historical fictionalization, and cut-from-whole-cloth Hollywood storytelling makes for an uneven narrative at times. Not great, but good enough for me.
As with any historical fiction, one wonders how it speaks (or tries to speak, at any rate) to us today. The story of the “good” outlaws versus corrupt authorities is a timeless one. While it does not connect any dots between the failed prohibition of a century ago and the endless-war of drug prohibition, that might be a decent exercise for its viewers. What got me thinking, however, is that prohibition did not cause a collapse of society. A History Channel (heh) special reported that 99% of the citizens of Franklin County were involved, in one way or another, with the illegal liquor trade. Although there was violence and while the organized crime networks that prohibition created survive to this day, civil society more or less carried on as usual. Sometimes we are reminded about the fragility of society but this chaotic and violent episode reminded me of its resilience.
*The winner that year was French film Amour.
It’s not that I don’t like Bruce Willis films. I do. I also enjoy a shoot-em-up action flick as much as the next guy. Still, a remake* of Death Wish just didn’t seem like something that had to be done. Perhaps it was the feeling that the original story was so specific to the 1970s (the novel came out in 1972 and the film in 1974). Perhaps it was just the feeling that Bronson’s version said everything that needed to be said on a subject that wasn’t all that deep to begin with.
Then the progressive, anti-gun political class lost their shit.
There’s no better way to get me watch something than to tell me I shouldn’t watch it. It took most of a year, but, having made it my mission to watch the Death Wish update for 2018, my mission is complete.
Director Eli Roth says he did not make it to be a pro-Gun movie. He blames a rush to judgement from viewers based on no more than the first trailer. His intent, he says, was simply to present a story without drawing conclusions for his audience. Furthermore, the questions he wanted debated were about crime (he cites an apparent lack of progress** between 1974 and today), family, and how far a man should go to protect his own. The focus on guns came about, in part, due to the film’s timing relative to the shooting, two years ago, at an outdoor Las Vegas concert and then the Florida school shooting four months later.
The Left did not buy his protestations, but perhaps I do. Roth’s pre-Death Wish background is in horror and he does not seem to have much of a political agenda. While his portrayal of guns in Death Wish is, perhaps, better than most, he makes a number of Hollywood gun mistakes. Perhaps most obvious to me is [spoiler alert here] that, in the climatic scene when Willis’ Kersey uses his “legal” guns to defend his home, he produces a fully-automatic machine-pistol built on a AR-15 action. It’s a product that would be nearly impossible to possess if you are not military/law-enforcement and kinda silly to have if you are (why cobble together an AR pistol when you can legally have a short-barrelled rife?). The legality of his weapons is a key plot point and this kind of barfs all over the logic. In another key plot point, Kersey’s lack of skill and experience as a shooter causes a tell-tale injury on his shooting hand, but this is a distortion of what can and does happen to many a novice semi-automatic pistol owner. Fact is, you’d really have to have some bizarro grip to tear up your hand like he does while shooting one-handed (as he clearly does in the scene).
That said, it is still a notch above most film industry takes on guns. That hand injury results from Kersey learning all he knows about guns and shooting by watching YouTube. It’s an all-too-accurate commentary on a particular subset of today’s gun culture (or even culture/YouTube in general) and may originate from someone who knows what he’s talking about. I was also amused by the fact that Kersey replaced his Glock 17 with a Springfield XD, but that may be a little to subtle a point to be intentional. Beyond that, firearm portrayal is reasonable and competent.
If this movie were watched without the context of Bronson’s Death Wish and the specific 2017/2018 political kerfuffle, I surely would have viewed it very differently. Kudos to Roth for setting off the PC crowd, though. Sometimes that’s all it takes to please me.
*This one doesn’t quite fall into the remake category I discussed earlier. I’ll grudgingly admit to being alive when Bronson’s Death Wish series of films came out, but (my parents, at least, felt) I was a little young to watch them. It wasn’t until fairly recently that I actually rented and watch the original.
**While Roth may be right about appearances, he is not right on the facts. Violent crime has trended significantly downward from the early 1970s through today.
I completely missed it when The Expanse began airing on SyFy.
The main reason is I don’t watch “live” TV anymore, so a new series showing up on cable just isn’t relevant to me. Secondarily, while SyFy occasionally puts out remarkable original content (Battlestar Galactica anyone?), the channel’s name on a project generally isn’t to be seen as a mark of quality. Eventually, the show did show up on Amazon, but its rather generic name and image (Julie Mao floating in space) did nothing to change my mind.
What did change my mind was a bit of misunderstanding. It was around the time I was reading Back Channel. In a Cold War related search I read a comment to the effect of “The Expanse is based on Twilight Struggle.” The actual quote had more depth and talked about developers being fans of the Twilight Struggle game. Shortly thereafter, someone I respected posted on Facebook a positive comment about The Expanse, so I decided, between those two bits of information, I must watch the show. As it turned out, the Twilight Struggle comments had nothing to do with the TV series; it was some pre-release/Kickstarter press about the boardgame The Expanse. But I didn’t know this at the time I watched my first episode.
The TV series had me from the very opening. While the credits didn’t win their own award, I found them both stunning and mood setting. The second big surprise was an actual approximation of orbital mechanics within the drama. That first episode demonstrated the trauma and expense of a “flip and burn” maneuver. Later, the intentions of distant ships were ascertained by the amount of deaccerlation burn they were undertaking. Elsewhere, trajectories are plotted relative to planetary motion.
I don’t recall another science-fictional depiction* of space ships thrusting backwards. I can’t say that the durations and other numbers for orbit transfers are accurate, but they at least seem plausible. In doing so, I can watch while suspending my disbelief in the more fantastical elements to focus on the story.
Similarly, the depiction of “artificial gravity” as the result from either acceleration or spin is shown early on and the “mag boots” introduced as a way to obviate ubiquitous floating in all of the space scenes. The weapons are plausibly futuristic without being the sci-fi fantasy of phasers and planet-killing super-lasers. They are realizations of the actual technology being developed today; railguns and guided missiles on spacecraft and modified versions of current handguns and rifles for the individual firearms.
I watched all the Amazon Prime had to offer me and only after realized that there was a series of books that was the basis for the television show. I’ve just now begun reading the first novel. Notably, my impression upon starting the book was also about the television series. I am even more thoroughly impressed by the the TV adaptation.
When someone announces plans to turn a great book into a movie (or series), it is always cause for trepidation. A film could absolutely destroy the source material (I’m looking at you, Starship Troopers). Even an honest but less-than-perfect transfer of media can cheapen the whole enterprise. For a project which is absolutely at the top of the game, say a Lord of the Rings or the first few seasons of Game of Thrones, there are compromises made** that may make it difficult for dedicated fans of a book to accept the movie versions.
Adding still more anguish to the psychological fire is what to do, as a consumer, when you’ve neither read the book or seen the movie. In most cases, a film treatment is a truncation of the underlying tale. So do you watch the movie first then augment that experience with the deeper book? Or do you go for the full-force of the literary work and save the film until afterward? Will that ruin what would otherwise be a perfectly fine movie, if left to stand alone***?
In this case, as I explained, I didn’t really have a choice. I hadn’t heard of the books when I watched the TV series, so I had no choice but to do my reading second. As a result, reading the book doesn’t allow me to observe an unfolding mystery; that already took place as I watched the show. Instead, I particularly notice how the screenwriters translated the story from book to film. The story follows very closely. In fact, like I thought the first time I watched Game of Thrones, it felt nearly perfect. Of course, that’s not true (in either case).
For example, just in the opening episode, the Canterbury‘s Captain, McDowell, is portrayed as an incompetent drunk and Holden, as his Executive Officer, is shown to be really running the ship. Presumably this provides a lead-in to how the survivors of the Cant‘s destruction instantly follow Holden’s leadership. In the book, the Captain is shown as a competent and respectable figure, who launches Holden into his universe-changing adventures with some final orders. I also got very annoyed with the Rocinante‘s hovering over the moon Ganymede using attitude thrusters to fly. This artifact of the show’s realistic depiction of zero-g can’t also be used in light gravity. Not to dwell on such differences, but I don’t want to make the point that the TV show is a perfect retelling of the books’ stories. It’s not.
That said, for the most part the story is faithfully reconstructed on the screen. In fact, the changes I’ve found, so far, tend to be in service to the change in media. Scenes that are portrayed in words, particularly through the inner-thoughts of main characters Holden and Miller, must now be expressed in sound and image. Thus a change like having Holden held as a prisoner on the bridge of the Martian ship Donnager, rather than confined with his shipmates, seems to have been necessary to provide a visual of the battle for the TV viewer. In the book, we rely on Alex’s knowledge of outer-space battles to let us know what is going on, a scene that would have felt rather boring on TV.
It is telling that it takes several seasons of television to get through just the first book in the series. I know I’ve remarked on it before, but TV may be the best medium for the filming of a novel. It is one of the fatal flaws of many novel-to-cinema conversions that it is impossible to condense the experience of reading a good novel (much less a series of novels) into a 2-3 hour film. It takes me weeks, if not months, to get through most books. Although that’s not total reading time, it means I’m, mentally and emotionally, spending that much time with the characters as their story develops. It is difficult to create that in a theater****. In The Expanse, we can see just how long it can take for a book to be illustrated on the small screen.
The show did something that, to my mind, was incompletely realized. I noticed it, but didn’t dwell on it, when I saw it on TV. It became very obvious when reading the books. A key theme throughout the books is that the cultural differences between Belters and Inners are accompanied by significant physical differences. In an early TV episode, a captured OPA terrorist is shown on earth being “tortured,” which means mostly being subjected to the full effects of Earth’s gravity. In this short scene, the Belter is as described in the book – much taller and thinner than an earthman. In the episodes that follow, however, we have Belter actors (Naomi, for example) mixing with earthers and being physically indistinguishable from them.
Perhaps because of these “technical difficulties” or perhaps because TV is inherently a little lighter than the written word, the book seems to have a little more by way of social commentary. Racism, governance and rebellion, and the morality of killing all seem to take on a little more significance for the present time in the book. In fact, while the TV show had me thinking Cold War and Cuban Missile Crisis, the book would not have done that. This, just perhaps, suggests that the show’s authors deliberately de-politicized the story a little so as not to impact their ratings with the current culture wars.
Which brings me to one last thought about the present time and the future. Although the precise dates in The Expanse are vague, fans have worked out that the story takes place about 230 years into the future. Yet, the styles, fashions, and even the bulk of the technology remains decidedly that of today. As unlikely as it is that the culture will remain largely static for more than two centuries forward, this is probably the smartest way to film “hard” science fiction. I contrast to Logan’s Run. The preference of the 60s and 70s was to project the current trends into the future and dream up a futuristic world. Today, the futuristic style of Logan’s Run has a silly, hippie vibe that makes it look the exact opposite of futuristic. Compare with the classical works of the Renaissance where Greek and Roman mythology, the lifetime of Christ, and any other works past/present/and future were painted as late-medieval culture. These images, despite the obvious anachronisms, persist as looking appropriate, even into the present. Fifty years from now, The Expanse will look archaic. At least it won’t also look silly.
As I watched the opening credits, the “realism” relative to current concepts of extraplanetary settlement gave me a hankering for games that dealt, also realistically, with Martian colonization. I haven’t yet been able to scratch that itch, but I’ll link here when I finally do.
*In film or television. I’m specifically remembering a similar scenario in one of the Ender’s Game prequels as well as an aerobraking maneuver in another book (Red Mars, maybe?).
**In Game of Thrones, the number of characters on screen are greatly reduced from what appear in the corresponding book scenes. It’s understandable and often wasn’t noticed, although completely eliminating a battle by having Tyrion knocked unconscious certainly was. In Lord of the Rings, I have difficulty getting over The Eye™. Dammit, Jackson, there wasn’t literally “a giant eye;” it was a metaphor.
***In some cases, film conversions seem to put things in without context, specifically catering to fans of the book. I know I have a particularly film in mind when I say this, but as I write I can’t remember what it is. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was another film that seemed to show portions of the the story but failed to complete the whole, thus being only entirely comprehensible to prior readers of the book.
****Yet another shortcoming of Fellowship of the Rings, which I only pick on because it is one of the better film versions of a great novel that has been created, follows: By the time Aragorn is revealed to be the heir to the throne of Gondor, the Hobbits have all come to know him as Strider, the Ranger. So have we, the reader. In the film, though, it seems that no sooner do we meet this mysterious stranger than all about him is revealed. Emotionally, this can’t be reproduced on the screen without the passage of time. This is yet another reason why today’s film industry has become so dominated by sequels. Characters become familiar faces, already invested with emotional depth at the start of a serial film.
As unlikely as it may have seemed a decade or two ago, AMC network is among the top producers of new dramatic content for Television. The Walking Dead tops many charts in terms of successful TV series. Similarly, Breaking Bad and Mad Men received highest critical acclaim as well as commercial success and cultural influence (even those who don’t watch these series probably recognize the “memes” based upon them). Other notable series, at least for me, include The Killing (an American adaptation of the Danish series), Halt and Catch Fire, Hell on Wheels, and (now) The Son.
The story is set in West Texas in 1915 amid the turbulence along the Mexican border. Patriarch Eli McCullough (Pierce Brosnan) is attempting to shepherd his family into the modern age by converting his vast ranch into an oil-producing property. The show flashes back to 1850 and Eli’s teenage years, when he was captured and mentored by a Comanche tribe. The show is based on a 2013 novel of the same name by Philipp Meyer.
The novel was meant to be an exploration of the foundational mythology of Texas; from its taming of the frontier to its vast wealth derived from oil. As such, is this story meant to be strictly historical or subtly fantastical? Likewise the TV show is a nice-looking period piece but inevitably is stylized for dramatic effect. As far as I can tell, there is no historical basis for the characters and their particular story. However, the themes of border, cross-border migration, racism, violence, and the corrupting influence of wealth are all clearly meant to be a reflection of the problems we have today on the southern border. A little less clear is what the show is trying to tell us about those issues. That’s a good thing. It can get tedious being told what to think.
Part of that style is the mixing of eras. In 1850, we are treated to a reprise of the Dances with Wolves story. There is even a nearly identical scene were the Indian elder (Zahn McClarnon) asks the “White” character how many whites are coming – and I think he might just give the same answer. Somehow, though, the Indian tribe in The Son seems a little bit more modern (although Dances with Wolves took places some 15 years later). The Comanche speak Spanish while McClarnon’s character also speaks English. Despite their lack of understanding of the full impact of the impending American settlement of Texas, they do seem fairly well acquainted with the ways of the European-Americans. Similarly, in 1915, we have the ranchers riding horses wearing gunbelts and holsters. However, Eli (for example) carries a 1911 as his sidearm and a Winchester 1907 semi-automatic rifle on his horse. His 1915 contemporaries will also hop into cars or trucks as easily as on horseback.
That style is obviously one of the key features of this show. It’s also no accident that the language of the times matches some of the political banter of our own, particularly regarding the language of Reconquista and its resurgence today. There are also multiple wars on the horizon; the Civil War in young Eli’s time and U.S. incursion into Mexico to capture Pancho Villa in old Eli’s. Similarly, the First World War is ongoing and waiting for America’s participation. Like Hell on Wheels, the violence, the detailed use of firearms, and the Western genre trappings are all appealing to a certain audience. Finally, The Son is a vehicle for Brosnan, who does does dominate the small screen. I also am very impressed with McClarnon’s character. I liked him in Longmire and here he impresses me further still. Some might point out that he’s playing a very similar role in both shows, but his ethnic suitability for certain roles isn’t his fault.
Like a few other shows I’ve watched (The Shooter and Punisher come immediately to mind), The Son does seem to be targeting the gun culture specifically. Eli’s son Pete demonstrates expert handling of his Winchester 1894 (the classic 30-30 lever gun that is still popular today). Other characters still use Civil War technology and are shown loading their cap-and-ball revolvers as danger approaches. The show features a range of historical, but also historically-remarkable, guns. As discussed, certain characters have, essentially, cutting edge technology for 1915; Eli’s pistol and rifle as an example. We even have an employee of Eli, a black man who is also a war veteran, produce a Lewis machine gun for several heavier engagements. That gun, another 1911 design, didn’t start to see deployment to the Second World War until 1914. It seems a little gratuitous to feature it in the hands of some “cowboys” in 1915, but it is not entirely possible. Particular if Eli was both well-connected and a collector of modern guns, he might well have got his mitts on a early production version.
Ironically, Brosnan has been outspoken with some of his anti-gun pronouncements. This doesn’t fit well with this show’s audience and, perhaps, the same could be said for most of his roles from James Bond to Matador (a favorite of mine). To add to the irony, he had a run-in with the law regarding an attempt to carry a 10-inch hunting knife onto an airplane in Burlington, Vermont. He said it wasn’t 10-inches and was, anyway, a part of the “art supplies” he carried – he used it to sharpen his pencils. It doesn’t sound like he got into any real trouble over the incident, so I’d be surprised if it has changed him much regarding the unintended consequences of banning “tools.”
Some days, I’d like to reserve my custom to those who aren’t actively opposing things I believe in. Doing so would narrow my entertainment options in the extreme. In this case, when Season 2 of The Son comes to DVD, I think will simply continue watch and enjoy.
A few days after King Kong coming off Netflix, District 9 was also set to be removed. This is a Peter Jackson -produced film about aliens, set in the near future (of 2009, as the movie is already ten years old). It was a feature-length remake of a five-minute short film called Alive in Joburg by director Neill Blomkamp. Blomkamp was working with Jackson on a Halo -based film but, when that didn’t come to fruition, Blomkamp proposed to make District 9.
Mercifully, I read nothing about the movie before I watched it. I only knew it had good reviews. For some reason, I also thought it was related to the TV series Colony, about which I also saw good reviews. I decided that I would first watch District 9 and then Colony. When I found out the connection was all in my head, I ended up watching neither. Nevertheless, the link between the two remained in my imagination.
With that background, the “twists” of the District 9 story were all a surprise to me. I’ll try not to give away too much here, but no guarantees. If you want to watch it without my bias, go watch it – you’ll likely find it worth your while. Netflix’s rating system suggested that, while the average review was 3.6 stars, I would rank it 4.7 stars out of 5. That is probably a little over-ambitious, but I think they have correctly identified that this is “my kind of film.”
The format mixes mockumentary-style presentation with what might be meant to look like “found footage.” In this case, the “find” seems to consist of both used and cut material from the makings of a TV documentary special. For example, some scenes are shown using body cams or surveillance cameras. At the same time, other scenes are show using conventional camera techniques. As the viewer, we are to place ourselves in a world where an alien spacecraft has been hovering over Johannesburg for the last 25 years or so, and yet it is a world otherwise of our own present day.
Many have read deeper meaning into the film. Certainly the location and the story’s premise leads one to see parallels with apartheid. A key plot point is also formed around the “smart gun” technology of alien weapons. We see that there are restrictions on weapons (and technology in general) as well as open and flagrant violations of those restrictions. We also have the multinational corporation contracted to privately handle traditional governmental functions, like security. That results in another plot where the secret motivations and methods of said corporation (conveniently, Multi-National United) are exposed.
But is it allegory or is it just a splatter film*? While the references to South African history are obvious**, is there really any message about the politics of South Africa to be found in the story? Similarly the themes of guns and corporations. While the ideas are there, are they presented in a way that is supposed to talk to us about our current (or at least, 2009) societal problems? Does that fact that the government tries to seize illegal guns and fails argue for or against gun control? Is it even supposed to be an argument?
The one theme that is clearly part of the movie and intended to be is what I talked about with King Kong. As the movie progresses, the audience comes to identify with the aliens (prawns, as one of their nicknames has it) as the sympathetic characters of the film. Even our main character transitions away from being a pathetic anti-hero. He becomes someone we can respect as he also becomes less human and more alien. Unlike King Kong, we do not see human civilians being killed by the prawns. Worst case, the privatized army of Multi-National United get shot back at after they have already initiated the aggression. At the end, we’re left with a vague hint that we don’t really know the intention of the aliens. Maybe shortly (3 years?) after the film ends, the prawns will return and destroy us all. Maybe not. In that ambiguity we find ourselves free to take the side of the “other” over the human race.
*A new term I learned this week, specifically referring to Peter Jackson’s early works.
**1982 is the arrival date of the alien spaceship. This also happens to be the end date of the District Six relocation project, where 60,000 non-whites were forceably relocated from the Cape Town neighborhood to Cape Flats and designated areas. Are there supposed to be implications about the resolution of the South African racial problems in the face of a new “other?”